Katy at Normal School

Higher education in Katy's youth as explained in a letter written to Nephew Ray in September, 1960.

Dear Nephew Ray

These have been such busy days what with putting up corn and tomatoes and getting Josephine ready to go back to teaching, that I just haven't had time to write. It hardly seems possible that this is Josephine's last year of teaching. My "baby" is old enough to retire!

A few days ago one of our neighbor girls came to say goodbye before starting to teachers college. Made me think of my days at Normal School. The campus was very different then. Just one E - shaped building which has since been torn down and replaced by a bewildering collection of class-rooms, libraries, dining-halls, and dormatories.

The first wing housed the library complete with a huge plaster statue of Minerva or Athena depending on whether you prefer the Roman or Greek goddess. The second wing contained class-rooms and ended in the gymnasium, and the third was the chapel behind which were the high school class-rooms.

The cross piece of the E contained more classrooms and offices for the administration and teachers. The main floor of the building was built high above the basement floor to make room below for more classrooms and janitors rooms. Outside there were three steep flights of stairs leading to the main doors. The one for the auditorium/chapel had a covered porch but the other two led directly into the hall system. There were ground floor entrys, too, but not often used by students.

The corridors were pierced with deep-set windows, handy for sitting in or resting your books while chatting with friends, and hung with sepia-tone pictures of the Parthenon, Acropolis, and other antiquities. Shelves and niches held plaster busts of scholars and Greek gods, The Thinker, etc. These were meant to lend an air of culture, I suppose.

I had to supply my sheets, pillowcases, towels and face-cloths and an oil lamp. My clothes consisted of two skirts, one brown and one navy blue, four or five white shirtwaists, under-things and stockings, high buttoned-shoes and slippers, oh, and a gymnastic dress, stockings and rubber-soled shoes. My Sunday dress was gray challis with blue velvet trim and leg-o-mutton sleeves. When it came from the dressmakers we discovered she'd sewed a spool of thread into the lining of one sleeve. Ma carefully opened a seam to get it out. I had a black cloth coat and a grey hat and several pair of gloves. Ladies never appeared in public without gloves, you know.

Some girls lived in the top floor of the Normal but I shared a room with two other girls at a student house. We all ate at boarding houses as there was no cafeteria then. The rules were very strict: No food in the rooms and gentleman callers could only come during certain chaperoned hours. We had to have a good reason and permission to go "up town" to shop and had to report to the house mother when we returned.

Most of the teachers were ladies and very proper they were, too, stiff, starched and formal in manner at all times. There were a few men on the faculty. One professor I remember particularly was a small, dapper man with grey chin-whiskers who had the habit of prancing through the halls with his hands beneath his coat-tails and his chin thrust forward. The high school boys couldn't resist bleating like a goat after he'd passed them. How angry he would get! Some of the boys were caught and expelled for the trick, I believe.

We had no typewriters then and every paper had to be written in Spencerian script. It must be done perfectly or it would not be accepted no matter how good the contents were. We had courses in literature, science, and history as well as methods of teaching. Most of us found out later that we should have had instruction in how to manage unruly children, too. That we had to learn through experience.

After we had done our preparations for the next days classes, we would gather in someone's room to talk as we brushed our hair. Girls wore their hair long and it required much brushing to keep it clean and shiny. Some times the house mother invited us to pop corn or make fudge or cocoa on winter evenings. Or we would toast crackers over our lamp chimneys which was forbidden of course. So much for 'no food in the rooms'!

Every morning we had chapel where we sang hymns and listened to a short talk from the president or one of the other teachers and joined in prayer to start the day. Occasionally we had an evening lecturer who might show magic-lantern slides. That was a great treat.

At the end of two years I graduated, certified to teach in the New York public schools for life. Then I set about finding a school which usually wasn't too difficult. Many girls married after only one year of teaching and some schools were so difficult that they had two or three teachers come and go in one year.

I was fortunate in my teaching experience. I was at a small school with well behaved children, for the most part anyway. You may remember I wrote to you about Valentines Day at my school a while back.

There were more girls than men at Normal School but the village boys managed to meet the students somehow and many girls found mates as well as an education there. I can remember a dance in the gym when the outside fire escape served as a viewing station for uninvited boys until they were noticed and shoo'd away by the janitor. And speaking of steep staircases, the one that led from the hall down into the gymnasium was dreadfully precipitous. It was also very wide and the treads were narrow so that negotiating it, even with handrails on either side, caused many a nervous flutter. There were locker rooms where one changed into proper attire but no such thing as showers until many years later than my time. The high school children also used that gym, boys and girls separately.

Since this was the time of district schools, there were also grade classes in the same building. Normal students did their observation and practice teaching there and in the other district schools scattered around the town. Learning to handle several class levels in one room wasn't too difficult since most of the students had grown up in schools like that.

I'm sure our little neighbor will find her college days much different from mine. For one thing, she has a laptop computer, something never dreamed of by my generation and her wardrobe is much more extensive. Why, lands sakes, it even includes a -bathing suit- which hasn't cloth enough in it to flag a train, as Josiah would say.

I can still see, hear, and smell that building. I can feel the worn boards of the halls under my feet, and hear the stairs to the chapel balcony groan and creak as they were climbed. I can smell chalk, paste, oilcloth, books, pencil shavings and ink as well as the talcum powder that was the only perfume allowed to students -or- teachers. And the smell of bodies and clothing not washed as frequently as now tho accepted as the norm at the time. I can recall the hard chairs in the classrooms and the folding seats in the chapel that were too apt to snap up with a clatter when one stood.

I remember nature walks with the science professor and sketching sessions with the art teacher. Being a member of The Carol Choristers (named for the music teacher, not Christmas music) was a happy experience. Hours spent in the library doing research for papers and helping little children learn to read so that some day they might know the joy of an education all are part of my memories of Normal School.

Uncle Jos sends regards as do I,

Your Aunt Katy