Third Grade Stunk

I read in several publications that negative events are remembered in greater detail than positive ones, which is probably why I remember third grade more than fourth grade. I cannot recall anything happy about that year. I did not like my teacher. She was old and mean and was a firm believer in group punishment. Casey, you would have been in deep trouble if you had her because she didn’t like lefties. I believe she tried to “cure” Aunt El.

According to Aunt El, she very clearly remembers our teacher moving her pencil from her left hand to her right hand because she said it was sinister. Aunt Ellen switch it back when “the bitch” (your aunt’s words) wasn’t looking.

That year, we went on a field trip to the Newark Junior Museum. I’m not certain if that is the correct name or if it still exists today. We were ushered into a room for a “let’s learn about fun things here” lecture.  The not-so-nice man giving the talk brought out a “surprise”, which was a big, black ugly snake. I moved to row five.

The boa constrictor was followed by a lizard. I was not happy, and that is where my fear of all snakes originated. This is not good since we now live where poisonous snakes are all around us. Fortunately, I have only seen garter snakes and three-foot long “harmless” rat snakes. (Harmless. right! In certain settings, any snake could cause my death by heart attack.)

I don’t know what someone did to cause our teacher to punish the entire class. It was probably because she caught a lefty switching their pencil to the right hand. Anyway, the punishment was that we had to “write” our Roman numerals from 1-100. The thing is, her instructions were not to actually write them using a pencil.  That would be way too easy! Instead, we had to paste them onto a very large sheet of paper using toothpicks. I admit that I still remember most of my Roman numerals, but that was a mean punishment!

During third grade, President Kennedy was assassinated. I remember coming home from school and seeing Aunt Marian and my cousin Nancy sitting in our living room crying. That was the only time I remember watching television during dinner. We had a television which Grandpa put on a cart and wheeled into the hall near Grandma and Grandpa’s bedroom so we could watch the continuing news coverage of the assasination while we ate each meal.

I watched the events unfold in living black and white: President Kennedy shot as he rode in the motorcade, Jackie Kennedy standing next to Lyndon Johnson in her blood-stained outfit as he was sworn in as president, and then his assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald shot on television as everyone across America watched in horror. Grandpa yelled and pointed to our television set as if he were the only one able to see the hand emerge from the crowd to shoot the man in cold blood. I will never forget any of this, even though I was only eight years old.

I wish I could forget that year, but as a bad memory, I will always remember third grade. It was the year of snakes and toothpicks.


Bumping Into History

Throughout his life, Grandpa was always bumping into history, which is why learning about him has helped me learn world history.

I learned about the Great Depression from reading about what it was like living in New Jersey at that time. We all heard his assassination story, so I researched both the man who was assassinated in Leningrad in 1934 and his killer.

His first steps on United States soil after having been away for ten years was on June 22, 1941, which was the day German forces invaded the Soviet Union.  He was finally on his way home. The rest of his family was still located in the USSR, so I learned  that battle was called Operation Barbarossa.

Grandpa’s story never wavered about speaking to a US Intelligence officer that June day, who approached him when he left the ship in Honolulu. That’s the story about Grandpa knowing about the attack on Pearl Harbor. Was it actually possible that he knew?

In 1956, he was visited by the FBI after he refused to speak at the local Lions Club meeting about his experiences living in the Soviet Union.  That was the time when Americans lived in fear of Communists—precipitated by Joseph McCarthy’s own reign of terror and the explosion of the first atomic bomb by the Soviets.  Grandma said his name was Callahan. Here history was literally knocking at his door.

I have tried, and thus far been unsuccessful, in obtaining his FBI file. I once sat next to an FBI agent on an airplane who encouraged me to be persistent, stating that “if the FBI came to your house, and your father had family living in the Soviet Union at that time, then an FBI file does exist.” I tried again this past week through a different agency—the National Archive at George Washington University.

It is not surprising that my parents’ basement was filled with newspapers about historical events such as the assassination of both Kennedy’s, the first walk on the moon, and the resignation of Nixon. Now they are in my attic in a special box, meant for the teacher in the family or anyone who wants to see them.  It was also not surprising that Grandpa died on the anniversary of a date of historical significance—a date when the world changed and a large part of this country also died.

