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Monday, September 29, 2008

A Good, Old-Fashioned New England Education


Article by Eric H., at VisitingNewEngland.com

It was difficult for my five-year-old mind to understand why my Dad and Mom wanted to move to Arlington, Mass., so we could receive a great education. At that time in my Burlington, Mass., life, I didn't need much more than a hug, a yard to run around with neighborhood friends and to walk with my folks around the corner to the local pharmacy for a Hoodsie. Life seemed good in our 1,000 sq. ft. home, which seemed like a big, red castle that other people referred to as a starter ranch.

When we moved in 1967 to a big, stucco home in Arlington, one of the first things my parents did was introduce me to the nice people at the Parmenter Elementary School. The appealing first impression of the bi-level playground eventually led to seven years of a memorable education that still serve as a template, of sorts, in always wanting to learn more and treat people well. The Parmenter school teachers and staff seemed like an extension of how our parents raised us. My Dad, in fact, was a part of that Parmenter educational process as a beloved piano teacher. He was also known as the guy who played Laurel and Hardy movies in the Parmenter auditorium to the hundreds of students, howling in laughter at the piano rolling down those steps for the hundredth time in the classic 1932 film, "Music Box."

Mr. Stevenson was the principal and seemed steeped in patriotism with his love for our country, as well as stressing for us to always try to do the "right thing." Unlike the day-is-night mentality of today, right and wrong were better defined and understood at the Parmenter School. Mr. Stevenson empowered us by listening to what we said, but could be incredibly strict when we broke his trust by misbehaving. We didn't dare do anything bad, as he set a consistent tone by enforcing rules and expecting us to follow those rules. His secretary, Mrs. Cerrese, looked very old-fashioned with her perfectly coiffed short hairstyle and motherly personality. She never seemed to be rattled, and really enjoyed her job. She loved kids, and loved Arlington.

There was one time when a group of neighborhood thugs chose me as the punching bag of the month. Fortunately, my Dad taught me how to box so it was quite a challenge for these bullies to claim victory. Mr. Stevenson saw everything, called us to the office, had us discuss the problem with him, and with each other. He knew who started the fights, read the bullies the riot act and punished them by taking away their recesses, but also encouraged us to become friends. It's amazing, I did become friends with these kids, all the way into high school although we didn't hang out together because of moral and values-based differences.

In Kindergarten, Mrs. Watt was the sunny, sweet teacher who made education fun and paved the way for a love for education. First grade brought us Mrs. Ackerman, an older lady with a leg brace, a stern look and a real stickler for learning the basics. Her squeaking leg brace set a kind of fear into us when she walked towards us, but it turned out that Mrs. Ackerman was just as kind as Mrs. Watt, but in a different way. If you were interested in learning, she could be your best mentor and friend. If not, watch out! Mrs. Daigle, a young teacher right out of college, provided an endless supply of nurturing and grasp of teaching fundamentals that perfectly combined to make her my favorite teacher. She was like a big sister to me and helped me become a great speller. Mrs. Goodale brought by-the-book teaching lessons to us in third grade, not the most exciting way to learn but quite valuable in that we learned an awful lot in just one year, especially in the math department.

Fourth grade was interesting as the "open class" concept became popular and often misguided. It seemed like some higher powers in the education system thought that we could learn by doing whatever we wanted. Far out, man! Thank goodness, however, for Mrs. Corbett, a young, old-school teacher who dealt with the open class correctly by keeping the class loose but infusing a solid, traditional curriculum at and beyond the fourth grade level. Like Mrs. Daigle, she was one of the all-time kind people that made it fun to learn. My SRA reading skills went through the roof in her class, a true testimony to her.

Mr. Giroux taught us soccer skills and the need to wean ourselves from our teddy bears in the fifth grade. He was an all-around good guy that brought an almost military-like discipline to the class -- much needed, given a group of wiseguys in the class. He was a competent teacher and paved the way for sixth grade teacher Mrs. Duffy to passionately and consistently review and introduce reading, writing and math lessons in preparation for junior high school.

At lunch, we walked home where our moms had our peanut butter and fluff sandwiches. We exercised it off by walking back to school for the afternoon session. The neighborhood kids like Jeff Norman, Paul Dillon, Bobby Erickson, Eliot Dresselhaus and Phil Doherty made it a lot of fun, walking back to school as well as having some great baseball games after school in our backyards, on the hilly streets, and at Menotomy Rocks Park.

The Parmenter School eventually closed its doors in 1983 due to a changing population in Arlington (which keeps changing, thus making you wonder about why the school had to close). I'll never forget the closing ceremony, especially seeing a much older but still sunny Mrs. Watt. The school that helped form my life was now gone -- it still brings tears to my eyes. I know it's unrealistic and a question meant in the figurative sense, but why can't some things just stay the same, forever?

The current school there is the International School of Boston, a French-American bilingual co-educational school with a fine reputation. Every time I drive by the former Parmenter School, however, I feel sad that this school could not have lasted forever and spread its special educational ways to future generations. The Parmenter school was the epitome of a great public education in a close-knit neighborhood.

The name of the school and the names of the teachers and students might not mean much to you, but that's not the point of this article. The point originates from the lead in this article: never get in a comfort zone when it comes to your child's education. The first few years of a child's schooling might just be the most important. The presence of great educators can make or break that child's introduction to the world of education. To families with children ready for public education, I say research every statistic of your current community's public education system, compare it with other towns and cities, and don't hesitate to make a move if you find a better school system. Of course, statistics must be validated by a visit to prospective schools to find out if the teachers and administration have the proper humanity and fun learning environment to match the stats. If so, you just might have found yourself a modern-day Parmenter School that your child can take with them for life in the quest of enjoying the process of learning, growing up and, ultimately, being a productive citizen. Hope you have found yours, as the Parmenter School set an incredibly high standard -- and a joyous experience, at that!
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