When you think of an iconic figure in Burlington education, you probably default to Noreen Abati at Marshall Simonds. But for thousands of pre-schoolers whose parents bowled at the Brunswick Bowl-A-Way Lanes on Terry Avenue during its 41-year run, their very first teacher was Miss Barbara, ruler of the alley daycare.
With her booming vocal cords and volcanic hairdo, Miss Barbara foreshadowed Abati, but she might have had an even tougher job. Not only did she have to keep the inmates from running the asylum and facilitate some learning along the way, but she had zero resources at her disposal, at least initially. Not even books.
Miss Barbara did have helpers, some of them long-term, such as Carol Moran and Patricia Mason. These women tapped their own resources to handle the ever-shifting roster of children, sometimes more than 80 at once, with mismatched abilities and ages.
Think you could handle that for a week or so? That’s great. Try 41 years. Yes, Miss Barbara ran the kids’ program from day one in 1961 until the last day in 2002. Now she’s almost 80.
The Bowl-A-Way Lanes came to Burlington long before the town had a kindergarten. Young Barbara Morrissey was looking for a social outlet for her son. The alley offered free childcare with a bowling membership. Sold! But it turned out that Morrissey herself had the right stuff to run the kids’ area, despite no formal educator training. She had worked with children at the United Fund and some Boston settlement houses.
The bowling alley quickly became a popular place to unload children for a few hours in the hopes that they’d have fun and perhaps learn something. But a teacher, even at a bowling alley, needs an environment that fosters education, yes? Well, that’s where a bowling alley differs a bit from a school.
School: No smoking.
Brunswick: Yes smoking. Plenty of smoking. In fact, the manager often dumped his pipe ashes on his employees as a joke. He was a serial pincher to boot.
School: Color-coded alerts tell the staff and students exactly how to respond to an emergency. Code red, code blue etc.
Brunswick: Bomb threats came constantly. “The teenagers needed something to do,” recalls Miss Barbara with an eye roll and hand wave. After a while, nobody bothered calling the police.
School: A student might complain that someone stole a pretzel.
Brunswick: Miss Barbara had her Chevy stolen from the parking lot in broad daylight. The rascals didn’t go very far. She found it just up the street, out of gas.
School: Educational materials selected via a strict filtering process and years of collective wisdom.
Brunswick: Books and myriad other materials would magically appear at the bowling alley. Coincidentally, those same materials were AWOL from local store shelves, sort of “borrowed” by teens associated with the bowling alley.
School: The state sometimes sends down videos deemed useful for educational purposes.
Brunswick: The company sent a video series slated for kids’ room use. The first was called Aunt Polly’s Parlor, and the opening scene showed children jamming crayons up their nostrils. Miss Barbara declined to utilize the series.
School: Teachers generally cover their private parts.
Brunswick: For many years, the gals had to wear blue uniforms with tiny skirts. “If we bent over a little, the kids could see our addresses and zip codes,” says Miss Barbara.
School: Teachers get encouraging shout-outs from the community. Example: “Hey, Ma, I ran into someone at work today who knows you. He says hello.”
Brunswick: Miss Barbara heard much the same, except her son worked at the Billerica House of Correction.
Despite all of these challenges — seedy characters, soiled air, pilfered materials, grand theft auto, constant bomb threats, partial nudity — Miss Barbara and crew did indeed teach the children, and the lessons really did stick. A few years ago, Miss Barbara was vacationing in Florida when a grown man walked up to her with a wide grin that could only come from recognition. He said two words to her: “Rectangle. Red.”