Another Summer Comes to an End

Happy New Year. It’s the most wonderful time of the year again for many parents after what always seemed like an endless summer of having their children around 24/7. As a kid, it was never long enough.

In anticipation of the big first day, we would be taken shopping for our new outfits, which was an expense that Grandma could not avoid, particularly for Uncle Mart and me. As the oldest girl and oldest boy in our family, there were not hand-me-downs to wear. So off we would go a store on Main Street called “The Laurie Shop” or a warehouse-type store in Rockaway known as “Robert Hall.”

Robert Hall was a small national chain, with catchy commercials that I still could hum along when I found them on YouTube.  All you old timers should check this out if you want to skip down memory land: Dad tells me he got his first suit at Robert Hall.

When the values go up, up, up

And the prices go down, down, down

Robert Hall this season

Will show you the reason:

Low overhead, high quality

Back in my day, we did not have backpacks like all of you had. In fact, I don’t recall having any sort of contraption in which to carry my books. I only remember balancing my books in my arms, all of which were covered with the same brown paper bags from the supermarket like yours so many years later. Some things did not change between my generation and yours.

So although we did not like seeing our carefree summer days coming to an end because it meant our evenings would soon be filled with homework, there was a silver lining preceding the start of the school year. Our small little town transitioned us into the new school season with the big Labor Day Firemen’s Parade and Fair.

It was sheer genius, because now we always looked forward to this time of year. I was always excited about the rides, games, fireworks, and meeting up with some of the friends I had not seen since June. When we were young, we would be taken by our parents, but eventually, we were allowed to go by ourselves—a sign of no longer being a little kid.

Now as Labor Day approaches again, I think back on those end-of-summer evenings of pitching nickels, trying to win a goldfish that Grandma would not want, and waiting for the fireworks to begin. Maybe Jamie will go to the fair and meet up with some of the cousins who have not left town.


Why Do We Need to Study That?

It’s that most wonderful time of the year for many parents (and some children) because school has begun. For me, September always felt more like the New Year than January 1. We had a new teacher, new textbooks, and our new back-to-school outfits. Anticipation and excitement was in the air. This got me thinking about what I learned that has actually been useful to me during my life besides the obvious reading, writing, and very basic arithmetic skills.

  • In junior high, we all learned to type. Those were the days before computers, so we learned on typewriters. I don’t believe any of you typed any papers on anything but a computer, so you cannot understand the challenges of a typewriter. When you made a mistake, there was not the luxury of hitting a backspace key to make your error magically disappear. No siree! There were two methods of correcting a mistake: you either painted over the error with a nail polish-like substance called white out, which needed to be dried before you could repair the oopsy daisy, or you used correction tape, which you placed over the boo-boo and retyped the correct letter in its place. It never looked as nice and sometimes you just ended up retyping the entire page.
  • My five years of French came in quite handy when we needed to provide the cab driver at Charles DeGalle Airport with the name of our hotel as well as order a meal at one restaurant which did not have an English-speaking server. Of course, Dad will mention that I got smoked salmon instead of cooked salmon, which he loves to bring up in conversation whenever possible. (Okay, I admit that “salmon fume” is sort of obvious and I should have known better.)
  • Geometry has helped me determine how much paint to purchase or how many square yards of carpet to order, and basic algebra comes in handy whenever we make couscous. (Take a look at the box. If you want to make 2 servings, an understanding of Algebra 1 is needed.) I have never ever used a spec of the three years of calculus I took in high school and college!
  • Home Economics in seventh and eighth grade provided me with the skills to hem a pair of pants and sew a button as well as taught me the difference between a dry measuring cup and a liquid one. (I admit that in a pinch, I will use whichever is handy.)
  • Driver’s Ed class, with my cousin Louis’ husband Frank barking out directions beside me, taught me how to maneuver my way up Main Street Boonton without scratching a parked car, how to parallel park, and how to do a proper k-turn, which we did at the bottom of my cousin Nancy’s very steep driveway.
  • Ninth grade world history class came in very handy last week when Aunt Ar told me she had just climbed Mt. Vesuvius overlooking the ancient city of Pompeii. Because of that class, I was familiar with the story of the eruption of the volcano that buried the city in mounds of ashes and did not have to ask her what the heck she was talking about.
  • Because of ninth grade biology class, I know that anyone who does not believe in evolution is off their rocker, and earth science provided me with basic knowledge of weather and earthquakes. I learned about isobars from helping one of you with your homework, which helped me understand the weather reports in Chapel Hill, where their meteorologists were into peppering their reports with discussions of isobars. Back then, unfortunately, we did not learn of the dangers of pollution and fossil fuels, which is probably why certain people in charge of our lives are failing us because they have not kept up with the science.

