Friday, September 2, 2005
Reading, writing and penmanship . . .
An enormous, gnarly oak tree shades the front of the Highland Building on School Street where a dozen artists rent studio space. Here, in a former life, generations of Carlisle school children learned "reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic" and enjoyed a simpler life than children do today.
The Carlisle Oral History Project recently met with five native Carlisleans who went to the Highland School and still live in town. Barbara Daisy Culkins, daughter of the founders of Daisy's Market (now Ferns), graduated from the Highland School in 1945. Ginny Wilkie Mills, a life-long Carlislean, was in the class of 1950. Dana Booth, a self-described "third-generation Carlislean," graduated in 1955 — his father Joseph Booth was in the class of 1925. Both Heidi Reichenbach Harring and Liz Macdonell Moseley spent fifth grade in the Highland School and graduated from the Carlisle School in 1974.
Built in 1908, Highland housed eight grades in four classrooms — Carlisle had no public kindergarten until the Spalding Building was constructed in 1955. The combined first and second grades, and the third and fourth grades occupied the two first-floor classrooms; upstairs were the combined fifth and sixth, and seventh and eighth grades. "When Heidi and I went to the school," recalls Moseley, "it housed just the fifth grade. There were no other grades in the building." The younger grades were in Spalding, the sixth through eighth grades were in Wilkins and Robbins didn't exist yet.
In the 1940s and '50s, there were 13 or 14 students in a grade, so the entire population was just over 100. When Booth's younger sister, born in 1946 in the post-war baby boom, "went through the system, there were 43 in her class and they were spread everywhere — the Unitarian Church, the library, the Brick School House. They kept moving them around, planning to expand [the school system]." In fact, Carlisle's population, which had been approximately 700 by the WWII period, reached 876 by 1950.
"A teacher affects eternity," said Henry Adams in The Education of Henry Adams. "He can never tell where his influence stops." The former Highland School students remember some very influential teachers. "My favorite teacher was Ruth Wilkins," recalls Booth. "She was the third- and fourth-grade teacher. She had impeccable handwriting, and she always encouraged us to be courteous, and to do and say the kindest things in the kindest way. I've kept that as a model all these years." For Mills, "Mrs. Wyman, my first- and second-grade teacher, was probably my favorite. She was very motherly, and when you're young, it's very nice to have a teacher like that."
But the fifth- and sixth-grade commanding presence was Ruth Robbins, who was anything but motherly. "She was a very large woman with big brown eyes and glasses," said Mills. "She was extremely strict and seldom smiled. You did learn a lot from her, but you would be shaking in your boots for the entire two years. It was very stressful." Culkins agrees: "I minded my P's and Q's. I didn't dare do anything else!" Mrs. Robbins had a unique method of discipline, according to Mills: "I can actually remember her sitting on some boys who misbehaved at recess time, and she had to control them!"
Culkins and Mills both had Miss Jane Moison in the early grades. She also was very strict and apparently became quite unhinged if a student's pencil or ruler fell off their desk, making a noise. Miss Moisen would approach the miscreant, ruler in hand, and whack the back of the unfortunate student's hand. "We just accepted this," comments Mills. "We didn't go home crying to our parents, and parents did not call the school. It was just that the teacher was correct." She adds, "We were very careful not to drop things after a while."
Far less punitive was Culkins's favorite teacher, "Mrs. Esther Goddard in the seventh and eighth grade. She was a lovely lady — the minister's wife." Harring remembers William Tate, her fifth-grade teacher. "He had just started teaching there [in 1969] and invited the whole fifth-grade class to his wedding. He just retired this year."
Fun times at school
Despite the threat of being sat upon or whacked with a ruler, Carlisle students had a good time at school. School plays, marching band, gymnastics, track and field were all favorites during Harring's and Moseley's days there. "On the last day of school, the person who was operating the bus company, Mr. Amendiola, would take the entire student body to Bates for ice cream," says Harring.
Recess, of course, was an important part of everyone's school day. Highland School's facilities were meager by today's standards, with the schoolyard consisting of one slide, a see-saw and three swings on a frame. Culkins recalls that the swings were very heavy and "you could get hit in the head." There was a small ball field behind the school and a soccer field on the right side of the building.
The Brick Schoolhouse next door had been one of Carlisle's early one-room district schools, but was later remodeled to serve as an assembly room for the Highland School. Seventh and eighth graders learned square dancing and the Virginia Reel there from Marguerite (Peggy) Grant, the school principal, who would bring her old record player. Harring adds, "Probably not too many people today know why [the school directory] is called "The Husky Handbook." I'm assuming it's because of the sled dogs that Peggy Grant raised. The Peckhams [and Lovejoys] had them tooeveryone seemed to raise Siberian Huskies."
Schoolwork and homework
In addition to the traditional grammar school curriculum, Culkins, Mills and Booth remember that penmanship was a very important subject in their day. A penmanship teacher would come to the school every two months and would teach the alphabet. Papers from each subject — history, geography, spelling and arithmetic — were graded for penmanship.
