school pledge webEditor’s Note: I met Mark Zimmerman, the author’s son, who told me of a short biography that his dad, Robert, wrote with the help of Mark’s sister, Gail. Gail and Mark have graciously agreed to allow us to print excerpts from his book in his memory. This is the next installment. I hope that you will enjoy this looking back in time.
We all look back on our school days with a certain nostalgia. I was not a particularly outstanding student. Yet I must have achieved some degree scholastically since I skipped two entire grades in James Monroe Elementary School along with several other students.

To the best of my recollection, the skipped grades were fifth and third, probably to accommodate population growth and to balance out class size. I’m sure my parents were never consulted and it was all accomplished rather routinely. The principal walked into the classroom, singled out a few students, who in a matter of minutes were sitting with older children one grade above, having never negotiated the rocky waters of fractions, etc. My mathematical skills never recovered. Social growth was not a concern in those simple days. 

An outstanding character in that school was Principal Evan J. Lewis, Welsh to the core. He was a short, stocky bulldog of a man, with straight black hair tinged with gray, prominent black bushy eyebrows, and hairy ears and nose. His expansive chest and stomach accommodated a gold watch chain and fob. Evan Lewis’ speech was glorious, ringing, rising and falling with the hills and valleys of his native Wales. Often he strode into a classroom, took center stage and spun tales of his boyhood as a coal mine breaker boy. After selecting me and several other favorite children to help distribute supplies of paper, pencils, pens and ink to classrooms, he would curl up on a large, black leather couch in his office for his afternoon nap. However, those boys who violated his code of conduct felt the full fury of his wrath and rod, and even worse, his apocalyptic voice that boomed throughout the halls of that old building. 

Odd tender wisps of memory drift back from time to time. During the early grades we had music class wherein we were led through unfamiliar songs. Certain melodies stay with me, either due to the colorful illustrations in the music book or to the music itself — “Flow Gently Sweet Afton”  and “Old Dog Tray.” In English class we often read poems and committed some to memory for recitation in class. Of course, each day began with a reading from the Bible and a salute to the flag.

Each child’s desk featured a small, recessed ink well which was filled periodically with dark blue ink from a large bottle. We learned to use pens with replaceable points (nibs) and struggled mightily but without too much success to avoid ink spills on our desk, clothes and school papers. In writing class we attempted to emulate the regulation Zaner-Blosser method of penmanship and our report cards reflected our success or failure. 

Other school memories remain. The school boasted a complement of unmarried Irish American teachers, strict and demanding female professionals, and an elderly, bronzed wigged janitor, Jake Homan. We were all convinced that Jake was an American Indian. One of the few non-Irish teachers, Miss Alimena, assigned a research paper and shepherded a few of us on the trolley car after school to downtown Scranton’s public library where we were awed by its size and the stone architecture of this venerable institution. Schoolmates included a melting pot of the city’s growing population of Poles, Irish, Italians and Germans. Among the lot I can still picture Julia Parenti, daughter of recent Italian immigrants, wearing her hair in neat black braids, her ears adorned with gold earrings, doggedly breaking through the difficult language barrier.

Incidentally, my father was quite vociferous on the subject of married women working. During the hard years of the thirties, he reflected the views of many on the rare occasions when a married woman taught school or held any job while her husband also worked. Another target of the day was the practice of divorce. Any woman who had divorced was generally spoken of in hushed tones. 

In eighth grade, our last in elementary school, we were introduced to the mysteries of Latin and Manual Training, an odd curriculum pairing. During the latter classes I actually operated, rather fearfully, certain power tools and completed to my everlasting pride a key rack, bread board and clothestree. These were to be my final 20th Century achievements in woodworking and convinced me that my future did not lie in this direction.

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