Waking up on the first day of school was always a disorienting and somewhat disturbing experience.
The birds, unconvinced that anything had changed, chirped in tune with the bright morning, but the tone in my parents’ wake-up voices was frighteningly different. The Cap’n Crunch less crunchy, the orange juice bitter on my tongue. Nothing felt right. It was still summer. Why was this happening?
Looking back, I think this dissonance was caused by forcing kids to start school in August, which has been a thing here in the Panhandle for many years. One day we were running free until the twilight call of moms (who only bothered to stand halfway outside the back door screaming our names), and just like that we were being yelled at by women who weren’t anybody’s mama and threatened by coaches wielding long paddles that had been given names like “the Equalizer.”
And that heat. Back in my day, if we had air conditioning, it was of the swamp variety and present only if the teacher bothered to have one installed on his or her dime. There were two or three seats in the habitable zone between the frigid air directly in front of the vent and the plasma of hot gasses beyond. But they’d always tell us the weather would break come September (so quit whining), and sure enough it would. The heat couldn’t muster its August mojo long after Labor Day, as the daylight dwindled just enough to take the edge off.
This is when school began to feel less punishing. In the cool of evening, strains of the school fight song would drift from the practice field back in my hometown of Wellington, punctuated by coaches’ whistles as “our boys” perfected the new offense. And invariably, someone would already have made contact with the Equalizer in just a few days’ time—which was always funny when it happened to someone else.
The time-honored tradition of starting school in late summer’s inferno and gradually easing into September’s temperate embrace is rooted in our farming past. As writer Morgan Cutolo points out in an August 2020 Reader’s Digest article, rural schools operating before mechanized farming would take long breaks in the summer so kids could help plant and nurture the crops. And in many places—including the Panhandle—smaller schools would break again in September and October to bring in the harvest, especially in the cotton country where bolls were once picked by hand.
And while Panhandle folks were eager to get their kids educated, I’ve sometimes wondered if starting school was just an excuse for getting the football season underway. The farm boys back home were pretty stout by the time August rolled around, having spent the summer tossing hay bales and moving irrigation pipe. Once they survived heat exhaustion from two-a-day practices (morning practices were only in the low 90s in the southeast Panhandle), they were ready and able to settle old scores on the gridiron. And there was nothing better to stoke school spirit than imagining a righteous comeuppance for the Memphis Cyclones, infusing the first weeks of school with a bellicose tension.
Football and the start of school are inseparable experiences in most parts of the U.S. The game was apparently played in some fashion in the Panhandle in the early years of the 20th century. A 1907 clipping from a local paper announced that a team of Amarillo footballers was being assembled to play an exposition game at the State Fair of Texas in Dallas. The team was under the direction of Coach Ralph Hutchinson, “one of the most thorough football men of the South” who played for Princeton in the late 1890s. Unfortunately, the game was canceled because of scheduling difficulties, but football fever was soon endemic nonetheless. By the next year, Amarillo High School was fielding a squad that took on the likes of Clarendon College owing to the dearth of organized high school teams outside of town.
While schooling and sports have changed a great deal since those days, the scents associated with the start of school are much the same. Library books (if there are any left), freshly baked through summer’s torpor, emit an odor strangely akin to the scent of certain brands of beard oil, stimulating a love of knowledge in a way a cabinet full of iPad Airs can’t. Kids still sweat, air conditioning or not, and locker rooms still exude victory’s salty musk and defeat’s agonizing stank.
And that Panhandle air, so crisp beyond the hellish August heat, still fills our lungs with the oxygenated possibilities of youth no matter how old we are. It’s all great to remember, but I’m also glad I’m old and don’t have to do it over again.