My historical novels Rebel Puritan and The Reputed Wife, Herodias (Long) Hicks Gardner Porter, colonial New England, travels, and whatever else seizes my fancy...

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Fulton's Erie Street School: The View From a Baby Boomette

This summer I briefly stepped away from writing my conclusion to Rebel Puritan and The Reputed Wife to write the following story. This is my offering for the 2014 Fulton Memoir Project, sponsored by the Fulton Public Library. The full memoir is available at Fulton's public library and the CNY Arts store.

Fulton's Erie Street School
Fulton’s Erie Street School looks like a great rectangular cake of yellow brick, but it doesn’t bear much frosting. The building’s decorations consist of modest brick panels reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie period, and a concrete egg-and-dart band bordering the flat roof. The school’s broad side parallels Erie Street, and is pierced in the center by the teachers’ entrance. 

I don’t believe that I ever walked through the Teachers Door to climb the steep wooden steps to the main floor. There are three sets of stairs in the building – one on either side by the Girls and Boys Doors, and the teachers’ stairs. The treads on all three flights are narrow, but wide, and stained a deep walnut hue, along with the rest of the school’s wood floors and trim.

Down we go to Kindergarten
Erie Street School’s lowest story is nearly subterranean. During the first years I attended the school (1959-1966), kindergarten was the only class down there. As baby boomers swelled the school’s population, another class room was created down in the basement, but I can’t remember whether the room was formerly a cafeteria, or had another use. Shortly after I left for Jr. High, most fifth and sixth graders were transferred to the larger Fairgrieve School to make even more rooms for younger kids.

The sunken kindergarten room has several windows facing the street, placed so high on the wall that I had to stand on a chair to see the street. A lone window is sited level with the sidewalk on the girls’ side of the building. I remember concrete plates over each side door labeled Girls and Boys, but that seems to be a false memory. Maybe they were replaced, but in 2014, there are windows over the side doors.

We didn’t need no stinking plaques to tell us which was the girls, and which was the boys’ side of the school. Teachers enforced that separation rigorously. However, distaff kindergarteners might have been allowed to enter the Girls Door, where a quick right down a short flight of steps took the student to Mrs. Close’s room. Either that, or boys took a passageway by the dimly lit janitor’s domain, tucked in between the boys’ and girls’ bathrooms. The huffing boiler and its sprawling ductwork looked like a giant octopus stood on its head. Despite the ominous atmosphere, the janitor was a friendly guy.

Also down in the basement were the restrooms. However, as instructed by the teachers, we all asked to go to the basement. After all, it sounds more polite than a trip to the toilet, or admitting to the world that one had to go Number Two. However, in Jr. High I marked myself as an ‘Erie Streeter’ by asking about the basement instead of the bathroom. 

It was in the girls’ bathroom that I learned that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. I thought the girl who told me was wrong – it was Lincoln who was shot. Yellow tile walls, and a white sink set a little too low to the floor for a fifth-grader (but reachable by a five-year old). I looked in the mirror, but at an angle, so it reflected more yellow tile instead of my face. The disjointed tile walls and the roar of rushing water are what I recall as I assimilated the shocking news.

A favorite toy
I very much enjoyed my kindergarten year, though I must have seemed reluctant to go. I was late for school more often than not because I’d get absorbed in a book at home, or dawdled on the one-block walk to Erie St. As I walked past the kindergarten room windows – the last kid through the door by several minutes – I could see that the best toys were already taken by my classmates. Never mind; I’d pick up a book and play later.

Kay Close had dark, curly hair, just like one of my aunts. To me she was the most cheerful, motherly teacher imaginable. The first thing we learned was that when Mrs. Close played a distinctive little two-step on her piano, it was time to pay attention. Four notes rose and fell, over and over, until everyone had gathered at her feet. My sister learned to play it, and confused her classmates no end.

