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Writing on Water: Memories of school days past

The small, plump pig lying on a piece of cardboard in the back seat of my father’s Ford station wagon was something I thought everyone in my second grade class at the Old Mystic School would want to see.

My parents had dropped me off early that evening for the annual Christmas Pageant at school. I spread the word about the pig in the car while we climbed into angel costumes and lined up in Mrs. Robinson’s classroom to make our entrance.

I could hardly wait for the carol singing and angelic prancing to end. Unfortunately, the pig was gone when I finally snuck the kids out into the frosty evening and pulled open the car door.

I didn’t see the pig again until the next evening when it lay roasted and decorated on the buffet table at the Old Mystic Nursing Home holiday party. But it was only 1953 and I still had three more years before we moved on to fifth grade at Broadway School in Mystic to come up with ways to impress my classmates.

The Victorian, three-room Old Mystic School was built in 1877 during a transitional time in Connecticut public education. It replaced a one-room schoolhouse, now at Mystic Seaport Museum. Before that, education was provided by parents and/or traveling itinerant teachers.

Young girls learned letters and numbers by stitching samplers. The Puritans had established the first public school in Boston in 1635, mainly to teach their core religious values, but public education did not come to Connecticut until 1849 with the establishment of the first teacher’s college in Willimantic.

In Kathleen Greenhalgh’s book, “A History of Old Mystic: 1600 – 1999,” she describes the fanfare surrounding the building of Old Mystic School in 1877, using the highest quality materials with stone work and cellar walls done by Russell Welles, wood work by William Harris, seats ordered from Chicago, and the new bell, weighing 198 pounds, from Troy, N.Y.

The inscription on the bell read: “As the hen gathers in her chickens, so I gather in the young.” The architect was Mr. Burdick of Norwich, and the entire cost of the project was $6,012. That’s about $150,000, in today’s dollars.

By 1897, the student population was 97.

Along with the new school came trained teachers and a reputation for excellent education that continued until the school’s demise in 1959.

I reached out to former students on Facebook, and Charlotte, who attended from 1944-50, described, “learning more from Gertrude Beckwith in fifth and sixth grade than from any other teacher through college.”

During the 1950s, Miss Pearl Johnson taught kindergarten and first grade, Mrs. Daisy Robinson second and third grade, and Mr. MacPeak (also the principal and a Methodist minister) fourth and fifth grade in the big classroom that looked out to the monkey bars that resembled the frame of a burned-out igloo.

Kids who lived nearby walked home for a one-hour lunchtime and others brought lunch to enjoy with the room temperature, half-pint bottles of milk available for purchase. The American flag was raised daily and school began with a prayer followed by pledging allegiance to the flag.

On “Bank Day” students could bring in money, usually 25 or 50 cents, to add to their bank account that teachers kept up-to-date. I remember a small card with Hartford National Bank and Trust listed on the top. At recess we played tag, jump rope and marbles.

I lived close by but yearned to be one of the kids who brought their lunch because they could walk over to H.O. Williams General Store down the street and buy ice cream and penny candy during the lunch hour.

Discipline and punishment was loosely organized according to the crime. Wayne recalled having to white wash the basement walls after he found a few loose rocks in the foundation and opened up a hole to the outside. I recall washing several blackboards after pulling my friend Elaine’s chair out from under her.

Our education was enriched by frequent visits from: Eva Butler, historian; Mrs. Downs, art teacher, including walks to draw historical houses nearby; musicians Joseph Nania, who turned off his hearing aides when I played my violin, and Mary Regalbuto, who caught every musical instrument for 70 years and was fondly remembered as ‘Bingo Mary’ after her retirement when she discovered Foxwoods.

By the late 1950s, the school overflowed with 200-plus students. Kindergarten now occupied the entrance hall that also held the soapstone sink, water fountain, the school bell rope, and coat hooks. The inside sandbox was gone and, in 1959, like the disappearing pig, the school was gone; torn down and replaced by a park with up-to-date monkey bars.

Today, this place that occupied 900 days of my childhood is hard to conjure when I visit the invisible footprint of the school on Haley’s Way in Old Mystic. But I clearly remember Miss Johnson’s smile and her gift of the Eskimo Twins coloring book during our first days of kindergarten as she launched us into our adventure with education.

I hope that, in these days of mostly virtual school, children can still hold a memory of a place where they loved to learn — and a favorite teacher.

Ruth W. Crocker lives in Mystic. She can be reached at ruthwcrocker@gmail.com.

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