I have talked with many teachers about their first teaching experiences and all agree on one point – they remember their first students very well. I am no exception and remember most of my fourth graders from September 1965 at Irwin School, East Brunswick Public Schools in New Jersey quite well. The organizational pattern in which I taught there in my first teaching position was semi-departmentalized, where I taught reading and language arts to two groups of fourth graders, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, and my teaching partner, Mari Klett, taught the same two groups math, social studies and science. I taught most of my AM fourth grade children as sixth graders a couple of years later, so I knew that particular group extremely well. Also, they were my “homeroom” students, because I greeted them in the morning, took them to lunch and if I remember correctly, bid them goodbye in the afternoon when they returned to my room to get their belongings to take home.
Now, some fifty years later, I can close my eyes and still see their faces and smiles and hear their voices clearly. Many times I have wondered how their lives turned out – what they have become and accomplished – as mothers, fathers, professionals, career people, artists or musicians – and have wondered if any of them have ever thought about me over these many years and wondered how I have been doing. I was but one teacher among many, to be sure, and they were just a few of the hundreds of children I have known, but they were the first so I remember them best. And additionally, seeing them in the hallways and lunch room when they were with Mr. Zezensky in fifth grade and then teaching many of them again in grade six, I knew them even better.
I met my first classes as a brand new teacher with no student teaching experience. During my senior year in college I suddenly realized that I had to make a decision about what to do with my history major and English minor, thought I might enjoy teaching and took several education courses during spring semester of my last year in college. I also visited a couple of local schools and asked the principal if I could observe a few classrooms. I was thrilled to watch the interaction between teachers and students in a public school elementary classroom and was excited by the realization that not only “I could do this” but also “I could really enjoy this!”
So I responded to an ad from East Brunswick Public Schools, filled out an application, sent in my transcripts, and was invited in for an interview with Dr. Thomas Bowman, the superintendent. Looking back, I don’t think that the interview was a great success. I remember completely misinterpreting a question about “grouping” and answering it incorrectly, but I suppose my youth, energy and eagerness were enough that my poor response was overlooked by Dr. Bowman and I got the job. Also, there was a shortage of teachers in New Jersey that year so perhaps merely the fact that I had a pulse and a temporary teaching certificate were enough.
I was assigned to Irwin School, a typical suburban school in the middle class community of East Brunswick, a town that neighbored mine of New Brunswick. I have only dim recollections of orientation programs at the District Office and at the school itself. What I remember most vividly is the first day of school, and after the hassle of getting kids to the right room and teacher and the first class finally beginning, those 30 or so fourth graders in their new school clothes, hair brushed and combed, looking at me with their bright, eager eyes, waiting for me to begin teaching and then maybe deciding whether they liked me or not and accordingly what kind of school year they were going to have.
Most prominent among those first-day and first-year experiences was the feeling that I had really found something I loved to do. I fit into elementary education like a hand into a glove. Was it easy? No, it was very difficult but I enjoyed every minute of it. I recall a colleague at Johns Manville Research where I worked during my last year of college and resigned from to become a teacher, telling me that wow, it was going to be so easy for me from now on – short workday, summers off, Christmas breaks, and so on (https://ralphfriedly.com/2014/11/08/my-world-of-work/). Little did he know…or I at that time, what teaching was really like.
When I accepted an offer from the Bureau of Indian Affairs three years later and made plans to resign from my job in New Jersey and move to Arizona, I asked my AM fifth graders and my PM sixth graders (who were almost all my first fourth grade AM class) to write me a goodbye letter which I could keep to remember them. I still have that sheaf of letters and a few greeting cards from that day June 21, 1968 clipped together and filed under “Memorabilia” and have got them out from time to time to reminisce and remember those children. As I read the notes, I can still put a face and voice and sometimes a form or demeanor along with the name and remember these children fondly. Here’s the note from Robert Plichta – husky boy, pleasant, serious, and hard working; Tom O’Shaugnessy – good ball player, good student, gregarious, good sense of humor; Linda Klimscak – attractive, shy, demure, smart little girl; Robert DePaul – small stature, very animated, eager and talkative; Cindy Demarest – blond hair, personable, polite and helpful, used to join Kathy Naddeo staying after school and helping me; Barbara Thornley – tall, graceful, dignified, serious girl, good student….Anthony Maranca – energetic, polite, verbal, good worker, good athlete; Barbara Garafalo – very short hair, freckled face, cheerful, willing, but didn’t particularly enjoy school work; Nancy Kalbach – slim, friendly girl with a ready smile, remember her hair always pulled back with a ribbon (maybe it’s just the pictures); Paul Heikkila – gentle, soft-spoken boy with a crewcut; Judy Padilla – dark hair, shy, quiet, gorgeous smile; Michael Reynolds – usually a flattop hair cut, pleasant, self-effacing, always a smile, Albert Cavallero – slim, pleasant, soft-spoken, cooperative, Kevin Dunn – always well-dressed, polite and neat, and on and on….sorry to leave a few out.
