By Rosalie Tirella
As a child and teen I attended the Worcester Public Schools, K – 12. In the mid 1970s I was a student at Providence Street Junior High School in Vernon Hill. Now the big, august brick building, with its grand, floor-to-ceiling, Depression-era WPA murals in the entrance hall, is Vernon Hill Elementary School. I walk my husky mix Jett there after school lets out. As Jett (on lead) and I (in ugly walking shoes!) trot around the building to get some exercise and enjoy the nice weather, I’ve had a chance to think about the old brick building – my favorite! school.
First, changing demographics be damned!, “Prov,” as the locals used to call it, should have stayed a junior high school. It was meant to be loved by 13 and 14 year old kids – students old enough to be WOWED by its early 20th century grandness: the auditorium’s ornate proscenium; the narrow mahogany paneled hallways that lead down to the old gymnasium with ceilings so high and from which thick knotted ropes used to hang, ropes we kids, in our “Prov” gym uniforms, would have to climb up during gym class; the hardwood floors in each classroom; the wood paneled library; the marble (?!) floor in front of the main door; the granite flowers and waves at the tops of the side entrances; the sharp looking granite columns on the side of the entrances that feel a little METROPOLIS art deco …
What I’m saying is: Providence Street Junior High School was built in such an exalted fashion! And the architecture informed the mood! Our principal Mr. Bohman always wore a crisp, dark suit ( in spring time light gray) and tie and white shirt. He was always serious but polite. Our wood paneled library filled with books and ” periodicals” – huge for a junior high library – was staffed by a lovely, full-time librarian, an older woman, who always wore ruffled, high collared blouses. Her eye glasses were connected to a dainty silver chain she wore around her neck. Her brown (dyed) hair pinned up in this high and flowing hairstyle. Very Victorian! And she spoke in whispers! Even if you and she were the only people in the room! As if her library were hallowed ground! She was always neatening things up in between classes so the Prov library would be PERFECT for the next group of students. Most of us kids were poor! No one had a library or den in their three decker flat! Hell, I knew a kid whose family didn’t even have a sofa! Some of our parents couldn’t read! Some of us couldn’t read! No matter! Mrs. Brosnihan, I think that was her name, kept her library beautiful and helped us choose books to read and looked us in the eyes and smiled as she helped us find books on dogs, horses or baseball in the library card catalog. She taught us how to do research for term papers using huge tomes called THE READERS GUIDE TO PERIODICAL LITERATURE. These guides, no pictures, dark green cloth covers, intimidated the hell out of me! Was I smart enough to use THE READERS GUIDE TO PERIODICAL LITERATURE to do my report?! I was in seventh grade all honors classes at Providence Street Junior High School, damn it! I WOULD CONQUER that readers guide AS THICK AND HEAVY AS The CINDER BLOCKS outside my family’s Lafayette Street tenement.
Of which there were zero at Prov. No cinder blocks! … No dry wall, either. No particle board, no plastic, no Styrofoam! Just WPA murals, marble, real wood and plenty of it! In the floors, the walls … stained and, I believe, polished and waxed often enough!
HEAVEN! Inspiring to be in such environs! Providence Street Junior High made you feel like you wanted to be wicked excellent because you were engulfed in wicked excellence, courtesy of the City of Worcester! Providence Street Junior High was telling us working class kids our education mattered, that you were supposed to read, write, strive and excel even if you were poor, your parents worked in the factories or do the math you were doing in Mr. Bejune’s math class. Mr. Bejune! Another Prov gem! It was at Prov that I decided YES! I would go to college!
I did, too! First one in my family!
Prov was a place where the kids or grand kids of immigrants (me, for instance!) could feel … like true Americans! This relatively new country to my family (my grandparents hailed from Italy and Poland) was good. Sure, my grand dad sweated blood in those Dudley mills during summertime, but I chubby Rosie could go on to college and study to become a teacher and have summers off!
America had high hopes for kids who were thought of as nothing more than human sod busters in Europe. We were coming from no-opportunity countries to an EQUAL-opportunity country.
I still believe in the promise that is America!
Back then, back at Prov, we had promises made to us by our teachers, the adults who visited us, city leaders, and we had promises to keep too. That Providence Street Junior High School, with its grand front steps, its chemistry labs and life science teachers in lab coats, wanted us to do ALL our homework, kick ass for that book report, study are hearts out because Providence Street Junior High School was a special place and we were so very lucky to attend such a special school.
We had a music teacher, Miss Avedikian. She, no taller than 4′ 10″, would give these bone crushing bear hugs to you! To everyone! To these huge Amazon girls who’d maybe been kept back a few times and to these big lost looking 9th grade boys who were known school and neighborhood troublemakers but who nonetheless lumbered over to Miss Avedikian for their hugs – maybe the only hug they’d get that day!
Did I tell you how wonderful the teachers at Prov were?!
Any ways, Miss Avedikian adored us all and had half the student body in the school chorus! A couple of hundred kids at least! If you could breathe you were in her chorus! What a thrill! To come home to my mother and to tell her: Ma! I made the Prov chorus and we’re gonna have a spring recital! You’re gonna be there – right?! Right, Ma?!!
I wanted to show off my beautiful big school to my single mom who worked 60 hours a week at the dry cleaners for minimum wage and came home to our tired looking tenement late, made supper and after clean up was snoring in front of the TV set by 8:30. She was that exhausted! My mom had a beautiful smile but she rarely smiled. I wanted her to smile! To sit in the grand old Prov auditorium in one of her two special occasion dresses – the cocoa dress with white trim or the yellow dress with black trim – and be proud of her daughter and her beautiful school! I longed to see her beam with happiness!
I still remember Ma’s dresses: both were of the same style – sleeveless, knee-skimming, sorta crepe like and they always – always- smelled like HEAVEN SCENT perfume, the stuff you’d buy at the drug store. And whenever something special at school was going on Ma’d wear one of her nice dresses to the event, with demure gold wristwatch she wore on special days. With her pretty figure, her fine dark brown hair curled, her Elizabeth Arden classic red lipstick, her Heaven Scent and her light pink iridescent snap-on earring my mother was a knockout! And she’d smile! She’d smile watching me sing in the Prov auditorium, with its wooden seats all connected, making concentric circles out from the big stage with its heavy velvet curtains and the portrait of President George Washington on one side and the portrait of President Abraham Lincoln on the other.
At the end of our concerts Miss Avadikian always asked parents and guests to rise and sing some patriotic song with the Providence Street Junior High School Chorus. What a sight to behold and listen to! My mom, along with 300 or so other blue collar moms and dads and uncles and friends, plus us kids, belting out IT’S A GRAND OLD FLAG!
Some of the dads got out of the factories early that day and wore their dark blue work shirts and pants to the concert. I always thought they looked serious … respectful. (My dad was always a no-show.)
And then we’d file out of the auditorium, with a bigger kid, usually a boy from the ninth grade, carrying a huge American flag before him. His hair might have been in his eyes because in the mid 1970s all the guys wore their hair long or longish, usually with bangs, but he’d do ok, make his way down the main aisle alright, the rest of us, mixes of Poles, Puerto Ricans, Blacks, Italians, Lithuanians, Germans, Swedes, a bit of Irish following him (careful! Don’t let the flag’s corner touch the floor!) singing the best we could.