Once upon a time, when I was much younger, schools were so much different. Today it is hard to remember all of the things that made school so wonderful. To start with, we had no school buses. Norwich had something far better — we had neighborhood schools.
I went to Laurel Hill School. They used to have six grades, but I transferred to Hobart Avenue School in third grade when my father and mother bought a new house at 4 Cliff Place. Hobart Avenue School had only five grades, as did West Thames Street, Pearl Street, Falls, Broad Street, Bishop, John Mason, Smith Avenue, Mt. Pleasant and High Street. Boswell Avenue only had kindergarten, first and second grades, and East Great Plain only had two rooms, but it taught two grades in each room, as we did at Hobart Avenue. One teacher, two grades, and it worked just fine.
After the neighborhood schools, you would transfer to the big schools. You were older then, and it was assumed you could walk and care for yourself. So, from the small neighborhood schools, children would walk, sometimes a mile or more, to Broadway, Samuel Huntington and Elizabeth Street Schools.
Greeneville, Taftville and Occum had their own system. That beautiful Greeneville School — now only a memory, as is Broadway — had both schools next to each other. Taftville School and Occum School were educational systems unto themselves. Of course, in Taftville, the school population was divided between the public school and Sacred Heart Parochial School. There were St. Patrick’s and St. Mary’s parochial schools, and St. Joseph’s was almost totally dedicated to the Polish population. And what a wonderful school it was and still is.
When I went to grammar school, all of our teachers were women, and they were all unmarried. Would you believe that, in the 1930s, a woman teacher was found to have been secretly married, and she was fired! We had inkwells and pencil sharpeners. The boys had a schoolyard, and the girls had a schoolyard. All schools had an hour and a half for lunch, because, in those days, everyone went home for lunch. It was called dinner — not lunch. In days gone by, the ’20s and ’30s, you had breakfast, dinner and supper.
So the hour and a half would give children time to walk home, have dinner and walk back.
We started each school day with The Lord’s Prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance. We learned things in school years ago that I don’t believe they teach anymore, but maybe I am wrong. We learned poetry, and we read the great literature of Charles Dickens, Mark Twain and, of course, the classics. In the earlier grades, we had a rest period and would put our heads on our desks. In reality, I think it was a coffee break for the teachers.
We studied reading, writing and arithmetic and, yes, it was often to the tune of a hickory stick. The teachers could discipline you, and, if they ever sent a note home, mother would give you a spanking as well. The teacher was always right in mother’s eyes.
We had history, geography and spelling. There were no computers or calculators; no ballpoint pens or slide projectors. We actually had classes on penmanship. Today, I understand they don’t teach history. It is now called social studies. On late night television, Jay Leno will interview young people, and everybody laughs when they cannot locate their own state on a map, or think World War I was the Civil War, but it is no laughing matter. The children today are often ignorant of our history and geography.
I remember, in geography, we had to recite all of the states and their capitals. It was mandatory, and we had to be able to locate all the states on a map. I think that kind of learning was important, and I think something is missing when the new school books don’t teach about the great men and women, the likes of Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Madam Curie and Florence Nightingale.
We also had music lessons: trumpet and clarinet. I remember playing trumpet in the Broadway Band, and Larry Coletti, the surgeon, and Luddy Fasolino played great clarinets in that band. Elsa L
imbach is a figure I will never forget. She was in charge of music, as Peg Shugrue was of physical education. Those two ladies had to go to every individual school, as did Miss Egan, the school nurse.
I often wonder where we lost our way, why we were so anxious to change a system that worked so well for so long. It wasn’t Norwi
ch or New London or Putnam. It was all of America. As we grew older, little by little, the school system changed. We used to learn science in seventh and eighth grades. Of course, the kind of science we learned, by today’s standards, is dark-ages science. But, the heroes of the past, the industrial giants that we learned about, I think, were important. Society today almost considers big companies as the enemy. We were taught to admire and be motivated by men like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Edison.
There is something else that is virtually nonexistent today. When I went to school, Franklin Roosevelt was president. We were taught to respect the president. When FDR initiated the March of Dimes, we all brought our dimes to school to join in the fight to wipe out polio.
During the war years, we supported our government by buying savings stamps, 10 cents each, which were redeemed for savings bonds. But supporting the government and respecting the president were considered noble and patriotic.
Today, we are so caught up in political correctness, and so much nonsense that has nothing to do with teaching children, that I don’t think we have time for what’s really important, or at least that is the way it seems to me.
How wonderful it would be if old turkeys like me could go back in time for just one day, when every neighborhood had a school, when there was no television; for that matter, few people had telephones, and most people traveled by bus. The children played with each other in the streets. Boys had dogs, and they were free to run — both the boys and the dogs. There were no video games. Even as we all left the Norwich public and parochial schools and went to NFA, we walked. Our first day at NFA is a day we will never forget, and that beautiful campus — and those dedicated teachers — equipped this community with many leaders. And there were no snow days.
That educational system worked for me. I never went to college. NFA’s commercial course was enough. I spent my life in Wall Street finance, where most of my competitors were college graduates with masters’ degrees in business. I happen to be one of those who doesn’t think that everyone needs or should go to college, but today, without a college education, you can’t even apply for certain jobs. Of course, that would eliminate Abe Lincoln, who didn’t even have a grammar school education. I somehow feel that an education at NF
A, in my day, was more equivalent to a college education today, and, in many ways, was far better.
I continue to watch in amazement and wonder why the old neighborhood schools, without school buses, and with reading, writing, arithmetic, history and geography weren’t the best after all.