Back to School, Worcester! Reading, writing … and Ma’s telephone calls

By Rosalie Tirella

Lamartine Street School class photo: Rose, seated, first row, far right.

When I was a little girl growing up in Green Island, back-to-school time, usually right after Labor Day, was not about buying stylish back-to-school clothes or wearing the coolest designer sneakers or bragging about exotic summer vacations in Africa or France … or the recent purchase of your new portable TV for your bedroom – just for you – by Dad. My mom, a single mother who worked 60 hours a week for minimum wage at the dry cleaners down the street, couldn’t afford any of that upper-middle-class social/academic enrichment.

It wasn’t about sports, either – though sometimes it was about trying out for varsity or jv football teams for our cousins – the boys. Baseball practice for them in springtime, too.

But mostly for us kids, like it was for lots of first-generation Americans and their off-spring in the 1950/60s, September signaled the start of another school year, another 10 months of intense ACADEMIC COMPETITION between mothers, aunts, uncles and even grandparents who treated us kids like the finest thoroughbreds – raced against each other and all the other students in the Worcester Public Schools for the grand prize: highest A in math class, the A+ in spelling … the coolest styrofoam-ball solar system model in science class!

TO ACHIEVE IN AMERICA! LAND OF FREEDOM AND OPPORTUNITY FOR ALL – IF YOU WORKED HARD AND HAD EVEN A SMIDGEN OF ABILITY! Our mothers, aunts, uncles and even grandparents believed this (myth???) to the very narrow of their bones. They picked their faves (one of us) and set their dreams squarely on our tiny shoulders or tall, lanky frames, knowing, just knowing!, that we kids – students all! – were going to be their American Dream realized.

Our lives would be their gifts, bought with their minimum wage jobs in the dry cleaners – for 60 hours a week – or their toil in the hellish heat in the Douglas textile mill (my grandfather from Poland). We kids were our family’s, AMERICA’S, BEST AND BRIGHTEST. Gold to parents and grandparents, the sod busters of Ireland, the turnip diggers of Poland, the grape pickers of Italy, the factory or mill workers of Woo’s Quinsig Village, Green Island and South Worcester. We kids were gonna wash the grime out from under our fingernails to become … professionals! Courtesy of America’s public schools – the Worcester Public Schools!

Our parents and grandparents meant business when it came to public education – we kids attended school every day, unless we were dying. Unable to get out of bed because of a high fever, chicken pox, a burst appendix. They didn’t care if our teachers were racist, classist, insensitive or even nasty. To our parents, even the most ignorant and/or incompetent teacher had knowledge we could squeeze out of them. Make lemonade from lemons! they seemed to tell us. Our parents backed up our teachers at parent-teacher conferences, too – and when it came to discipline, they didn’t challenge the schools. Usually, they double-downed.

In my extended family, we were not allowed to fritter away Monday through Friday with Barbie dolls or Tonka Trucks (that was for the weekends when we kids got to play, play, play). During our “work week” we were expected to work hard at being students … We would get straight A’s at Lamartine Street School, study our hearts out at Providence Street Junior High School (even buying our homeroom teachers little Christmas presents) and come in early to help our chemistry teacher set up the lab before first period at Burncoat Senior High School. If we did all this – and I did! – we would grow up to be brilliant American professionals, dressing in skirts and blouses for the girls, suits and sleek, black pointy shoes for the boys. Working with our brains – not our hands. Making good money just for THINKING! For being a smart person! Only in America would we get this chance! We Dumb Polack kids or swarthy Italian kids or Irish Mick’s who were still outsiders in WASPY America – the places our parents wanted us to be. But we didn’t know anything. We were just kids. We were kids who were being scrubbed with a hot soapy wash cloth behind the ears, under our armpits, by our moms or getting our hair cut at drunken Molly’s on Green Street for day #1 of the Worcester Public Schools – we Lituanian-, Polish-, Irish- Swedish-, Italian-American kids whose parents or grandparents dared to believe in America. Many of them couldn’t write very well, or even read. So they put all their eggs in their kids’ baskets! My mother told me the story of a boy she knew as a little girl living in “The Block” on Bigelow Street. His parents kept him locked in his room and, when he got out, he would grab a newspaper and run to his friend, an older kid, begging him to teach him to read! She was telling me: We were the beloved! Look! she said to me. Uncle Joe bought his son, my cousin Tommy, a doctor’s bag! It is “just” a toy, she said, but the black stethoscope inside the bag is almost as impressive as Dr. Piekers’s, our pediatrician’s. The doctors bag (back then docs made house calls, with doctors bags) also came with 5 Band-Aids, 2 fake orange plastic syringes (no needles), 1 plastic thermometer, a fake head lamp for the doctor … and a Red Cross sticker.

I wanted to be a teacher, so Ma walked to White’s Five and Ten on Millbury Street and bought me pens, pencils, rulers, note pads, drawing pads and crayons so my two kid sisters and I could play school in the living room, after real school. I was the teacher. Sometimes my real first grade teacher at Lamartine Street School would have to go to the classroom next door … and she would make me get up and go around the classroon to help the other students with their reading. I was the teacher! That’s because I was the best reader – already she knew that and accelerated my course work – had me reading second- and third- grade books.

