By Rosalie Tirella
Rose’s mom work vest she wore to work at the drycleaners on Millbury Street. All thru “Prov” junior high Rose remembers “Ma” wearing this polyester vest – with big side pockets for pencils, a scratch pad or two, and rubber bands – to work. Ma also had a navy blue vest and a beige one, same style. Rose mailed the navy blue one to her sister two years ago. photos: R.T.
“Spring Concert.” The two words that captivated the collective imagination of the entire student body of Vernon Hill’s Providence Street Junior High School, circa 1975. Last week I wrote about the drippy music teacher we kids had at my elementary school, Lamartine Street School. This week I’m here to tell you how my class’s musical fortunes did a 180-degree turnaround at the old “Prov” – now the Vernon Hill Elementary School – in 1973. All because of a 4’10”-inch-tall musical miracle and lover of all kids, no matter how good or rotten, no matter how gifted or just middling, no matter how sweet-smelling or smelly – Miss Avedikian, Providence Street Junior High School’s music teacher. I and around 600 other Prov seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders adored Miss Avedikian. No. “Adore” is too weak a word to describe the feelings we had for Miss Avedikian. We were passionate about her, captivated by her, entranced by her. So much so we never missed her music class – and actually sang for her. Loudly! In two-part harmony! Even the boys who liked to hide out in the boys room smoking cigs never cut Miss Avedikian’s music class. Even the girl who at Lamartine was the school bully and a thorn in this Rose’s side, “Frieda,” was stellar for Miss Avedikian. There she was, Frieda, the school yard slugger of Lamartine, standing outside Miss A’s classroom to get her morning hug from the pint-sized Miss Avedikian who had to stand on tippy toes to embrace the big girl who was a foot taller than she. Frieda had been “kept back” twice but was all A’s in Miss Avedikian’s music class, one of the shining stars. Sometimes things would get serious between the two; I imagine Frieda confided to her favorite teacher, who with arms still wrapped around her student’s beefy neck, spoke quietly, seriously to the girl. Often you’d see them literally tete a tete, big forehead to little forehead, the big droopy eyes of Miss Avedikian looking into Frieda’s beady little ones. Miss A quietly counseled her student in the middle of Prov’s bustling third floor corridor, the rest of us kids swimming around them like salmon ’round a boulder in a stream, rushing to get to our homerooms before the first bell rang. Looking back, I think Miss Avedikian took on the role of mom for lots of Prov students – maybe the kids with abusive parents or no parents all, the kids many teachers were usually neutral about – or angry with.
Not Miss Avedikian. She was a huge machine. She didn’t care that Peggy came to school unwashed or that I came to school very poor or so and so’s dad was in jail. All her students in all her classes were BRILLIANT!!! – and she expected us all to behave brilliantly – to sing and learn all the songs for the annual Providence Street Junior High School Spring Concert, to be in the sopranos or altos groups, to memorize all the lyrics to all our songs, to watch her for musical cues as she walked energetically up and down the aisles between our rows of desks making big swooping gestures with her little arms, smiling at us as she sang along, loudly, with gusto. She had a deep, resonant singing voice that, while not conventionally pretty sounding, was note-perfect. None of us students had spectacular voices, many of us were often off key and you’d scrunch up your face as you or your neighbor hit a clunker. But Miss Avedikian was undeterred. She’d correct us and we’d start all over again.
I remember the songs. Very 1970s, very Carpenters stuff. Songs about Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me …or Up up and away in my beautiful balloon…Songs that maybe we kids may not have been enthralled with but songs that our teacher loved, so we loved them, too.
I remember the Miss Avedikian dress code – she always wore these perfect little demure skirt suits. And she looked impeccable in her elegant (I think expensive) suits! Pencil skirt to the knees, colors ranging from a demure sage blue to a vibrant violet … a pretty white, pink or baby blue silk or rayon blouse often tied daintily at the top with a ribbon. Then the smart little matching jacket cropped at the waist to make it a bit formal. Nylons. Always beige. Then the little – size 5? – black, navy blue or beige pumps. Never high heels (and Miss Avedikian could have used their boost!), always the pumps. Some pearl earrings in her rather large wobbly earlobes and a smart wrist watch on her tiny wrist were the final touches. These days, when all of America – including many public school teachers – are living their best lives in yoga pants or outfits that may as well be their pajamas, Miss Avedikian looked like she CARED. Teaching, teaching music, being in front of a classroom of 30 students was serious business to her – and an honor. And you, the student, got the message – you got serious and focused when you entered Miss A’s classroom and saw this paragon of good grooming sitting at her big metal teachers desk smiling her big toothy smile at you, expecting your best, your best effort ever. Her hair was Armenian thick and dark black, but she kept it short, in a cute curly style that kinda bobbed up and down if she really got into a song she was singing with us or played the school piano very passionately.
