Be forewarned, this is one of those “in-my-day-things-were-different” columns. And, of course, “different” means better. And “my day,” undoubtedly, will seem like code for light years ago to some. It comes with having lived at another time and not having thrown away the minutes of previous meetings.
Anyway, such musing was prompted by a movement earlier this year in support of an amendment to Florida’s constitution that would require smaller classes for students in public schools. For example, the limit for grades 4 through 8 would be 20 students per teacher. The current average is roughly between 23 and 27.
As a former secondary teacher in Philadelphia and Tampa, I know the import and impact of student-to-teacher ratios. The lower, the better, whether physics or phys ed. But as a former student, I’m still tempted to shake my head incredulously over having survived elementary classes where the ratio sometimes hit 70-1. That’s not a typo.
I take you back to yesteryear, in this case the late ’50s, to St. Timothy’s, a blocky, stone-gray Catholic school in a working-class, row-house section of Philadelphia called Mayfair. We were the sons and daughters of WWII-vet families who couldn’t afford Levittown, but were upwardly mobile enough to escape the temporary, post-war project housing that dotted the city.
The intra-city migration was sometimes referred to as “Welfare to Mayfair,” which was much more a function of self-conscious, self-deprecating humor than accuracy. That’s because all fathers worked — mine was a city bus driver — and all moms stayed home raising ever-burgeoning families.
In my case, three brothers and a sister. And, yes, all parents came in pairs.
For demographic diversity there were variations on a Caucasian Catholic theme: Irish, Italians and Poles. Tolerance was shown in acceptance of the odd Protestant family — incongruously nice folks for infidels, we thought.
We all walked to school and came home for a lunch of baloney sandwiches while watching “Tic Tac Dough.” Whenever we left the building — lunch or dismissal — it was always in well-disciplined lines till we crossed the big streets that abutted the school.
The crossing guards were like extended family. The nuns, with stentorian voices, meat-hook hands and martinet manners, were the enforcers. (Even for fire drills. Never know when you would need to walk in straight lines — at a prudent pace — from a burning building.)
Our eighth-grade class was 35 school-tied boys and 35 uniformed girls. Boys on the left, eight or nine to a runnered row of desks; girls on the right. Some, undoubtedly, with all kinds of undiagnosed learning disabilities.
The Ten Commandments were posted prominently to remind us that there was yet another layer of authority beyond our parents and teachers.
Sister Charles Mary of the Order of St. Joseph arranged us according to academic average — if you can believe such pedagogic heresy. I was a fixture in the first row, periodically switching places with James Krawczyk for the highly sought first desk, which meant that you also doubled as the doorman who personally granted entrance to the Monsignor at report-card time.
Sister or “‘Stir” — as in “No, ‘Stir, I didn’t do it; in fact, ‘Stir, I didn’t even know it was a sin.” — presided as only a stocky, tough-love nun could. Doubt if she had a college degree, let alone a teaching certificate emblematic of a dozen courses in educational psychology. She taught everything — religion to math. All day long. No time off for our good behavior. She gave a lot of homework and never failed to collect it and promptly return it with some sort of comment.
She was the first, last and loudest word on all subjects — from what made a sin mortal to what made a rhombus relevant. You memorized; you recited; you applied; you learned. That was your job.
Amazingly, even David Massucci learned. David had been left back one year and struggled more than most. He anchored the class from the last desk on the boys’ side.
Years later we met up and he was married, the father of two, owned a house and made a good living as a General Motors salesman in Cherry Hill, NJ.
As you might infer, corporal punishment was more than permitted. More than condoned. It was mandated. No parental permission necessary. No Polaroids of black-and-blue butts. Your parents were on the same side as the teacher. And they hit you at home, because they knew what you were like. So parents couldn’t be used for intercession, let alone leverage, against ‘Stir.
Another form of punishment was staying after school. It meant, however, more than heel cooling. You had to do windows, clap erasers and clean the room, including inside and under every desk while ‘Stir checked homework and your buddies played audibly in the adjacent schoolyard. For those deserving hard time, there was heavy lifting at the convent next door.
‘Stir had a ruddy face and fleshy hands. Otherwise, she was all black robes, white habit and rosary beads that made an ominous swishing sound when she bustled down an aisle with hands-on discipline topping her agenda. She was probably about 40 years old, give or take 30 years. Just couldn’t tell with nuns. Most days we were convinced her assignment on earth was to make us learn — whether we hated it or just disliked it. Or her.
Of course, much has changed since that class of 70. The meltdown of the nuclear family, erosion of discipline, drugs, guns, an Eminemed culture and curricula that treat self-esteem as a goal rather than a by-product of learning.That eighth grade year at St. Timothy’s, frankly, was no fun. Thanks, ‘Stir.