How many people have wished they could return to a scene of their earlier lives for a day – just one day. Twelve hours would suffice to restore to memory a world of experiences we were too busy living to think of cataloging for the long-term. I wish I could return for a day at the West Tisbury School.
To be a first-grader in West Tisbury in 1952 was to be in a remarkable place and time. Priscilla Fischer was taking over from Helen O’Donnell as teacher of grades one to four, and so she would be my first teacher. She remains my most memorable teacher and was perhaps the most influential. Like many of the children entering first grade, I was just five years old. There was no nursery school, no kindergarten. If we’d had our vaccinations and Mrs. Fischer had assessed us as school-ready, off we little critters scampered to school, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, straight from home. Mrs. Fischer became the first important grownup presence in my life besides my parents. She was calm, kind, and so very adept at managing the many facets of this little world. Plus, she was pretty.
Before school every day the West Tisbury village children were already milling around the playground when our big yellow schoolbus, driven by grumpy Grafton King, pulled in with another six on board. “There were so many of us in first grade that year,” Connie Athearn Taylor says. “Nine in one grade – the West Tisbury baby boom.” And it was. We were the first baby boom cohort, eight girls and a lone boy, Allen Whiting.
School began at nine, when Mrs. Fischer came outside onto on the school steps, blew her whistle, and called out “Line up!” She counted heads, then led us up the stairs. We left our coats and lunch boxes in the coatroom at the back of the classroom. First-graders sat in a row to the right, closest to the blackboards. Fourth-graders by the wall of south-facing windows that looked out over the playground and what was then the Agricultural Hall. The other grades in between. The desks were ancient wood and metal units with holes for inkwells and hinged tops that had a little ledge at the bottom to catch pencils before they rolled off. At the beginning of the school year the janitor, George Magnuson, came and adjusted the height of each child’s desk and seat.
Blackboards lined the west and north walls. Above them there was a series of penmanship display cards, one for each letter of the alphabet, in lower- and upper-case block print and the elegant, right-leaning Palmer cursive. At the front of the room, near the windows, was Mrs. Fischer’s desk. Next to that was a low, round table ringed with small wooden chairs. To the right, the American flag hung from a round wooden staff that could be removed from its metal stand. At the center of this front wall, above the blackboards, there was the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Living by that rule
“Which was how she treated us and made us treat each other,” Debbie Magnuson says. “When something came up, she often said, ‘Remember the Golden Rule.'”
Once we were seated, Mrs. Fischer stood in front of her desk and greeted us: “Good morning, boys and girls.”
“Good morning, Mrs. Fischer.” we chorused back.
Next there was the Pledge of Allegiance. Each day Mrs. Fischer removed the flag from its stand and handed the staff to the child whose turn it was to hold it out very straight while we all recited the Pledge. The flag was quite heavy, but it mustn’t touch the floor. When it was my turn to hold the flag, I felt pretty important. Once, inattentive, I let it droop. A look from Mrs. Fischer brought a quick correction. To say the Pledge, most of us clapped our right hands over our thrust-out chests and stuck our pointy little elbows out perfectly horizontal. Mrs. Fischer, however, placed her hand softly on her chest, her shoulders gently sloped under her blouse. This appeared to me to be the grownup way to recite the Pledge.
Then, the Lord’s Prayer, and a patriotic song, “America the Beautiful” or “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” or “The Star-Spangled Banner,” after she had indicated the starting note by pursing her lips and producing a note with the round pitch pipe that she had drawn from a pocket in her skirt.
The Daily News was my favorite part of the opening exercises. Every Monday morning Mrs. Fischer, in her neat hand, printed anew the masthead of our classroom paper on the section of blackboard nearest the hallway where we entered, and it stayed there all week. But the news changed every day. Some children arrived at school bursting at the seams with an item for publication. Others had a job trying to think of anything. As we recounted our items, such as “Curley had puppies last night,” Mrs. Fischer wrote them down and changed them from first to third person as needed. My most memorable contribution was “Kathy’s father received a letter from Governor Christian Herter yesterday.” Actually, the Fischer family itself was a hotbed of news — they seemed to have puppies and calves and hamsters born on a regular basis, and guinea pigs visiting school from their house across the street. Other newsworthy events were visits from off-Island relatives and rare trips to the mainland. Eleanor Neubert recalls Hal Child’s report that his family had traveled to Hyannis over the weekend. None of us had ever even heard of Hyannis! In fact, quite a few of the children had never been off Island.
Reading, writing, arithmetic
I loved to watch Mrs. Fischer write on the blackboard. Her printing was very regular, as attractive as the models on the cards. She stood facing the blackboard and extended and bent her right arm so that we could see the line of words emerging behind her hand as it clicked evenly to the right like a slow-motion typewriter. She did a lot of writing on the board, since that was primarily how she presented new information and gave us our lessons in arithmetic, spelling, penmanship, and phonetics. We didn’t have a lot of books in our classroom.
We watched Mrs. Fischer write a grid of arithmetic problems for each grade in its own blackboard area — four problems per line, four lines of problems — and we began copying down our group of problems on our papers. There was silence as we got to work on them. After about 10 minutes, Mrs. Fischer started going over the lessons, starting with the first grade’s. We learned addition first. She went from child to child, problem to problem, down the row. In the case of an incorrect answer, you could raise your hand and hope to be called on to provide the correct answer. When the first grade was finished, she moved on to the second. While she was working with one grade, the others worked on their own problems, or, if they were finished, they could listen in on the other grades, or read in their Dick and Jane readers. The younger children had the opportunity to absorb older grades’ material and even test themselves against their elders — including their older siblings — and the older children could review previously learned lessons. She also used flash cards to check how thoroughly we had learned our sums.
