By Rosalie Tirella
What would “Ma” do?
That’s what I ask myself every time my “libby” (liberal) self is on the cusp of carrying away my more staid, practical, inner-city Green Island Grrrl self. My late Mom was way smarter than I am and more sensitive to others; she had an open heart and open mind at all times. But she was no push over. She knew how hard life could be – especially for poor folks – because her life was unremitting poverty. She made tough choices every day, yet she lived with such grace and wicked humor … Her life was outsized! Full! Her cup runneth over!
So I think of Ma when I think of Ballot Question 2: LIFTING THE CAP ON CHARTER SCHOOLS … MORE CHARTER SCHOOLS IN MASS. Up to 12.
At first, my liberal reaction: GAWD NO! For all the libby reasons. But then my mom and how she raised us kids in Green Island in the ’60s and ’70s surfaces…how she got the most out of Woo schools for her three girls – with no money, no connections, no car, not much of a clothing budget, no high school diploma (my mom completed the 8th grade and was promptly farmed out to Springfield, along with her three sisters, to be the Bishop of Springfield’s housekeeper/cook, during the Great Depression) but plenty of natural ability. Thanks to Ma, we kids got what we needed from the schools: for me, the Worcester Public Schools, K to 12. Ma knew I loved -LOVED!!! – to learn and that the best chance for her little whiz kid to excel was to keep her in the Worcester Public Schools with their smart, serious teachers, impressive science labs, serious sports equipment, big stately buildings (Prov) or spanking new digs (just built Burncoat), new text books, tons of homework and college-oriented goals. I was expected to – cuz I was smart – get straight As, take all honors classes at Providence Street Junior High and enroll in A.P./honors classes at Burncoat Senior High School. I did and Ma was over the moon! She also got a bit pushy – made me take accordion and violin lessons and pushed me to join the schools all city orchestra. I put my foot down: I was too shy for performing on stage and hated the old violin Ma rented for me out of some music store on Main Street where the piano teacher was deaf!, and I grew bored with my accordion, despite the sparkly rhinestones in some of its buttons and its cool iridescent mother of pearl front!
My two kid sisters attended Lamartine Street School until grade 4, then Mom transfered them to St. Mary’s, her alma mater, on Richland Street. My mom felt my kid sisters “wouldn’t make it” in the rough and tumble Worcester Public Schools where kids often fought in the school yard and a few, I remember my pal showed me hers!, even carried knives. St. Mary’s, the little school for Polish kids and families, was much tamer (and to me sooo BORING): small, intimate and safe. Students had to wear conservative looking school uniforms, go to mass at least once a week at the mother church across the street on Ward Street – Our Lady of Czetchowa – and kow tow to nuns who taught most of the classes and brooked no bull shit. The nuns could be sadistic – they were allowed to pull kids up out of their chairs by their ears! The first grade and seond grade nun/teachers were young and sweet and round faced (I went to St. Mary’s catechism class every Monday eve so I knew my sisters’ teachers), but things progressed badly as you went up in grades. In your 10th grade biology class you could see the hair growing out of your nun’s nostrils! The nuns at the high school weren’t sweet and they certainly weren’t pretty.
I could also tell my sisters’ St. Mary’s school books weren’t as up to date or challenging as mine, their homework was easier and they had much less of it. But St. Mary’s was way less rough than Lamartine and “Prov.” Everyone was kind of the same. My sisters, twins, awefully skinny, kinda shy and didn’t crush the books the way I could, were happy at St. M’s. They weren’t beaten up anymore. They had fun. They had friends. They liked their classes – and the penguins aka nuns! Ma knew my public school honors classes would be tough for them – no matter how hard Ma tried to help them with homework – and Ma did sit with us and struggle through our projects with us! But she was ok with less excellence because my sisters didn’t crave it like I did. Sure, I was bullied at Lamartine and Prov cuz I was a straight A brainy nearsighted bookworm, and Ma knew it. But I was so crazy about my schools, my teachers, the competitiveness of my fellow smarties and the friendship of my good gal pals that I stuck it all out. And Ma loved her chubby little shining star!
My mom knew she had to make school work for my kid sisters who wouldn’t thrive in public schools. She was too poor to pay for a private Catholic school, but she, like her Mom before her, was a parishoner of Our Lady of Czetchowa and worked a special deal with the church for its St. Mary’s school: free tuition up to graduation from high school (St Mary’s went K to 12), free everything for her two girls (except uniforms). Why? Because Ma was a parishoner who was a single mom who worked 60 hours a week at the dry cleaners for minimum wage and was killing herself to pay the bills and provide a good life for her girls and Polish immigrant mother (“Bapy”) who lived with the family on Lafayette Street. And she and her girls walked to church to attend mass every Sunday morning and on every Holy Day of obligation – of which there are a multitude, if you’re an old school Catholic. Which my mom was.
We were a well deserving church “charity case.”
Fast forward to 2016. St. Mary’s school doesn’t offer the same deal to my mom cuz the pastor is an ASSHOLE. I’ve written about him in this space… you all know the straight dope.
So…What would Ma do for my two kid sisters today? How would she educate two fragile little inner city gals today?
SEND THEM TO A CHARTER SCHOOL.
WORK IT SO THAT HER TWO GIRLS COULD ATTEND A CHARTER SCHOOL – the perfect place for them to learn!
Today Worcester’s charter schools offer a CHOICE to parents like my mom. Parents who don’t often have a lot of choices in their lives and are DOING THEIR BEST AND WANT THE BEST FOR THEIR KIDS. They can’t afford chi chi private schools, they may not be able to drive their kids to another town’s safer, (better???) schools. They may feel, like my mom did, that their kids can’t thrive in a sometimes chaotic public school setting and that they may need smaller and intimate classroom settings. They may feel their kids need to go to school with kids who don’t pose huge discipline problems. School uniforms may help parents save money – I know that was the case for my mom. And while the school’s curriculum or teachers may not be inspiring, they are solid – their kids will graduate knowing how to read and write and do arithmetic. They’ll have a grasp of the basics and can go on from there.
If my mom had boys she would be checking out the Nativity School in the old Girls Club Lincoln House building.
She’d be intrigued by the WPS school President Obama visited a few years ago: Worcester Technical High School. For awhile, as a kid, my mother attended the WPS’s Girls Trade School. Something for which she was always grateful and proud.
Ma would look for the best schools that fit her kids in the best possible way – taking into account a lot more than academics. And because she’d be poor the school choices had to be free. The Worcester Public Schools did well by my immigrant Polish and Italian family: two doctors, a few school teachers, a nurse, a nursing home administrator, an accountant, a lawyer…many of us the first in the family to go to college. Many living the American Dream! There’s even a Hollywood set painter … and a feisty editor of a feisty inner-city community newspaper!
Ma would vote YES ON QUESTION 2.
So will I.