School locker lore rattles our memory, characterizes our past

By Sanda Baucom Hight
Posted 8/16/19

In mid-August, we begin to think about school starting again, about new clothes, school supplies, new teachers, opportunities for new friendships and those wonderful, roomy backpacks that have a …

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School locker lore rattles our memory, characterizes our past

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In mid-August, we begin to think about school starting again, about new clothes, school supplies, new teachers, opportunities for new friendships and those wonderful, roomy backpacks that have a space for textbooks, notebooks, pens and pencils, laptops, water bottles and just about anything that students need at school.

There was a day, however, when students did not carry backpacks to school but carried all their supplies and stored them in lockers that lined the hallways.

Some students use those hallway lockers today, yet carrying all those materials in backpacks is much more cool, trendy and simply the thing to do to be in line with expectations of friends in today’s world.

For those who remember those way-back days, locker lore is still a part of our school memories.

Students dropped their books on the hall floor, rattled around to unlock the combination lock or key lock on the locker, opened the door with a bang, took items out, put others in and slammed the locker closed with another loud bang. This scenario repeated hundreds of times within the five minutes between classes meant that there was a lot of clanging and banging that was sometimes deafening.

Many students stored everything in the locker except what they needed for the next class. They stored their classroom supplies, lunch bags, gym clothes, tennis rackets, baseball bats and gloves, tennis shoes, umbrellas, coats of all descriptions and any number of secret items, many of which should not have been taken to school in the first place.

Since there were rarely enough lockers to go around, students were usually assigned a locker partner, which provided fertile ground for nurturing relationships, sharing space, solving locker-related conflicts and generally getting along with another human being for an extended period of time. Locker partners usually chose a locker location that was convenient to both their classrooms.

Sometimes each homeroom had a stretch of lockers near the teacher’s classroom, and students had to share a locker with others in the homeroom, narrowing the chances of getting just the right person for a locker partner. Things usually worked out all right; however, on a few occasions, a homeroom teacher might require students to switch locker partners to settle some dust.

Since most students chose to keep their lockers locked, there were always issues with forgetting a combination for the lock or losing a key for a key lock. Many a student was late for class because he or she just could not get the combination to work or the key was nowhere to be seen. Some teachers doubted that locker trouble was the real reason for tardiness, especially if it happened to a student over and over. Sometimes the combination or lost key issue was legitimate.

Social relationships were surely nourished during those few precious minutes during the change of classes. Picture a young man leaning on a locker with his hand resting near the top, a young girl taking out her belongings and a few sweet nothings being whispered or a date being arranged during the process. The boy might even carry the girl’s books for her after she had taken them from the locker. Precious moments in young life for sure.

And locker decoration was big in those days. Girls especially went to great lengths to decorate lockers on the inside. Outside decoration was not allowed, but one might see a mirror so that a gal could primp between classes, a little bag of makeup hanging on the coat hook, little love messages written on heart-shaped paper and taped inside the door, pompoms from the last football game and little posters and locker magnets to provide cheer, inspiration and humor to get students through the day.

Locker quotations might be one of these: “It’s always too early to quit”; “Seize the day!”; “The more you act like a lady, the more he’ll act like a gentleman”; “You must do things you think you cannot do”; or “Be so good that they cannot ignore you.” Girls were often serious about locker decoration.

Neat freaks had immaculate lockers; others were a little more casual in locker-keeping, sometimes having papers or items of clothing stuck in the door and hanging out when the door was closed. Dirty gym clothes in a locker were not a good thing. Teachers were always on students to keep a good locker and not a sloppy or a smelly one. Some teachers even told students that you can tell much about a person by the condition of his or her locker.

Occasionally, an administrator would take one of those bolt cutters and find it necessary to cut off a combination lock or a key lock. Imaginations would go wild, and rumors would fly when a lock had to be cut off.

In later years, the “drug dog” would be brought to school, and it would know just what to do. It would always be leashed and supervised as it walked by the rows of lockers, keen nose almost touching those little air vents at the bottom, sniffing out things that should not be in lockers, if you know what I mean. Once in a blue moon the dog would just go berserk, barking and wagging for all it was worth at one particular locker, maybe bad news for the school or for a student.

At the end of the school year, teachers and other staff members had to clean out lockers that were left in a mess. Students were told many times to clean out their lockers, and many of them left their lockers clean as a pin, but others left them dirty as a pig sty.

Back when lockers were necessary and cool, they were signs of the time; they were a microcosm of our lives; they did their part is establishing our story.

Generations remember locker lore, and many people will tell you a good locker story or two when given the chance.

Sanda Baucom Hight is retired from Wilson County Schools after serving as an English teacher and is currently a substitute teacher in Wilson County. Her column focuses on the charms of home, school and country life. Email her at srbhight8@gmail.com.