And as Bugs Bunny would say, “That’s all folks!” What did you learn in school that has helped you maneuver your way through your lives?




You Wanted to Stab Yourself

There comes a certain point in time when we don’t like to admit our age. We can fight it or hide it as much as possible, but unless we completely avoid our children, the truth eventually is revealed. When standing next to your thirty year old child, it is impossible to cover up the lie by more than a few years.

I look at the three of you and reflect upon what delivered you to where you are today. Was it a specific plan, an accident, or a very circuitous route? I decided to look in your memory boxes for clues—two of which still reside here. Today I opened Jamie’s.

Jamie, you are the only one whose career was planned at a very early age. Except for a moment in first grade when you wanted to be a dentist, you always wanted to be a teacher. (Maybe the dentist was a decision arrived after seeing Santa’s elf Hermey in “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.) In all the class assignments where you wrote about what you wanted to be when you grew up, the answer was always “a teacher.” Sometimes it was because you wanted to help kids learn while other times it was all about the chalkboard.

It took time and persistence to become a teacher with “the class I always imagined,”  but you never gave up that dream. I am proud that you enjoyed teaching in poor districts where you felt you made a difference but I also know how difficult it was to work where the supplies  and sometimes the support were limited.

You have a great work ethic and I know how much the children and parents appreciate your efforts. You have great ideas and want your students to excel and enjoy your class. Watching and listening to you discuss your day reminds me of a time when you were not so happy about your assigned teacher. It was at the end of second grade when your report card came with the name of your third grade teacher included with your grades. You were not happy. You said you wanted to stab yourself! But it turned out she was a great teacher, so I encouraged you to tell her.

I hope that someday you get a letter like this from one or many of your students. While it made your teacher laugh, I know she was happy with your honest sentiments.

Third Grade Letter
Third Grade Letter

Doctor Grandpa

I am sure you all remember Grandpa shuffling into his room and returning with a smile on his face and a piece of paper in his hand to show you. It was his report card, and he was very proud of it. After all, he did get into medical school based on those grades. He went to the First Leningrad Medical Institute, which was originally a medical school for women. It was, and still is, one of the leading medical schools in Russia.

Uncle Dave and I were able to get translations of his high school report card, and while his course of studies was rigorous, I was surprised to find only one grade of “A”, which was in English. Since he was accepted at such a prestigious university and he was always so proud, I expected many more A’s. However, Grandpa’s report card consisted of 11 C’s, and 4 B’s. The only surprises were courses in Engineering and Artistic Drawing. Perhaps the teachers just did not give out many A’s and B’s at that time. Grade inflation has been the subject of many discussions today. Several studies have shown a steady increase in the number of A’s during the last fifty years, leading me to believe those grades were considered very good during the 1930’s.

Grandpa told us that he attended school six days each week, with no vacations during the year except during the summer. Trips to the ballet and opera were regular occurrences on the weekend, an experience he was never exposed to in New Jersey. I wonder if he and Grandma had had the money, would they have taken us. Would I have been raised with more culture? I imagine Grandma turning up her nose at the prospect, but I bet he would have if they had the financial means.

I was most surprised to learn that he lived in a dorm while in college. Never did he mention this to me when I was a college student struggling with homesickness. Did he have a roommate or two he did not like? His college was in the same city where his family lived. Did he go home often? What was college like in Russia? I wish he had shared this with us.

It is sad that he was never able to complete his education after he returned to the U.S. We also all know that he was forced to leave school after refusing to become a Russian citizen, but even if he stayed, his dream of becoming a doctor would have been squashed by the war. Becoming a doctor just was not in the stars for him.

Grandpa-Leningrad High School #7- 1935
Grandpa-Leningrad High School #7- 1935

Gym Class- Oh Goody!

During elementary school, I enjoyed gym class most of the time. Anytime athletic skill was not a requirement, I had fun. There was lots of fun in fifth grade when we learned to dance the German polka and several folk dances. The injury risk was low and no athletic competence was necessary, so Phys Ed was good. On days when throwing a ball or running fast was required, gym class stunk!

