21 September 2012

To Gladly Teach -- Part 1

Welcome back. It’s time for another guest blog post. The writer, Miriam Biskin, is a retired teacher, published author, mother, grandmother and great grandmother. Lately, she has been posting her life stories on the Stage of Life website (http://www.stageoflife.com), where a version of this post first appeared. Miriam is also a family friend, whom I’ve known most of my life and who for years took the time to encourage me to write.

Instead of a Friday post and Tuesday photo addendum, I’ll split Miriam’s guest post over the two days.

Miriam Biskin, the teacher. Photo
from the 1957 yearbook, Cohoes
High School, Cohoes, N.Y.
In 1941, a few months before the attack on Pearl Harbor and our entry into WWII, I became a teacher; 8th grade, Social Studies, assigned to a school that was a make-shift solution to overcrowding. In an agreement between a local Catholic parish in need of funds and a school system in need of space, the city rented the middle floor of a parochial academy. This temporary arrangement lasted 20 years.

Teaching in a Shared Space

The building was comfortable, with cross-ventilation ideal for capturing the cacophony from the nearby fire and police stations and a railroad crossing. There were two instructors each in English, Social Studies and Mathematics, and we all taught Reading and Spelling (how archaic!). We supervised lunch and lavatory sessions, collected milk money, and took attendance, coding excuses for health department statistics. I don’t remember the code for pediculosis (lice), but before their infestation, I had long black hair.

Our paths rarely crossed with our nun neighbors, although, years later, I understood the jokes in the musical comedy “Nunsense” more than most fans.

The nuns used clackers, which sounded like castanets, to signal students to sit, kneel, stand or whatever. Once a week, we had to line up every student to attend mandatory catechism classes downstairs. At a clacker-signal from the sisters, the students moved along. It was all I could do not to giggle as I called the first student’s obviously Jewish name.

On another occasion, leaving late one Friday, I found a girl crying. “What’s the matter, honey?” I asked. “Sister said the world would end this weekend,” she replied. ”Did she give you homework?” The child nodded. “Just think,” said I, “you don’t have to do it.” We both smiled.

We were busy in those war years, selling war bonds, collecting scrap, working for the rationing and draft boards. Our courses were mapped out by the state education department. Except for practice alarms and duck-and-cover drills, we lived in our own cocoons.

But the war didn’t last forever. In due time, soldiers came home, family life resumed, the birth rate rose, and we were evicted from our temporary quarters and moved into the high school.

To be continued next Tuesday. Thanks for stopping by.

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