Thursday, January 8, 2009

May 2005: Memorable School, Memorable Teachers

On August 8, 2000, I received an e-mail from my good friend and colleague, Augusto Ogando. It was one of those simple quizzes we all get through e-mail designed to make you think. It had enough of an impact on me that I saved it. Here it is in its entirety:

Take this quiz: (mentally)

1. Name the five wealthiest people in the world.
2. Name the last five Heisman trophy winners.
3. Name the last five winners of the Miss America contest.
4. Name ten people who have won the Nobel or Pulitzer prize.
5. Name the last half dozen Academy Award winners for best actor and actress.
6. Name the last decade's worth of World Series winners.

How did you do? The point is, none of us remember the headliners of yesterday. These are no second-rate achievers. They are the best in their fields. But the applause dies. Awards tarnish. Achievements are forgotten. Accolades and certificates are buried with their owners.

Here's another quiz. See how you do on this one:

1. List a few teachers who aided your journey through school.
2. Name three friends who have helped you through a difficult time.
3. Name five people who have taught you something worthwhile.
4. Think of a few people who have made you feel appreciated and special.
5. Think of five people you enjoy spending time with.
6. Name a half dozen heroes whose stories have inspired you.

Easier? The lesson? The people who make a difference in
your life are not the ones with the most credentials, money or
awards. They are the ones that care.
I really could not easily recall the answers to the first set of questions. I could probably, with time to think, name some wealthy people, Heisman trophy winners, a Nobel laureate or two and a few World Series winners. In the second line of questioning, the answers were vivid, immediate and emotional. The point of the e-mail is for people to realize that the people we come to know and love in our lives is what is truly important.

In thinking about this e-mail quiz recently, I was led to reflect on the teachers that made lasting and great impressions on me. The ones I remember most often are from my youth in Detroit. I attended the Robert Burns elementary school between Terry, Lauder and Lyndon Streets. The school building was a grand old structure that began life as a combination High School and Elementary School. It was built in 1923 and first called the North Srathmoor High School. In 1928, it became Robert Burns Elementary School. In 1930, it was expanded. I entered kindergarten at Burns in 1958 and stayed there through 7th grade in 1967. They were great years but certainly years of transition. I had some great teachers, allow me to profile a few of them.

Since Burns was built as a high school, we had a few amenities not found in other elementary schools. First and foremost, we had a full fledged auditorium that as I recall could easily seat two hundred plus people. The stage was state of the art for the 1930s or 40s. There were multiple curtains, a hardwood floor, a variety of overhead lighting, flip up foot lights, and a rear projection/spot light balcony. Given we were at the dawn of television at the time, we even had a complete sound effect set-up for radio plays that were so popular in the radio age. The room sloped perfectly so that every seat had a good view. The auditorium could hold the entire school and the only time I ever saw it full was for school wide programs or events that students and parents would attend. Even out Boy Scout Court of Honors only filled a quarter or third of the auditorium.

We actually had a class called Auditorium. We took this class from second or third grade on. We had two teachers that taught this class: Suzie Granger and Cecilia Moran. They were both quite artsy, emotional and over made up. They were like over the hill actresses. Miss Granger was more buxom, with a dramatic hairdo and definitely moved it when she walked. Kids used to imitate her walk. She was the more serious, maybe a little meaner, of the two. Miss Moran was taller and leaner. She used more make-up than Miss Granger and I expected her to utter “Mr. DeMille, I am ready for my close up,” at any moment but she never did.

Mostly, I had Auditorium with Miss Moran or, at least, I remember her having a greater impact than any classes I took with Miss Granger. Miss Moran, for her eccentricities, loved what she did and loved the students. She had us up acting and speaking, be it in presentations, radio plays or stage plays. I attribute my comfort and expertise in public speaking to Miss Moran’s Auditorium class.

I was the male lead in one of Miss Moran’s plays. It must have been in third or fourth grade and I played a young Abraham Lincoln, a rather pudgy Abraham Lincoln at that. Devon Richards played his first love and co-teacher, Ann Rutledge, who died, tragically. It was easy to act sad on her passing with Miss Moran’s coaching and school boy crush I had on the fair Miss Richards at the time.

