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.”
If 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.
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.