Once I was a seventh grader, we had to wear gym suits and get undressed in front of the other girls in class. This was the turning point for me. As a shy person, this was difficult, and as a fashion statement, well, this was simply fashion murder. See for yourselves.

Ugly high school gym suit
Ugly high school gym suit

In high school, I used my contact lenses to get excused from gym class. I would “lose” them, so we would all have to stop and look, thereby gloriously disrupting class for everyone. I was a hero for others like me. Once I “found” my contact (which was nothing more than popping it out and presenting it to my teacher), I had to go to the nurse to reinsert it, which sadly consumed the remaining class time.

During the gymnastics rotation, I had to resort to more drastic measures. I did not have the skill of Aunt El or Jamie when it came to flips, cartwheels and the uneven parallel bars, so I needed to be excused for the entire marking period until we moved to the dance rotation.

Before I explain my strategy, you must understand that I really, really hated gymnastics. I feared it would result in permanent bodily damage, or at least everlasting humiliation. It was not a smart plan, I know, but I had no choice. I know you will be rollling your eyes and thinking I was a wacko, but in that moment, it made sense.

Aunt Ar was like me. She said, “the only athletic ability I had was to wear that uniform and white socks. Otherwise I wouldn’t have passed gym.” It was clearly a genetic problem.

We had this square exercise thingy with wheels at home which I enlisted in my master plan. It looked like this:

Exercise Thingy

I put it in the middle of our bedroom, turned off the lights, and then ran across the room. My hope was that I would trip over it and break something thereby getting me out of gym class for the marking period. Sadly my plan failed, and thankfully, for Aunt Ar and Aunt El, they escaped unscathed.

So I somehow survived junior high and high school gym class. During college, I chose badminton and tennis as my Phys Ed electives. When we moved to South Carolina, I was briefly on a traveling tennis team, and now I play bad golf. That’s it. Now you know. Don’t laugh!

Yo Vivo En Boonton

I spent five years learning French, and that time helped me enough to get a taxi from Charles DeGalle Airport to our hotel near the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. That’s it! Now, as I have seen how quickly a child can learn the English language in just 2 ½ years based on watching the three of you and now our first grandchild,  I feel that my foreign language education was deeply lacking in quality. I believe that total immersion in a language is the best method to learn another tongue, so perhaps, moving in with a family that has a newborn baby and following that child for two years could have  a far superior result than what is learned in high school.

Did you know that French was not my first foreign language? It was the third. Grandpa made a feeble attempt to teach us Russian. I know several words and phrases, but apparently, the Russian words made me laugh, so he did not persevere. I can say, “I love you, I want to go out and play, good, tea, yes, no, I want to eat, and, of course, Do Svidanya.” That is not enough to carry on much of a conversation with a Russian two year old.

In fifth grade, I began my Spanish education during our Thursday afternoon Spanish club meetings. We learned to count to twenty and inform a new acquaintance that “yo vivo en Boonton.” Both boys and girls were taught to belt out songs in Spanish with enthusiasm and little embarrassment as well as how to perform several Spanish dances. Sometime ( ewwww and yuck), boys and girls even danced together!

Our teacher, Mrs. Simms, was quite the visionary in deciding to expose us to a foreign language during a time when learning another language in elementary school was rare. Little did she know then that in forty-eight years, Spanish would be the second most spoken language in the United States, with more people speaking Spanish here than in Spain.

I chose French based on nothing more than the fact that I liked the sound, but it was not a practical choice. While it is true that French is spoken in twice as many U.S. homes as Italian, which is now taught in some kindergartens in New Jersey (right, Jamie?), it is not nearly as common as Chinese.

So other than that bucket-list trip to Paris a few years ago, French got me nowhere. No matter how much some people refuse to admit, Spanish is the way to go in learning a second language. Mrs. Simms, how did you know?

Spanish Club- School Street School- Boonton, NJ March 1966.
Spanish Club- School Street School- Boonton, NJ
March 1966.  (Can you find me?)

The Runaway Gene

As our family continues to expand, we wonder, “Who will he/she look like, and will the new baby be a blonde, brunette, or, finally, a red-head like Grandma?”  But no one ever knew to ask the question, “Will they have the family runaway gene?”

It started with Aunt Marian when she was a kindergartener at School Street School. Before the first autumn leaf began to flutter to the ground, she came home and told my grandmother and her grandmother that the teacher hollered at the class.  (Holler, at children?) My grandma turned to her mother and said, “She’s too old to teach little children. She taught me at School Street.”

