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Piano Lessons

Jackson School Building

The grade school had a piano in the second floor gymnasium. I learned to play Brahms on it because when I started piano lessons, we did not have one at home. At the end of the school day I went to the gym and spent half an hour learning to play, usually by myself. Playing the piano seemed important in grade school.

I attended Holy Family School at the former Jackson School building from second to sixth grade, before the parish built the new school in time for seventh grade. Despite the short time there, I learned a lot of life lessons: how to get along with people, basic mathematics, how to use a dictionary, Palmer method of handwriting — usual stuff a grader learned.

My memories of that time remain clear and it was the most formative part of my childhood. It was there I socialized with other children beyond my neighborhood and developed relationships with teachers that meant a lot.

I recall negotiating snack purchases in second grade. By “negotiating” I mean it in the sense of navigating how to do it, determining how much they cost and where I would get needed funds. Since every student already knew each other, I appreciated that the teacher introduced me to the group and explained the snack process. At first I used pennies I found on the back porch. This gave way to an eventual allowance and work as a newspaper carrier to pay for my snacks.

In the third grade there was Roman Catholic Catechism. I still have the book. I remember we focused on mathematics in particular with Sister Hilda who lived in the second floor convent with other Sisters of Mercy. When I was old enough, I served as an altar boy in the convent, a privilege reserved for select students. It made me feel special.

In fourth grade we began to read in earnest. Mrs. Hild, whose daughter Carolyn was in my class, was encouraging. She read Charlotte’s Web and other books to us. We had a project to learn the language and read. We were issued a standard Webster’s New School and Office Dictionary, which I still have. It was a special purchase and each family had to pay for their copy. When we completed a reading assignment, we could choose a sticker to affix to the book. Mine was soon covered with stickers. My favorite sticker was of the Confederate flag. Our family was the only one with ancestry in Virginia, so I preferred it to the shamrocks and Biblical quotations. For me, the flag represented where we had come from, rather than promotion of human slavery. Confederate flag stickers were apparently hard to come by, although Mrs. Hild eventually found one for me. The meaning of the flag was never discussed, although Mrs. Hild and Mother discouraged my interest. Children of Irish and German descent made up the majority of my classmates. The German kids seemed more assimilated than the Irish. As a descendant of Virginians and Poles, I was an odd duck.

I recall my fifth-grade teacher had an infirmity and could not move one of her arms very well. There was a discussion of how the Sisters of Mercy looked out for her and accommodated her infirmity by providing classroom time. I didn’t feel the school was short of teachers, however, they benefited from the low cost of keeping nuns in the classroom.

In sixth grade, John F. Kennedy was assassinated. As a Catholic school, another Catholic being president meant a lot. I found out about the assassination at the corner of Fillmore and Locust Streets when the crossing guard told me. When I got to school the shades were drawn and we sat in silent prayer as we waited for additional news of the condition of the president. Later, in my dictionary, I filled in an additional line on a chart of the presidents of the United States, adding both Kennedy’s information and the beginning term of Lyndon Johnson. During my lifetime until that point there had been four presidents, of which three were Democrats. Of course, they were all in the shadow of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

I had a full life at the old Jackson School. I played with friends my age in the playground, games like marbles, foursquare, Olly Olly Oxen Free, and we took turns on the swing set. They blocked off 16th Street for use during recess. There were basketball hoops. I was in the chorus, which favored music from the motion picture The Sound of Music, which the nuns all enjoyed. I remember attending a concert by graduating eighth grader Dennis Gallagher who would later become a professional musician. I was two years behind him.

Things changed when we moved to the new school on Marquette Street. Most of the time I forget I took piano lessons. The guitar became my instrument and I liked it. Playing music on a guitar was more casual. It had a tolerance for variation. We were fortunate to have a school that could afford to teach music. It was assumed music would be part of the curriculum and I took advantage of it.

They were right: music should be part of a grade school curriculum.

3 replies on “Piano Lessons”

Reading the details of your school days certainly takes me back, Paul. Your parochial school was evidently much larger than mine; being Lutheran, my confirmation classes began in 7th grade. I remember very little music time in school, other than hymns, and I learned to read music while taking piano lessons in the storage room of a local neighborhood grocery.

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This was a key time for the Catholic Church generally and for nuns particularly. The Second Vatican Council was from 1962 -1965 (when I was in 5th through 8th grades) and it loosened up the church. Playing more music and different kinds of it was just part of the “modernization.” When the Sound of Music was released (March 2, 1965) in movie theaters, the church found it couldn’t solve a problem like Maria and they began to lose clergy. As well, every grader in creation was singing Edleweiss, My Favorite Things and all the rest, everywhere in Catholic Schools. Probably other schools as well. Thanks as always for your comments. Happy Almost Spring!

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