Miss Avedikian was small but mighty. While she loved all her students, she could turn on a dime and flash that hot temper of hers if someone was smoking in the boys room or fighting in the hallway or sassing her back. An angry Miss A got beet red in the face, her eyes bulged out of their sockets and she yelled. Very loudly. She had the lung capacity for it. … It was traumatic seeing your usually wonderful teacher go berserk on you. So most wayward kids quickly wanted to set things right again and apologized to Miss Avedikian and hung their heads down in remorse. And then it was all over. The storm had gone to sea. Miss Avedikian was quick to “let bygones be bygones” and within seconds she was giving the student a big hug and words of encouragement.
So, every spring we had our school Spring Concert where all our parents and family friends were invited to our grand, stately school auditorium with its ornate proscenium and heavy velvet stage curtains and framed prints of presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln nailed to the walls on either side of the stage, to listen to us sing a bunch of hopeful spring songs led by Miss Avedikian. She accompanied us on the mini-grand piano at the foot of the stage. Prov had stage lights and, I think, a pretty good sound system. The seats the audience sat in were wooden but it was a gorgeous space, the school built around the Great Depression when America knew how to build schools that inspired our first and second generation Americans (like me) to excel. President Franklin Roosevelt had given federal jobs to artists and muralists. Here, make some money: paint two huge murals in the front entrance way at Providence Street Junior High School in Worcester, Massachusetts. The government will pay you. Where the marble stairs end and the hardwood floors begin, that’s your canvas. The murals – of the Native Americans of the Vernon Hill area – still grace the front entrance of my old junior high.
Rose’s mom’s George Washington calendar print, from 1949, hangs on Rose’s bedroom wall in Spencer these days. Fifty years ago, prints of this portrait hung in every junior and senior high school in America, often next to a print of a famous painting of Abraham Lincoln. This was true at the old “Prov” on Vernon Hill.
Besides a beautiful old school, our parents were treated to concert program booklets specially printed for the occasion, with parts 1 and 2 of the program and an intermission for any mom or dad who needed to use the bathroom or make a phone call in the phone booth outside the principal’s office. Mr. Bohman, our school principal, was a tall bald man who, like Miss Avedikian, also dressed impeccably – he always wore a dark suit and white dress shirt and necktie – he was always serious and polite to us students. He was the one who kicked off our spring concert, standing before a packed auditorium, welcoming the parents with a little speech delivered at the podium. Then Miss Avedikian came out and took the spotlight and led us students up into the stage, then into song, all the familiar we need world peace and harmony now songs we practiced for months. One side of our big stage was home to the altos, the other side covered by the sopranos. Sometimes the boys sang one verse and the girls sang the next. We kids were scrubbed and clean and wearing our best. At the end of the concert one student always gallantly presented Miss Avedikian with a big bouquet of roses – a thank you present for making it all happen. We kids had each pitched in a dollar or two for the bouquet and the designated flower guy or gal’s parents bought the bouquet of roses.
And you should have seen Miss Avedikian’s face at the end of one of our concerts, with her roses, all the parents standing up clapping, giving us a standing ovation and Miss Avedikian, wearing a corsage just like our little prom queen, in tears and taking a bow. Miss Avedikian may not have been conventionally pretty: she had a hang dog face, a few folds of skin under her big brown eyes, a big toothy grin, but to us kids she was beautiful. She never talked about a husband the way some teachers did. She seemed to me to be in her 40s at least, older than some of my teachers. And while her dress impressed us students, it was the hippie ’70s, and some teachers wore mini-skirts or platform shoes or even clogs with colored tites to class. Miss Avedikian wouldn’t be caught dead in a mini-, midi- or maxi skirt! She could have fit into a LEAVE IT TO BEAVER TV episode …
Rose’s father, pictured here holding Rose’s kid sisters, was emotionally abusive, and sometimes physically abusive, to Rose’s mom.