Kindergarten was pretty easy. The biggest turmoil (apart than failing nap time) came when Mrs. Close stood me in front of an easel. I enjoyed painting, but I’ve always preferred work on a small scale. Today, most of my photos are close-ups. In kindergarten I drew small figures, but Mrs. Close wouldn’t let me quit until that huge swath of paper was filled. I got frustrated and covered the paper with brown paint.

“What is that?”

“A sand storm.” I got away with a quickly-produced sand storm a couple of times before it was forbidden. So, I painted a grass storm, and then a blood storm. That raised some eyebrows until someone realized that I’d rather read or play than paint. I promised to be more creative, and Mrs. Close was more liberal about declaring me done.

In first grade, I graduated to the main floor. Four classrooms sit on either side of what seemed like a vast open space. The floor plan is the same on the second floor, with the addition of the principal’s office perched over the main door.

Air raid drill
Adjoining each class was a cloak room; a narrow slot extending the width of the class room. It had a row of coat hooks, and opened into the class room on either end. During much of the Cold War, especially during the Cuban Missile crisis, we had air-raid drills. The teacher shouted ‘air raid,’ we ran into the cloak rooms, and hid our heads under our coats. Our little bottoms protruded unprotected, so I guess we could kiss them goodbye.

I didn’t understand why the Russians wanted to incinerate us, but we all had to be prepared, so Fulton tested their air-raid sirens weekly. They made me nervous, for I figured that if the Russians wanted to catch us unaware, they would drop their bombs during the tests, when nobody would pay attention to the sirens. Preferring to face death to being blindsided, I walked around our house and yard while the sirens blared, and the world seemed brighter when the sound died away, but I was still alive.

My first grade teacher was Mrs. Helen Wilson. She was young and blond, and a nice lady. My biggest friction with her came over that same big piece of paper. Write: 1 + 4 = 5   4 + 1 = 5   5 – 1 = 4   5 – 4 = 1. Repeat them in columns until the sheet is full. My handwriting is small. The other kids filled their sheet fast and went out to recess while I was still writing. I could have made big, sprawling numbers, but that felt dishonest. One day I got frustrated, stuffed it in my desk, and told Mrs. Wilson I couldn’t find it. She did, and told me to go home and tell my mother. So, I did.

My sister’s first grade teacher, Mrs. McCaffrey, was the starchy old lady schoolmarm of stereotype. She was  competent, but also told my sister’s class that each time they watched a program like Bonanza , a little poison slid through their veins, and a little more, and …. That was strong stuff for first graders.

In second grade Mrs. Helen Murphy got library privileges for me two years early. At Fulton’s lovely Carnegie library I had already learned the joy of picking out books to take home. Erie Street had a whole different collection. Dodie Smith’s book, The 101 Dalmations, which inspired Disney. Children’s versions of the Iliad and Odyssey. D’aulaires Greek Mythology. Throughout grade school, I kept an open book in my desk and slid it into my lap during slow moments. I can’t tell you how many times I was busted for that over the years, or for penciling horses and dinosaurs on my desk. My mom got me an extra-big eraser.

Ruth Kitney
Third grade: Ah, that was the year of Mrs. Kitney. Ruth Kitney is a superstar of my thirteen years in Fulton’s school system. A year earlier, I butted heads with Mrs. Murphy over multiplying and dividing with zero. As far as I was concerned, nothing was happening to that number, so it should remain the same. Mrs. Murphy said, “No, it’s zero,” and that was that. It took my first 0 on a test to convince me to knuckle under, and make my result that same big round 0.

Mrs. Kitney never presented us with that blank wall of Because I Say So. She had good explanations for everything, she was patient, and she was fun. Plus, she presented us with great class room projects. Nobody else baked bread and whipped up homemade butter in class – and taught us fractions in the process.

For third grade and above, I climbed to the second floor. The principal’s office was also up here, in a tiny room wedged between the fifth and sixth grade classrooms. Miss Ada Aylesworth was Erie Street’s principal, and she had another iron maiden’s reputation.