The other thing that Burns had that many other elementary schools did not was a wood shop. Oleg Hagan was teacher who ruled that domain. Mr. Hagen was a thin, ramrod straight Norwegian immigrant. He ran a most well organized and clean ship, expertly managing his inventory of tools and raw materials, and teaching the boys in his charge how to cut, plane, drill, sand, paint and do household repairs expertly and safely. Beginning in the fifth grade, we learned to use hand tools to make a variety of knick-knacks from hot plates to tie racks. Everything was extremely well supervised, especially the use of the power tools: the jigsaw, the drill press and the grinder. We were given lessons and training before we could use these tools and Mr. Hagen would hover over us with stern words of both encouragement and correction.

Mr. Hagen was also in charge of the Safety Patrol. This was in the time before adult crossing guards and students were the crossing guards for their peers. We had to be the best and most disciplined Safety Patrol in the city of Detroit. Mr. Hagen had us wearing World War II helmet liners painted school bus yellow. Our belts were made from thick white canvas. Mr. Hagen expected us to keep the helmets and belts clean. He would inspect us and give us hell if he thought we weren’t respecting and taking care of the equipment.

Safety Patrol was a big thing. We had to cross a few busy streets to and from school. Mr. Hagen was proud to fly the green school safety flag over the school. With just one incident, however minor, the flag would come down. Our job was to keep the kids safe and the safety flag flying over the school. We had to be on duty at the cross-walks four times a day. Certainly, we were at our posts in the mornings and evenings, before and after school. We were also on patrol at lunchtime, since in those days we had the option, privilege and joy of going home for lunch. On really cold winter mornings, they would have cocoa for us as we came into school. It was always lukewarm but greatly appreciated.

One summer, Mr. Hagen was going to Norway. He asked that if we were interested in getting a postcard from Norway, we should provide something like 15-20¢ for both postage and postcard. I was interested in stamps at the time and intrigued with the idea of foreign travel, so I decided to take him up on his offer. I wrote my address on a sheet of paper, taped the appropriate coinage to the sheet, and gave it to Mr. Hagen.

I did receive a postcard in late August. It had a lovely picture of a fjord and Mr. Hagen had completely filled the back in his compact and most slanted script. He seemed genuinely happy to be in his homeland. In September, he gave me back the sheet with my address and the coins. Mr. Hagen was not the kind man you would ever question why he was doing something like this, so I just thanked him. Over the years I have developed to a two part theory as to why he returned the coins. First, I am certain I was the only student to take him up on his offer. Two, I believe his wife probably told him something like “return the money to that boy and send him a postcard at your own expense, you old skin flint.” I have been to Norway four times on business. Every time I went, I would reflect on Mr. Hagen and the postcard he sent me.

The true gem of teachers when I was at Burns was in fact an Opal, Opal Bashellier. Ms.Bashellier was our fifth grade homeroom teacher. She was responsible for History, English and Arithmetic. She was wonderful, a genuinely sweet and most proficient teacher. No one was more organized then her. The bulletin boards changed magically with the seasons and holidays. Everything was neat and more organized than any classroom I had been in before and ever witnessed since.

She was our teacher in her second to last year before she retired. Mrs. Bashellier obviously had her routine well honed, but we never knew it. She made everything seem brand new and fresh, like she was doing it just for us.

There was never a discipline problem in Ms. Bashellier’s class and she never had to raise her voice. This was amazing to me then and more amazing to me now. Fifth and sixth grade must be the hardest grade to teach, the kids being so full of energy and emerging hormones. We had the potential to be off the wall and, in fact, were in most other classrooms. But, never ever in Ms. Bashellier’s class. Her room was a sanctuary of serenity, joy of learning, and we all behaved under her special magic.

