Discovering the World At Lida Lee Tall School

February 01, 1991|By GWINN OWENS | GWINN OWENS,Gwinn Owens is a retired Evening Sun editorial writer.

Mature people, at least those whose lives have turned out well, tend to believe that their own early education, however it was acquired, made them what they are today. Many of us who attended the Lida Lee Tall School represent the extreme of this conviction.

I, for one, sincerely believe that my elementary education in that remarkable institution was for my purposes, ideal. Rather than shut it down, as Governor Schaefer has proposed, why not build on its distinguished history?

It is important to recognize, however, that defending the Campus School, as we called it in 1934 when I graduated, may have little relevance to the Lida Lee Tall Learning Resources Center 57 years later. For one thing, today's name smacks of pompous educationalism, though it was and is a demonstration school. It was named for Dr. Tall, president of the Maryland State Normal School (now Towson State) after her death.

My view of education is that its primary goal should not be vocational, but should enhance the understanding of the world and the cosmos, so as to open the intellectual doors that make life a happier experience. I believe vocational success follows naturally to those who relate to the human experience through history, science and the arts. The impressionable elementary school years are the time to start.

Since my memory of those years is vivid I will offer some specific anecdotes.

In the fourth grade my teacher was a stern and forbidding -- but very effective -- spinster named Mary Ellen Logan. She taught us ancient history -- the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Phoenicians, the Greeks and the Romans. (I was absent with the chicken pox during the Phoenicians and to this day I know little about them.)

Most of all, Miss Logan loved the Greeks. She had a picture of the Parthenon over the blackboard. We read the Greek myths and even wrote and performed a play about Persephone, doomed to spend six months a year in Hades, during which her grieving mother, Ceres, (in her case we used her Roman name) allowed the earth to fall into winter.

Miss Logan turned me into a Hellenophile, one day to see that incredible Parthenon, and to gaze into the well where, legend has it, Persephone each fall descended into the dark realm of Hades. My love and knowledge of Greece has enhanced my enjoyment of life and, not incidentally, my income.

My fifth-grade teacher, Marguerite Daugherty, was heavy on European history and music. Her enthusiasm may have been a factor in my later getting a bachelor's degree in European history, but I know she contributed to my appreciation of love of music. She played records on a wind-up Victrola -- the ''Ride of the Valkyries,'' the ''William Tell Overture,'' the ''Poet and Peasant Overture'' -- war-horses all, but exciting enough to pique the interest of reluctant 10-year-olds. I thought the melodious passage within the ''Poet and Peasant'' was one of the loveliest tunes I'd ever heard. I still do today.

In the seventh grade (there were seven grades then) our teacher was a Renaissance man named Harold Moser, with an extraordinary ability to dramatize all subjects. He read us Hawthorne short stories, he schooled us in economics, and he excelled in science. One day he put a half-inch of water in a five-gallon can, heated it for a moment, removed it from the heat and screwed the cap on tight. Before our eyes we watched the can crumple as the hot gases inside contracted -- an unforgettable lesson.

Perhaps best of all was singing under the guidance of Hazel McDonald. We started two-part singing in the fourth grade and three-part in the fifth. It was serious, no-nonsense music. The sense of harmony that I acquired enabled me to qualify for glee clubs in high school and college and one day to sing on coast-to-coast radio for the U.S. Navy.

Years later -- perhaps in the early 1960s -- I visit my old school, only to learn that Miss McDonald's successor no longer taught part-singing. ''They are not ready for it at this age,'' she said. I've never understood the educationist mind. If we were ready in 1930, why were children not ready in 1960?

Admission to the school was selective, but I have no idea by what criteria. The number, just in my class, who went on to distinguished careers is prodigious. They eventually included a notable physicist, a college mathematics chairman, an authority on Latin American economics, a professor of music and a leading movie and television actress.

In today's terms people will undoubtedly offer certain reservations about that education. Yes, the pupils were all white and mostly Anglo-Saxon. And yes, the educational focus could be called ''Eurocentric.''

But the point is we became educated in the best sense of the word. Governor Schaefer's plan for an elite Maryland high school, killed by the General Assembly several years ago, sought to provide one institution for the best and the brightest. Why not a similar elementary school goal for Lida Lee Tall, which exists and is ready?

To be sure, it would be markedly different from the school I knew. Today it could and should have a racial and ethnic mixture. As for a Eurocentric tilt, that cannot be avoided because America's political institutions are a product of European civilization. For all of Europe's exploitative history, we draw from it what no other culture emphasizes so strongly -- the pre-eminence of individual freedom, expression and responsibility.

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