Miss Agnes, May the Saints Preserve Her

November 13, 1994|By C. CLARK JONES

The following is written in appreciation of American Education Week.

In the middle of the '20s, P.S. 60 was an established institution which no one questioned. We went there to behave, within reason to do what we were told and to bring home a good report card.

There were classrooms, a nurse's office and the principal's office on the two floors above ground and a dark subterranean maze of a basement in which was the boys' toilet. I have no idea where the girls' one was or even if they had one. Two play yards, brick-paved and fenced with high-wooded walls, gave the boys and the girls separate running space for recess. I have no recall of there ever having been a person supervising the recesses. Those free times were, I suppose, a recognition of children's need to move about but they weren't a real part of school life. Anyone would have told us that we were there to learn and not to play.

There was a stability about the school and the teachers seemed to us to be as permanent as the bricks and mortar. All but two were "old" and were called by their first names. I had Miss Lula, Miss Carrie (Thatcher), Miss Clara (Hermans), Miss Jessie (Fargo), and Miss Agnes (Dunnigan). My two new ones for parts of grades four and five were Miss Bradford and Miss Becker.

I draw a blank at the second grade. I didn't like that teacher. I don't know why. I wasn't corrected, there are no bad memories, but somehow I rejected her. As a little second grader, I think she seemed to me to be a fraud. I remember that she said she was going to teach us some French and that amounted to, "If you please," which she said we could remember as "silver plate."

Each of the other named teachers I remember as individuals. Some were gentle and some stern, but each accepted her part of the contract that we were there to learn and she was there to teach.

But it is Miss Agnes who, in memory, stands out from all the others. A tall lady with erect carriage, some wrinkles, glasses and dark brown hair -- it may have been a wig -- which she wore up on her head with combs. In those days, we had a formal opening exercise with Bible reading, the Lord's Prayer and the Pledge. It was very serious and we were good and very serious. Since there were seven, eight or nine Jewish children in the class, the Bible readings were always from the Psalms which were safe for everyone.

Miss Agnes taught all of the usual things for a sixth grade and generally succeeded in keeping us with her. She was a devout Catholic and when one of us would respond with a particularly poor answer, her hands would go up with the plea, "May the Saints preserve us!" We knew than that we would have to do better.

No one in the class was identified as being less able than another. And yet the able and willing pupils had constant chance to do more through the question, "Who would like to [blank]?"

It seems that we were often in the midst of some activity. Miss Agnes said that we were going to learn how to make books. We would need an old cloth roller shade of a dark color, several balls of strong string, and some scraps of pretty wallpaper. Miss Agnes would have the white paper, the cardboard and the paste. All of the materials appeared and we folded sheets of paper into folios (learning every step of the way), sewed to make the body of the book, and made covers and backing from the cardboard, wallpaper and the cloth shade.

We had no art teacher, but Miss Agnes had colored chalk and pictures of the seasons. And the question would come if three or four would like to work together to draw the picture on the black board. The boards on one side of our room were usually filled with our "art." No other class had anything like it.

Miss Agnes said we were going to learn to weave. Everyone needed a cigar box without a lid and we would need little tacks to drive into the edges of the wood. Miss Agnes had the needed string. There was only one hammer, so one by one we drove in the tacks while listening to the lessons. We talked at home about what we would weave and about what yarn and thread was available. I made a lighthouse on a gray cliff by a blue sea.

Miss Agnes said we should enjoy reading and, of course, she read to us. When the book cart from the Pratt libraries came to our room, everyone was urged, but not ordered, to find one he would read.

Miss Agnes said we should know and appreciate the fine things of our city. Somehow, she got permission for us to visit Mr. Walters' Art Gallery. In 1927-28, the gallery was still the private possession of Mr. Walters. Nevertheless, we were taken inside. Many pictures hung on each wall and each great room had sofas on which one could look at the painting with ease. I don't know that any of us became artists, but I knew that with Miss Agnes we had been to a fine place and that it was a pleasant thing to do. All of this, of course, was by way of the street cars.

Throughout all of our doings, Miss Agnes taught us what sixth-graders should be taught. So well had she done that that for the following year, a number of her class were assigned to the citywide accelerated junior high school. When June came, we marched out with goodbyes and waves little realizing all that we had been given.

Miss Agnes, may the Saints preserve you.

Mr. Jones lives in Bel Air.

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