An October Day in Second Grade, 1962

Sister Mary Nicholas looked about the room of second graders. All were busy, heads bent over their desks, intent on the work at hand. She glanced at the clock. 2:30. One-half hour to go.

Looking through the windows that surrounded the classroom on three sides, Sister Mary Nicholas could see that Autumn had, indeed, arrived. The brightly colored construction paper leaves pasted on the windows reflected the colors of the maples outside – orange, crimson, yellow.

Her classroom, room 2-C, was one of three second grade classrooms at Vincentian Institute grade school. Sister Mary Nicholas, of course, thought her students were the brightest of all the second graders. After all, hers were the students whose photos were at the top of the “Reading Schooner”, a poster of a ship where proficiency in reading earned students the right to move their photos higher and higher up the rigging. Why, Johnny G.’s photo was almost up to the crow’s nest already!

The wind gusted outside and rattled the windows. A small whirlwind snatched an accumulation of fallen leaves from the schoolyard and deposited them in a drift against the chainlink fence that surrounded the school.

Hmmm, she thought. We may have rain. Or snow. With the temperatures as cold as they’d been lately, she wouldn’t be surprised if they had snow. Sometimes the snow flew early here, in Albany. Usually not. No, she decided with conviction. Even as cold as it had been lately, snow was unlikely. The branches of the trees outside scratched against the windows as the wind gusted again.

“Boys and girls,” called out Sister Mary Nicholas, rapping her ruler against the top of her desk as she spoke.

“Boys and girls, as you all know, tomorrow is Halloween. We will all arrive for class tomorrow morning as usual but, in the afternoon, we will have a Halloween party.”

A short cheer rang out from the students, but was quickly silenced with a stern look from Sister Mary Nicholas.

“Some of your classmates have volunteered to bring treats to share with the whole class,” she continued. “And we will hang the Halloween decorations you’ve been working on today.”

“You should all arrive in your school uniforms in the morning. Those of you who go home for lunch should change at home and return to school in your costumes. Those of you who stay for lunch should bring your costumes with you. You may change into your costumes during the lunch break.”

“Before you are excused for the day, I need two boys to clap the erasers after school. Hands? Thank you Mr. Drislane and Mr. Castellana.”

“Now, would you please all stand and say the “Our Father” before we leave school today.”

The classmates all stood and solemnly recited the prayer, but Sister Mary Nicholas noticed that some of the boys emphasized the ssss’s in the word “trespasses” just a little too much, sounding like snakes hissing in the grass. Several of the girls in the class frowned. Sister Mary Nicholas shot a glance at the offenders.

“Now, students, line up to get your coats from the cloak room,” Sister Mary Nicholas said when the class finished the prayer.

The students donned their coats, lined up again in a neat, straight line, and prepared to leave the school building.

“Remember to bring your scariest costumes tomorrow!” Sister Mary Nicholas called out as the bell rang to end the school day. “And be Christ-like!” she added.

The boys and girls marched out into Morris Street, safe under the watchful eyes of the Patrol Boys - at least until the students reached the end of the block. The sound of “The Stars and Stripes Forever” blared from the school loudspeakers.

Sister Mary Nicholas just adored John Philip Sousa.

For other posts on the Vincentian Institute, see:

For posts on the Church of St. Vincent de Paul, see:

For posts on the Pine Hills Branch of the Albany Public Library, see:

Copyright © 2007 by Stephen J. Danko

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10 Responses to An October Day in Second Grade, 1962

  1. suburbanlife says:

    This is like a slice from the past, Steve. Nuns, from my experience, were such odd ducks. Imagine telling a bunch of kids to bring their scariest costumes AND be Christ-like while doing so – this is somewhat counterintuitive, eh? Good writing! G

  2. annebanan84 says:

    I really like this story. I went to a school similar to this one, and we did not have Halloween parties and costume days. It is so wonderful to read such a great part of someone’s life. I also like the part about the nun’s instructions. It seems like an oxy-moron, but a very fun example of how nuns interact with their students in an unexpected way.