The principal has a spanking machine in her office! That was one of the first rumors I heard in kindergarten. As it turns out, it’s not uncommon. My partner says that his Kansas City, Missouri grade school principal also had one. Nobody had actually seen it, but we all knew that it was there. My mother, Carrie Butler, also went to Erie Street, but her principal was rumored to have a rubber hose. Literal child that she was, Mom couldn’t understand why the other kids worried about getting squirted.

If there really was a spanking machine, I was confident that it would never be used on me. I knew Miss Aylesworth from church, and she was a sweet old lady. I relished my secret knowledge, and never let on that our principal was a pussy cat behind her fierce reputation.

The school nurse shared an office with Miss Aylesworth, and once or twice a year, the school doctor made a house visit. Dr. McGovern sat at a table in the nurse’s office, and checked us over for what problems could be uncovered in a two-minute appraisal. We were separated by sex, then we girls stripped to our undies in one of the cloakrooms and paraded across the great hall to the nurse’s office. Boys were confined to class, but at least one could be relied on to slip out and catcall at us red-faced girls. Given a chance, most girls would return the favor when it was the boys’ turn to visit Dr. “Coldfinger,” as he was known after 1964 (Think James Bond).

Miss Mangeot was my next teacher – or was it Mrs. Mangeot? I had one of them for fourth grade, and one for fifth. I confused them then, and fifty years later, my confusion is far worse.
A pivotal life moment arrived in fourth grade, though it took me a while to recognize it. Fulton had an amazing music department. Jose Azcue came once a week to lead us in song and teach us a little Spanish. Those classes were even better than reading a book sneaked into my lap. Another traveling teacher, Miss Mary Towse, also led songs. She equipped her students with wood blocks, jingle bells, and the like. We all loved her, and were delighted to find her teaching music in Jr. High.

Richard Swierczek
Richard Swierczek, former head of Fulton’s music department, says that he began bringing musical instruments into elementary schools in the 50s (I don’t remember seeing them, but they would have impressed me). Mr. Swierczek and Mr. Azcue built an amazing musical education machine in Fulton. Fine teachers at the Elementary, Jr. High, and Sr. High level turned out scads of skilled instrumental and vocal musicians, and reached an apex when the G. Ray Bodley band competed in a 1972 music festival in Vienna, Austria.

I don’t remember who asked me if I wanted to get tested for band in fourth grade. From my sister’s description, it was Mr. Bales, the Beginner Band teacher, who did the test. He put earphones on me, played two notes, asked which was higher or lower, then another two, and another. It was ridiculously easy. Then I was informed that I could join the Beginner Band and asked, What do you want to play?

My parents loved classical music and so did I, but without knowing a thing about band instruments, I had no answer. I was assigned to the clarinet section. A friend of mine refers to the instrument as “the Devil’s toenails,” and Lord, is that true for the instrument in the hands of a beginner. However, learning to finger the notes – and to control them – intrigued me. As the year passed and Mr. Bales taught us our craft, the band sounded better and better. Plus, we musicians got out of school for a couple of hours. Once a week we were bused over to Lanigan School to practice with Mr. Bales. We played year-round, but I didn’t mind because I loved band.

I don’t remember anyone excused from Erie Street for team sports, but during the winter our classes were bused to Fairgrieve to play in the gym. Fall, winter, and spring we had recess outside, unless our oft-challenging winter weather cranked up. An asphalt pad was laid around three sides of the building. On the girls’ side, only girls were allowed; the same went for the boys’ side, and the segregation was enforced by teachers.

Mad Rush's field of dreams
The back of the school was for everyone; both the level asphalt next to the building, and the ‘playground.’ That was a field about sixty feet long and thirty wide, surfaced with crushed cinders. It sat in a depression behind the school, fenced off from the outside world by chain link, and with steep hills on two sides. The lot looked more like an industrial disaster site than a playground. In 2014, it’s a paved parking lot, but this is where we played Mad Rush.

