The 2021-2022 school year began in my corner of the world last week. Schools opened masked and with cautious optimism. Busses slowed down traffic, kids cluttered the sidewalks and rode bicycles. I forgot how much I missed waving to the regular crossing guards.
Education has taken on many forms throughout the generations. Today’s classrooms and curriculum look very different from my time as a student and even from the time my daughters were riding busses to school.
I depict a glimpse of 1911 school life in my book, The Heart of Bakers and Artists. The setting is the Lower East Side of New York City. Immigrant children flooded public schools. Crowded classrooms supplied little more than books that had to be shared, chalk, and precious paper. The classes comprised children of varying ages. They assigned the children to grades according to their language proficiency and reading experiences in their first language. Newly arrived 10- and 12-year-olds would sit next to and perhaps share a desk with a seven-year-old in second grade. I would imagine this practice insulted many children and discouraged them enough not to show up.
Corporal punishment was part of a typical school day. Children’s heads and hands were slapped in front of the class for the slightest infraction. Left-handed children had their knuckles smacked with rulers. My grandfather and his brothers had terrible memories of being punished for their left-handed writing. Stuttering and loathing towards school resulted. All too often, the fear and shame produced a generation of anxiety-riddled children who gave up on the promise of an educated future.
But not all sad beginnings had unhappy outcomes. My uncle, who was American born and spoke English and Italian, was almost 10 years old when placed in the first grade. His family moved about the country and he never had the chance to start school. Because my uncle’s teacher was “very nice” (and probably pretty) and he enjoyed helping her open heavy windows and clean blackboards, he went to school every day and soon caught up to classes with his peers.
Because of their dire living conditions, many children came to school hungry, dirty, and exhausted. School became a safe haven. During this time, school nurses became part of the staffing thanks to progressive leaders. They addressed hygiene. The nurses tracked health and growth, and the beginnings of social work within the school community bloomed.
Teachers of the Lower East Side neighborhoods had to contend with more than hungry kids and overgrown students. Rationed supplies, overcrowded classes, and little support from administration stung the calling for effective and loving teachers. Women teachers could not marry and nor be considered for administrative decision-making positions. Their pay barely covered their spinster expenses. True teacher hearts must have ached.
The law dictated that children had to remain in school until age 14, allowing them to finish at least the eighth grade. There was little enforcement in the Lower East Side neighborhoods. Many children had to work before they came of age. Some never made it to a classroom. Others attended sporadically. My grandmother and her sisters had to quit school by age 12 or 13 to bring home a wage from the dress factories. Grandma lamented all her life over not being allowed to finish school. She liked her teachers, was very adept at math, enjoyed reciting, and had friends. But because she was a girl and knew enough to read and figure sums, she was put to work.
In The Heart of Bakers and Artists, my spunky protagonist, Lily, is in the fourth grade and enjoys school for the friendships. Her best friend Nelly sits near her, which gets them both in trouble. Lily’s oldest sister, Margaret, loves to learn and despite being pushed a year ahead and being a girl, she is the smartest kid in the class. Her dreams of becoming somebody may be thwarted since she is expected to work in a factory. Lily’s other older sister, Betta, is too sick to go to school. Lily and Margaret bring her books to read from kind teachers. Betta also teaches her papa to read English.
Throughout American history, school had been an integral part of growing up. It evolved into an institution that prepares children for the future and provides a platform for growth and progress. Every generation tackled challenges that leaked into policies and politics in educating the masses. It had and must always change with the times with courage and perseverance.
So, as the first full week of the new school year begins, I wish my teacher friends, children of all ages, and parents courage, patience, and memorable days filled with joy. Learn on!
That’s it, Everyone. Great BIG thanks go out to Natalie the Explorer who keeps the Weekend Coffee Share percolating. Have a good week. Make it Funtastic.
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“If you don’t cook with love, you have to get out of the kitchen.” Florence Messina