As I wrote about recently, I spent my first two school years at Sacred Heart School, the parochial school in Plymouth, MA. My parents asked me (what a revelation, they asked!) if I would mind transferring to public school the following year. Finances were tight, and my brother would soon be going to kindergarten, and I figured he needed parochial school more than I did. More about my brother later.
So for third grade I went to Cornish-Burton, two schools that faced each other across a playground. Burton had opened in 1896, according the Report of the School Committee for that year, and was preceded by the Cornish building. (The Report for that year stated that the total amount of pay for all the teachers in the school system was a little over $21,000! Imagine that.) Thus I was entering a school with a lot of history. Both schools were closed in 1963 and subsequently torn down, so they now only exist in my memory.
My classroom was on the second floor of the two story wooden Burton building. I don’t remember the name of my teacher, but I do remember two things: I was bored because I’d already learned everything in the curriculum and the teacher was aghast when I wrote with my left hand. She insisted I write with the other hand, even rapping me on the knuckles with a ruler when I tried to write with my left. Somehow I managed to convince my mother of my indignation, and she went to see the school principal, Miss Eleanor White.
Miss White was a tiny woman, sort of like a hummingbird, always in motion and thoroughly on top of things going on in her two school buildings. The end result of that meeting was that I joined the fourth grade in the Cornish building, several weeks into the school year. There I was at grade level in my learning, but it was a tough transition socially, a transition that continued through fifth grade and into sixth grade in junior high school, as it was called then.
I remember only a few things about that year, but I do remember more of fifth grade. There were some great books to read in the classroom; I loved to read and couldn’t wait to get my hands on them. Even though I was already tall for my age, I grew more inches that year, both up and out, pushing the seams of my clothes and springing my shoes. My mother was asked to visit the principal, where she was told needed some larger clothes because of my, uh, expansion. She and my Dad were having some problems around that time, and since I took care of my clothes myself, I guess she hadn’t noticed. She also started giving me iron pills in the morning, probably thinking I needed it for my bones since I was growing so fast. The pills gave me horrible abdominal cramps, so bad that I ended up having to go home in the middle of the day more than a few times, something I had never, ever done before. I managed to convince her to discontinue the pills, but only after a heated discussion and a phone call to our family doctor. The memory of those cramps stand out and may have been why Mom and I had “the talk” when I was barely ten.
I have one very vivid memory of Miss White, who wore spike high heels to give her some height. I was eating lunch in the cafeteria when I was distracted by the tip tap of her shoes, heading over to where a sixth grader having lunch with his friends. The boy was probably about six feet tall, with shoulder length, greasy hair. Despite his size, she pulled him up out of his seat and forced him to stand upright in front of her. Looking up at him, she asked him why he had not gotten a haircut, as she had previously directed. In those days, long, greasy hair was not allowed, and especially not in her school! He stammered and fidgeted under her glare. Finally she took two bobby pins from her upswept hairdo and ordered him to pin his hair back out of his face. Then she wheeled him around and marched him out of the cafeteria. She was one tough lady. And the boy had a buzz cut the next day. Times have certainly changed.