I remember David Cavadel very distinctly, with his droll sense of humor and quiet unobtrusive intelligence. I guess it was a 6th grade science class in which we were discussing how warm air rises and cold air descends and how, appropriately, the first flying machines were hot air balloons. As an activity we measured the temperature at the base of the classroom walls and at the ceiling and of course found a measurable difference. Then David had to ask, “Mr. Friedly, Mr. Friedly – if warm air rises and cold air sinks, then why is it colder on mountaintops than in valleys?” Well, I hemmed and hawed and probably weaseled my way toward some kind of inadequate answer, or better, perhaps I said brightly, “Great question, David, let’s all try to find the answer together”, but really, in view of what we had just discussed, I didn’t know. Because of his sense of humor, I thought for years that perhaps David had become a comedy writer, but Google tells me that he has become a chiropractor in his home community of Old Bridge. I was 23 years old when I began teaching. If David was nine or so that year, he is approaching the end of his career and could be retired by now.
And then there was Daniel Thompson, a little boy who had great difficulty reading and writing and, of course, spelling. Knowing next to nothing about dyslexia or learning disabilities, I really didn’t know what was wrong because Daniel was quite verbal and seemed quite bright. I remember on one of Daniel’s spelling tests he got only one word right – “U.N.C.L.E”, spelling it, of course, from seeing “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” on television. Later that year and later still, when I taught Daniel again in sixth grade, I realized that Daniel did not absorb or exhibit much of his learning through reading and writing, but mostly through oral and visual instruction and presentation. I remember the class being astonished when Daniel made an eloquent and encyclopedic presentation about South American animals and his classmates exclaiming, “Daniel is so smart!”, “I didn’t know Daniel knew so much”. Daniel had obviously assimilated and practically memorized a couple of television programs about the animals of South America he had seen. Over the years with faculties and staffs, I have used this incident as an example of why we should teach the way a child learns, rather than expect them to learn the way we teach. I’ve tried to locate Daniel several times but cannot. I certainly hope that he’s enjoying a good life.
And little Kathy Naddeo was my right hand helper in class during both of the years I taught her. She used to enjoy staying after school and helping me clean up, put things away, arrange papers or decorate the bulletin board. Kathy also was kind enough to start and maintain correspondence with me long after I moved to Arizona. At some point we stopped writing to each other; maybe her life changed or maybe mine but it was so good to stay in touch with one of my first students for such a long time. I still wonder what Kathy is doing now, after all these years. I couldn’t find her via Google either.
And the note from Kathy Ruby brings back the image of a vivacious personality and beautiful smile. I even saw Kathy a year of two after I left, during a trip back to New Jersey when I visited a parent’s home and saw a few of my former students. I have found Kathy’s name among many familiar others on a list of East Brunswick High graduates for 1974. There was an invitation to communicate by email but I had to be an East Brunswick HS alumnus to do so, which I was not. i would have loved to send an email to all my former students on that list of graduates if I could have.
And then Jane Armstrong, who, like the individuals mentioned above was in both my first fourth grade class in 1965 and my afternoon sixth grade class in 1968. Jane’s cute little freckled face is easy to remember as is her quiet voice and shy, occasionally moody demeanor. What I didn’t realize is that I had greatly misjudged her intellect and sensitivity for Jane wrote the most meaningful letter of all, which, not being able to scan it legibly, I have typed in its entirety: “Mr. Friedly, I will miss you as you go. A few tears while we cry. As you leave the school we all will miss you. We know how much you like us and we like you just the same. We hate to see you go. I bet you don’t want to go because of us. You have been the best teacher I have ever had. You have a way with students. I wish you the best of luck on your journey to Arizona. You’ll need a lot of luck. I guess I wasn’t your best student but I like you just the same. At times I may have fought a bit but still I like you. As long as I live I will never forget you. You are the best teacher I have ever had or seen. I don’t want you to go away from us or us go away from you. I will always look at the class pictures of you and will never forget you. If you ever come back or want to send me a letter my address is…” I have tried to locate Jane via google but have not been able to find her. I just hope she found the success and happiness that a person of her rare and wonderful qualities deserves.
Another boy that I remember well was Michael Marosy. His mother, whom I think may have been a PTA officer or our “homeroom mother” during that first year of mine, was very kind and supportive, visiting our class often and helping out in a variety of ways. Also, Michael is one of the few former students that I was able to locate via Google. Mike evidently became a police officer in the next-door community of South Brunswick and is likely now retired from what I hope was a productive and rewarding career in law enforcement.
