First Grade with Sister Lucida in 1926. No Valentine, but Sister comes to the rescue. Sister later became Principal in Spencerport, New York
Copyright 2013 Franklyn E. Dailey Jr.
Domine, exaudi orationem meam.
Et clamor meus ad te veniat.
O Lord, hear my prayer.
And let my plea be heard.
I met Sister Lucida when I went to first grade in the early fall of 1926. Despite her nun's habit, all black and flowing except for a starched white bib on her chest and a starched white band in her headpiece, it was clear even to an urchin like me that she was young. And quite beautiful. I was five and one half years old.
The game of entering children into the "educational" process just as soon as an institution could be found that would take the child did not begin with later 20th century kindergartens, nursery schools and "pre-schools." Perhaps the World War II boomers and generation x-ers have pushed it a little further in order to support two parents working, but mothers and fathers before them were fully attuned to getting "precocious" Jane or Johnny off to school as soon as possible. I am witness to that.
Sister Lucida taught first and second grade in one of the four main classrooms of Nativity of the BVM school. With Sister Lucida, I experienced my first eclipse of the sun. She used a lighted candle to blacken small pieces of broken glass that she had persuaded us to bring to school. Thus "protected", we observed a solar eclipse in all of its majesty. The only other one I recall in any detail was in the movie, A Connecticut Yankee, when Will Rogers was able to win the day because the medieval soldiers discovered that he controlled light and darkness.
With Sister Lucida, I participated in my first grade Valentine's Day. Despite already demonstrated preferences, Sister saw to it that the less popular among us had plenty of Valentine cards. That took some doing because in the back row with the second graders sat a genial giant of a boy, or man. He was at least six feet tall when I first became aware of him. He was still sitting there, participating in second grade class activities, when I graduated six years later in 1932.
As I have noted, this building facing on Holley Street in Brockport was the second location for the school. Erected, according to its cornerstone in 1915, of bricks and mortar, it was still in 1926 a relatively new and impressive structure to a six-year old. There was a simple front entrance, used mostly by dignitaries. This entrance was in the center of a building that had a spacious center hall up a few steps from the doorway. Grades one and two were in the main room on the right and grades seven and eight were in exactly duplicate room on the left. A very small room immediately off the hall toward the Grade 7-8 room on the left as you entered the front door housed the library. That little room also contained the American Flag. There was a girl's lavatory and a boy's lavatory on this floor. Proceeding up the center hall stairs led to the second floor center hall. The stairway to the second floor involved a complete turn so as one gained access to the second floor there was a main room on the left for the third and fourth grades, directly above the room on the first floor for first and second grades. To the right as one gained the second floor, was the room housing the fifth and sixth grades. This room was directly above the first floor room for seventh and eighth grades. The library and small utility closets on the first floor borrowed their space from the hall. The four main classrooms were almost identical. Pupils entered the building through the center rear doors. The school buses with the "country kids" stopped on Utica Street opposite the rear entrance.
At the rear of each of the four main classrooms was a Cloak Room. A plain room with hangar hooks just above eye level all the way around except for the entrance on the right, this room exhaled strong odors, particularly in winter as the snow melted into the clothes and the steam heat added to the humid air. The Cloak Room was the scene of a memorable encounter with Sister Florentia when I was in the fifth grade. We'll come to that in a later chapter. Each classroom had a rostrum in the center against the back wall and on this elevated structure, Sister's desk was perched. There were blackboards on two sides of the rooms. Each student's seat held the desk of the student behind. There were ink-wells depressed into the desk top on the forward right side of each desk. Left handers were not encouraged. I throw right-handed and bat a ball left-handed. Sister saw to it that wherever there might be a left-handed tendency the pupil was encouraged to be right-handed. Most decisions were shaped by the facility constraints. My tenure of six years in the School of the Nativity of the BVM was the result of crowded classrooms. We took Palmer Method writing from brown covered booklets. I never saw a Palmer Method writing booklet in which the italicized, cursive characters were shaped for a left-handed person.
At age 5 1/2 for first grade in September 1926, and with western New York's harsh winter coming, Dad drove me to school every morning that first fall term. He let me walk home, a distance of slightly over one mile. On those mornings, he always stopped and took me into the school, and he always stopped to talk with Sister Lucida. They talked about Sister Mary Joseph who had been Dad's first teacher in that same school, though in an earlier building, a generation before me.
