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I Survived: The Union School

I Survived Union School, Burlington MA
Despite the Puritan culture at the Union School, the red devil mascot somehow escaped scrutiny.

Here’s a typical day at the Union School, Burlington’s big elementary school (now the police station), based on first-person accounts from actual students. This isn’t fiction.

The first challenge was getting there. The bus drivers would kick the children off the bus to save weight. Jim Fay remembers the full bus chugging and coughing its way up the Cambridge Street hill toward the common. Suddenly it would seize up. “Ok, out. Get out.” The bus driver would take the kids closest to the door and basically evict them. “Nobody wanted to sit near the door.”

As you arrived, by bus or by foot, the silhouette peering down from the second floor window was Principal Mabel H. Keating, 49 Lexington Street, a Burlington native and 1929 graduate of the Lowell Normal School. She was so fearsome, her moldy, warty elbows left lifetime impressions on her students.

Finding your desk and chair was easy. They were bolted to the floor. Miss Keating memorized the seating plan, so you’d be unwise to deviate from your usual path to your usual desk.

Lifting your buttocks off your seat at the wrong time had horrific consequences. Barbara Gallagher Lawson: I was in fourth grade and had Miss Prue. When she left the room, I got out of my seat, but Miss Keating saw me! She yelled WHAT ARE YOU DOING OUT OF YOUR SEAT and then proceeded to give me a spanking! When I got home and told my mother what happened, Mama said I got exactly what I deserved.” Mary Rowe: “I remember our teacher, Miss Foster, was out of the room and I was at the front trying to get paper or something from a closet, when Mabel Keating edged into the room. She yelled at the other kids and crabbed her way sideways back out, all without seeing me cowering behind her.”

Sometimes Miss Keating utilized her yardstick as an attitude adjustment device. Michele Mohan Houghton: You had to hold out your hand, palm up, and they smacked it with a ruler. The very, very worst was when the superintendent was called in and did it in front of your class! Nothing like a little humiliation and intimidation.”

Mabel H. Keating. Photo credit: Mike Shannon via Lowell SunIf your hygiene wasn’t great when you got to school in the morning, it was great by the time you left. The students were subject to random cootie checks. Ted Thomas Martin: “A woman went around checking everyone’s heads, maybe for lice. She used these long sticks to part everyone’s hair. The same two sticks for everyone.” And students had to brush their teeth in class, all part of the T4, T6 and T8 program. Susan Salvato Alfano:I think it was based on the overall health of your teeth. With T4 being for healthiest teeth T6 for average teeth and T8 for teeth in poor shape. Best as I remember it.” Never mind the fact that the classrooms had no sinks. “They gave us two cups. One with water and one to rinse into.”

The dress code? It was more of a duress code. When you knelt, your skirt was supposed to touch the ground. And so females were subject to random kneel tests. Your skirt was an inch too short? Miss Keating sent you home to change. We’re talking about the teachers here, by the way. And field trips upped the ante for everyone.  Cindy Arthur Bocrie: We had to line up, and she went down the line checking for dresses, dress length, good looking pants on the boys, NO SNEAKERS, hair combed, etc. After she ok’d you, THEN you could get on the bus.”

Lunchtime. Time to relax, right? Nope. The cafeteria was in the dank, damp basement with asbestos-covered pipes overhead, and massive boulders protruding haphazardly from the walls. It was more cave than basement. Everything, including the boulders, was painted a pallid yellow. Lori Canty Surdam: “I remember there was a crack between the rocks. Lots of kids standing in line for lunch put their quarter in the crack and lost it to the wall.” Dorothy MacKay Greene: The food was dreadful. I remember shepherd’s pie and American chop suey with chunks of tomatoes. I’d leave at least half of it on my plate and take it to the window, but Mrs. Frazell was there inspecting the plates making sure that you ate all of your food. I got the best of her. I’d wrap most of the uneaten portion up in the napkin so she wouldn’t see it.” 

Miss Keating wasn’t so easily duped. George Chaloux: “She used to stand guard at the trash can in the cafeteria and make sure you were eating your vegetables. We thought we were smart by putting our uneaten vegetables in our empty milk cartons. But she would make you open your milk carton and if your vegetables were in there, she’d make you sit down and eat them.” Jen Howard: “She made me eat green beans when I told her I as allergic. I threw up on her shoes.”

Recess time. Don’t assume these super-straitlaced women lacked athletic prowess. Patrick Maguire: “Miss Monahan played touch football with us at recess and was a good quarterback. Great days back then. Very competitive and fun. She had a good arm, threw a mean spiral, and was fast and athletic.”