She made everything we did fun. She had us reading poetry, out loud to each other, every Thursday. Everyone had to read two poems in the course of the semester and we all did, even the so called delinquent kids. Some read the shortest poems they could find in a barely audible monotone voice. Others, especially the girls who seemed to get an A’s on everything and anything they touched, would read longer more romantic verse…yuck! I recall choosing a poem quite a task. I didn’t want anything too short and certainly nothing very long. I stayed away from anything too flowery that might have even mildly alluded to love or romance. I searched and searched, reading and skimming a variety of poems. This was the genius of Mrs. Bashellier, she had us reading poetry, on our own, even if it was only in a desperate search for something safe to read in front of the class. I finally settled on the classic quasi-literary, Casey at the Bat by Ernest L. Thayer (www.onenet.net/~njtdb/casey.html). It was certainly long enough, but definitely safe having not a hint of romance or love. Plus, it was humorous and I could use all the skills that Ms. Moran taught us in the delivery of the poem. It went over quite well and I was indeed happy. The love of poetry I have today is definitely attributable to the tutelage of Mrs. Bashiellier.

Robert Burns was a special place. I just called the school and spoke with Charlene Harper, the current principal. Burns is now a kindergarten through fifth grade school with about 750 students. In our short conversation, it was evident that Ms. Harper is working hard to keep the school a special place.

But times change, Mr. Hagen’s wood shop is no more. The Auditorium has been transformed into a Cafetorium. I am sure they needed the classroom space and I have to believe that the economics in the City of Detroit and the Board of Education make it close to impossible to support such programs. Even when I was there, Burns was the only school I knew that had a class called Auditorium and one of the few elementary schools with a wood shop.

There were many other wonderful teachers and experiences at Burns. I will write of them another time. Let me close this letter with a wee bit of old Bobbie Burns for whom the school was named:


For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne,
We'll tak a cup of kindness yet,
For auld lang syne!

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne?

And surely ye'll be your pint-stowp,
And surely I'll be mine,
And we'll tak a cup o kindness yet,
For auld lang syne!

We twa hae run about the braes,
And pou'd the gowans fine,
But we've wander'd monie a weary fit,
Sin auld lang syne.

We twa hae paidl'd in the burn
Frae morning sun till dine,
But seas between us braid hae roar'd
Sin auld lang syne.

And there's a hand my trusty fiere,
And gie's a hand o thine,
And we'll tak a right guid-willie waught,
For auld lang syne.

3 comments:

  1. I went to Burns Elementary before you (about 1952-1955) but the only teacher I remember is Mrs. King. She had a reputation of being very strict. She was supposed to be so mean that we even heard rumors of her locking kids in the closet. But my mother was in the hospital when I started third grade and when my hair was ratty because my father couldn't brush it right, she had me come every morning before school and very gently brushed it out so I'd look good. She was very kind to me. I learned then not to judge people by their reputation.

    I moved a few months later to Holcomb Elementary in Detroit and they also had Auditorium, Homemaking, and Shop as classes.

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  2. David Soper, April 5, 2016
    I went to Robert Burns from around 1965-1972. I remember having auditorium class with Miss Granger and Miss Moran. I also remember the shop teacher Mr. Hagen although he retired before I was old enough for shop class. Our shop teacher was Mr. Ferris. Mrs. Weiner was one of the Kindergarden teachers, Mrs. Johnston, 1st grade, Mrs. King substituted and mostly taught us cursive writing. She would use the whole blackboard and we had to copy what she wrote. Mrs. Fletcher was one of the science teachers. Mrs. Andre for Social Studies. My favorite class was Gym though. Mrs. Lassoline was an art teacher for awhile and then a homeroom teacher. There was also Mr. Harris who taught homeroom. Mrs. Larson was the principal. I was also on the safety patrol. Once a year all the patrol boys got to go to a Tiger baseball game.
    I remember having air-rail drills along with the usual fire and tornado drills. Playing kickball in the playground.
    I went home for lunch every day since we lived right across the stree from the playground on Terry.
    It was a nice school and nice neighborhood until after the riots.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks David. Great reflection. I had forgotten to mention Mrs. Lassoline. She was a good teacher... I was simply horrible at art.

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