Monday, January 24, 2011
The Importance of Community
One of the things that bothers me about so-called school reform measures today is that teachers shoulder so much of the blame. Having listened to the stories of Cherry Road School alumni now for several years, it's clear that what they remember is not how they did on the test, not what they learned in the class, but the magic of the community of which they were part. It was for their membership in this community they tried their hardest in school and on the playing field. What they did they did to please and impress not only their teachers, but also their parents, the Mother's Club, and their peers. I say peers because if one student did not do well, it reflected poorly on all the students. Why? Because they were part of a community whose very framework depended upon the participation of everyone. These are the lessons they learned that helped each and every one succeed in the lives that followed their days at Cherry Road School.
Some of you might recognize the picture above of McArdell's Gas Station, a landmark in Westvale on the corner of West Genesee Street and Maple Road. I used to go there with my dad. He'd meet up with his high school buddies and I'd drink grape and orange sodas from the Ne Hi machine. See the little room up at the top of the building? A guy named Hank lived up there for a while after the war. He may have been Japanese. One day he came and lived at our house, just a few doors up the highway. He never spoke a word to me and I just assumed he didn't speak English. Instead, he'd open his bedroom door a crack and shove a piece of double bubble gum into the palm of my hand and close the door again laughing. I found out later he was a graduate student and spoke very good English.
I'll never forget my days in Westvale and I'm learning from my interviews that this holds true for everyone who has lived in this odd little community with no Main Street. Instead of a Main Street with a soda fountain and a five and dime, Cherry Road School, in many ways, served as the heart of the community. There were other institutions that were part of the Main drag of Westvale, spread out over many blocks and neighborhoods. There was Lundy's Drive-In where they brought bright silver trays to attach to the side of your car window and served the best hamburgers and chocolate shakes on the planet; McArdell's Gas Station was a club house for high school boys in the way these grease joints were. The movie theater was a place to go on Saturdays. The owners sold candy to the kids on the cheap and then hustled upstairs and ran the film. The school was always open on a Saturday, all seasons of the year, for a pick-up game of basketball in the gym or baseball out on the rolling campus of green grass and pine trees. Sledding on the reservoir in wintertime holds a story for everyone. Westvale made an impression so deep on each and every student that none of them ever forgot to live up to the expectations that were a reflection of the surrounding community.
How sad that our national education leaders have now put the burden on the shoulders of individual teachers. A new organization called Students First, the brainchild of the woman who recently, as the the superintendent of schools in Washington, DC, fired 200+ teachers because their students were failing. She proposes closing community schools instead of supporting these communities so they might do better. She suggests that parents should be able to choose schools that are doing a good job, rather than bolstering schools in their own neighborhoods with investments of time and attention.
What do you think?
Sunday, January 2, 2011
Letters from Papa
In this picture you see Willis Parsons examining ripe apples in his orchard. The picture would have been taken sometime in the early 1920s, somewhere between Parsons Drive and Maple Road to the east and west, and Genesee Street and Salsibury Road, to the north and south...Perhaps he is in the backyard of the family farmhouse on the corner of West Genesee and Parsons Drive. Of course, in those days, roads like Parsons Drive and the others mentioned here were, for the most part, nothing but dirt farm roads.
This past fall, while I was visiting, my cousin generously gave me original copies of letters written in 1924 and 1925 by Willis to Marion while she was teaching in Omak, Washington. The letters came from my cousin's mother, my Aunt Helen, Willis's granddaughter and Marion's neice. Helen died in October while I was there; these letters were in her effects. Included in the letters was a missive written by Helen to Aunt Martha, Marion's sister, in 1935.
Reading Willis's letters one gets a feel of what life was like on the farm before the farm became a neighborhood and a school. One begins to sense emerging feelings of unease about the viability of the farm as a sustainable business. He talks about picking cherries in the rain and the picking lasting almost a month; they were badly in need of hot weather and if he put some of his crop in cold storage, he might be able to hold on for better prices the following year. He indicates a growing interest in the real estate business. One can almost feel the wheels turning in his mind; perhaps the only salvation he sees is to sell off the farm. He would have to make that sacrifice mean something. He would have to create a community. At this time, he has already begun to plan the new school with Judge Terziev and others in the area who had already bought into the Parsons' acreage.
For a writer of narrative non-fiction, these letters are gold. They help those of us here in the future understand, or at least glimpse, the thinking processes and problems of those in the past who took their stories with them to the grave.
In Helen's letter written in 1935 she talks about a horrific rain storm, about spending the night at Grandma Harkness's with Ruth and Janet Parsons. These are names I hadn't heard since childhood. Genealogy records show Grandma Harkness to be part of the Terry and Parsons family who had donated the original one-room school on Terry Road.
Writing The Brass Bell has been 75% detective work, and 25% writing.
If anyone has any information about Grandma Harkness, Guy Terry Parsons, Sr., Charles Herbert Parsons, or Alice "Allie" Terry, please contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org
I still have a ways to go before I am able to untangle the web of the Parsons, Jerome, Schuyler, and Terry families, from whose farms sprung what is today Westvale, and from whose vision gave rise to the Cherry Road School.