The Primary Grades
The primary grades are first, second and third. This was where I received my most important education. It was in
these grades that I learned to read, write in script, calculate the basic operations of addition and subtraction and memorize multiplication
I have vague memories of actually doing any of these important things. My memories are clearer of other activities that occurred
on a regular basis. What did I learn to do about the very fundamental need to go to the bathroom? After all, I had only just left
the security of home where this was not a problem. At home, I had access whenever the bathroom was unoccupied. I didn't have to ask
to use it and I didn't have to learn new signals to get there. Burned into the American psyche of all ages is the meaning of Number
One and Number TwoŁ. It is quite possible only those in their golden years will remember actually using these expressions in their
early lives. Teachers from days past could recognize many intentions by the nature of the raised hand.
An outstretched arm displaying
the index finger or two fingers in the manner of Winston Churchill, told her just what was going to take place in the bathroom. It
was never clear to me why she needed such personal information. It probably had something to do with the janitor's responsibilities.
I don't remember any kid raising one hand with one finger and the other with two but it would seem that would be the option most widely
used. If she should notice a raised hand waving vigorously with an open palm, that most likely meant, " I don't have time for protocol,
I just have to go RIGHT NOW!"
Teacher: "Yes, Michael?"
Michael: "Can I go to the bathroom?"
Teacher: "I am sure you CAN Michael .Do you
mean " 'MAY I go to the BASEMENT?' ''
Michael: "Yes, Miss Ryan"
It was a long time before I knew that a basement was actually that part
of a structure below the first floor of a building. My parents, who were born in Italy and lived in East Boston, went "down the cellar
" to retrieve a bottle of wine.
Upon leaving the classroom, I would encounter the janitor in the hallway.
"Where are you going?"
"Do you know where it is?"
"No." (In those days I wasn't afraid to ask for directions) "Straight ahead and to your left."
walking straight ahead I would be thinking about throwing a ball. The ball is in my right hand, so I turn towards my other hand at
the end of the hall.
While standing in front of the white porcelain receptacle on the wall , I would see the latest art work from the
sixth graders: Batman Wings, Phantom Capes, Mickey Mouse Ears, Biplanes, Tommy Guns and names of heroes like Machine Gun Kelly
to class. Open the door and walk in. Suddenly someone, usually a girl, would point to my midsection and giggle. Others would join
Teacher: Michael, go back out and close your gate.
Back in the corridor, the janitor would ask what I was doing there."The teacher
told me to close my gate."
"Button your fly! "
While attending public school during the heart of the Depression, one might think
supplies were very limited. Actually, we probably had more given to us in those days than kids get today. A few days before the opening
of school in today"s world, kids shop at Staples and similar stores to stock up with their needs. We had five and ten stores but we
never bought school supplies. The community supplied all our needs. At the beginning of the school year and periodically, we would
receive such items as:
Two pencils (eraserless)
One hard rubber eraser
One wooden pen with a slot for a point.
Two pen points
At Christmas, a booklet of Carols, supplied by the Metropolitan Insurance Company.
We would keep these items in our desks, which
were made of cast iron legs bolted to the floor. Just above the hinged desktop on the right side was a hole to accommodate a glass
The following paper items were distributed as needed:
Arithmetic Paper (light grayish-brown about 4 inches by 6 inches)
Composition Paper Ruled, 8 in x 11 in
White Composition Paper, Ruled, 8 in x 11 in
Yellow Manila, 8 in x 11 in
Construction paper, various
Scissors (with rounded ends and not sharp enough to cut through a ripe banana)
Crayons (usually in small pieces and too many
of the wrong color)
Ink ( blue-black, ) the teacher filled the inkwells from her dispensing bottle.
The distribution of white composition
paper was always a treat. This would mean we would get ink, if needed, and a chance to use a pen point. The wooden pen had a half-moon
groove to accept the pen point. There were some very trying times whenever someone dipped his pen-point into the well to bring up
a few drops of ink and then flip the pen to spray it on his neighbor. One kid liked the taste of the ink and used to open Oreo cookies
and spread ink on the cream. I don"t know how he explained his blue teeth and lips to his mother.
Penmanship was a high priority. The
products of the Palmer Method became doctors, lawyers and other professionals and it would seem, by looking at their penmanship, that
the method was a failure. The first line was always a series of round circles, similar to a coiled spring. Next came vertical joined
lines that looked like a row of wheat. Next a row of capital A's followed by a string of small a's joined together. This would continue
until the alphabet was completed.
Now remember to write your name on the upper right corner of the paper (Time to think about which
hand I use to hold a ball)
The town had a full-time music teacher. Her name was Minnie Goeres. Whenever we had music, she would use
her pitch pipe so we could get an idea of the key for the song we were going to sing. I would guess that ninety percent of the blowing
of the pitch pipe was really to get our attention. Sometimes, she would use the blackboard and draw interesting designs she called
clefs, sharps, flats and other names, which meant nothing to me. But I did remember ALL GOOD BOYS DO FINE and FACE for the five lines
and four spaces.
"Now remember children, if you have to use the basement, do so during recess." Never said, but thought, She must be
kidding! Give up my recess time for that! Recess was the time to run , run and run again. Run down the stairs to the yard. Run around
the approved area in the yard. Run up the stairs when returning to class. Recess was also the time to feel sorry for the big kid who
always cried and who was known by the name, Fat.
At lunchtime, those of us who lived nearby went home. We had one and one-half hours.
Three o'clock was an anxious time. Only thirty minutes to go and I can get out of these clothes and into after-school clothes, overalls
In all my life, there has never been a longer thirty minutes