Here’s a Union School report card. Notice anything odd?

Mr. Martin had solid grades in English but very shaky grades in spelling. How could this be? It’s because spelling was handled like a spelling bee, with the contestants standing before the class. The last person standing was the winner, and he or she would receive rousing applause. Mr. Martin was too shy for that, so he deliberately messed up, he says. It was the fastest path to sitting down. Thank goodness Ruth L. Blanchard never caught on. She was the Union School principal just before Miss Keating, and she was every bit as trigger-happy with her yardstick.

Ruth Blanchard
Ruth Blanchard

Irma Alberghini of Church Lane goes back even farther than Martin. Her stint at the Union School fell under the reign of Miss Andrews in the early 1930s. “I truly am forever grateful that my learning days were with these strict teachers. where there was no room for nonsense, distractions, and they demanded respect. It was a great learning process and you certainly personally gained from it.”

Her discipline went out the window after school, however. Sometimes she’d take the school bus to a friend’s house instead of her own, leaving her parents perplexed. They’d call the town switchboard operator, who worked from a house near Forbes Ave. and Cambridge Street. The operator would call every house in the area to confirm Irma’s whereabouts. It didn’t take long. There were only four or five houses in the vicinity, and everyone knew each other quite well. Irma and her friends were also known to stroll through the woods of Simonds Park to collect coins that rolled out of the pockets of passed-out drunks lying on the vast bed of pine needles. There was a liquor store across the street, you see.

Finally, the exodus! When the new Memorial School opened on Winn Street, it was time to board the buses and take a ride down the hill to salvation, right? Not quite. One day in the middle of class, the Union School students were told to grab their books and hoof it all the way to the new school, and so they marched. And they survived it.

Union School students, mid 1950s, fifth and sixth graders. Photo credit. Dayle Caterino
Bottom: Maureen Armstrong, Katherine Enos. Middle row: Pat Hines, Pam Hines, Angela Siriani, Barbara Gibson. Back row: Nancy Sherwood, Dorothy MacKay Greene, Susan Scanlon. Photo credit. Dayle Caterino



26 thoughts on “I Survived: The Union School Leave a comment

  1. This is such a great article….thanks for the laughs and the memories, Robert Fahey!!!!

  2. Yes, I remember hauling all our books to the new school. Miss Zaher was my fourth grade teacher and Miss Blanchard was the principal, then in the 5th grade Mrs. Frizzell was the principal and my teacher. She was out of the room a lot taking care of issues, but I never recall anyone “acting up” while she was gone. Loved the description of the cafeteria. We also had some classes in rooms right next to that.
    We actually had sixth grade class in the town hall when it got really crowded at the Union School. Lots of fond memories of youthful days in Burlington.

  3. Boy this was so interesting, bringing back so many memories. I went to the Memorial School in 1956 and went to second grade. Miss Miles was my teacher. I remember all the fun at recess. Jumping rope and Chinese Jump rope in the parking lot. Playing tag on the lawn and jumping off the big rock out front. Out back we played Red Rover and Dodge Ball for Gym. I remember my 6th grade teacher, Mrs. Roche. She was a stickler for Penmanship. She always used Peacock Blue in her fountain pen. She let me decorate the Bulletin board at the back of the room. Bonnie Printeville and myself did spring flowers (Tulips) Grass and Windmills etc. Lots of good memories and I like looking back and thinking about the fun and friends I made.

  4. Miss Keating had not mellowed at all by the time she retired in 1973. Still running both the Center and Union Schools which were middle schools at the time like prison camps. No spanking though, in 1970-71 when I attended times were changing but we all knew old Mabel was not enjoyjng the modern ways. Not sure why the town kept that old battleaxe around but at the time the superintendants office was at the Center School so they could keep an eye on her I suppose. 🙂

  5. It was so nice reading about the old Union School. I so remember that and the old Annex behind it where my Aunt Marion Howard was our First Grade Teacher. Also remember walking our books down to the new Memorial School when completed. Then also remember going back to Union School and Miss Keating and that horrible Cafeteria. I was recently at a flag football game with my Grandson and was talking with some of the mothers and they were talking about their kids going to the Memorial and the Marshall Simonds and could not believe it when I told them that that is where I went and they were brand new schools then and the Marshall Simonds was My Brand new High School when I attended. Such fun talking about old times. I love this web site.

  6. One more thing. When I was in the second grade the desks and chairs were bolted to the floor in the annex. Later they had older students there and they sure wouldn’t have fitted in them. When I was in the large building the desks wern’t bolted to the floor.