  3. Thanks for the encouragement, suburbanlife and annebanan84! This was my first attempt at this type of writing and was somthing I was inspired to try by reading your blog, suburbanlife!

    I must admit, however, that this story is “historical fiction”. I don’t know what Sister Mary Nicholas was thinking that day, nor do I remember exactly what she said. Most of the details are accurate, however.

    I wrote the line about the scariest costumes and being Christ-like in order to convey my own observation that having children wear scary costumes to a Catholic school was something of an oxymoron.

    I, myself, wore a devil’s costume to school on Halloween 1962. One of the pictures I took that day shows the word “Christlike” on the wall of one of the classrooms, and so I used Sister Mary Nicholas’ parting words to the students to convey the apparent contradiction I saw in the photographs I took so many years ago.

  4. Steve:

    A very nice example of this type of writing. It’s really much more difficult to do than most would think.

    fM

  5. Janice Brown says:

    Steve,

    You captured the “nun” experience exactly. The New Hampshire nuns called the coat room or closet the “cloak room” also. All parochial schools must have used the same “how-to” manual!

    Thanks for a blast from the past.

    Janice

  6. Sara Dillon says:

    Steve–I think I might have been in this class, as I recognize the faces….I would have been called Sally then…
    Am I on the right track?

  7. Patricia Saccone says:

    Sally Dillon, my 5th grade best friend?? You are in one of the pictures, I am as well. I’d love to get in touch; if you read this let me know how I can find you. Patty

  8. Sara Dillon says:

    Patty Saccone!! Just saw yours–would love to be in touch!!
    Steve did an amazing job with this website. My mother recently passed away and in nostalgia for those beautiful old days, I was looking at this site again….
    Do write if you see this!
    “Sally”!!!

  9. Mary O'Brien says:

    I too wondered why VI was not on the Internet. What an experience! I started at VI kindergarten level in 1960.

    Sister Mary X, my first-grade teacher, must have made a great impression on me; my mother said that in those days I talked about her all the time. My mother claimed that I loved her a great deal, but my older self looked back on her personality with mixed emotions. She would be considered an unusual grade-school teacher today. Her skills in teaching reading, writing and arithmetic were excellent; but she was rather severe in her dealings with her students.

    One time she had me climb up on a small stepladder to fill in an answer to a math problem on the board in front of the whole class. Most children find that sort of problem very difficult: the equation was something like 2 + (an empty box) = 10. The principle is algebraic. Gifted in math, I knew the answer was 8, but as I drew my “8,” I began it as a “3.” The nun had warned the class previously that we should never ever draw an “8″ as a “3″ connected to another backwards “3″; why that method was just as bad as drawing an “8″ as a small circle on top of a large circle! I probably just drew it the wrong way to get attention which was scarce in the overcrowded classrooms and the extra-large families of the VI neighborhood.

    “A THREE?!!” she shrieked. The nun started ridiculing me to my classmates. “Who ever heard of 2 + 3 equaling 10?”

    Still standing all alone on the little stepladder, I turned around and saw the whole class of forty-five students laughing at me. The big boys in the front of the class were laughing especially hard.

    In retrospect, during my college days (SUNY-Albany 1978, math major, psych minor), I realized that the children were probably just laughing out of anxiety: weren’t they just terrified? After all, why did the nun have me standing up there in front of the class anyway, if she didn’t realize that I had a certain talent with numbers? The other children probably were unsure which number should be in the little box; when the nun attacked me for my apparently mistaken attempt at solving the problem, they might have only imagined that they could be her next victim.

    Vincentian Institute was very much like the Marines: it either made or broke its students.

    Today’s schools would have fired Sr. Mary X for supposed psychological abuse of children — but I often wonder about this question: Was “boot camp” beneficial in the long run? After all, life is never easy, nor is it often fair.

    On the other hand, although my mother stayed home when we were young, she was a first-grade teacher herself, in the public schools, and she always felt that something was not right about this woman.

    One time I was terribly sick. Sr. Mary X pleaded with my mother to let me come in to take a standardized exam anyway, even though it was a brutally cold winter’s day. I had already missed the morning test session, and therefore she wanted me to sit in a classroom that afternoon to complete the test by myself. My mother agreed mainly because she was so flattered when the nun told her that she needed my scores to bolster her class average.

