Sunday, May 4, 2014

Chalk Dust Angels

I've written a few posts about grammar school, and something of the Franciscan Brothers who taught us from fifth to eighth grades, but I want to say a few words about the women who taught us in the younger grades. There was no kindergarten when I went to school in The Middle Ages; having been born in July, I was one of the younger kids in the class when, at age 5, I entered first grade in September, 1947. Today I might have been held back because of the "trauma" of being in class with more mature five-year olds. Luckily, they didn't worry about psycho-babble like this in those days; my mother just hitched up the buckboard and took me off to school.

Our Lady of Lourdes was typical of parochial schools in Brooklyn. The classrooms looked pretty much alike, with orderly rows of old-style wooden desks that had holes cut out for ink wells in the top. The little bench seats folded down, and there was a small shelf underneath the desk for storing books not in use. The learning environment could be described as very regimented and very disciplined, but man did it work. In a match between a bright, 1950 eighth-grader from Lourdes versus a high school senior from almost any New York City graduating class of 2009, my money would be on the kid from Lourdes.

But I digress. In first grade we had Miss Langin, a tough, spinsterish woman who took a bunch of scared five-year olds and drilled us like Marines in reading, penmanship and math. She ran that classroom like a benevolent tyrant, only without the benevolence. Her favorite expression when a kid put a toe over the line was: "That'll do", only she drawled it in such a way that none of us knew what the hell she was saying. My last memory of Miss Langin was of her funeral. They paraded us kids through the gloom of the dark funeral home, and there she lay, looking serene in a beautiful, pale blue dress that surely came from the funeral director since she possessed nothing that pretty. (That'll do, James.)

For the first six months of second grade we had the lovely Miss Ruffalo, daughter of Dr. Ruffalo and a pleasant change from Miss Langin. She was dark and pretty, and treated us like humans. We all responded by falling madly in love with her. Imagine our horror when we returned from Christmas break to find out she was having a baby, and there would be someone to replace her! We were crestfallen; who could take Miss Ruffalo's place. When we met her replacement, Miss Theiss, we were dumbstruck. She was a cool, shimmering, Grace Kelly look alike with a smile that turned you to mush. We were like the kids in that episode of the "Our Gang" comedies when they feared that their new teacher, Miss Crabtree, would turn out to be an ogre until they saw her. Needless to say, we quickly recovered and instantly forgot old Miss Whatshername.

Third grade...back to boot camp. After six months with the heavenly Miss Theiss, we ran smack into Tug Boat Annieotherwise known as Miss Wall. She was a lean, mean fighting machine who was not afraid to rule with an iron fist. By the way, that's not a metaphor; she literally had an iron fist! If you needed to stand for a while in the dark coat closet because you didn't know the capital of North Dakota, she would grab you by the hair of your sideburns and lead you there. (This technique was later picked by the Nazis and used effectively in interrogations of Allied prisoners.) If you did something really bad, say like making the rude underarm noise I described in my last post, she would stand you in front of the blackboard, grab your two jug ears, and pound your head against the board. Crude but effective; kids studied like never before to avoid getting left back for another year with the Iron Maiden.

Finally, there was Miss Baumann in fourth grade. We simply adored her, not because she was beautiful (she was not), but because she somehow had the God-given power to tame the little beasts that we were without ever lifting a finger. We wanted her approval in the worst way and would do anything, even study, to get it! We would line up in the pouring rain outside her house down the street from the school, hoping, praying, that our umbrella would be the one she chose to walk under! If she asked you to clap the erasers and wash the blackboards, you were in ecstasy. If I had to make a guess as to what mysterious power she had over us, I would say it was her incredible serenity. She never raised her voice, and she had this Mona Lisa smile that, when she turned it on you, made you feel like you were the best person the world had ever produced.

These wonderful women, working for less than a living wage, dedicated their lives to educating street urchins. Whether they hit, hollered, smiled, cajoled or charmed, they somehow knocked and ironed the rough edges off us until we were fit to be among civilized people. I never appreciated how much they did for me until I realized that the seeds of learning they sowed would continue to flourish throughout my life. I thank them, and tip my hat to teachers everywhere.

(Originally published March 13, 2009)

LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association


Joseph Del Broccolo said...

Oh, how I remember old Miss Langen! I too, with my older sister went to the funeral parlor, and the mass. (Mandatory attendance!) I went to make sure she was dead. She died as I was in second grade. I've written about her. Second grade was Miss Goodsight. A nice woman who snacked a lot! And who could forget Miss Wall, her blond hair framing an old face of "Hit now, ask questions later." And how right you are, Miss Bauman, probably she should be a saint. She made me love school!

Great blog, thanks.

Jim Pantaleno said...

There are few of us left who remember what Lourdes was like back then. I'm glad I have someone to share these memories with.

The Whiner said...

I remember when I was a kid you used to tell me a story about Miss Bauman. I don't recall all the details, but it had something to do with a teacher being out of the room and the kids throwing erasers. Just as it was your turn to the throw the eraser, Miss Bauman walked in. I just remember being horrified that you would have done anything so naughty. :)

Jim Pantaleno said...

Not even Miss Baumann could take all the mischief out of me.

Joseph Del Broccolo said...

tsk,tsk,tsk! That will do, James.