The next day, cute little Aunt Marian blurted out to her teacher, “Miss Coombs, my mother said you are too old to teach us.” Aunt Marian was sent home, and the following day, my grandmother withdrew her from School Street and enrolled her at Mt. Carmel. Aunt Marian loved to say she was expelled from kindergarten!

Those runaway genes were passed on to me. I was a precious little first grader at Mt. Carmel,  which was Grandma’s alma mater as well. It had not been a week since I became a student in Sister Rose De Lima’s class when I bolted from her classroom and ran crying all the way home. I was six. You all know how far I traveled from that school all the way to Cornelia Street. Seeing the terror and tears in my eyes were grounds for Grandma and Grandpa to move me to School Street. I was a much happier little girl until I met my CCD teacher—Sister Rose De Lima. While this deflated my now sunny disposition, I was comforted in knowing my contact with her was limited to only one hour each week.

My cousin Billy also inherited the runaway gene from his mother. Here is his story as told by his long-time friend, Peter:

Sister Pauline was our 3rd grade teacher.  She was a Saint and the most normal nun I think I’ve ever had.  This, of course, was born out by the fact that I heard years later she left the order.  One day she was out sick and I made the rest of the class laugh at the substitute while her back was turned (also another great story for later).  Suffice to say that THIS ended up with me being slapped up a flight of stairs by Sister Helen Ann, the principle (who seemed at the time to be about 200 lbs).  This happened before mine and Billy’s story but is an important back drop.

Billy and I were best friends as we grew up together in the neighborhood where he and my grandmother lived.  When I moved to Birch Street in Boonton (only a couple blocks away from OLMC) and our parents felt we were old enough. Billy used to stay after school up on the hill with me for what we now so horribly call “a play date”.  Uncle Tony would pick him up before dinner to take him home.

At this particular time, the church was being renovated and mass was being celebrated in the auditorium.  Billy and I, as good Catholic boys, decided to make a visit to church before heading home to my house.  We went up and knelt at the temporary alter rail in front of the stage and said our prayers.  On the way out we decided, as 3rd graders are sometimes known to do, to take a more fun and circuitous route to the back door.  We thought it would be fun to walk in and out of EVERY row on our way to the back.  Only a mere 3 rows from the back near a large radiator, Billy’s pants pocket gave way and a few of his marbles hit the floor aiming straight for the radiator.  So we picked up our pace a little (to this day I still say we weren’t running) to re-appropriate Billy’s stash.  In the midst of our frenzy a new Nun entered at the front of the church–Sister Margaret Dolores–who had just arrived from Jersey City, and dealing with “city kids”, she yelled “YOU TWO ARE RUNNING IN CHURCH. I’M GOING TO TELL SISTER HELEN ANN!”  Until then we WEREN’T running, but then we ran like hell out of there.

The next day the trusting Sister Pauline allowed me to go to the bathroom at the same time as Billy asked to go upstairs and get some money from Tommy.  We met at the water fountain, where the nuns had re-combed our hair several times, and took off.  We ran through all the backyards and alleys so as not to be seen by the Big Black Dodge used by the Evil Empire (the Dominican Nuns).

Upon arriving at my house, we pounded on the back door, which was wood up to about 5 feet and had a glass window above it.   My mother came to the door and look straight out as if not to see us.  Then looking slightly down, she saw AND heard Billy and me screaming “LET US IN. THE NUNS ARE GONNA KILL US!!!” 

About an hour later Uncle Tony met us at school and we were confronted by Sisters Helen Ann and Pauline at the very same water fountain where they dunked our heads from time to time to break down the Odell Hair Trainer in our hair.  The following dialogue ensued:

Helen Ann:  Why did you run away?

Billy/Peter: ‘Cause you were gonna hit us for running in church

Helen Ann:  I never hit you

Peter:  Yes you did sister. You slapped me up those stairs right over there

Billy:    and Sister Margaret Dolores said she was gonna tell you we were running and we WEREN’T.

Helen Ann: You boys are in big trouble and you won’t be running away from this school again


SIDE CONVERSATION: My mom to Sister Pauline

 Mom:  are they really that bad, sister?

Pauline:  They’re just boys.

So we went back to class and two years later when Sister Margaret Dolores was our teacher in 5th grade… I got kicked out of OLMC.

And so it goes!



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.”