Teachers keep the record of our time of innocence

MICHAEL OLESKER

September 05, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

In Druid Hill Park the other day, I bump into Miss Siegel after an absence of merely 37 years. Miss Siegel's first name is Anna, although I did not know this a long time ago, as the first names of all schoolteachers were apparently considered state secrets in 1954.

At Howard Park Elementary School No. 218, on Liberty Heights Avenue across from The Acme, Miss Siegel was my fourth-grade teacher. She is 85 years old now and perhaps 5 feet tall. I am 46 years old and 6 feet tall. I approach her in the park with trepidation, hoping she will not correct my grammar or ask for a note from my mother explaining 37 years of absence.

"Of course I remember you," she says. "You were always sticking up for the underdog."

I place this quotation high up in this newspaper column with great pride, although I cannot swear for Miss Siegel's accuracy.

It is thrilling merely that she remembers me.

Schoolteachers are the archivists of the past, the keepers of records about a time of innocence. To discover them years later is to travel through a time warp, to touch base not only with the teacher but with yourself before you knew who you really were.

"It's a shame we can't keep in touch with all the children we taught," Miss Siegel says, and then she begins, remarkably, to run down a list of names from my era: two who had to be separated from fighting on the playground; several very bright ones; some who needed to be kept inside during recess; and one who fought over possession of a cat.

"Roy Gamse," she says. "He had a fight."

"Roy Gamse?" I say. This, I cannot believe. Roy Gamse wore glasses and got perfect scores on the annual My Weekly Reader tests.

"Roy Gamse," she asserts, "got into a fight over a cat."

I do not wish to argue the point. Time sometimes moves the facts around but not the impressions. Miss Siegel was a kind and sensitive woman, but she is also recalled as a formidable figure who ran, as they say in the business, a tight ship.

"I was strict about some things," Miss Siegel declares.

"I was strict about coming late, about having good attendance and making sure you had a pencil to work with."

Not remembering any personal pencil problems, I venture a question.

"And me?" I ask. "You really remember me?"

"Of course," she says. "You were very important to me when I would put a composition on the board. You raised your hand. You knew all the corrections to make."

A piece of me feels guilty at asking about myself. And yet, there is an urge to fill in the blanks, to know answers that even parents cannot supply.

It may be the reason we attend school reunions, this urge not only to see old and misplaced friends but to compare notes on mutual histories. Did it really happen back there the way we think it did?

In fact, I tell Miss Siegel, a school reunion is now being put together. On Oct. 4, at Martin's West, there will be a get-together for all those who ever attended Howard Park Elementary.

Already, hundreds of people have signed up. (For those not contacted, because they might perhaps have moved in the last several decades, call the reunion committee at 653-6265 after 6 p.m.)

For Miss Siegel, the reunion comes 44 years after she began teaching at the school and 22 years since she retired.

But some things remain evergreen, including her first PTA meeting.

"Every child's mother, father, grandmother and aunt and uncle seemed to be there," she said. "The cooperation from parents was phenomenal. I haven't taught for some time now, but I understand you don't see that any more."

On the other hand, she routinely taught classes with more than 40 children, and one year remembers a class of 52.

"There were some desks," she says, "where you had to have two children in a seat. You had to put them somewhere. We had them hanging from the chandeliers."

For years after she retired, she kept in touch with other teachers, ladies like her who seemed to have no first names.

She still talks to Mrs. Luers (first name, Betty) and Mrs. Miller (first name, Ethel), who taught second grade during her time.

Others -- principal Martha Bennett, teachers Ruth Dennis, Elizabeth Massicott, Elizabeth Schroeder -- have slipped away over the years. Miss Dennis isn't certain if they're still alive.

But the mention of their names brings back memories of that time and place: the Ambassador Theater and Read's Drug Store at Gwynn Oak Junction one block away; Toots Barger's bowling alley across the street; the Pratt Library Bookmobile that arrived every Tuesday afternoon; and Conlin Field and the long parade that opened each Little League baseball season.

And, from a distance of much time, the school itself: with its wooden floors, its big dirt playground with kids racing about madly, its melting of children from many different backgrounds.

Also, not to be forgotten, the ones like Miss Siegel who taught under the handicap of crowded little classrooms and no known first names.

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