Today is John Greenleaf Whittier’s (1807-1892) birthday. He was a poet, very popular in his day, and a Quaker, who used his poetry to promote his very strong abolitionist views. Perhaps even more importantly, he is the namesake of the elementary school I went to in Toledo, Ohio (from kindergarten through fifth grade). When I close my eyes, I can actually still smell that school (or perhaps it’s just the paste I am smelling). I have vague remembrances of the principal, Mr. Swisher, who was bald and round. Everyday I walked to school and then walked home for lunch and back to school again for the afternoon, about a mile each way. In my mind I can still trace my route and the various landmarks along the way– the drugstore (with penny candy and those wax shapes filled with colored juices) near the school, the squared hedges before the turn onto the street with the buckeye tree before the last two blocks away from home.
In honor of Mr. Whittier, here are a few recollections of my teachers at Whittier:
Kindergarten—Miss Van Tassel, who punished me for running instead of walking in the hallway. I had to sit with my head down on a table while the other kids got to play. I think I remember crying.
First Grade— Mrs. Furney, who gave us a spelling test where one of the words was “night.” Now I knew very clearly how you spelled “night,” but I also knew that my father painted lots of signs where he spelled “night,” n-i-t-e, as in “Bingo nite” and “Pizza nite.” I thought that “nite” was a grownup way of spelling “night” and felt very sophisticated when I spelled it n-i-t-e on the test. Mrs. Furney marked it wrong. I marched to her desk and told her very assertively that n-i-t-e was correct, that I knew that she knew that n-i-t-e was the way adults spelled the word, that my father spelled it that way on lots of signs he painted. She said, “I am sorry, dear, but your father is wrong.”
Second Grade- Mrs. Pollack, who told my mother I wasn’t going to get A’s just because I was Jewish. She accused me of only mouthing the words to “Silver Bells” in our Christmas assembly when in fact I was singing the words very loudly. She embarrassed me in front of the class when I started to tell a story with, “Once, when I was taking a bath, …” I didn’t get much farther when she said, “Isn’t that funny. Jan has only taken a bath once. ” The whole class started to laugh. I was devastated.
Third Grade –Mrs. Stevenson, who was absent most of the year due to illness. The Toledo Blade ran a contest that year through the Miss Peach comics. Miss Peach was a comic strip about a school, created by Mel Lazarus (the strip ran from 1945-2002). Miss Peach was the name of the teacher in the strip. In 25 words or less you were to describe why your teacher was a “Peach” and the paper would select the winner. I remember entering the contest and obviously totally faking it because she was never there. I even remember ending my 25 words with something like, “Mrs. Stevenson is the best teacher because she is really swell.” I wrote those words really large on the bottom of the piece of notebook paper I used, proudly showing my mother my entry before asking for an envelope and stamp.
One day we were told that someone in our class had won the contest and that the representatives from the paper were coming to our class to make the announcement. The other entrants had already received certificates and Miss Peach pins. I had received nothing, so I knew that I wasn’t the entry they had picked. Mrs. Stevenson was at school that day and in her frail voice she asked everyone who had participated to stand. She asked the rest of the class to applaud all of us. When the representatives finally made it to the classroom, they announced me as the winner. I was truly shocked. The photographers from the paper came the next day to take pictures of Mrs. Stevenson and I, but somehow the whole experience felt rather empty–one, because I had totally lied because she was absent for most of the year, and two because Mrs. Stevenson kept trying to give me the golden (plastic) peach that was meant for her. Mrs. Stevenson retired at the end of the year.
Fourth Grade- Mrs. Weida, who read us endless chapters of Little House on the Prairie and told us how red her lips were when she was young– so red, in fact that people thought she wore lipstick. She also told us about a young girl who fainted in school and when they took off her shoes and socks, her feet were filthy. Then she warned us to make sure our feet were always clean or we might faint too.
Fifth Grade- Mrs. Korecki, who got married in the spring of the year. The whole class was invited to the wedding (I remember wearing white gloves) and to the reception afterwards where we all got food poisoning and weren’t able to go back to school for two days.
Happy Birthday Mr. Whittier!