My Maries

By

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.

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.

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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.

On one bright winter afternoon heaped with snow another teacher and I were charged with taking the girls to Philadelphia's Academy of Music to see the opera ``Hansel and Gretel.'' I had been preparing them for weeks, playing the music on the piano and teaching them to sing some of the simpler melodies. They were agog with anticipation. We had all we could do to control them as they piled onto the streetcar.

Once in the academy, we were seated in a box. All through the performance the children were nearly falling out of it in their enthusiasm -- especially when the witch had her big scene and was finally pushed into the oven. Many of these girls had never been out of their own neighborhood. I silently blessed Madame for arranging this. She was, after all, a benevolent despot!

In the fall I found the kind of teaching job I had been looking for, and I gave notice. But I was not prepared for the wrenching feeling I had on that last day. Marie Dupoldo and her little sister, Caterina, walked me all the way to the streetcar, hanging onto me and pleading with me to stay on and continue to be their teacher. They were the sisters whose mother threw knives. Marie was wild and unpredictable -- sometimes quite unmanageable -- but she was good-hearted and very bright. During the next few years I occasionally received notes from her telling me about what they were doing in the big house.

About five years later, in an unlikely setting, I had an unexpected encounter with my settlement past. I went with friends to Maurice's -- a delightful, many-roomed restaurant on one of Philadelphia's famous alleys. It was popular with the arty crowd, having huge, dripping candles on the tables and classical music piped into every room. Maurice had an enormous record collection and could often be seen in the doorway of one of the rooms blissfully conducting a Beethoven symphony. On the topmost floor he had what he called his ``Beethoven Shrine'': a bust of the composer in a dimly lit, chapel-like room.

Our dinner was suddenly interrupted when an attractive young woman stepped over to our table and inquired politely, ``Miss Kerns?'' I recognized her at once. ``Genevieve!'' I exclaimed. She had been one of the more serious of the settlement house girls and had a particularly lovely singing voice.

``I'll never forget those singing classes,'' she said. ``They meant so much to me. And now I'm taking voice lessons, and I want to be a professional singer.'' After a friendly chat, I watched her walk gracefully back to the table where her escort was seated.

My thoughts leapt back to the recreation periods. Though well-behaved in class, in games Genevieve could be one of the most vociferous. Her ``Boy, Marie!'' could often be heard above the others. But now look at her -- a beautiful, talented young lady with ambitions!

The incident swept me back to a richly rewarding year -- poor indeed in financial reward, but richer, perhaps, than any other year in those heart-rewards that outdo all others. Doris Kerns Quinn

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