I taught in public schools for 28 years. Yet what transpired there during my childhood in the 1950’s and 1960’s is a mystery to me for I spent my first eight grades in a Catholic school. In the fifties, half of all American Catholic children attended parochial schools.
For those of you Catholic boomers who did attend a parochial school, here are some reminders of life on a typical school day, at least in my school. For you public school alumni, take note. Before proceeding, you might want to read the prequel to this, my most recent post, 1950’s Catholic Schools Part 1: Fear of Nuns.
Now let’s look in on the good, the bad, and the ugly:
We’ll start at the beginning of the school day. Girls wore skirts or dresses. Always. Boys wore what today you might call “dress casual.” There was no Dress Down Friday or Funny Hat Day. Jeans were unheard of in school.
If it were a rainy or snowy day, you took off your boots or rubbers and lined them against the wall outside the classroom door. Some days there were more than 50 pairs of boots extending down the hall to the next classroom door. Nine classrooms x 50 pairs of boots equals 450 pairs of boots in the hallway of just one floor!
If your line of boots were in disarray, you might find yourselves writing, “I must put my boots in a straight line” 25 times . . . or maybe 100 times depending on your grade.
We—all 53 of us—immediately took our seats upon entering the classroom. Some classes were larger. My brother Bill, who was #65 in alphabetical order, estimates that there were 70 students in his class.
All classrooms contained an American flag, a crucifix, and a whole lot of desks—wall to wall, basically. You can see from my first grade classroom below that there wasn’t much room for anything other than desks. I am in the section to the right of the aisle—second row from the front in a white blouse and pigtails.
Every day we would preface the Pledge of Allegiance with a prayer.
The first subject of the day was religion, which was labeled on our report cards as “Christian Doctrine.” This was considered a core school subject and was listed first on our report cards, ahead of reading and computation. What public school kids learned in CCD classes covered only a small fraction of what we learned about our Catholic faith on a daily basis.
The next subject of the day was reading. Now you may find this hard to believe unless you attended a Catholic school, but some of the nuns who taught us young children to read spoke with eastern European accents. Think about it. Teachers with eastern European accents were teaching us how to pronounce rudimentary English words as a precursor to reading. I distinctly remember having difficulty understanding my first grade teacher, Sister Hedwig, and it stressed me. One time she told us to get a certain book out of our desks. I didn’t understand her and took out the wrong book. She was not pleased.
Not only did some of the nuns speak with accents difficult to understand, but also many nuns had no professional credentials. As Sister Mary Martha attests in her blog Ask Sister Mary Martha, “Those old nuns were thrown at a roomful of children with no training of any kind in how to work with, teach or discipline children. They were making it up as they went along.”
According to Wikipedia, Jay P. Dolan, in his book, The American Catholic Experience, states that “in the early 20th century a majority of young nuns who became teachers had not attended high school. They taught for a half-century or more and long past World War II.”
Back to reading class: In the primary grades, there were 3 reading groups according to ability. My friend and classmate Ann remembers the top two as the “Red Star” group and the “Gold Star” group. I seem to recall vaguely that the lowest group had a somewhat derogatory name, at least among the kids; some people called them the buzzards. Each reading group took a turn sitting in chairs with the teacher in the front of the room. We often read aloud. It was best to behave there because Sister was within hand’s reach of the pointer, which Ann calls the nuns’ “prime spanking tool.”
Because I had not attended kindergarten and because I had difficulty understanding Sister Hedwig, I struggled with reading in the beginning. Oh, my! Was I a dreaded buzzard? I don’t remember. I do remember that for the first six weeks report card, I got a C- in reading. But soon enough, I figured things out, and there was no stopping me. I recall being in the Red Star group and then promptly making my way up to the Gold Star Group. By the end of the year, I was earning A’s in reading. I know this because I still have the report card. Oh, and Sister Hedwig, I grew up and became a teacher—an English teacher. Ha, ha! I guess those tin cans rattling around in my brain didn’t do too much damage (refer to Part 1).
I remember completing lots and lots of “phonics” papers, which I actually enjoyed. We studied from the good ol’ Scott Foresman readers. You know, the books with Sally, Dick, and Jane and their pets Spot and Puff. In the Catholic version, the main characters were renamed John, Jean, and Judy after Catholic saints. My sister Sandy found one of those original readers in a thrift store and gave it to me. Oh, the memories!
