|Martin H. Traphagen School, Mt. Vernon, N.Y., 1950s|
Sometimes on the verge of sleep, I imagine myself back in elementary school in Mount Vernon, New York, specifically in the auditorium with the canvas shades lowered over the windows and the darkened room full of whispering children. It seems an unlikely juxtaposition – the twitchy anticipation of children and an adult’s drowsy calm. Yet both places are evocative, the edge of sleep and the vast dim space, filled with memory and slivers of light.
Red velvet curtains conceal the stage; the podium is set at the perfect height for the tall white man with a white pompadour: the principal. As we spill into the auditorium he directs the classes into rows and warns everyone to behave. The teachers snap and wag their fingers when we laugh and squirm. Finally, when silence fills the room, the principal presents the program. Perhaps we are going to watch a postwar film entitled “Corn for Life,” or the police chief will lecture about delinquency, bringing us to the present year – 1967. During the show the principal stands watch. Occasionally he spies a disorderly child. His arm appears to reach halfway across the auditorium to pluck the student and deposit him in a far corner where the teacher will handle things.
It is an American tradition that elementary school principals will lay down the law in hallways, playgrounds, and other venues where any challenge to their power must be stamped out. Some principals are able to enforce rules in a way that is compelling rather than threatening. My elementary principal evinced neither. Even as kids we recognized that he sought the reflected glory of a perfectly ordered school. His authority seemed not that of an educator but rather of a proprietor.
Ironically, the principal sought to impose order on a school that possessed its own serenity well before he came on the scene. Little has been written about the architecture of schools erected by communities during the interwar period when public education merited – well, frankly, it was thought to deserve – beautiful even grand buildings. Built in 1925 of limestone bricks, the Martin H. Traphagen School rose three stories between a crabgrass field and a parking lot. We boys and girls invaded the school through separate entrances. Light filled the tall classrooms; the water fountains were mosaic. We hung our coats on brass hooks and shoved our rain boots into mahogany cubbies. The entrance hall, wide, polished, and used almost exclusively by adults, had long been the province of the P.T.A. Election Day Bake Sale: tables loaded with cakes and pies, surrounded by the fast-talking women who ran it. But that was just one day of the year. Otherwise the school held its composure, imperturbable.
With 100% membership, best in the state for many years, the Traphagen P.T.A. was one of the principal’s prized delights. Led by a coalition of busy women who chaired dozens of committees, arranged multitudinous meetings, booked speakers, and chaperoned field trips, the P.T.A. served as a pacifier, making it possible for all kinds of mothers to support the school even if they didn’t always enjoy each other. They could still work genially around the hostess’s dining room table, admire her decorating, and compliment her coffee. But how could they possibly share one view of public schooling? Though most were white and natives of the New York metropolitan area, they ranged from lower-middle class to upper-middle class and across ethnic and religious lines. Yet everyone was polite.
In the mid-sixties, however, when Mount Vernon faced the possibility of desegregating its public schools, the P.T.A. shed some of its veneer of gentility. The women began to express their views strongly. The principal observed it and felt disturbed. Accounting for every red rubber ball after recess – he had done well with such challenges. But as mothers ventured into the political realm urging or opposing open enrollment and busing, the principal surely recognized that the proprieties of the school community and his own ability to maintain order would decline.
A native Kansan, the principal came to Mount Vernon in 1947 armed with a Master’s degree in education from the University of Iowa. Born in 1908 in a small town just south of the Santa Fe Trail, he was the oldest son in a Mennonite farm family whose father emigrated from the Crimea and helped introduce Russian wheat to the American plains. Despite drought and grasshoppers the town flourished enough to establish a small college where the principal studied for two years before the Dust Bowl, depression, and war stalled his plans. Between 1929 and 1939 he worked on the farm, attended summer sessions, courted and married, and taught. He knew by heart the sandstone schoolhouses, luminous in the spring sunshine, for he spent nearly a decade crossing the same dirt roads through the central Kansas prairie.
Surely when the principal first visited Mount Vernon, at the behest of its new superintendent who had known him at Iowa, he felt that he had landed in another tranquil place closer to the nineteenth than the twentieth century. At that time, Mount Vernon was still governed largely by Protestants and known as “The City of Homes,” its broad streets lined with overarching elm trees and houses embellished with turrets and verandas. On a deeply snowy evening, the city resembled a New England village; on a languid August afternoon it guarded its stillness like a Southern town. The city had a habit of making its middle and upper-middle class residents feel like they fit well into their own time and place – not necessarily the case for the African-American community that inhabited “the South Side,” formerly home to many of the white people who lived on “the North Side.
A deep cut had bisected the city since 1895 when immigrant Italian laborers finished lowering the tracks of the New Haven Railroad. During the 1930s several enlightened residents proposed using W.P.A. funds to construct a building over the tracks but nothing came of it. And so the four-square mile city gradually became a wreck of intentions, the opposing dispositions of race, religion, and ethnicity. The railroad cut lay at the center of the community’s hope and anger. School integration, perhaps an imperfect solution to the divide, stirred optimism and fear as local residents aligned themselves pro and con, attendance surged at school board meetings, campaigns became combative, and letters to the editor spilled onto two or three pages. Years of debate, disappointment and resentment, petitions, a lawsuit, would ensue. The pro-integration parents, eager for reform, felt impatient with the principal who clung to his faith in the power of the picture-perfect school. He continued to fuss with organization: new rules for overdue library books, improved scheduling of parent-teacher conferences. Meanwhile, the fight over desegregation dragged on.
Yet, infuriating as it was, the principal’s behavior can be understood. Considering the social distance that he traveled during his lifetime, perhaps his response reflected bewilderment more than resistance. He valued quiet hallways and chairs pushed neatly under desks partly because he was infatuated with decorum but also because that is what he was taught. Educational administrators who earned their degrees during the postwar era did not learn much about educating students; they learned the business of education. And nowhere in his experience were parents the “troublemakers,” a label he had long used for their disobedient children.
Therefore his 1970 retirement was timed perfectly. At our sixth grade graduation, we honored him by singing one of his favorite songs, “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” composed by George M. Cohan in 1906. How funny we found its jaunty tone; how old-fashioned!
Ev'ry heart beats true
‘Neath the Red, White and Blue
Where there’s never a boast or brag…
Some four decades later, I realize that the principal probably heard the song first at a bandstand in faraway Kansas, a small boy squinting into the sun, and for the last time in the darkened school auditorium as time ran out on the idea that the very best school was the one that stood still.