He died on September 11, 2008.  Grandpa was the first person who called and told me to turn on the television that bright sunny day fourteen years ago when I was pulling up weeds around our pool.  I didn’t believe what he was telling me, but I nevertheless followed his instructions and was horrified when I turned on the television to see smoke pouring from those beautiful buildings we had visited and had seen viewed from the hills of Boonton. (Incidentally, my first visit to the Twin Towers was with Grandpa, when his cousin Misha visited from Russia.)

So every year on this date, I reflect back on Grandpa’s difficult life, recall how often he bumped into history, and then sadly remember all those others who lost their lives on that day.

Preschool Way Back Then

None of my friends went to preschool—at least none that I am aware. I wasn’t sure if it even existed in Boonton in the mid-fifties, so I went to a Boonton Facebook page to research this.

It turned out there was a preschool in town. The school, Miss Prall’s Nursery School, was located across the street from Aunt Marian and Uncle Tony’s Cornelia Street house. I now remember walking home from school on Church Street and seeing the playground equipment in her backyard. I recall being jealous of it, but I don’t think I knew why it was there. I am sure money was the biggest obstacle to me attending nursery school.

Preschool for me was a television show called Romper Room. By the age of three, thanks to Miss Joan, I was a pro at reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. I learned good posture by walking around the living room with a pot on my head singing The Posture Basket Song

Not only did I learn my manners from Grandma, there was also Mr. Doo-Bee, a giant bumblebee who taught me good behavior by instructing me to: “Do Bee good boys and girls for your parents.” I learned safety from him when he told me to “Do Bee a sidewalk player, don’t be a street player.” He had a catchy little tune from which I modeled my behavior and explains why I remain perfect today. It began with:

I always do what’s right

I never do anything wrong

I’m a Romper Room Doo-Bee

A Doo-Bee All day long!

I did my exercises along with my Romper Room class while, of course, singing a song:

Bend and stretch, reach for the stars

There goes Jupiter, here goes Mars.

Bend and stretch,reach for the sky

Stand on tippy-toes, oh so high!

I prayed before my snack:  God is great, God is good, Let us thank him for our food. Amen.

For live playmates, since I had no siblings until I was four, and Aunt Ar wasn’t even a useful playmate until years later, Grandma would input a cousin or two or export me to one of their houses.

Kindergarten back then was primarily to learn socialization. I am not sure if we were even taught our numbers and letters, so there were no expectations when you started school.  Reading did not ever begin until first grade. The biggest accomplishment was learning how to tie our shoes. So thanks to Romper Room, I was good to go by the time I stepped over the threshold of good old School Street School in 1960.

Me-- Age 3

Me– Age 3

You Still Remember That?

While January 1st is the official start of the New Year, for me, the beginning of the school year always seemed a more appropriate date. Growing up, the new television season began in September for all shows, and Dad said that the new model cars were always unveiled at that time. Now that we have a teacher in the family, the feeling continues. Hearing the updates as Jamie sets up her classroom for the start of school this week got me thinking about some of the methods I was taught to learn to spell particular words or remember certain facts. I know all of you can probably add to my list.

Uncle Rich’s family lived in Illinois for a while. That is when I learned to spell Chicago. “Chicken in the car and the car won’t go. That’s how you spell Chicago.” I know it’s corny, but when I think of the windy city, that is what I hear in my head.

Along the same weird line, how do I spell the town of Passaic? “Piece of pie and a piece of cake that’s how you spell Passaic.” I can’t figure that one out one bit. It makes no sense. I can almost hear you snickering. Perhaps my cousin Susan, who lived in Passaic, can help me with that, but it’s stuck in my brain, too.

Anyone who watched The Mickey Mouse Club learned how to spell encyclopedia from Jiminy Cricket. When the teacher would say “encyclopedia,” you could see every head bobbing in unison as the melody was quietly sung by each student.  At least all of you used an encyclopedia when you were younger, but it has become a dinosaur. For Bryce, and any future siblings and cousins, that will be a foreign word. “Mom, what is an encyclopedia?” Show all of them this video:

One of my favorite teachers was Mr. Egge–my English teacher in seventh and eighth grade. He bore a lesson into my head as well.  Ask your aunts no recite their helping verbs. It goes like this:

Has, have, had,

Do, does, did.