You see, Dad grew up in his family home on South Avenue in Brockport, with his seven brothers and one sister. That was a large Victorian home with an addition built off the back when it became populated with so many Dailey boys. That home had a slate roof and redwood siding. The barn out back was of the same construction, and featured stalls for the horses and even an icehouse with thick sawdust walls. There was a well for drinking water in the back yard and a rainwater cistern in the basement. It was to this home at 48 South Avenue in Brockport that Dad and Mother brought me from an apartment in Rochester when I was ten months old at the end of 1921. As the youngest of the Dailey boys, my Dad inherited his family home along with Brockport's Dailey Coal and Produce Company, the hometown-based business of his father. Dad's surviving brothers had earlier taken over similar Grandfather Dailey business enterprises in Albion, New York, Morton New York, Oakfield New York and Kendall, New York.
I know that Dad loved the School of the BVM, and I know he loved to talk about Sister Mary Joseph who was still there in my first year in 1926 as a sort of elder statesman. Still, the thought came to me in later years that if I could walk home, I could walk to school. For all but that first half year, I did walk both ways. Dad was becoming an alcoholic though I had little awareness of it then. He was not entirely reliable in his self appointed duty of driving me to school in that first half year. Sober, my father was a very entertaining Irishman with many stories. It occurred to me in later years that he liked talking with Sister Lucida and she enjoyed talking with him. These are thoughts that filter through to a person later on. Some of the puzzling aspects of childhood disappear when you figure them out.
Though I would not see Sister Emma as a teacher until I made it into her room on the floor above Sister Lucida's room, for grades three and four, I made her acquaintance in grade one because she taught us the Latin for serving Mass. I learned the Mass Latin on the back stoop of the convent which had been re-located to a frame house on Monroe Avenue next to the new Rectory. The new Rectory was built of the same material as the new church and connected with it by a covered walkway. While I made my First Confession and First Holy Communion in the "old" church, where I was duly informed that the Sacred Host might taste like peanut butter, I served my first 6 a.m. daily Mass in the new church.
There will be only a short chapter in this story for Sister Emma. I studied under her for Latin Prayers as noted and then again for regular curriculum studies in the third grade. She was a driver. We went to the blackboard for spell-downs, and times-table drills, and geography questions. We had to think fast. I think my lifelong capability for accuracy was a by-product of learning to "spit out the answers" or write them down rapidly. There was no time to stand there and think of the wrong answer. I know that some of this method of learning is frowned on in some places but it worked for me then. Sister passed away during my stay in the fourth grade.
Trips that took the place of a day of classes were major events. Each sister took her turn shepherding the flock for these pilgrimages. Sister Lucida was our bus monitor for a second grade trip in 1927 to St. Bernard's Seminary in Rochester, New York. This was an early summer trip, just before school let out. I will never forget the statues and the Stations of the Cross in grottoes along narrow pathways along the Genesee River gorge.
Rivers are like magnets to children. I have the feeling that a comparable trip for eight-year olds would be ruled out in this new Millennium, even if St. Bernard's still existed. For that trip in 1927, we had a young adult assigned to each of us but the riverbank was very steep and a fall was but a step or two away. For those readers fortunate enough to have seen some of this country's great rivers, like the Mississippi, the Hudson, and the Connecticut, the Genesee River (like the Niagara River just a few miles to the west) flows the wrong way. The Genesee originates in Pennsylvania's Allegheny mountains and flows about 158 miles north into Lake Ontario.
It happened rarely. I never anticipated when it might happen. But I learned that there was some emotional moment in the teaching life of every sister where she might break into tears. Most often, this situation developed when one of us boy criminals would initiate some wildly hilarious course of action intended to bring an end to all decorum.
I never encountered a boy criminal who could persist in such errant activity in the face of a sister driven to tears. Crying, I learned early, was not an evidence of weakness.
The last occasion in which I was in the presence of Sister Lucida was the 100th anniversary celebration for the founding of the School of the Nativity of the BVM. Our warm, brief, encounter took place in May of 1976. I have a profound regard for the mother of Jesus, and I hope she'll forgive me for the abbreviation, BVM. That was an expression I learned in my earliest parochial school days, and was used by everyone in those days to shorten the name of our church and our school.
My Times With the Sisters and Other Events, 134 pages, ISBN 0966625110; can be ordered through your local bookstore. Cover Price is $9.50.