Arithmetic in grade school. Doing 'times tables' at the blackboard for Sister Emma.
A trolley line fatality. Great Depression. Experimental allergy vaccine from the State Capital in Albany, NY.
Copyright 2013 Franklyn E. Dailey Jr.
Memento etiam, Domine, famulorum famularumque tuarum, Sister Emma, Sister Florentia, et Sister Lucida, qui nos praecesserunt cum signo fidei, et dormiunt in somno pacis.
Remember also, O Lord, your servants Sister Emma, Sister Florentia, and Sister Lucida, who have gone before us with the sign of faith, and rest in the sleep of peace.
This passage, above, is an exception to the series of Altar Boy responses which will resume in the next chapter. It is part of the Celebrant's remembrance for the dead in the last part of the Eucharistic Prayer after the Consecration I have inserted it here as a remembrance of three Sisters in this story who had a fundamental influence on my life.
I was reintroduced to Sister Emma for my third grade year in her grades three and four room on the second floor directly over the first and second grade room in which I had first come to the school with Sister Lucida as the teacher. I had first met with Sister Emma a year earlier on the back stoop of the Sister's Convent on Monroe Avenue. That Convent was just behind the new Rectory. It was the summer of 1927. There, usually in bright sunlight, Sister Emma taught me my Latin and then taught me the procedure for using it as an Altar Boy.
My earliest recalled summers were filled with many activities, rarely organized. One regular duty for me was to go to Doctor Hazen's office three afternoons a week, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, from May until August 15. There I was given a hypodermic needle full of an experimental serum extract that the State of New York was testing for hay fever and asthma. It came in a small vial with a brown rubber top. It was kept in the refrigerator. When I arrived, Dr. Hazen's sister who was his receptionist, signed me in. I usually did not have to wait long. Dr. Hazen took me into his Pharmacy, removed the serum vial from his refrigerator, plunged the hypo into its rubber top, took my upper arm and pushed the needle into it and depressed the plunger. He then swabbed the spot a second time with an alcohol filled cotton ball, having done this before administering the "shot" as well. He then let me dip my hand into his "sugar pills." May was chosen to start the series because of "rose fever" and August 15 was the ripening date for ragweed, my principal tormentor. No need for shots after that date. The fat was in the fire and the shots had either done their work or had failed. With me, they worked. Occasionally, Doctor John Livermore Hazen left the office, and his waiting patients, in a hurry. This was because he was on call for trolley line accidents. Let me quote Mr. William Reed Gordon's fascinating book on Brockport's trolley service, page 82.
"Motorman M. Harris stopped his trolley at Youngs siding 16 (near Brockport) one afternoon and waited for his conductor to open the switch so he could run in on the siding as he was scheduled to meet an eastbound passenger car at this point. While the conductor was unlocking the switch, Harris looked up the track and saw the eastbound trolley coming at him at high speed. He yelled to his conductor to run, opened his cab door and jumped. After the crash, the front of his trolley was demolished, he found his stool had the four legs broken off, and later he found the back of the stool about seventy feet from the car along the right-of-way. No one was killed, but the passengers were somewhat shaken up. The other motorman had also jumped, when he realized there was going to be a 'corn field meet', as railroad men named these unexpected collisions."
One story similar to this one, in which a passenger got off the trolley too soon (fatally, it developed), ended with the conductor reporting, "...so I went back into the car and when we pulled into Brockport, I notified Dr. Hazen, called up the dispatcher and told him about the accident, and then we went on to Rochester."
This Doctor Hazen participated in one of the village's great dramas. His own son, John Jr., called Johnny Boy and then about ten years old, came down with pneumonia. Dr. Hazen erected an oxygen tent over his son's bed, and sat by his bedside and ministered to him for three weeks, sending his own patients to Dr. Collins, Dr. Ransom and Dr. Mann, the other physicians in Brockport. John Jr. survived, went to West Point, graduated and lost his life the first night he was on the firing line in Italy in World War II. I was told later that Dr. Hazen never recovered from this loss and died not long afterward, a broken man.
