Tribute to a red brick schoolhouse

Goodbye Abner Gibbs Elementary -- and your real-life Norman Rockwell world. A new, 'better' school for 600 kids will replace you. Sounds like a factory to me.

Abner Gibbs isn’t going to live to 100 – falling short by a year or two. Such a pity! Another victim of the bureaucrats.

Abner Gibbs Elementary is what used to be known as a “neighborhood school” of 200 to 300 kids. The principal knew every child’s name – and also knew the pupils’ brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers. Neighborhood schools were always about intimacy. As such, they well served older, Main Street towns like Abner’s Westfield, Mass., often for more than a century.

Betsy Gaylord, who taught there for years, said, “Abner Gibbs was more than an elementary school. It was a community.” It was like that in 1947, when I went there, and still is.

City officials promise something newer, bigger, and better: a 600-student consolidated elementary school, a library, a science lab. “Magnificent” is what they’re calling old Abner’s replacement. Still, 600 students in one elementary school sounds like an assembly line to me.

Mrs. Gaylord scoffed, “If they tear down that building it’s a shame. I wish they would ‘get it.’ It’s the teachers that make a school, not the age of the classroom.”
She has a point. Abraham Lincoln was educated in a one-room schoolhouse. Just after World War II, there were about 25 kids per grade in my Abner Gibbs years, Grades 2 through 6. My two best friends did OK without gold-plated desks. One went to Yale, the other to Princeton.

My talks with several experienced educators turn up the same conclusion: The larger and less personal the school, the greater the likelihood of bullying. They also said teaching tolerance is easier in small neighborhood schools – and bullying easier to spot. Perhaps it has something to do with the bigger the herd, the more likely you are to get trampled.

I remember the first Jew I ever knew was my fourth-grade teacher, Hannah Goodman. We didn’t know much about Jews, but they had an appeal to 8-year-olds: Miss Goodman got more holidays than the rest of us.

Every morning, she would lead the Lord’s Prayer starting with the first sentence and letting the gentile kids finish it. I can still see her slender, tanned hand over her heart during the Pledge of Allegiance. All the boys were in love with Miss Goodman.

These rituals molded me without scarring unless you consider later joining the American Civil Liberties Union a mark against character.

Elementary education turns on much more than reading, writing, and arithmetic. At Abner Gibbs, even in third and fourth grade, we couldn’t escape life’s weightier lessons about love and death.

One day, two of my pals went home for lunch. While playing a game of war, one removed a loaded .45-caliber pistol from his father’s Army holster and accidentally shot the other kid in the stomach. When you are 8 or 9, death means somebody isn’t coming back to school.

Love was more chaste then. Judy Waltermire was always in love. “Love,” she said, “was holding hands, going to a movie, or playing catch.” Over lunch last month she told me her true love was our sixth-grade teacher, Mr. Cruickshank, with whom none of the sixth-grade boys could hope to compete. A child’s most repetitive lesson, even at the nearly idyllic Abner Gibbs, is that “life isn’t fair.”

Cruelty is a conjoined twin of unfairness. Some boys used to taunt poor Nancy Frisbee, alleging she had cooties. In fact, all she had was beautiful fiery red hair and freckles. She was often reduced to tears until Miss Goodman put a stop to it.

You have to wonder if similar cruelties will go unnoticed amid the anonymity of a 600-pupil
elementary school. Friends say that out of the crucible of that torment, Nancy grew into one of the “loveliest, happiest, kindest women in the entire city of Westfield.”

After Abner Gibbs is gone I will still wonder what happened to the Filipino salesman who did magic tricks at recess while selling his rhinestone-studded yo-yos. I wonder if normal public schools will ever again teach kids to sight-read music in second grade, and if a 600-pupil factory will flood the playground to make an ice skating rink in winter.

Abner Gibbs is being replaced by what the educational nomenklatura says will be “better.” Wordsworth may have been right after all: “We will grieve not, rather find strength in what remains behind.”

What remains is the reality that once there actually was a Norman Rockwell world. And some of us were blessed enough to have lived there in a school called Abner Gibbs.
Walter Rodgers, a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column.

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