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My Maries

By Doris Kerns Quinn / April 8, 1986



BOY, Marie!'' I heard Marie Ferri yell indignantly at Marie Piranello. In this Italian neighborhood nearly everyone was named Marie -- or Maria. Marie Ferri, Marie Piranello, Marie Dupoldo, Maria Campana, Maria Affalani. . . . ``Boy, Marie!'' was the favorite reproach, and the air often rang with it as they were playing. They were a rough-and-tumble bunch, those girls in the South Philadelphia settlement house. Yet they had hearts of gold and boundless generosity. I had them for singing and games four hours after school each day -- with an hour off for dinner, when I went to a corner drugstore for a sandwich. At first it was hard going, but I came to love these vital, unruly girls, and they came at least to tolerate me.

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Most of them were from extremely poor homes where vermin scampered about at night. Two of them -- sisters -- had a mother who sometimes threw knives. Yet many of the parents appreciated deeply what we teachers were trying to do, and now and then they invited us, individually, for a meal. Their hospitality on these occasions couldn't have been surpassed, and the children were wondrously well behaved, considering their behavior at the settlement house. They were so proud to have their teacher as a guest in their home.

``Madame,'' the Swiss lady who headed the settlement house, kept a well-run school, with singing classes, gym classes, violin and piano lessons, arts and crafts. The children ranged in age from 4 to 14, and they were all girls, except for a group of older boys who played basketball in the gym. Madame didn't expect boys to have artistic leanings, so she didn't think it important to have singing or art classes for them. She was an imposing figure: Her piled-high white hair, her great height and stout figure, and her black and silver cane, which she was wont to stomp on the floor to emphasize her commands, terrified teachers and pupils alike.

One of Madame's daughters had been disowned because she married one of the young men of the neighborhood. Madame had her own concept of social work. You were helping the poor; they should be grateful; they should never get the idea, however, that they were as good as you and could marry your daughter. When I listened to her views on these subjects I wanted so badly to cry, ``Boy, Marie!'' (for her name was also Marie!), but not being very courageous in those years, I merely listened as respectfully as possible.

I spent almost a year trekking to South Philadelphia for my 4 to 9 p.m. routine in this strange environment. Mornings were spent on Philadelphia's Main Line. There, on a beautiful estate, I taught the daughter of one of Philadelphia's first families. The contrast was dramatic when I reentered the narrow, dirty streets of South Philly's slums. Yet I felt I was exchanging a heavy environment for a happy one -- at least as far as the children were concerned. They gave so much of their love of life, their energy and alertness, their capacity for fun. They were unsquelchable. One worried about their future, but one had to admit they were able to make much out of the little the present offered them.