At night, at the end of their work days, my mother and Aunt Mary took turns telephoning each other to compare notes about their kids’ school days!! – really to brag, to compete. Very American. My mom bragged to her sister, my Aunt Mary, about my A+ book report. My Aunt Mary matched that news with her son’s, my cousin Fred’s, 100% correct math test! Math was harder than reading, she intimated to Ma. So the next night my mother called my aunt to announce: Rosalie got 100% in her math test! My cousin was a year older than me; he was a grade ahead at his school in the Burncoat neighborhood. So we were pretty evenly matched. No comment from my aunt. This “contest” went on three or four nights a week – between Ma and Aunt Mary – for my entire WPS career, K – grade 12.

My mother never expected less from me because we lived in a ramshackle tenement on Lafayette Street and my cousins lived in a cute cape off Burncoat Street. I don’t remember her ever using the word “poor” during my childhood or teen years! And I never felt poor! Just loved by her … To Ma, I was as strong in the I.Q. department as my boy cousins – a bit stronger, I think. She believed I could do or be anything. Powerful stuff for a little girl growing up in the 1960s/70s!

My kid sisters and I, thanks to Ma, were well fed, well rested, well behaved. So why not excel at school and go on to college? Why not be a writer? Or a painter – just like my Italian cousin who went on to paint sets in Hollywood! Why not have her Rosalie take free violin and accordion lessons at Lamartine Street School? The Italian side of my family was full of musicians – banjo players! My Uncle Al had a jazz band during the Depression – he was the conductor. His band had a girl singer – they called them “chirps” – who wore sexy evening gowns. They played weddings, reunions, parties, and they made good money. They were professional musicians who didn’t need day jobs to pay the bills, my late uncle used to crow:
Rose’s uncle and his band✨✨

In the end, thanks to the WPS, both my boy cousins went on to Holy Cross college where they majored in pre-med. Then they went to and graduated from med school. One’s at U Michigan, working in the radiology dept; the other’s in Western Mass – a sports doc who cares for the elderly.

My other cousin, my other aunt’s girl, was pushed and prodded by my aunt to be perfect! Auntie could be so much more “strict” and demanding than my mom or Aunt Mary. My cousin’s goal, per my aunt? To be “the smartest person in the world”! WPI almost got “Janey” there! She was part of the old Worcester Polytechnic Institute second-generation of female engineers. Just a handful of young women back then – WPI was filled with guy engineering students – girls weren’t encouraged to major in math or the sciences. As a little girl, Janey’s hair was brushed – by my aunt – 100 times every night. To circulate the blood in the scalp, my mother used to tell me, looking a little afraid. Ma was not my Aunt who was married to a physically abusive house painter. My aunt wanted my cousin to escape the abuse, be safe and self-sufficient! This meant being the best in the Worcester Public Schools!

Sometimes they’d visit us in our Lafayette Street flat, my aunt and my beautiful cousin, who was always red-faced, always so crushed-looking, always on the verge of tears. My aunt was stern with her, my uncle brutal … but her pets saved her. The family had a cat, two guinea pigs – Daisy and Lil’ Abner – who lived in a big double story hutch my uncle had built for them – and painted a happy red – and, of course, their Dobermann pinschers. My aunt adored the breed – she had Dobies from when she was 25 to 81, an old lady who lived alone in her house off Webster Square, with her last beautiful Dobie, Fawn. My cousin loved all her pets. When she became an engineer and moved Out West with her husband, she ran her own little animal rescue farm: two horses, five dogs, a bunch of cats, a hamster or two.

Sometimes my mother, who left school after 8th grade at Girls Trade to work as a maid at the Bishop’s to help support the family during the Depression, got into my school work. Big time! She wanted me to read my little essays to her – sometimes she’d suggest a different ending, one with a little more pizzazz! She would show me how she would draw the cover to my 7th grade book report for Mrs. Nedwick’s English class at “Prov” Jr. High. This was after an 11-hour day at the dry cleaners! But now I see: she was relaxing, dreaming … for herself, through me.

Why is it so different today in the Worcester Public Schools? Kids hitting our teachers. Their parents jumping into the fray! Showing no respect for teachers, books, learning, education … the American Promise!

No excuses! The WPSchools were racist, tough, classist in my day. But if any kid was serious, did the homework, respected the teachers – even if the teachers had blindspots, were jerks, even – YOU GOT SOMETHING OUT OF THE SCHOOL DAY.

I remember a junior high class field trip to a Worcester weather station. One of my classmates, a sweet kid who had been kept back twice and struggled to read two grade levels below our class level, ran to the big black swivel chair behind the weatherman’s desk and grinning from ear to ear, jumped in it and began to swivel, trying to look impressive – clearly impressed with himself! And having fun!

Our teacher, not a very nice person, said to him: Well, John, at least you can pretend!

John’s face went pale, froze up. His smile floated away like a cumulous cloud. He stopped swivelling.

I was devastated! Johnny was such a good kid! Always nice to me, my classmates and his teachers! He didn’t – no one did – deserve our teacher’s meanness!

The field trip ended, we got on the big yellow school bus to go back to Prov. When I got home from school, I didn’t discuss our field trip with Ma or my sisters … didn’t talk about Johnny in the weatherman’s chair and what I had learned that morning.