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Back-To-School Time From Yesteryear

A few months ago, while returning to my car after attending a wake, I was surprised to catch a glimpse of something that immediately brought me back to my elementary school days. Directly in front of me stood a portion of the original concrete wall that had surrounded my alma mater.


In 1922, Corpus Christi Church purchased the Robert Graves estate on Searing Avenue and transformed its building into a parish school. It was a beautiful structure of Spanish-style architecture surrounded by the concrete wall, sporting huge ornate iron gates.


The quaint third-grade classroom had been the estate’s stable. Large windows replaced the original horse entrance and a Dutch door led directly outside to a covered porch area. I remember being fascinated and a bit overwhelmed by the size and mystique of the building when I started first grade in 1949.


Familiar faces in the building were those of Mrs. Fleming the music teacher, Mrs. Boland the art teacher and Mr. Heinz the custodian. With the exception of this supporting staff, the entire faculty consisted of the Amityville Sisters of St. Dominic. When my sister Mary entered the same order in 1953, I felt certain that this connection would entitle me to a few perks. It didn’t. 


All students were issued a “book money card” listing each month of the year. Every month we would bring in our payment and the teacher would sign her initials on the card. Monthly tuition was one dollar.


After lunch, we would burn off our excess energy within the enormous grounds surrounding the building. During summer vacations, our idle playground would become overgrown with wild grass up to our knees. Within the first few days of school, we managed to reduce the landscape to its familiar basic dirt and dust.  


One of the eighth-grade girls would operate a candy stand during our playtime. Our favorite items were the candy dots which we would peel off a strip of paper and the little paraffin bottles of flavored syrup. We could bite off the top and drink the syrup or just chew the whole bottle which was almost like chewing gum—almost.


While the girls busied themselves with jump rope, hop-scotch and jacks, we would flip baseball cards, play punch ball, ring-a-levio, or a stupid, barbaric contest of weight versus strength called “Johnny rides a pony.”


I will not list the names of each teacher during my eight years there (although I could). However, I must give recognition to the special person who taught us during our final year. 


As a retired teacher myself, I can attest that even two or three eighth-graders in the same room can sometimes present a challenge. In 1956, the two sections of our class were moved to an adjacent new building and combined into a group of 82, requiring a teacher of exceptional skills.


Sister Mary Douglas was a wonderful lady whose comical, drill-sergeant personality was much like that of Bea Arthur’s TV character, Maude.  We all loved her and there was never any doubt as to who was in control in that room. She would handle her seemingly insurmountable task by delegating a rotating crew of student assistants who would check on daily homework assignments. Loyalty among fellow students was never a factor; we would always delight in ratting on a classmate who was falling down on the job. 


In 1963, our beloved original school was torn down to make way for construction of additional classrooms. The demolished building was carted to the village dump at the end of East Second Street where it was set ablaze by an arsonist. In spite of repeated applications of water and sand, the rubble, as if in protest, smoldered for weeks.


Sadly, in June, 2010, Corpus Christi School closed its doors for the last time, thus ending a long tradition of loving care and quality education.


To all my fellow sentimental nostalgia buffs and alumni, the next time you’re on Searing Avenue, take notice of where that century-old wall proudly remains. In addition to keeping countless youngsters from wandering onto the railroad tracks, it served as a “prison den” rear boundary for many generations of ring-a-levio. If walls could talk.