  7. Love this… While I was only there for one grade (half sessions), I had Room 1 in the Union School, right next to Keating’s office (a dubious location as I was soon to learn). The yard stick corporal punishment was alive and well in the 60’s. 🙂 As I recall, she had her favorites. Don’t think I was one of them. 🙂

  8. Mabel H. Keating. Now thats a name I had not heard in years. I don’t make a habit out of criticizing the dead but that old witch was quite a trip at the Center School where I went for 6th grade in 1970. Even the teachers could not stand her. I remember having a hard time with a few bullies in 6th grade. One day I had enough and fought back but I was the one who got in trouble for creating a disturbance not the bully. I got so mad at her that I walked right out of the school and went home after being given my “sentence” of copying dictionary pages at one of the “punishment” desks in the hallway between her office and the gym. She did not even notice! I showed up for school the next day and there was no mention of it. This was a couple of years before she retired when Center and Union were closed. How many of us were scarred for life as 11 year olds by her irascible nature? lol

  9. i was there for several years under miss blanchard………………from 1947 to 1950…………………who ruled that dank cafeteria with a police whistle………….blown quite loudly………………..i discoverd later it was the same procedure used at all the state prisons around boston……………….one loud blast to stand by the tables, a second to sit down………….a third to eat……………………………the main occupation of the older boys at recess……… springtime………….was to make hundreds of little earthen dams in the school yard sloping down to sears street to contain all the rain water seeping down the slope……………………… was quite an impressive sight…………………it was a contest to see if we could make enough dams to reach sears street before the whistle blew……………….i met her and a friend hiking by the power lines years later,and she asked me if my spelling was improving…………..i was a student at harvard at the time…………..those were the days……………………..c johnson, bhs 1954

  10. Great memories of the Center school. I went there for 5th grade in 1965. Mabel Keating was the principal. During rainy days she let us watch tv in the gym/auditorium. She must have been having a good year. I must confess that in 1966 I egged her house on Halloween. Later I went to the new high school (Marshal Simmonds for 6th grade, and then back there for most of high school. In February of 1973 we moved to the new (current) high school. So I got to go to all 3 of Burlingtons high scool.

  11. Old Mabel, Rumor had it she kept a bottle of Baileys in her desk for the afternoons. LOL

  12. could there be anyone alive out there who could say a good word for mrs keating…………..she must have had one good quality……………maybe her mother loved her……………………………….

    • It was Miss Keating. She
      never married. That was customary way back in the day, public school teachers were expected to be single like nuns. lol. Then again who would
      marry that….sorry that was nasty. Who
      knows in 1920 she could have been quite the hotty but chose to devote her life to teaching. Her methods and opinions of molding young minds were of course outdated by 1970 but was that just the way she was taught and trained. Did she tire of the adminstrative day to day B.S. after being promoted to Principal and the stresses of running a very over crowded school in teo very run down old buildings? If I were in charge of a dump like that with no budget to make things better I would be cranky too! Could she have been a kinder gentler teacher staying in that role? Does anyone out there still living have been a family member or friend who knew the real Mabel? She is gone now but a Google search shows no obit for her. She willed her home at 49 Lexington St to someone from Stoneham in the 1990’s according to an on line search of the county deeds. Maybe that person was a favorite neice or other family member. A documentary for BCAT could be produced…Old Mabel….the myth, the legend, dedicated educator or cranky old witch? 😀

    • Yes. She taught next to Mrs Roche in the town hall separated by rolling blackboards. She had little control of a couple of boys in her class which made it hard for anyone to learn. I remember Mrs Roche rolling her eyes a lot.

  13. Tales of Mabel

    The Center school building which in the 30’s was the town’s first high school but housed just 7th graders by the time I got there in 1963. When we started there we were busting out all over socially with dances and the Friday night roller skating bus and 13-year-old Hell-raising in general. The principal of the school was one Mabel Keating. A stern and solidly built woman that would strike the fear of God in any of us who she confronted. She patrolled everywhere. Your shirt had to be buttoned to the top, your lunch better be eaten. The girls were smarter than us by stuffing peas or carrots into their empty milk cartons. Another no no was hanging around in the boy’s room. If she heard any hi jinx in there she would damn well come in there and pull you out by the ear or scruff of the neck.

    It was against this backdrop that one of the funniest events of my short life occurred. A bunch of us including one Martin Hill was hanging around outside after lunch and I lit off some firecrackers I had brought to school. The quite portly Mabel came clomping through the parking lot like a whirlwind and grabbed poor Marty Hill by the throat. For the moment we all thought this was hilarious.

