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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Remembering (old) Bryan School

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Not being one for personal reminiscences, this writer has never rhapsodized nostalgically on his school days. My memory is too good to imagine they were a happy time. But a NHS class reunion suggested the subject just might be of some interest to others.

Kindergarten was voluntary in those days, held only at Franklin School. We were driven there in a car pool by (I believe) a Mrs. Myers. Hazel Bussinger was the teacher, and she started each day with a rollicking "Country Gardens" on the piano. There was no study I can recall, only play. My strongest memory is of playing tag in recess with Jane Hand (the late Mrs. Bill Curley). The best to be said for kindergarten is that it got the shock over a year early.


Bryan was a tall brick building with a slate roof (reslated one 1940s summer; the old slates making intriguing play material in the yard), three classrooms upstairs, three down, restrooms in the basement. The boys' restroom adjoined the furnace room and coal-bin. The janitors were Mr. McGee and Mr. Miller, both later moved to the high school. One of them rang the hand-bell that lived on the broad bottom step of the staircase.

The building seemed sturdy to us; but my mother said the neighborhood mothers lived in dread when windstorms threatened. And yes, the roof did show an ominous swayback.

Unforgettable for me is the picture over the drinking fountain in the downstairs hall. Not that anybody ever told us, but it was a copy of George Frederic Watts' painting of "Sir Galahad." Doubtless it had hung there since 1896, when the building was built; Bryan being the last of the original so-called "ward schools," one in each ward of the town.

The teachers, of course, were "old maids" one and all. It was still a venerable rule that a woman teacher who married got fired. (Miss Madeline Pry long kept it secret that really she was Mrs.Amos Wight, to hold onto her job as Jefferson School principal.) I've always suspected this tradition of unmarried schoolmarms was a Protestant holdover of theCatholic nuns. Not just a "job," teaching was a kind of religious calling, requiring single-minded, sacrificial devotion to one's lifework. The modern married teacher must split her devotionbetween her "calling" and her family and other mundane distractions.

Margaret Minor, the third-grade teacher, sticks in the memory for more than one reason. She began the day with the "Lord's Prayer," Protestant version, followed by the reading of a chapter ofthe Bible. Today, I'm sure, they'd have her in jail for this heinous crime of exposing kids to some of the world's most sublime literature. It didn't convert me, but it certainly broadened and uplifted me, with its rousing tales of adventures of the human spirit.

Margaret's other politically-incorrect crime was to seat the class according to intelligence, the brightest in the left row and so on to the dumbest on the right. I never noticed that the latters' delicate "self-esteem" suffered irreparable harm from the arrangement. Their thoughts were very much elsewhere, on matters far more "real" to them than mere schoolwork. Being stigmatized as dunces seemed a matter of indifference to them, really a kind of joke.

Bill Phelps and I enjoyed desks in the brainy left row, and there was a rivalry between us. Bill's a living refutation of yet another "politically correct" myth. Bill knew his own worth. And alas, his parents sent him to school in knickerbockers, a trouser style decades out-of-date. Perfect butt of the bullies! To my shame I recall "supervising" and egging on the bullies as they tormented poor Bill. And I was shockedwhen, afterwards, Bill "unfairly" attacked me, the "brain bully," so to speak, if not the "brawn." The point is, being bullied didn't seem to do Bill the slightest harm. By the tenets of the shrinks, he should have wound up an emotional basket-case, not lieutenant governor.

Professionally, the teachers were very much a mixed bag. Lizzie Mae Jones was bound and determined to teach us about the continent of "Arctica," the antipodes, of course, of Antarctica. I don't think we ever convinced her there was no such place.

Ah, but then there was Oleta High, sixth-grade teacher and principal! She ran her class, and the school, like a Prussian general. Her paddle was a kind of boat-oar, with holes. I don't recall her ever actually using it but the mere threat did the trick. The dummies feared and hated her, butthe brighter soon saw her as their truest friend and benefactor.

One of her lessons that stuck in my mind was the study of the artistic "Dutch Masters." To this day I can see Meindert Hobbema's "Avenue at Middelharnis," which we were expected to describe and critique. This in the sixth grade, mind you. What "relevant" inanities, I wonder, have replaced Hobbema and his masterwork for today's sixth graders? Another particular that sticks in my memory, as such things will, is Washington Irving's "The Alhambra," stories stirring enough to fascinate any young person, told by a literary master. Now frowned on as too heavy going for grade-schoolers, I'm sure, or too "irrelevant." I had the best handwriting in the class; still, visiting experts tried hard to get me to write below the line, not above as most lefties prefer. Luckily for me they'd given up trying to reform lefties altogether. Luckily, too, "look-say," the hare-brained fad that went far toward "destroying a whole nation's ability to read," had yet to reach Bryan's backwater.

During recess, the sexes were strictly segregated, girls in the east yard, boys in the west.

The rule required no enforcement at all. No self-respecting boy would have been caught dead in the east yard. The hormones didn't flow nearly so early in those days.

My Bryan tenure coincided almost exactly with "the war," World War II. Boys' heads were full of it, covering writing pads and blackboards with drawings of tanks, planes, etc. Once, mysteriously, a swastika, drawn in coal-dust, materialized on the ceiling in the coal-bin. Whew, you'd have thought the Nazis had shown up in the flesh, such was the scandalized furor. Despite Miss High's veritable inquisition, Bryan's crypto-Nazi was never nabbed.

Not that I was ever truly "at home" in any school, but I suspect I'd be even less "at home" in today's Bryan. I've no idea what goes on there, but it's a good guess there's no Sir Galahad presiding over the drinking fountain, and no Miss High and so no Hobbema or even Irving, and no Miss Minor and so no "Lord's Prayer" or daily helping of Moses and the burning bush and so on. The world being served up to young imaginations, I suspect, I'd find a far flatter, drabber place.ý