    We hadn’t covered addition of more than two three-digit numbers in our classes yet, so when I reached the last page of the test paper I was confused because there were three or more numbers listed in columns but no “+” sign. The nun let me have a few extra minutes to make up for the time which I had spent coughing. When I finally turned in the test papers, she looked at the last page, on which I had marked in all the missing “+” signs, and she looked at me in disgust and said “I should have just known that YOU would do something like that …”

    One time I did not get the correct spelling word which we were to write as part of a quiz. First the nun would use the word in a sentence; then she would state the word, then she would repeat the sentence. The sentence was something like “The rabbit was in the field.” I panicked, since I could not figure out whether the word to be spelled was “rabbit” or “field.” I decided to look at someone else’s paper — NOT for the spelling, for I fully intended to spell the word MY way — but I just wanted to figure out which word was needed. But my child’s logic was lost on Sr. Mary X …

    The nun swept down the aisle, her long black skirts dusting the floor, her huge rosary slung around her skinny waist, and she whacked me on the seat! I was just stunned, since I was normally a very good little kid. All of us O’Briens were good little kids.

    Then, she ordered me to stay for detention. After the other children left, I cried. I was so afraid. What would my mother say? She would know that I had done something wrong when I didn’t arrive home promptly at 3:08 pm. (I lived right nearby the school). What was going to happen to me? I put my head down on the desk and cried even harder.

    Two little boys were also being detained. Spirited boys who just always got in trouble, they assured me that I had nothing to fear. They did detention almost every day! And, it just wasn’t that bad, they told me. (Even at only six years old, these little gentlemen knew to protect the ladies). As soon as the lines were gone, they said, she would tell us to leave as well. Sure enough, they were right. The nun did not even scold us, but just told us to get our things and leave, only a few minutes later than the normal time.

    I ran as fast as I could to get back home, but my mother didn’t even notice that I was slightly later than usual. The neighborhood was so safe back then that children could travel around on their own, and if they stopped to talk or play with other children, no one felt any concern. So I kept quiet, and never told my mom or my dad or anyone at all.

    But my mother also told me this story which I myself had forgotten. At the beginning of the next school year, most of my classmates and I were assigned to Sr. Mary Immaculata’s second grade class. A little group of us children went to visit our former teacher, Sr. Mary X, after our first day of second-grade classes were over. We ventured over to our old classroom “1A” excited to see her again, perhaps seeking her reassurance and maybe a chance to recall the old days before our endless summer break; despite her strictness, we had missed her. But the nun just swept right by in the hallway — totally ignoring us! My mother always loved her little pupils, and she felt that the nun’s cold reaction was just unthinkable.

  10. Mary O'Brien says:

    A friend of mine who was a year ahead of me, once told me one of the funniest VI stories of all time:

    Whenever we had a fire drill, we were trained to stand up and march out in single file, row by row, quickly file into the hallway, leave the building through the assigned exit doors, and then march to a specially designated area for our particular class on the outside campus.

    In about fifth grade, this friend had a nun for a homeroom teacher who was somewhat ditzy. So frustrated was she with boys who wouldn’t behave that she would literally tie them to their desks with rope!

    One time a fire alarm sounded, and her class quickly and efficiently stood up, formed lines and marched into the hallway towards the exit, exactly as trained; but this particular nun was so ditzy that she forgot that she had tied Billy Jones (not his real name) to his desk.

    One of the girls suddenly realized that Billy was trapped inside the classroom, and (who knew?) it could be a real fire. Bravely, she ran back into the classroom, and struggled desperately to free the poor boy from his desk — but to no avail.

    Oh, my God. What was going to happen to these two poor kids?

    Finally, the two students emerged through the exit doorways. Billy was bent-over, carrying his whole desk on his back, moving along very slowly, just like a turtle. Hundreds of students laughed, and clapped and cheered with joy. Billy’s life was SAFE from the (possible, but non-existent) fire!

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