Even though it was a summer afternoon, school was in on Tuesday, as about three dozen attendees gathered in Aquinnah Town Hall for the “Stories from the Little Red Schoolhouse,” an event celebrating the small building right across the street.
Currently the home of the Aquinnah library, the building was once the one-room Gay Head School, which was constructed in 1844, and operated until 1967. The school at the time of its closing educated kindergarten through fourth-grade children, who were taught by Mrs. Helen Vanderhoop Manning in her 11 years there.
The event, co-sponsored by the Aquinnah Cultural Center, focused on the school’s later years. Former students gathered to share memories of what school and life were like at the time.
After being introduced by Aquinnah library program coordinator Sonja Josephson and Aquinnah Cultural Center director NaDaizja Bolling, Wampanoag elders and former Gay Head School pupils Adrianna Ignacio, Beverly Wright, and Jeffrey Madison addressed their audience. Seated together at a table in the middle of Town Hall, Ignacio, Wright, and Madison spoke to and with an attentive audience. The speakers covered a mix of warm nostalgia, curious memories, and a more incisive look at their educational experiences at the school and afterward.
Wright, who attended intermittently from second grade to — as she remembers — around fifth or sixth grade, engaged the crowd early on with many fond memories.
“It was one of the happiest times of my life. You knew everybody in the school, and each row was a grade,” she said. “So if you were in second grade, and the kids in third grade were having third-grade spelling words, if you were smart enough, you’d listen, so you could always keep up with the grade that was ahead of you.”
Wright also recalled the somewhat unpleasant memory of a polio shot. “We would stand on the chair, and we would drop our pants. The doctor would be behind, and she’d stand in front of you and say, ‘Hug me, hug me, hug me!’ And that’s when you’d get the shot.”
Madison also pleasantly recalled chores at the school. “One of the cool things about lunchtime was getting water to mix with the big Campbell’s soup … Somebody would be chosen every day to [get] a bucket of water. So you could get away from your studies and get a bucket of water, and goof off for half an hour before lunch … I can still taste Campbell’s Pepper Pot Soup.”
Many stories covered callbacks to old friends and family, as well as childhood antics. “I fell into the schoolhouse pond every winter,” recalled Ignacio.
While much of the event focused on happier memories, the speakers also covered difficult experiences when they left the schoolhouse to attend Tisbury School in Vineyard Haven. Madison, now a lawyer and former Aquinnah select board member, recalled racially biased placement.
“Truth is, my brown skin made them put me in the D-level classes,” he said. Madison then recalled his father Luther Madison, the tribe’s medicine man, visiting Tisbury School and having him moved from seventh to eighth grade.
Ignacio recalled taunts from a boy on the bus to Tisbury School. “He would make the war whoop sound, and that kind of thing,” she said. But she also said that she found a supportive friend group: “I was taken in by the girls. They were very welcoming, so I didn’t have as much of a problem as Jeffrey had.”
Bolling says that the event, which was filmed, covers a time and place important to many: “I have an aunt who … was really interested in hearing more for research purposes, and getting this recorded and documented so we don’t lose this oral history. We still have such a great presence of alumni from the school.”