Be, am, is, are, was, were, been.

Can, could, shall, should, will, would,

May, might, must.

In second grade, you learned to recite the 50 states from Mrs. O’John, who taught you to remember every state using the song, “Fifty Nifty United States.”  (For some reason Jamie doesn’t know the song.) It was so successful that when Kelly was in college, during one class, she had to list as many states as she could remember. I don’t think her professor expected anyone to list them alphabetically.

All three of you had Mrs. O’John, and I am probably correct in stating that she was one of your favorite teachers. Now that I an obsessive player of the alphabetical license plate game, I have included that song in my funeral playlist. (Wendy, make sure it’s played!)

So to all of you this week I say, “Happy New Year.”

Toys- Then and Now

As a former child, mother of three, and now a grandma of one and counting, I feel qualified to discuss toys. Now that I am in the business of entertaining a two year old, I have been reflecting about the past and attempting to locate some of the winners from yesteryear.

While getting down and playing with all of you was fun, I will argue that there are times when independent play is necessary and educational. It fosters independence for the child and sanity for the mother. The most important requirement is that the toy must not cause a big mess, so that eliminates glitter, finger paint, or toys with too many teeny tiny pieces which can be lost, swallowed, or flushed down the toilet.

I admit that as a child, I loved to finger paint. I enjoyed the joy of digging my fingers into the squishy paint and then swirling it around on a clean, white piece of paper—a marriage of textures and a blend of colors. I am fairly confident that this form of artwork never crossed the threshold of 516 Cornelia Street. Grandma was too smart for the inevitable disaster that this would bring into a house of five children. I was not as wise.

Now I have a very sweet and loving grandson, but I wouldn’t trust him in a New York minute with finger paint. I will graciously defer to his mother or other grandma to introduce Bryce to this form of creativity. I have learned from my motherhood history not to make the mistake of allowing that or glitter into my house. (Sand Art was another “no no” that I naively permitted in our home.)

I was thrilled when I went to the local, amazing children’s museum in town, Edventure, and discovered a Mr. Potato Head exhibit. Talk about a walk down memory lane! Bryce loved sticking a nose in an arm hole or eye where the mouth should be. The only problem–a happy problem–was that the Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head table was so popular that it was difficult to find a seat.

Let me return to my observations of toys. You all loved your dolls, Legos, puzzles, and play doh. Bryce loves his trains, and I noticed that Jamie had a Mickey Mouse train set. I looked in your baby books and learned that Colorforms were popular playthings at that time as they were for me, so today, when I went on my quest for coloring books, I decide to inquire about them. First, I need to discuss the coloring book problem in our country.

Much to my surprise, they were not easy to locate unless you are an adult. I noticed that on my first toy outing, but I did not realize the magnitude of this problem until I turned on the morning news and learned that adult coloring is the new rage—a means of relaxation and a fun form of nostalgia. Okay, I get it, but this should not replace child-themed coloring books for toddlers. Absolutely not! Are the coloring book manufacturers absolutely crazy! This is a sin! They clearly do not have a mother on their board of directors. (I could go on but I won’t.)

When I asked the very young salesgirls at the toystore if they had Colorforms, I was met with blank stares. I preceeded to describe them and insisted that they still exist. Naturally, doubting the obviously very old customers that Dad and I appeared to be, they had to go on the internet to verify this. I was right. Duh!

Colorforms are very thin, vinyl shapes, which can be positioned, and repositioned, over and over and over on a shiny laminated board. They are sort of like stickers, and they foster great imaginative play. They were created in 1951, which makes them dinosaurs in today’s market. Casey had Beauty and the Beast Colorforms, and Jamie had Sesame Street Colorforms. Kelly, I am not sure if you had them, but as the oldest sister, you do not get a break on not remembering them. You were eight when Casey got them so you most certainly played with them. These will be part of your son’s life—when I can find them.

In the meantime, I am now going to see if I can find a set of metal Slinkys and some Silly Putty. What is this world coming to??