School Days

From Grandma’s Album… School Days – This was left incomplete at Grandma’s death…. 


School days

In September 1925 the “Big Day” had arrived. I was going to school, actually was enrolled in kindergarten at the William Paca #83 at 4-going-on-5-years of age. Oh, the excitement: morning bath, lunch, and parasol hunt. Since school was a 15-minute walk, and I was to attend the afternoon sessions, and Baltimore’s fall months can be stifling hot, and my younger tow-headed brother prone to sunburn, we need protection. I can still picture the three of us, Mother, Charles and me, strolling regally down McElderry Street with parasols aloft, in all our school-day finery. Charles had the smaller pink one, and I the larger blue one with a ruffle and a doll’s head (my, how I loved her!) and Mother with her dual-use large black one with the sterling-silver engraved handle.

I loved school and listened attentively so that I could recite accurately our lessons to my family at dinner. Mother spoke no English, then. It was in those evenings, I realize now, that I became an English teacher at an early age – my life’s vocation! Mother loved hearing my lessons, even through my two college degrees. She marveled, however, at the American arithmetic learning process which was much more complicated that the European one she was taught.

Because I did my homework each night, I was the best reader in second grade. I was besieged for help by the lazy boys that didn’t. But, oh-oh, a big problem! What was that word? We had never seen it before. The picture didn’t help either. I told the slackers I didn’t know, but sounding it out, came out as MUS – kwee – toe…

When the biggest pest of the group volunteered to read that section in class, the students erupted in hilarity and guffaws, leaving this one little girl quietly sobbing in shame in at her desk. I’ve never forgotten how to pronounce mosquito, though!

I flew through the intermediate grades, skipped grade 5B, then junior high, skipping 7A and 8A (½ year terms), making me a mid-year graduate at 12, also. I was supposed to skip grade 3B, too, but my folks through it was too early in my bilingual life and would not permit it.

Being a mid-year proved advantageous. I was granted two years of French and two of German and four years of Latin – languages that I loved, also at the age of ten, I was considered to be ready to attend Czech school along with my eight-year-old brother. It was thought that we youngsters with a Czech heritage ought to learn to read and to write in our so beautiful and melodious first language.

Mother was ever by my side, encouraging me in my studies. In her later life she still remembered my lines in the German Christmas play (as a jumping-jacks vendor)

Zappelmanner gibt est hier,
Zappelmaner aus Papier.
Seht den shonen, Zappelmann.
Wie er lustig zappel Kann!

Since 83’s school population was multi-ethnic, in 1930 so was our huge May Day celebration. Everyone participated. Each class was given a country to concentrate on. My class was to study Russia and Charles’ was assigned China. We all learned a song and dance from our respective countries and in a finale to the festivities danced around the huge May pole. Charles was handsome in a white shirt and pants as the head of the dragon that his class spent months painting. I still have a photo of Eleanor Talbert in her Spanish garb, of Margaret Pontier in the French outfit and of me in my Selka – all bonefide “Russians”! We used what we had and had fun.

May Day was HOT! The dragon danced and twirled gracefully, but the sun beat down unmercifully on the 4th-graders under the canvas. The result: Charles’ new white outfit was splotched red and green – the sun’s heat melted the paint through the canvas onto the shirt! Countless launderings and bleach never erased the dragon’s markings. What a legacy!

In 1932, the Depression reached us all, schools as well. No new buildings were being erected. The burgeoning junior high population, grade 7-8, was relegated to portables, icy-cold in winter – you wrote with gloves on since the pot-belly stove only reached so far, but we could bring potatoes to bake in winter and eat them for lunch. The skimpy buildings were unbearably hot in June. Students (no permission required!) could leave one-by-one by rows, to get a drink at a cluster of fountains. Thus we survived!

In 1934 my 10th grade class was allowed no study periods during school hours. We arrived at 10:50am and left a 4pm. These odd hours allowed the school system to fully utilize teachers’ already-paid-for time and still get us all the required subjects.

It was about 4 miles to Eastern high school and I walked both ways, unless it was icy, with my friends Dorothy and Shirley. Streetcar-fare was 5 cents a token for students, but who had a nickel? It was the Depression, still! We made the time pass more quickly by speaking in foreign languages and commenting on fashions and stock in shop windows as we walked. Most often we chatted in French. Someone would start with, “Il fait beau aujourdhi, n’est pas?” and then everything else in French. Another day it might be German and we would recite dialogues. “Was ist das? Das ist der finger…”

Sometimes we would just skip all the way to school, or maybe jump rope. Some days we hurried and ran, especially when it was rainy. Sometimes on hot days we dawdled all the way.

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Page added and published 8/24/18 (C)M. Bartlett
Last updated 8/24/18