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Remembrance of Things Past: Flexing creative muscles in Flex period

Do you remember study halls? That was the period each day when students could study for an upcoming test, work on their homework, read a good book, or pretend to be awake.

I was once assigned to proctor a study hall at Fitch Junior High along with Dick McCarthy, another Social Studies teacher. The study hall met in the Fitch auditorium and we had the kids seated every other seat, every other row. That was social distancing for the Eighties!

And, despite the fact that we both had a background in history, we helped a lot of kids with their algebra homework. This was early enough in my teaching career that they were still teaching algebra the way I had learned it. It was not new math!

One day the school nurse came in to tell us that she was starting school-wide hearing tests and asked that we send her a dozen kids at a time. Dick looked at the far corner of the auditorium and instructed those kids to follow the nurse and to roll up their left sleeves. Needless to say, they looked a little nervous. When they got back they were happy to report to their classmates that it was a hearing test; they didn’t get shots!

When Groton adopted the middle school concept, study halls were no longer in the schedule. Instead that period was replaced with what the administration called Flex. Instead of proctoring a study hall, teachers were to offer a flex activity; something they were interested in that they were willing to share with students.

Since we had gone to a Day 1 Day 2 schedule, teachers would have a different group of students each day and very possibly offer a different activity. One activity that a lot of kids enjoyed was the walking club. One of our eighth grade teachers was qualified to teach the Connecticut Safe Boating course. His room tended to be crowded.

Student assignments to the various Flex activities were up to the teams, and students had their choice. Some teachers would only accept kids on their own team and limit the number.

I was more flexible. I told the teams that I would accept any kid who wanted my activity and they could sign up for both Day 1 and Day 2 if they chose. In that way, my groups almost always had participants from all three grades. This actually made life simpler for me as time went on.

Just as in Boy Scouts where the patrol leaders, rather than the scoutmaster, taught the tenderfeet their basic skills, in my Flex the 7th and 8th graders assisted the younger kids.

My open door policy did at times lead to crowding. Part of that may be the big jar of animal crackers I kept in the room, which was refilled regularly by my wife. I also tended to get

younger siblings of current or former students. I had Lauren as an eighth grader and when her sister Ali arrived she was “Little Sister.” Maura was the youngest and she became “Baby Sister,” once filling out a permission slip for a trip, listing that as her name.

One day Frank Hagerty, who was a Board of Education member, visited my Flex. He asked me how many kids I had in there. I had to admit that I wasn’t sure. I turned to Heather, an eighth-grader who stood at the door of the classroom checking off kids as they arrived and asked her the same question. She started counting her list and announced that we had 35 kids in the flex.

While my activity was listed as Stamp Club, it actually involved two different activities, traditional stamp collecting and the transcription and research of actual 19th and early 20th century correspondence. Most kids did one activity or the other, while some did both.

The stamps the kids collected came primarily from donations. Occasionally collectors would contact Irv Miller, a local dealer, only to find that their childhood stamp collection wasn’t going to fund their retirement. Irv often suggested they donate it.

Another major source was the Groton Town Hall, which was right next to Fitch Middle School. The town clerk’s office, the manager’s office, and the tax office all put aside stamps for us. Once a week I’d send two kids next door to collect them.

Of course, I had to have their parents’ permission as well as the approval of the principal to send kids off school grounds unescorted. Needless to say, I always picked really nice children. I used to tell the principal that the best ambassadors the school district had were 12-year-olds with braces on their teeth!

The manager’s office let us put up displays where the public could see them. One year the manager’s office assistants joined us on our annual trip to Philatelic Show in Boxborough.

On the first visit to the Town Hall each year, the custodian went with the kids to help bring back the several boxes of envelopes that the tax office had accumulated since the July deadline.

The first step in preparing the stamps for mounting in albums or exhibits was to clip them from the envelopes and soak them in cool water. (Just a note: soaking only works on the older “lick and stick” stamps, not the modern “peel and stick.”)

After they were off the paper, they’d be dried on wax paper and paper towels and flattened with an old encyclopedia. I had to remind the kids that when the water began to look like a urine sample, it was time to change it and wash out the soaking tray.

Kids enjoyed sorting through the hundreds of stamps we stored in two big blue bins. They were welcome to keep any that caught their interest, and we had albums supplied free by the American Stamp Dealers Association.

One morning, a seventh-grade girl, who was looking through one of the bins, saw a Christmas stamp and said, “Look! A lady holding a naked baby.” Another child looked at the stamp and said, “It’s Mary,” to which the first girl responded, “Mary who?”

Shortly after that exchange, a third girl came up to me and said that although she wasn’t a Christian, she knew who Mary was. An eighth-grader, who had some experience with infants, pointed out the risk of holding a naked baby.

Almost all the kids liked Disney stamps. The vast majority of these stamps are created strictly for collectors, with little thought of them ever being used for postage. When I first started the Flex these were fairly inexpensive, but as more and more adults got involved, the prices went up.

A favorite of many of the girls was the Machin series of, stamps of the United Kingdom. These stamps all have the same design, a bust of Queen Elizabeth, and are reissued in different beautiful colors every time there is a postage rate change.

The club could not have been successful without the assistance and leadership of my older students. Each year one child would be tasked with being the secretary and keeping track of attendance and supplies.

Once when I was in a portable classroom and flex was during the last period of the day, a couple of ninth-graders stopped by the back door of the room. I overheard them telling the new secretary not to ask Mr. Welt where anything is because “he doesn’t have a clue. That’s your job to know where the supplies are kept.”

For many years I had a monthly column in Global Stamp News in which I wrote about what my kids were doing in Flex. I generally illustrated it with kids’ photographs, after having their parents sign a release. The publisher always sent me extra copies for the kids when their pictures appeared.

One day, camera in hand, I asked if anyone needed a photo taken. One sixth-grader whose hair looked as if she’d been standing in front of a fan, brought me her signed release. Before I could take her picture, an eighth-grader said, “Child! Bring me your hairbrush. You’re not having your picture taken for Global looking like that.”

After some vigorous brushing, the older girl allowed the youngster to have her photo taken.

In a future column I’ll discuss the other aspect of Flex, the study of antique correspondence, an activity that had some kids involved with university archives and historical societies around the country.

Robert Welt is a retired Groton Public Schools teacher living in Mystic.

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