By Rosalie Tirella
When I was a fifth grader at Lamartine Street School, we were a rough, emotionally closed-off crew of ten year olds. Most of us were frightfully poor, from the Green Island neighborhood; many of us came from “broken homes” where boyfriends and girlfriends moved in and out of our apartments with a confusing regularity. Five or six of us were “kept back” for a year or two or even three – so a few of the boys were really teenagers and looked different from us little fifth grade kiddos. They towered over many of us! Even their voices sounded different…and to hear them struggle in their almost grownup voices as they tried to sound out an easy word in our fifth grade story book when they were called on to read aloud … it made me feel … uncomfortable.
There were plenty of bullies who’d give you a sock to the stomach and kick you when you were rolling on the cement school “yard” in pain. Having grown up with parents fighting all the time – literally taking swings at each other – this kind of behavior was typical, acceptable in our young eyes. Everyone, me included, if pushed, could yell or be emotionally abusive. A few of us carried real knives. I remember one classmate who brought in her pet guinea pig for show and tell. During recess she brought out her big knife, practically a carving knife, and did another kind of show and tell in the Lamartine school yard. She was a quiet kid who was always nice to me; she smelled like her guinea pig: like wood shavings that had been peed on. But she had the coolest red hair and freckles. That afternoon, my classmates and I had made a tight little circle around her as she showed us her big knife. We were quiet, interested…impressed. When the recess bell rang, signalling it was time for classes, she put her big knife away, in her purse, and we kids ran to the big Lamartine Street School doors to re-enter our school. No one thought to tell any adult about the knife.
A few of the girls had real boyfriends. Often they were the ones who were kept back and had their periods and were sexually active. I’ll never forget watching a sister of a classmate walking into our junior high school. She was very pregnant. She was in eighth grade. Because she was so beautiful with her long dark hair and dark beautiful eyes and was always so quiet and sweet, I got it into my head that she was the Madonna, some saint who had been blessed by God with an immaculately conceived baby. I never asked my mom or any adult to explain the situation; I just thought the girl was beautiful – pregnant, especially so – and had received a special gift from God.
Back to Lamartine Street School…So, in walks “Mrs. Harrity,” our school music teacher to give us fifth graders our weekly music class. Now, you’d think that this would be one of the high points of our week, that we fifth graders would be ecstatic to put away our math books, tuck those spelling books deep inside our metal desks to have some fun singing or even dancing with our music teacher. But it wasn’t like that at all. It was like going to the dentist, taking a trip to the gas chamber without ever having to leave the classroom. Mrs. Harrity was pretty, early in her middle age, dressed in no-nonsense skirts and blouses and always wore beige panty hose and flat shoes. She had a nice smile and spoke very softly … but something was lacking. She would walk into our classroom, smiling, carrying her acoustic guitar in its black guitar case, pass out some sheets of paper with music lyrics typed on them and offer us kids tambourines, bells, shakers, etc. to accompany her guitar strumming and singing. Most of us declined to take a musical instrument, except maybe the bigger boys who could be very percussive! We dutifully passed around the lyric sheets. Then Mrs. Harrity would take her guitar out of its case, go over the song, sing it once to us, and then ask us kids to join in for the second sing a long. We never did. As students, we were to be graded on participation and effort, but we didn’t care. We never ever sang a song with Mrs. Harrity.
Why was that?
Every week our nice, polite, milquetoast Irish American teacher would come into our classroom, offer up songs that were pleasant and easy to sing. She’d pass out her mimeographed sheets of paper with song lyrics. We’d all politely accept the light blue or green or pink sheets of paper – and then clam up. For about 35 minutes. Our classroom teacher was gone for this music session – on break – so we kids were alone with Mrs. Harrity. She never scolded us or got mad – but she never really talked with us, either. She never joked around with some of the bigger boys or asked us about ourselves, our lives, our hobbies. She just mechanically pulled out her colored mimeographed sheets of paper, week after week, and sang her pleasant songs and asked us to sing along. We never did. Maybe a few kids would mumble a chorus or two … I think I’d mouth the words halfheartedly but not actually sing them. And I liked to sing at home! We had music on the radio all day. My mom loved music and danced polkas across our kitchen floor. If you know anything about Woo’s old three deckers, then you know the kitchen was the biggest room in the apartment. So we’re talking practically dance hall floor dimensions, here! And I had taken violin and accordion lessons – at Lamartine!! Some of the kids played drums when they went home. A few were into their big brothers’ Beatles collection, the recent Abbey Road was popular back then …
Why couldn’t we sing along with Mrs. Harrity? Just for the hell of it!
Years later I realized my music teacher lived four houses down from my aunt and uncle and their kids, in a big beautiful house in their nice Worcester middle-class neighborhood. Mrs Harrity’s husband worked at a science center and they always had semi-exotic animals in their backyard, like peacocks and small water buffalo. They had an English setter that I loved and couldn’t wait to see and pat whenever I visited my cousins.
But I never made the connection as a kid.
So, clearly, the Harrity’s were “nice people.” But maybe too nice for Lamartine Street students? Too middle class for our rough and tumble lives? Too uncaring to care?
But one day sticks in my brain: it was the day Mrs. Harrity came in with the Credence Clearwater Revival song “Looking Out My Backdoor” – the lyrics mimeographed onto her sheets of mint green paper. We kids had heard the song on the radio. It was a hit back then. I remember reading the lyrics on my sheet of paper and smiling. “…Do do do looking out my back door! /a giant doing cart wheels /a statue wearing high heels/ Look at all the happy creatures dancing on the lawn! …
“Tambourines and elephants are playing in the band/ Won’t you take a ride on my flying spoon?/ Bother me tomorrow /today I’ll buy no sorrow/ Do do do, looking out my back door!”
This song was made for little kids to sing! And Mrs Harrity sang it with real spirit. I remember a few of the kids even volunteered to try out our teacher’s tambourines…I think a few of us sang … sort of. But it was still the usual bust.
Next week it was back to the same musical pap. Mrs. Harrity had given us a great song to sing with her last week – a real rock n roll song that we were probably dancing to in our bedrooms at home – and we had still failed her. We had still shut her out.
Looking back, I think we kids had decided, without ever discussing: Mrs. Harrity wasn’t cool, so it wasn’t cool to sing with her. Mrs. Harrity wasn’t wearing the mini-dresses the way our old third grade teacher, Miss Zaterka, did. Mrs. Harrity didn’t even seem to see us sitting before her, many of us … sad. Mrs. Harrity wasn’t out playing softball with the kids and other teachers after school the way Mrs Nedwick at Providence Street Junior High School did – with real gusto! – her fancy silk scarf blowing in the spring wind on the Vernon Hill ball field. Mrs Harrity would never play a grand game of kick ball with us the way Mr. Chickarian used to play with his sixth grade class during recess – really having fun with his students in our beat up old school yard, with the big cracks in the pavement … even when the best, most powerful kicker in his sixth grade class, Fanny, kicked that big pink rubber kick ball so hard, it went smack into Mr. Chickarian’s genital area. “Right in the nuts!” one of the big boys had screamed, doubling over with laughter. Mr. Chickarian had doubled over, too – in pain. His eyes were bugged out! But you could see he was laughing, too – through the tears. Then all of us kids in the Lamartine school yard had joined in and we were laughing, too, with Mr. Chickarian. Unlike Mr. Gilman, Mr. Chickarian or Mrs. Nedwick, Mrs. Harrity never really had fun with us. Never seemed to like us. And kids, no matter how rich or poor, can always tell if someone likes them.