Teacher's methods made mathematics memorable

January 03, 1995|By JACQUES KELLY

I am always delighted to hear that certain city public school students are getting an educational boost by using the Calvert School's instructional methods.

That's the way I learned arithmetic, under the critical eyes of a woman known throughout the corridors of the old Baltimore Academy of the Visitation as Miss Morris.

Miss Morris was not a Miss at all. She was a Missus, but that marital distinction was lost on the lips of her most respectful subjects.

The old Visitation Academy, which closed in 1977, used the Calvert System loosely, as the nuns saw fit. Miss Morris, a lay teacher on the faculty for many years, operated in a world of her own. She made the rules and was never challenged.

My first brush with this locally legendary teacher came in 1956, when as a trembling first grade student I was terrorized by the reports of her circulated during my previous kindergarten year.

She entered the classroom armed with a battered alligator handbag full of her mechanical pencils filled with bright red lead inserts. Over the years the alligator strap had shredded. She replaced it with a length of rubber. She also carried her collection of lesson plans, a war chest of teaching instructions that were the secret to her classroom technique.

Thanks to information I received from her family members recently, I learned that Miss Morris would have been 51 years old that first day of class. But because of her antediluvian style of dress, we all assumed she was older than the first draft of the Declaration of Independence.

She bore remarkable resemblance to the stage and screen actress Edna May Oliver, whom all the class knew from her role in the Shirley Temple movie "Little Miss Broadway."

Miss Morris often wore a circle pin around her neck. It was a metal frame containing a family photograph of her many brothers and sisters. She was born Mary Placide Stack, the daughter of a prominent contractor and stone masons. She was reared in a fine old three story rowhouse in the 1400 block of Bolton Street in the heart of Bolton Hill. Only her closest friends and family members dare call her Placide.

She was a perfectionist. From the first September day she walked into the classroom to the last day of school in June, Miss Morris had written down in the neatest of print precisely every problem of addition, subtraction, fraction or long division she tTC would cover. Snow or days missed for sickness meant nothing. Every student had to complete every one of those daily lesson plans, even the first rusty day back after the Christmas holiday. No exceptions here!

The air of authority and mystery was heightened by one aspect of her commanding presence. This was what we students swore was her red wig, a hairpiece styled in a 1920s manner known as a marcel wave. For all the world, it appeared to be a wig. No one in the history of the school ever remembered a hair being out of place. Never, never, never did anyone dare an outright question.

We students wasted many hours of cloak-room conversation in unraveling the red-wig mystery.

One tall tale teller claimed to have spotted Miss Morris emerging from a Saratoga Street wig store. We knew this must be pure fabrication but it made for a good story anyway.

Wig or no wig, she was one of the finest teachers I have ever encountered. Her serious approach in the classroom had but one objective: her students. Under Miss Morris, you learned. If you did not, you stayed indoors during a recess period. She required discipline, order and silence. But her cardinal requirement was absorbing the subject matter.

Her classroom routine never varied. Every day was a different math paper, a set of 20 questions. Every day you wrote out and answered those 20 questions. If you arrived at school an hour early, those 20 questions were written out by her in advance on the blackboard. She had school teacher-perfect penmanship and tried, often in vain, to teach us to write in a similar way.

Toward the end of her class, the students rose as they completed the 20 questions and stood silently in line as she graded the daily quiz. She often tapped her red pencil over the sheet. The goal was to make 100, but many times each day did she pepper a page with her dreaded little red Xs.

The Morris Method of arithmetic was simple. Repeat, repeat and repeat again. It was shamelessly old fashioned, but it worked.

And to this day I can never lie to bank teller or branch manager. If my checking account is short, it is my error. Miss Morris taught me how to add and subtract.

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