We didn’t have gym, although there was a gym on the ground floor in the school building. Instead, at recess we stampeded downstairs to play in what nowadays would doubtless be considered “our horribly dangerous playground,” as Debbie Magnuson put it. The swings had hard rubber seats heavy enough to cause a concussion if they had ever encountered an innocent’s skull. These were attached to heavy metal chains hanging by metal hooks from a frame made of some kind of galvanized pipe whose legs stood on, not in, the ground. Danny Whiting, Eric Magnuson, and Emory Francis would compete to see who could swing higher. Standing on the swings they pumped them so high that the chains would rattle as the swings went above the top of the frame and lost tension and the creaking metal-pipe legs shifted on the ground. None of the girls was quite this daring. Our competition was to pump as high as we could, then jump off at the farthest point of the forward arc and see how far from the swing we could land. We clambered around on the jungle gym playing tag, and some of the girls — especially the Norton twins, who were very limber and excelled at all things gymnastic — dangled by their knees from the horizontal bars and rocked back and forth with their hair sweepng through the air under them. The metal slide was quite high, and children would be stacked up on the metal ladder that led to the launching pad. Waxed paper on sun-warmed metal made the ride even faster.
There was a set of wooden seesaws, two large and one small, painted dark green, but the paint was peeling. The seesaws were prime spots for girls to snag for a place to sit while eating their lunches. Two or three girls could easily pile up at each end, though the third one in didn’t get to do much pushing off, and the old planks bent slightly under the load. The dark-painted wood could become very hot on sunny days, but we just sat on it until it cooled down, or our bottoms heated up. Splinter alert.
A favorite trick was to jump off the end of the seesaw and send the other side down to the ground with a satisfying bang of the well-seasoned timber. This sometimes sent a child wailing to Mrs. Fischer. “It wasn’t very nice, but we all did it,” says Eleanor Neubert philosophically. The dramatic effect was too tempting. We didn’t always follow the Golden Rule.
And, lots of running
The other principal theme of recess was running. We would tear round and round the school building, one group chasing another group for no obvious purpose except to run and chase. Mrs. Fischer generally watched over things from the window or the steps, and often stepped in as needed to get a structured game going. We loved drawing up the battle lines for Red Rover and capturing our schoolmates by holding hands tight: “Red rover, red rover, send Allen right over.” Another favorite was Last One, which we’d chant while racing back and forth between the old white picket fence and our marker, a concrete walk alongside the school steps. My favorite was Jump the Brook. Using a stick found lying around somewhere on the school grounds, Mrs. Fischer scratched lines in the dirt, gradually widening the “brook” we had to jump over from about two inches to five or six feet. Long-limbed Emory Francis was invariably the last one left standing in this contest, though I beat him once.
If the weather was too poor for outside recess, Mrs. Fischer began a game of dodge ball in the gym downstairs, or played Simon Says with us in our classroom.
Reading – a student at a time
Again Mrs. Fischer worked with one grade at a time, at the little round table where she sat down with us on one of the small chairs. We had already read the story to ourselves. Now, she went around the circle, each child reading one sentence and getting help in sounding out words if needed. I counted the sentences ahead in hopes that I would get a long one when it was my turn. Meanwhile the other grades prepared their own reading selections silently at their desks.
On Fridays, we often had a spelling test. Mrs. Fischer called out a word for each grade in turn and we wrote the words down in the flimsy little blue ruled notebooks that each child had for spelling and penmanship. Eager pupils could write down more than just their own grade’s words. Mrs. Fischer collected the books, and glued a gold star on the page if you had all your words right.
After lunch we had music or art or penmanship, or Mrs. Fischer read us a story, or we had a spelling bee. For music we went to the empty classroom next door, where there was a piano. A few children set up two rows of folding chairs. Mrs. Fischer played well enough for us to practice the songs the music teacher, Kathryn Stewart, had chosen on her most recent visit, and also had us sing songs in solfeggio.
We all were eager to get to do special jobs, such as setting up chairs, or helping Mrs. Fischer with the Ditto machine by turning the crank that rotated the drum that produced the copies from an original that she had created. The Ditto machine was a bit of a challenge to operate. Mrs. Fischer often emerged from the Ditto sessions slightly disheveled and with bright purple stains on her hands. We held the damp sheets of paper to our noses and inhaled the aromatic smell of the spirit while we waited for them to dry.
Another coveted task was cleaning the blackboards with black felt erasers at the end of the day, obliterating that day’s news, then going outside on the fire escape to clap the chalk dust out of them. At the end of the week, we had to tidy our desks, propping up the tops with our rulers and putting everything straight. Mrs. Fischer walked up and down the rows, checking the results. And then, one child got to wash all of the blackboards, using the newer gray foam-rubber erasers with plastic backs, which were rung out with water. With great conscientiousness, the chosen child wiped from top to bottom, sponging away all the week’s chalk dust so that the boards were once again black and fresh, creating a neat pattern of vertical stripes that slowly dried by the time the school bus arrived to take us home for the weekend.
Children spend a lot of time watching their teachers. A first teacher’s presence and ways will be engraved in a child’s mind especially strongly, and that is triply true if you have the same teacher for three years. Just about everything about Mrs. Fischer engaged my close attention, from her penmanship to her pitch pipe to her penny loafers and stockings to the way she held her hand over her heart.
“She taught us a lot,” says Debbie Magnuson. And not just the three R’s, which she effectively implanted in our young minds. “Remember that book ‘Everything I Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten’? Well, everything I needed to know we learned in the first three grades in West Tisbury. Some of us weren’t learning that at home, and she made sure that we did.”
Katherine Scott is a freelance editor. She lives in Vineyard Haven.
Correction: The headline of an earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to school days 64 years ago. Had the editor paid attention in math class he would have calculated that number as 60.