Small Neighborhood Schools Worked Well

graduating class of Broadway school 1901

A 100 year photo of the graduating class of Broadway school 1901. Photo from page 263 of Bill Stanley's 'Once upon a Time' Anniversary Issue

Once upon a time, we didn’t know what a school bus was. In a few days, caravans of buses all across America will be picking up children for school, and later, bringing them home.

Those buses have changed the whole education system. We used to have neighborhood schools. They seemed to work so well. We went to school for first, second, third and fourth grades. Then you moved to a bigger school for fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth grades.

The system was so practical, and the school was part of the neighborhood. But, society often feels change is better, no matter if the change produces fewer results. Think of the money spent that has nothing to do with education. The cost of buses, their insurance, drivers, their gasoline, repair and storage.

We Knew Each Other

In our neighborhood schools, we had relationships, and those wonderful teachers knew the neighborhood. They were all women, unmarried, because teachers were not allowed to be married. They gave their whole life to education, as nuns give their whole lives to the church.

With no unions, teachers were overworked and underpaid, but so dedicated.

I think my favorite teacher in the whole world was a beautiful, young teacher named Margaret Coleman. I was part of the first class she ever taught. She kept me back in third grade, and it hurt terribly. In those days, a teacher taught two classes at once (such as third and fourth grades), so when I wasn’t promoted, all of my classmates got up and moved to the other side of the room. I was left alone, friendless and defeated.

She explained why she did it. My family had moved to Cliff Street to be closer to the post office, where my dad worked. I had gone to Laurel Hill School in a class of 40, then transferred to Hobart Avenue with a class of seven children. They were far more advanced then I was. Miss Coleman came to our house the night before and explained to my mother and father why I would have to repeat third grade. That is how neighborhood schools worked.

Effective Pair

Then another great teacher, Mimi O’Neill, came into my life when I moved up to the big Broadway School. The classes at Broadway were so big, two teachers taught a single class.
Miss O’Neill was a pretty, young thing, working with an older Miss McNamara; a true study in contrast. Miss O’Neill knew the new teaching methods, yet she was so patient and nice to the older teacher, and, yes, she was very nice to me. I remember, because I was not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but Miss O’Neill was always patient with me. I never liked school, but loved many of my teachers.

Several years ago, Yankee Magazine ran an article about how I defended the Norwich-born Benedict Arnold. To my surprise, I got a letter from that wonderful sixth-grade teacher. We became pen pals.

Personal Touch Lost

This morning, I am reminiscing, because youngsters will soon be going back to school. I think, sadly, the big schools destroyed the very personal teacher-student relationships. Some big schools can be nightmarish for teachers and intimidating for students. Maybe I am old fashioned, but the old neighborhood schools seemed to work so well. When mothers could walk the youngest children to school, when moving up to the fifth grade was an adventure, when graduating high school would be the ultimate level of education for most. Before World War II, very few of us went to college.

In grammar school, we had an hour-and-a-half for lunch, and most children went home to eat.

There were no calculators or computers. There were no knapsacks. We strapped a leather belt around our books and swung them by our side or carried them under our arms. In the school yard, there was the boys’ side and the girls’ side. The teacher was always right. Heaven help you if the teacher sent a note home. There was corporal punishment. They could slap your hand with a ruler or your backside with a hickory stick. Then when you get home, you got a double dose.

In the past, I have been asked to speak in schools. Today, thankfully, teachers are adequately paid. Most are married with children. Teachers also have strong unions. Occasionally, when I would give talks students would ask, “How was it when you went to school?” When I tell them, they find it hard to believe things have changed so much. I hope it is all for the better, but knowing what we had when we were young, I wish there were no school buses and that we had small neighborhood schools again.

But, we can’t turn back the clock. We can just think, as they start a new school year, what it used to be like. All things considered, what they taught us got us through the Depression, a world war and brought us to where we are today. Those teachers of yesteryear did very good work. I hope the children today work out as well as our great generation did.

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