Mills, Booth and Culkins didn't have homework, but were required to write book reports — and penmanship counted! They had to read at least five books in the eighth grade, Booth recounts, for which they would receive a certificate. "If you read another five, you'd get another certificate at graduation." Once a week classes went to the Gleason Library to borrow booksthere was no library at the Highland School.
By the early 1970s, Harring reports "lots of math homework." She also admits doing a book report on Gone with the Wind even though "I don't think I read more than 50 pages of that book." But the assignment was to draw the book cover and give a one-paragraph synopsis of the book, which she did.
There were in-class perks for "good" children, of course. By the fourth grade, students could use pen and ink and the small ink wells on their desks were filled from a large bottle by good children chosen for this important job. Booth adds, "If you were good, too, you could clean the blackboard and the erasers."
After-school and community activities
Many children who lived on Carlisle farms went home after school to do their chores. Some children had 4H classes after school —Culkins reports that she "did cooking at Mrs. Sorli's and I walked all the way home." Harring's sewing class was taught by Mrs. Woodward at her Bedford Road home. "Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts were big," says Booth. "We would meet at the den mother's house after school." "If it was a ballet day," says Harring, "you'd walk down to the Superette [now Ferns]. Two friends and I would get a Hostess Twinkie" — [she smiles] "and then we'd be picked up to go to ballet."
Everyone remembers dancing classes. Moseley "went to Mr. Bradford's School of Dance in Carlisle, in the Spalding gym, around fifth and sixth grade." Mills recalls being taught dancing in Union Hall — the fox trot, the waltz, the etiquette of dancing. Harring took dancing at the Girl Scout House in Concord — "you had to wear white gloves, black shoes and a dress, and the boys had to wear coats and ties." She remembers towering over the boys, while Booth remembers being very short, and that "there were never enough boys." Culkins's dancing experience was through the Unitarian Church — "We had an active young people's group and that was our social life. We had Halloween dances, for instance." Union Hall was also where the eighth-grade plays were presented for the town, presided over by Mrs. Phyllis Towle.
Highland School graduation was a community event, too. "The whole town came out — a real sense of small-town community," says Booth. Graduation exercises for the earlier classes were held in Union Hall, and it was common for the eighth-grade class to present the history of Carlisle. Thinking back, Mills says, "I think my eighth-grade graduation meant more than my high school graduation. There were 14 in our class, and when we went to Concord High, there were 134."
Harring's and Moseley's graduation in 1974 took place on the circle where the buses once picked up and delivered students, now the plaza. Moseley remembers distinctly that, "Track and Field was the day before and everybody was sunburned to the hilt. It was very painful!"
Highland School ages
Now almost 100 years old, the building shows its age. It was once painted a sunny yellow but now its drab brown coat seems melancholy. The white trim, though, still features delicate turn-of-the-century scroll work, carried forward in the building's interior stairway. Lilac bushes still frame the outer stairway where every class was photographed. The plumbing was upgraded in 1933, but the Highland Building is far from meeting safety requirements. Take, for example, the fire escape: all the interviewees remember "a rickety fire escape in the back of the building, at the very top, which was wobbly and shook." According to Culkins, "When the bell rang for a fire drill, we had to file down the stairs. It was scary, because you could see though the slats." It's still there, and now the top-floor door leading to the fire escape has been boarded up, sealing its usefulness as an escape route.
In 1988-89, the town considered using the building for town offices, but repairs would have been too costly. In 1993, the Highland survived teardown threats and a year later, happily, was converted into artists' studios.
"This is not the town I grew up in"
Everyone agrees that Carlisle is now a very different town from that of their childhood. About 35 years ago, on West Street, reports Harring, "We would take a bicycle, tie a rope to it, take a piece of stake and we would "water ski" on a skateboard down the middle of the street for hours on end. You might see one car go by that whole time. Now I live on West Street again and traffic is so bad we have to turn our car in the driveway to get out in the morning."
With today's hazardous traffic, Carlisle kids don't use bikes as their primary mode of transportation as their parents did. The Highland group biked everywhere, and say their parents rarely knew (or asked) where they were going. With that responsibility came, apparently, good common sense about their small world. In a conversation about ice skating, Mills points out, "We just knew when the ice was solid enough; our parents didn't worry. We just used our heads." Booth adds, " (This) being a small town, parents looked out for other kids, too."
Despite the obvious changes in town — steady traffic, not knowing one's neighbors, locking doors — one thing hasn't changed, according to Harring. "Even though the town has more than 5,000 people now, when you're at Old Home Day, you know you're in a little town."
Highland School, once such a vital part of that little town, may soon have a new role to play. Once again the Carlisle School is overcrowded and needs classroom space. Last spring Town Meeting approved funding for a master plan for school expansion, and planners will ponder future uses for the Highland Building, possibly as office space for the school. But even today tear-down talk pops up in informal discussions about the old school.
Filled with memories and echoing with children's voices, the Highland Building remains a cherished reminder of small-town, uncomplicated Carlisle.
© 2005 The Carlisle Mosquito