Alice's 5th graders wrote the best letters

AS I read about the problems and challenges facing teachers today, I'm almost relieved that I wasn't able to fulfill my ambition and become one. Being a Depression-era graduate with family commitments, I didn't go down that road but ``took the other, as just as fair, And having perhaps the better claim ... !'' Nor have I regretted it.

In fact, I basked vicariously in the satisfaction of getting some inspiration across to young minds when my daughter went into the profession. True, she became slightly wary as the ``freedom'' of the 1960s asserted itself, and teaching lost some of its glamour. But life went on, families grew, and we followed our personal vocations.

The dream revived recently, however, when I received a letter from Alice, a longtime friend who just happens to ``have almost 90-year-old feet'' (which is as far as she'll go toward acknowledging her age). She is more youthful in spirit than I am, I suspect, and her attitude toward life, her keen memory, and her humorous reflections prove it.

My friend related her experience as a telephone operator in Providence, R.I., when she was ``going to normal school [college, now] studying to become a teacher.'' Her hours were from 5 to 11 p.m. during those World War I years. She was 17 years old.

Eventually she was promoted to Assistant Chief Operator, nights. ``$35 a week -- a fabulous sum those days -- most places paid $9 weekly. I very reluctantly gave up my job when I received my permanent appointment to teach 5th Grade.

``Each room had 48 desks, and 5th Grade was the first year of Grammar School. So I had 53 pupils age 9-15 years, 5 desks around mine. When I received my first paycheck ... $13.75 a week. And I gave up $35 a week for that!!!''

Alice taught five years there, from 1916 to 1921. Her letter went on: ``Teachers now think they have it hard. I had to be at my desk at 8:30 a.m. and couldn't leave until 4:30 p.m. School was dismissed at 3:45 p.m. We had to stand all day teaching -- supposed to keep the children's attention. But I really enjoyed it.

``The course of study required us to teach 5th Graders `how to write a friendly letter' -- my cup of tea. Such crying and groans -- but I soon ran out of space to display their beautiful letters. When the Grammar School supervisor came, she told the pupils that Miss Walsh's children wrote the most beautiful letters of all 5th Graders in the City of Providence (then 350,000 people). Were they ever proud!!!'' Alice's enthusiasm was still fresh, if those exclamation points were any indication.

This is only part of my friend's four-page letter. She is no longer ``Miss Walsh,'' having married and retired to rear her own children. But I happen to know she carries on a voluminous correspondence with several fortunate recipients such as myself, causing us to reflect and tote up our blessings. Her generous, large-spirited acceptance of life has not been diminished, no matter what almost 90 calendar years might suggest.

So, whenever a letter arrives bearing her inimitable scrawl on the envelope, I open it with joy, inviting Alice to ``go ahead: make my day.'' And maybe (I think) if I share some of her reflections, her ideals, seeing the classroom through her eyes just might make some good teachers better.

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