It does not fit here chronologically, but does fit here with its geographic connection to Dr. Hazen's office. Across Main Street from Dr. Hazen's home and office lived my friend Francis Comstock. I had a penchant for carpentry, but no talent for it. Francis had the bug too, but he had some talent. We spent hours at my house, scrounging lumber, sometimes lifting it piece by piece out of the house or barn or sand-box, and making something out of it. We tried to take out of sight pieces that no one would notice. The hay-loft in the barn had been converted to a storage for barrel parts for the Dad's produce business. We made lounge chairs out of barrel staves and Francis furnished most of the concept and execution. His Dad was the Postal Telegraph agent for our village. Telegraphy had an almost magic attraction for me, just thinking that a person could hit a key and send messages around the world. Brockport's World War II honor roll pictured in its Sesqui-Centennial celebration book lists Francis Comstock, U.S.N., as one who returned from the war.
Sister Emma became the first sadness connected with my stay with the Sisters in Brockport. I was puzzled when she did not return for my fourth year. A new Sister came. Sometime during that year, we learned that Sister Emma had died. I was devastated and heartbroken. There may have been advance knowledge of an illness among her co-religious or among elders, but no one warned a little boy who liked her very much. Except for the announcement of her death, I was given no information whatsoever. It was just a complete blank. She was gone and that was that.
There had been some good times, really good times. One-on-one instruction. Someone who cared, and showed it. Rest periods from Altar Boy Latin instruction when I would be invited into the Sister's house for cookies. (It is a stretch to call that house a Convent, though it did have a small altar in the living room.) Between Sister Emma's loving instruction and my mother's unfailing ability to recall that "paper" she signed in the Rectory just seven years before, I became one of the Altar Boys that would be called upon for Solemn High Masses and ceremonies involving visits from the Bishop.
Sister Emma served the School of the Nativity of the BVM from 1906 to 1930. She died in the service of that school. My fourth grade year was 1929-1930. I was in retrospect lucky to have her for Altar Boy instruction and then as a teacher in the third grade. I have looked up the tenures of all the Sisters in that school and only Sister Martina (O'Reilly) who served from 1883-93 and again from 1901-29 served longer. (Sister Martina must have put in her final years in the convent. I do not recall her at school.) Sister Lucida, with an assignment from 1922 to 1931 was among the relatively few that had tenures over five years. Sisters were transferred without much notice due to shifting school populations. Sister Mary Joseph, my Dad's teacher, served as the Principal from 1900-09 and returned to BVM for another stint in 1918-24. It was about 1926 when my Dad introduced me to her. She was living in the Convent and occasionally helped out at school.
Today's pedagogy does not favor how I learned in Sister Emma's class. That class learned the times tables by standing at a blackboard competing with others at the board. Sister would rattle off the (m times n) problem and we would put the chalk to the board. Other times she would give the answer and ask us to put down all the ways it could be arrived at. By then we had developed the capability to visualize a virtual picture of the complete number set through thirteen, with a pretty fair knowledge of number sets up to twenty. Division followed quickly. Then it was on to multiplication and long division. Sister asked us to do our best and never criticized failure. She let us learn from one another. Whether the subject Geography or Spelling or Bible History, Sister Emma made it interesting to be in her class. By my third grade in that school, I began to look ahead a bit to see where matters might be going next. With two grades reciting, I could listen to this year's lessons and next year's lessons.
Years later, I felt right at home in competitive recitation as a midshipman at the United States Naval Academy. The slide rule we used there was a great speed tool. But it was a confidence-builder to be able to make a fast check on results by simply returning to the numbers sets learned in the third grade and asking oneself, "Is this answer in the ballpark?" Sister Emma's teaching methods left us with an enormous range of answers. The fact base we absorbed not only provided us a broad perspective on the positive side, but it was an effective antidote against fear and paralysis when the educational challenge provided something we had not previously encountered. Rapid reading became routine in order to stay in the game.