One of the older kids is picked to be It. Everyone else piles up at the high end, squished against the chain link atop a steep grassy slope (8’ high, 10’ tops). It yells, “Mad Rush!” and we all race downhill and across the cinders to the chain link at the far end. Whoever It touches en route also becomes It. We pile up at the hill, and do it again. Whoever is left untouched at the end is the winner. I was little, but quick, and though I was absolutely forbidden by my mother to play Mad Rush, I won a few times (and nursed many cinder burns).

The other Mangeot was my fifth grade teacher. I’m not sure whether it was in fifth or sixth grade, but a few of us were assigned projects for the Science Fair. We divided into groups of three, and made anatomical studies of painted clay. One group did the heart, lungs, and circulatory system. Cool. Another made a brain and nervous system. Really cool!

My group was told to make kidneys and a bladder. No, we couldn’t do something else. My urinary tract team cringed in embarrassment, but did as we were told, and stood miserably by our pathetic product at the science fair.

The best thing about fifth grade was still band. I moved up to Elementary Band this year, also played at Lanigan with Mr. Bales. We fifth graders had been playing our instruments for a year, and the sixth graders in the group were old hands. New instruments were in our midst as well. There were trombones and French horns, saxophones and oboes, and best of all, bass clarinets.

I was an uninspired clarinetist, mired in the third section and playing perpetual harmony to the melody-rich first clarinets and flutes. But, at the end of the row, there was the luscious deep-throated bass clarinet, played by a sixth grader. I spent all year with my head turned sideways, grooving on that lovely bass clarinet. I had my fingers crossed for sixth grade.

Jo Ann and Blayne Webb
I looked forward to my final year at Erie Street for another reason. The sixth grade teacher was Blayne Webb. He was funny and well-liked by the students, but he was a no-nonsense man. He’d lost fingers and part of one thumb in an industrial accident, but that hand was still nimble, and oh, was it strong! I wouldn’t want to be the misbehaving kid with an ear grabbed by Mr. Webb. However, I was sure that wouldn’t happen to me. My family had known the Webbs for years. They lived a couple of houses away from us, we played with their sons, and all shared picnics and went on short trips together.

Sixth grade arrived, and I excitedly took a chair in Mr. Webb’s class. He and I made an understanding, just as he did with her. No favorites, and no nonsense. No favorites indeed! Remember SRAs? I think their title was Serialized Reading Assignments. The stories were color coded from red and yellow, up to silver and gold. You had to read the first booklet, answer far too many questions, and finish all the stories on one level before you could go to the next. Those red and yellow stories were boring compared to the stuff I brought to school with me, and they weren’t required reading.

I really wanted to see the fabulous stories those gold and silver envelopes surely held, but couldn’t force myself through the first levels, and the teachers wouldn’t let me skip ahead. Mr. Webb was my best, and final hope, but he wouldn’t let me skip either. Were those golden stories the Harry Potter of my day? I’ll never know.

Jo Ann and Morticia
I didn’t need a gold SRA to make this my best year so far. During the first week of school band, the director Mr. Bales told me, “You’ll get your bass clarinet on Monday.” So, he had noticed his 3rd seat, 3rd clarinetist playing with one eye on the bass. The instrument was almost as tall as me, and it was a year before I didn’t need to perch on a telephone book to reach the mouthpiece. I told my brother that “you have to blow your guts out” to play the bass clarinet, but it was a labor of love, and still is today.

Halfway through my sixth grade year, Miss Aylesworth retired and Erie Street School got a new principal. I still wasn’t scared of him, for he was Blayne Webb.

In retrospect, this isn’t so much a story about Erie Street School, as about a single student’s passage through it. I began by hurrying through the Girls Door as a tardy kindergartner. Seven years later I carried my beloved bass clarinet through the same door for the last time, and bid goodbye to familiar teachers. Junior High lay ahead, with all-new types of book-learning, its social pitfalls, and the moments of joy.

Did I ever sneak in through the Boys Door?

Of course.

Photos by author 
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