Sunday, July 25, 2010

School Days

My how Grammar School has changed. They don't even call it Grammar School anymore because they stopped teaching grammar years ago, but you already know that if you've spoken to a teenager lately. Today's "Elementary" Schools are places where beleaguered teachers try to get through the day without being sued for raising their voices to little Jeremy or Madison. (I hate the fakey names they give kids today. On a recent trip to Maine, the hotel's teen bellhop was named Schuyler. That would have guaranteed him a daily beating in my old schoolyard.) But I digress. The classroom in the 1950s, not just in Parochial schools but public schools as well, was a place of serious learning. The teacher ruled, kids toed the line, and parents knew their place.

Our day began by walking to school, yes walking. There were no school buses, no SUVs or vans double parked at the school entrance so that Precious wouldn't get exerted...we walked. The streets were safer then and young children routinely walked them alone. Every school kid knew the cop on the corner. Now they ride around in patrol cars and have little contact with people in the neighborhood. When we got to school we lined up in size order and marched into class. We were dressed neatly in Catholic school uniforms or the civilian equivalent. You couldn't see our underwear hanging out of our pants, girls wore modest clothes and no makeup, and nobody carried Ipods or Game Boys to school...just your books, pencil case and lunch bag.

First thing each day we recited the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag, a practice sadly discontinued today in many schools. Every child had an assigned seat that never changed. The curriculum was pretty basic (English, math, history, geography, religion) but the material was challenging. On special days of the week we had art and music. We also learned in civics how government worked and we had classes in deportment where we were taught common courtesy...things like how to address adults, saying please and thank you, holding doors open for girls, and giving seats to the elderly on buses or trains. It sounds so corny and un-hip, but again, if you've observed the decline in manners in our society, maybe a few classes in deportment would be a good idea.

We got homework assignments that we copied into composition notebooks that never changed. They were black and businesslike, no fancy spiral binding, no colored subject separators and no cartoon characters on the cover. These were notebooks meant for serious work; ruled lines on the pages were the only concession to luxury. In Our Lady of Lourdes the Franciscan Brothers and Sisters of Saint Joseph made us write "JMJ" at the top of every page to remind us that Jesus, Mary and Joseph were our role models in life. We used the Palmer Method of handwriting where the script slanted from lower left to upper right. This was a natural way to write if you were right-handed; for lefties it was torture. Those poor souls had to contort their writing hand into a claw to approximate the approved slant. There was no acceptable alternative way to write, and until they learned it, kids paid the price...usually a knuckle rap on the noggin.

We were called on to read passages aloud or work out math problems on the blackboard. Sometimes as an aid in learning grammar, we diagrammed sentences into their component parts of speech. We memorized vocabulary words and were tested on them. In the lower grades we chanted the "times tables" as a way of learning multiplication, and damned if it didn't work. We wrote book reports regularly and could locate the major countries of the world on a map before they started renaming them every six months. Discipline was never a problem. Teachers in public and private schools were empowered to administer small attitude adjustments when called for, and to no one's surprise, classroom behavior was rarely a problem. Tough State Regents exams were administered periodically using special test booklets. At the end of each test there was a pre-printed declaration that the test taker had not cheated. Underneath it, we were required to write: "I do so declare" and then sign our names in blood.

School wasn't all business. Every Monday afternoon in the church auditorium we saw B movies like Frances the Talking Mule, and episodes of adventure serials like Gene Autry and the Thunder Riders. Students paid 21 cents a week which covered the cost of these movies and amazingly the salaries of our music and art teachers. One can only imagine how little these women were paid. At lunch recess boys played Spaldeen-based ball games like Triangle, a slap-ball variation of baseball. The Franciscan Brothers who taught us hitched up their long black robes and joined in. Later in the classroom they might be whacking the palm of your hand with a wooden ruler, but at recess they were your teammates. Girls jumped rope (yes the nuns played too) or their own ladylike ball games.

Modern educators scoff at the teaching methods used in the 1950s, but I challenge them to compare the caliber of Elementary School student being turned out today with the Grammar School product of the 1950s. I'm not just talking about academic subjects mastered, but other measures of development as well such as character, respect for authority, and plain old courtesy. My money's on the Fifties kids.


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

1 comment:

Joseph Del Broccolo said...

My money would be on a kid from a parochial school education.