Handwriting skill was acquired more slowly. Since I came to school with no pronounced tendency to use the right hand or the left hand, the Sisters pushed the use of the right hand. In our school the Palmer Method was taught from the beginning. I do not recall learning anything about writing, in the context of composition, until later grades. The term "pupil" was used from the first grade but I believe now that I was on my way to becoming a student in Sister Emma's third grade class at the School of the Nativity of the BVM in Brockport, New York.
I cannot fully account for the fourth grade. I have looked up teacher rosters by years and these suggest that I had Sister Emma for just part of the fourth grade and that we then had a substitute for the last part of the year. It was Sister Emma for sure who prepared me for the "upper class" curriculum in Grades 5-6-7-8. She also helped get me ready for Sister Florentia, a commanding but holy lady who especially understood boys and helped them achieve their potential. Sister Florentia could roll with the punch but she knew when discipline and order were needed. She knew that the boy world would have some glitches along the way. She could always help get the ship back on an even keel.
Using a word I learned later on, our classroom days were marked by and large by décor. Order prevailed. Since we were lined up in columns by rows, the kids in the back could take in the whole perspective but they missed details that were evident to those up front. For example, someone was sent in from another class to tell Sister something. This was long before intercoms. That messenger would have to enter from the hallway by a door that was always toward the front of the room. Then there would be whisperings and well-tuned ears would be working overtime to catch words or phrases. Lip reading became a skill before any of us ever heard that term.
Room geography led to tradeoffs in insight. When the peace and tranquility seemed just too much, a pupil could "sign out" to go to the bathroom. This was done in a hand drawn square on the blackboard closest to the door. Imagine knowing by heart the initials of every pupil in your class. You did. During such a trip, if you came from the back of the room you could see what was on Sister's desk. A boy in the back who saw that Jerry in the front had on the same sweater as yesterday could by signing out to the bathroom see if Jerry's sweater still had the chocolate spot on it. Similarly, a girl in the front could take the opportunity to find out if her friend Mary in the back was wearing the blouse with the lace on the sleeves. And of course, as a last resort, you could take your textbook to Sister and ask her what "that word" was. In half the cases, Sister knew you knew the word and that you needed, not only to stretch your legs, but to enjoy the fact that half the heads looked up to see what was going on.
As I noted, our family settled into the depression before October 1929. School was a welcome relief. For several years, home life was on a down slope. Food was always on your mind. Dad would go see a friend at the A&P Canning Company and come home with "bent'n rusties", cans that would never be sent out of the factory but could be sold locally for two cents a can. The canned goods menu included corn, peas, beets and even tiny potatoes. There were far too many lima beans. To this day I cannot eat canned lima beans. Even when we all slid into the depression, the country kids from the farms always had food. Good food with a rich aroma, according to my nose. Occasionally I would get back to school after going home for lunch and some farm kids who had chosen to play outside during the first part of noon hour would still be eating. In addition to what I now recognize as a balanced diet with a meat and a vegetable, all had at least two slices of bread with butter and jam or peanut butter. If the spread did not reach the crust, most ate up to the crust and then threw the rest away. That raised my eyebrows. Even after everyone was poor, back on South Avenue, the ladies would still make "finger" sandwiches, cutting the crusts off first. I always managed to be around. Whether it was Mrs. Raleigh with a catering assignment, or my mother or Mrs. Herbert Lane having a tea party, the object was to be positioned to eat those crust pieces. Mrs. Lane's was a favorite place. Shirley Lane was a classmate. Mrs. Lane let me drink coffee and dunk her homemade doughnuts in it. Fabulous. In my own family, you guessed it, Dad eats the crust piece
My Times With the Sisters and Other Events, 134 pages, ISBN 0966625110; can be ordered through your local bookstore. Cover Price is $9.50.