The next subject was usually arithmetic, or as recorded on the report cards, “computation” and “problems.” I don’t remember much about that class except that we drilled and drilled and drilled addition and subtraction facts as well as multiplication tables.
In general, we did a lot of drilling and a lot of memorizing over those first 8 years. There were lots of “dittos” to be completed. I remember passing back the papers and then immediately putting one to my nose to smell that splendid scent of fresh purple ink and to feel the cold dampness on my fingers.
We often used “scrap paper” that was donated by local businesses or classmates’ fathers who worked in an office. We used the blank sides of business letters and memos.
Here is a ditto from 7th grade that I still have. You can see that the teacher placed the poems on the back of a blank Chevrolet inspection report.
Desk inspections could be initiated at any time. Woe be unto you if you did not keep your desk in order. Sister would unmercifully tip over your desk and dump out its entire contents. Contraband such as toys would be swiftly confiscated, perhaps never to be seen again. Then that luckless kid would spend recess putting his or her belongings back in the desk in a more orderly fashion. My desk was not the neatest in the room, but it certainly passed the dreaded random inspections every time.
Lunch began with grace: “Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts, which we are about to receive through thy bounty through Christ, Our Lord. Amen.”
We had no cafeteria at St. B’s, so everyone packed a lunch. Metal lunch boxes, such as this one, were the rage back then.
My lunchbox and thermos looked just like these ones, and I used them for several years.
After saying grace, we sat down at our desks, placed a tea towel over them, and ate silently. While the teachers dined in their faculty room, we were monitored by volunteer mothers. Having five kids, my mother was always too busy to volunteer. Cooking meals for seven every day and doing laundry via a wringer washer and clothesline, took up a big chunk of her day.
Many of us brought soup in our thermos bottles. Nothing hit the spot on a cold winter day like a thermos full of Campbell’s tomato soup. My mother commonly packed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, cream cheese and jelly sandwiches, egg salad sandwiches, and fried egg sandwiches.
Ann remembers Sister Hedwig, our first grade teacher, performing lunchbox checks. She recalls that “a classmate would be assigned to walk around with the trash can after lunch. One day, one of the boys threw a whole apple in and she [Sister] made him dig it out and eat it.”
I believe that there was a prayer after lunch as well.
Then it was on to recess, which was at least a half hour long. We were not allowed to bring toys to school as far as I can remember. They certainly were never allowed in or on our desks, but I do recall that girls brought jump ropes. Two girls would turn a long rope while others would take turns jumping in and out of the ropes, all the while chanting one of a plethora of rhymes. Sometimes we played “High Water, Low Water,” and sometimes girls brought in Chinese jump ropes made of rubber bands. For more on jumping rope in the 50’s and 60’s, see my post Jumping Rope: Endangered Species Like Kick the Can?
Occasionally, a boy would join us to jump rope—but not for long because they couldn’t keep up. I think they played ball. I didn’t pay much attention.
If we weren’t jumping rope, girls and boys were playing “Mother May I,” “Red Rover,” or “Red Light, Green Light.”
Uh, oh. Sister’s calling. Recess is over. You’d better line up and zip your lips lickety split or else risk being dragged in line by your ear.
That covers, as best my memory serves, a typical morning at St. B’s in the 1950’s and 1960’s. I’ll continue soon with an account of a typical afternoon in a boomer’s Catholic school classroom. Can you add to the memories?
*Some names have been changed to protect the guilty.
If you enjoy my descriptions and stories here and in Part 1, you may also enjoy my book The Crab Hollow Chronicles, published by eLectio Publishing. See the link below.
KAREN GENNARI is the author of The Crab Hollow Chronicles, a fictitious memoir based on her experiences growing up in a neighborhood full of boys in 1961/62. It also explores the merits and challenges of life in a Catholic family of seven.
Join nine-year-old Karen Schmidt in her attempts to navigate Crab Hollow Road amidst the overwhelming male majority who beleaguer her at every opportunity. Does Karen have the fortitude to weather toadnappings, midnight escapades, false impersonation, and more? Along the way, relive the people, products, music, sports, and headlines of the early 1960’s. Virtually every page references the 1960’s. Lots of your favorite toys are mentioned in these pages.