Apologies to the many children I loved and appreciated but did not mention here. There were many – from my afternoon grade four class that first year, from both my AM and PM fifth grades my second year and from my morning grade five my third year. If any of you read this, I hope that you understand that I could not remember you with the same depth, breadth and detail that I remember the children I taught twice, in both 4th and 6th grades. But please know that I thought the world of you and thank you also for making my first years of teaching so enjoyable and rewarding.
On their letters to me, my students were quite complimentary about my teaching. Sure, everyone was feeling positive on that last day of school and who would want to write something negative? And I thought that most of the compliments were truly sincere. However, reading the letters once again, I do feel some guilt because, certainly in my first year, I was not such a great teacher, although I gave all I had and did my best. I think that what I did give my students was honest affection, care and respect and I think that’s mostly why they “liked” me. But maybe those positive feelings facilitated some great learning, I don’t know. I certainly could not as a new teacher, have given them the highest quality instruction that I know they deserved.
During my three short years at Irwin School I often worked part time and also took a heavy load of graduate courses, earning a Masters Degree from Rutgers right before I left. Also each of those three years was like a brand new year, either through the subject matter or the grade level I taught. I also feel some guilt because perhaps I didn’t treat all the kids the same. I think I had favorites and probably neglected some children and didn’t recognize their considerable strengths. I also too readily categorized children as good students or less, well behaved or not, and didn’t provide everyone a proper opportunity to distinguish themselves in the group. I got smarter too late for these children and eventually learned to see all children as 100 percenters, with their relative percentages of intelligence, talent and potential just distributed differently.
I wish that I did not have to begin my career in a semi-departmentalized organizational pattern, something I have frowned upon my whole career for elementary education. To teach reading and language arts to 65 fourth graders that first year and math, science and social studies to two groups of fifth graders my second year and to a fifth and sixth my third year without ever seeing their skills and interests in the other subject areas was very limiting, preventing me from integrating disciplines to any meaningful degree. I just did not ever get the chance to see the totality of my children those years and, appreciating the self contained classroom the way I do now, I know that the children and I could have accomplished so much more and known each other so much better. Our feeling of community, mutual support and respect could have been developed more completely as well. Certainly that’s an important reason my first year AM 4th grade to which I taught language arts and reading and then math, science and social studies two years later in 6th grade, is remembered so well: I not only taught these children twice but finally could appreciate them as whole and complete learners.
Two notable events from those years at Irwin School come to mind. The first was probably the most embarrassing moment in my entire life. I was playing softball with the kids at lunch recess, wearing dress pants whose fabric and seams had obviously seen better days. As I squatted down to grab a ground ball, the seat of my old dress pants split from bottom of the fly clear around almost to the belt. My God, what a nightmare, what to do? I grabbed my jacket from the equipment cart, wrapped it around my waist, tied the sleeves, yelled to a colleague to watch my kids, told the office where I was going and why, dashed to my car, raced home, changed and got back just a few minutes after class had begun. Looking back, I don’t think any of my students really noticed or cared, or if they did they were considerate enough to not let me know, but I certainly should have been thankful that I was wearing decent underwear that day and had my jacket so handy!
The second was my attempt, during social studies class to have my students debate the Vietnam War, which had by the middle and late 1960’s really split the country. I had the children study the issues relating to the war, and then had them split up into two groups – the “Hawks” and the “Doves”, likely reflecting their parents’ opinion rather than their own, sat the groups across from each other and carefully, fairly and factually began to debate the issues. However, it didn’t take long for a parent to complain or my principal, Miss Addie Miller, to get wind of my activity and promptly put a stop to it. I certainly didn’t appreciate my great educational project being shut down so quickly and completely but looking back, I guess I can see Miss Miller’s point – the war in Vietnam was just too hot and passionate an issue at that time to debate in my little elementary classroom. But I think my students learned much from their preparation and would have learned even more if we had been allowed to proceed. Actually they may have inadvertently learned the most valuable lesson of all just seeing our efforts shot down
So concludes my reminiscences about my first years of teaching and finally paying homage to those wonderful first groups of children I had the pleasure to know. Now that their pictures and my words about them are preserved digitally, I may finally elect to dispose of the notes and cards from that last day of school that I have kept for 48 years. I don’t think anyone else will find meaning in them or care to preserve them after I am gone. But until my memory ceases to function, I will always remember these dear children. And I hope they all, now in their late fifties or early sixties, can look back on a life well-lived, and have occasionally thought of the tall, slim (then) blond haired (then, now lots of gray mixed in), bespectacled young man who loved them, whom they helped succeed in his first years of teaching and taught to love education, the career that he pursued for 45 wonderful years.