Anecdotes salt Guilford Ave. homework lab

September 22, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

For schoolchildren, the nastiest word in the English language is homework.

These warm and hazy September afternoons remind me of this horrible ritual. Children full of pent-up energy jump off buses after a day's imprisonment at desks. They are no more in a mood to sit down and hit the books than I was all those years ago. It's cruel to send these budding scholars home with canvas backpacks bulging with books.

I guess it has to be this way.

A wise nun once explained it all to me: "Children need homework. It makes them feel important."

At the house on Guilford Avenue where I grew up, homework was done in the open. My mother was the director of the homework institute. She placed her six children with their tutors and made the calls on questions of educational philosophy.

Via telephone, she also diligently compared scholastic progress with the other mothers. I regarded these women as stool pigeons who gathered information from their own children and passed it on.

If I scored 40 on a long division quiz, that grade was broadcast farther than Galen Fromme's voice on WBAL Radio. My only prayer was remedial work from Pop Monaghan, my grandfather.

He led the faculty of the homework institute. His specialty was mathematics. A retired engineer, he also gave impromptu history lessons on what a lousy president Harry S. Truman was. A native of Lock Haven, Pa., he was also well versed in putting down Maryland, its politics and geography.

Pop Monaghan got me through long division and the intricacies of multipliers in the millions. At his desk, we'd spread out the assignments. He had his own scrap paper ready, along with pencils sharpened with his penknife. If things really got rough, he had a cuspidor alongside for his chewing tobacco.

He never lost his patience, but Pop always made sure that his chunk of the homework was always finished in time for Groucho Marx and his "You Bet Your Life" program.

Lily Rose, his wife, handled reading and spelling. She was especially well versed in the practical side of the nightly ritual. Occasionally she'd lose patience with some text prepared by a Chicago school book publisher and suggested we practice by reading the comic pages of The Evening Sun and News-Post. She also thought that newspaper pictures' captions weren't a bad way to learn how to master one of the three R's.

Aunt Cora, her sister, had the most patience of anyone in the house. Her classroom was up on the third floor. It was actually a large and cold bedroom whose three windows faced the northwest winds that blew over 29th Street and pounded the Guilford Avenue side of the house. The desk was a small table that sat by her chair, which was upholstered in dusty rose damask.

Usually Cora read an Agatha Christie or John Creasey mystery novel at night. She also buffed her fingernails and applied Revlon's nail polish. The color was patented and called Windsor. Why her nail enamel never caught fire with her Chesterfields remained a mystery.

Cora never tired of listening to recitations. She'd go through Latin verbs. What she didn't care for was trick questions or when the pedantry got too extreme. Then she'd lose it, throw down the book and half in jest, half not, call out, "Damn it to hell, what is this thing?"

Then we'd laugh. She'd return to her emery board and complain that the house was too cold.

Occasionally Mama called in outside help when she faced a troublesome teacher.

I can recall one such hurdle, Sister Mary Dolores Frohnhoefer, a religion teacher who lacked flexibility regarding the Baltimore Catechism. She also lacked a sense of humor, a trait my mother regarded as essential in all matters, especially in religion.

Sister Dolores was giving my brother Eddie a fit.

In her wisdom, my mother sized up Sister Dolores and Eddie. This venerable nun was not going to change her Germanic ways. And my brother had to get through religion. Mother's compromise? She summoned the Presbyterians.

She enlisted the help of her old friend and neighbor, Dorothy Croswell, a pillar of the Second Presbyterian Church. Dorothy drilled, reviewed and tutored. Then she started all over again.

By the end of the marking period, Eddie was exhausted but in proud possession of a "Progress in Religion" award.

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