    Later on, in class we heard Ms. Keating’s voice on the intercom to all the classes saying that Marty was in deep deep trouble. We could almost hear Marty whimpering in the background. Ms. Keating said that Marty denied having set off the firecrackers and she expected the guilty party to show up in the office at once. I am not sure if I was feeling sorry for poor Marty or I wasn’t sure he could stand up to the interrogation so I walked up to the front of the room and told my teacher, Mrs. Doherty, that Ms. Keating wanted to see me as I was the guilty party.

    I got up to the outer office and the lady at the desk said not a word but pointed to the half-opened door of Ms. Keating’s office. Through the crack, I could see a poor forlorn-looking Marty sitting with moist eyes. I knocked on the door and walked in and said to no one in particular that it was me. A very angry looking Mabel looked at Marty and pointed to the door and Marty was gone like the wind.

    Strangely enough, I wasn’t all that scared because I was well deserving of the ruler that was coming to me for this transgression and many others. Everyone knew that Ms. Keating beat the Hell out of kids with the ruler although none of us knew anyone who had actually been struck. Much to my astonishment, Ms. Keating came around the desk with a plate of cookies and offered me one! In a tone of voice that I had never heard from her she said: “well Phillip, you are a very honest boy.” We chatted amicably for a few minutes and she sent me happily on my way. When I returned to class I didn’t dare tell anyone she had given me cookies I just said she yelled at me. After all, I had to maintain my image as a trouble maker. Later that day at a school assembly she made me stand up in front of everybody as an example of honesty. It took years to live that down with my peers.

  14. i remember the cafeteria with the boulders, and i liked the American Chop Suey. I remember playing with those little cars with Warren O’leary in the back of Miss Frizell’s class. Remember the opportunity class ? There were some very talented students that came out of there. Remember the little baseball games we played at recess? Does anyone remember Miss Beaton? She was an opera singer. Alan Russo

  15. I had Ms. Monahan as a teacher in 69-70. She was one of my favorites, and yes she could throw a mean football. She played with us often and was a fantastic English teacher as well. Great memories of that old building…

  16. Started at the union school annex in 1955. This article certainly brought back memories. My teacher in 1955 was Miss Lahive. We went to the main building in 1956 for sixth grade. We had the classroom right next to the cafeteria. I believe I spent two years at the old brick high school for 9th and 10th grade. Find my junior and senior year we were at the new high school across from the Memorial school which is now Marshall Simonds. I do not have too many bad memories, except for the cafeteria of course, at the union school, but many nice memories of the new high school, graduating in 1963

    • ah,those memories………………thank you diane……………..does anyone recall the annual spring tradition at the union school of buidling little mud dams and dikes in the sandy slope down to sears street at recess……… was of course the older boys in sixth and fifth grades but all would join in………….i left the uniion school in 1950…………and remembered seeing deer jump the wire fence to get to the fields beyond from mrs frizzels window……………………….carl johnson, bhs,class of 54

  17. I was at Wildwood Elementary in 1970. I believe Mrs. Frizzell was the principal then. I was told by my older sister and the neighborhood kids, “she’ll beat your knuckles for saying hello to her”. With that knowledge, I didn’t say two words to her. Then one day i was called to her office. Walking in I saw a large wooden ruler sitting in the front of her desk. I told her i looked over to see how the girl next to me was making her cursive “D”. There was no knuckle beating, just a stern look with hands on her hips, and a look of disbelief. I think corporal punishment had phased out.

  18. I started school at the Union School Annex. Marion Howard was my 1st grade teacher. I found my self back at the Union for my fourth grade and eighth grade. By the time I made graduation the second BHS had been built. Had the privilege of opening the Memorial and Wildwood Schools and my senior year was a half day session because the Francis Wyman was being built as a Middle School. Memorial has been replaced, Wildwood is now a park and the second High School is now a middles school. Francis Wyman has been rebuilt and is now an Elementary School. Meadow Brook is now leased, Pine Glenn and Fox Hill are on their way to being replaced. And the current High School is now over 40 years old and needs a “Face Lift”. Now I watch my grandchildren attend schools in town and bring back memories of growing up here in Town. As for sharing memories. I have been sworn to secrecy.

  19. I don’t recall attending Union School . . . as I remember things I went from Memorial elementary (and the portables behind it) to one year at Fox Hill School when it was brand spanking new and then straight to Center School where I most assuredly do remember Mabel Keating as clearly as I remember Arnie Levine at Francis Whyman Middle School and Constantine O’Dougherty at both the old and new High Schools . . . thanks for the trip down memory lane, always a pleasure, Robert.

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