But our neighborhood, our home lives, we’re not Leave It To Beaver. Few of us lived in pretty, single family homes with big front yards and white picket fences. Most of us lived in Green Island or Union Hill or Vernon Hill three deckers, many of which were in great shape at that time, many of which were in shitty shape at that time. Like our three decker flat on Lafayette Street. Ma tried to make it cozy, but the windows were so old… we were always cold during winter time … the floors needed to be ripped out and replaced (never were), and our refrigerator hummed super loud 24 hours a day. We had maggots crawling out of our metal garbage cans in our backyard, and our back yard – at one time grassy with a cute bird bath – now was simply a big patch of dirt. The landlord had pulled out all the landscaping stops for a previous tenant because he was having an affair with her. When she left so did the birdbath and lawn.
So it came as a real surprise to me when I asked Miss Avedikian: Where would you really like to teach? Which school? Prov or Forest Grove, miss Avedikian? I had had the pleasure of accompanying my music teacher to a meeting at the recently built, beautiful, new, modern Forest Grove Junior High School in Worcester’s wealthy West Side. I think Miss Avedikian asked me to accompany her because the schools wanted student feedback on a new music curriculum. Something like that. Miss Avedikian chose me not because of any superior musical ability but because I was a smart, good kid who would be quiet and respectful at Forest Grove – and give my honest assessment of the proposed music curriculum. For me, I was thrilled to be riding in a car!! I mean, what a treat! A new car! With one of my favorite teachers – who was driving it!!! How cool!! My family was too poor to own an automobile, so I seldom got the chance to hop into a nice car and just sit back and let lovely scenery fly by. We – my mom and two kid sisters – walked all over Green Island and Downtown Worcester to shop, eat, go to movies, attend church or school. Worcester was more cohesive back then and mom and pop shops ruled and our downtown was a real downtown. It was fun walking down Millbury Street with Ma to buy shoes at Lisbon’s Shoe Store or a window shade at White’s Five and Ten or to cross Kelley Square to buy a big babka bread and a bag of warm bulkies at Widoffs Bakery on Water Street. It was, however, not at all fun to walk down a half-snow-plowed Lafayette Street in the dark with my mother and sisters after a snowstorm, after Ma finished her day at the dry cleaners. After a nor’easter our Green Island sidewalks were seldom shoveled so we walked in the street, on Lafayette, behind Ma, single file, against traffic. With headlights shining on us, with slush being splattered over us. So, you can see why it was such a big deal for me to ride in an automobile.
Worcester’s East Side used to be home to many blue collar families who lived in these three deckers and hundreds of others like them. The same held true for decades in Worcester’s Vernon Hill, Union Hill and Green Island neighborhoods. Gentrification has changed these great old Woo ‘hoods!
Anyways, Miss Avedikian and I had just finished up our little meeting at Forest Grove and we were heading to her car to drive back to Prov. I had never been to the West Side and was impressed by all the nice houses, their expansive front lawns, and the new modern Forest Grove Junior High School with its connecting, enclosed walkways between parts of the school, big panes of glass that were frosted. As in decorative. Wow. Who wouldn’t want to live here and attend junior high here?
But when I asked my music teacher: Which school do you like better, Miss Avedikian? She said, Prov, Rosalie. She looked at me and smiled and said: I like our kids. Over here they can be – and she stuck her dainty little finger under her rather big nose and lifted it up, pointing it to the sky. Then my music teacher gave me a little hug, we got into her nice car and drove back to our favorite junior high school in all of Worcester.
That day was eye-opening. I lived with a father who hated everything about our Green Island neighborhood, called the people “crippled freaks,” and he hated us, his family, too. He called my mother a “fuck nut” and why were my kid sisters so skinny and couldn’t Ma do anything right?! … To have Miss Avedikian, a real musician and concert violinist in her earlier career, a teacher who wore beautiful clothes and could teach at Forest Grove Junior High School – a beautiful new school in a beautiful rich neighborhood – PREFER to be in Vernon Hill, at Providence Street Junior High School, teaching us blue collar and working poor kids music, impressed me. Made me feel proud and squeeze a little harder when Miss Avedikian and I hugged. She wanted to be with us kids because maybe she knew what it felt like to be the underdog. She was gonna make us the overdog. Because we loved her so.