Music was taught by a long-suffering woman named Miss Hessian who I have written about before on this site. (See October 30, 2008 post: "Are You a Singer or a Listener?" View ) I say long-suffering because we put Miss Hessian through pure hell. She was an easy mark for the pent-up mischief of know-it-all eighth graders who wouldn't dare take on the Franciscan Brothers who taught them in class. She tolerated our taunting with resigned stoicism as if she had seen it all before, and that she was above reacting to our childish stupidity. She was older, maybe in her sixties or seventies, but it was hard to tell since she wore steel-rimmed glasses, dressed in long, dowdy dresses and sensible shoes. It was rumored she wore a powdered wig, but although thousands of double-dare challenges were issued over the years, none of us was ever boy enough to prove this one way or another.
On music day, the giggling and guffawing started even before we took our seats on the rows of long green benches in the school gym. Miss Hessian had hardly struck up the first notes of: "Halloween, Halloween, oh what funny things are seen..." before the first imitation fart noises rang out. Then followed a hail of spitballs, some of them aimed at the poor lady herself. The worst trick we ever played involved the dozens of empty benches behind the few rows our class occupied at the front of the gym. One of the crazier kids among us (the one who drank fountain pen ink out of the bottle and then smiled, flashing his blue-black teeth) tipped the first empty bench back toward the others. The crescendo of noise caused by the domino effect of benches collapsing on each other brought the principal, Brother Justinian, running in from his office across the way. I can only tell you the culprit was caught and dealt with severely...no details please. To her credit, in spite of all we did to her, Miss Hessian rarely ratted us out. As John Gotti might have put it, she was a "stand-up guy".
For music, we had the lovely Miss Frankie. Actually, she wasn't that much to look at, with slightly pop-out eyes emphasized by large, round, owlish glasses, but she had bright blond hair, and for boys whose hormones were just beginning to percolate, she was hot. She taught her lessons in our classroom with our teacher lurking nearby, so there were no Miss Hessian-like shenanigans. Those lower grade female teachers who looked so sweet in church would not hesitate to slap you silly if you so much as put a toe over the line. (Say what you will about Catholic school methods, their results spoke volumes. Sheer terror is a powerful incentive to learn.)
Back to Miss Frankie. She would hand out sheets of beige-colored "drawing paper" of a quality so cheap that you could see the hunks of wood embedded in the fibers. As I recall (this part is a little fuzzy), she would then draw something on an easel pad and we had to copy it as best we could. Miss Frankie would then walk around the room commenting on our efforts. Today if a kid draws a banana and it looks like a whale, we say something like: "How interesting, good job." (Mustn't damage little Bradley's self-esteem.) Miss Frankie had no such reservations. She would tell Bradley: "You call that a banana? Turn the paper over and try to make it look more like mine!" Picasso would have been selling chorizos in the plaza in Malaga, Spain if Miss Frankie got her hands on him.
Then there were Monday afternoon movies...what a treat to escape the classroom and watch a movie, maybe along with a chapter of a cliff-hanging adventure serial like "Gene Autry and the Phantom Empire". The movies were mostly of the B variety like Donald O'Connor in "Francis the Talking Mule", but we did see some first-rate war movies including "The Halls of Montezuma", "Sands of Iwo Jima" and "The Fighting Sullivans". Parents today would probably be horrified at the thought of their kids spending time watching old war movies instead of aiming higher scholastically like learning to speak Mandarin before they were six years old! Like many modern-day parenting concerns, this is crapola. We needed a break and movie day was it. I'll bet these afternoons in the dark inspired a love of film in many an impressionable mind.
Teachers like Miss Hessian and Miss Frankie made the rounds of Catholic schools trying to scrape out a living. (My wife went to school in Park Slope and had Miss Hessian for music!) They made peanuts, had no union, no health care plan and no pension...but they shared their passion with us, and for all we put them through, I want to say a belated "Thank you". My love of drawing and art had its beginnings in that classroom; my ability to draw and letter (honed at Brooklyn Technical High School) also helped get me a job that eventually led to a career. Teaching is a tough business with few rewards, but even the most cynical adults have a soft spot for a teacher that helped them along in life. Not a bad deal for 21 cents a week.
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