“If a boy can’t have a good teacher, give him a psychological cripple or an exotic failure to cope with; don’t just give him a bad, dull teacher.” Schoolmaster Dunstan Ramsey in Fifth Business by Robertson Davies
(Of course, this applies to girls as well. SJ)
East Side Stories
(Tales of growing up on the East Side of Bridgeport, CT)
For Cheryl Burdge and Greg Klembara and Neil Armstrong
By Sara Jacobelli
© copyright 2012
City, country or suburb, public school or private, things are always different for kids when a substitute takes over the class. Kind of like a holiday. When we had Beardsley Elementary School’s infamous and unusual sub, Miss Cournious, the day was downright unpredictable. Even the air felt different. It was almost dangerous. Here we were, a bunch of kids, let loose with a full-blown maniac in charge. My friend Ellen, one grade younger, thought Miss Cournious was a little scary, but I knew better. Miss Cournious was a rebel. An out an out monkeywrencher. The adults around us never seemed to have a clue; they paid no attention to Miss Cournious. To them she was just another spinster substitute. I always thought Miss Cournious was like a color that grownups couldn’t see.
She was old, very old. She was skinny, and always wore a long, faded, wrinkled violet dress. I never saw her wear anything else. Year after year she looked exactly the same, never getting any older, never changing her dress. She wore scuffed white girl’s sneakers because she didn’t drive, she walked to school like us kids. My brother Nicky, six years older than me, also had Miss Cournious as a sub all through Beardsley School. To an East Side kid, she was as perennial as the Fourth of July Wing Ding parade, autumn leaves, Halloween, the Wizard of Oz, the World Series, the Thanksgiving Harding-Central Game, snowball fights, Christmas, St. Patrick’s Day, Easter Sunday Mass, and summer vacation.
Miss Cournious never followed the lesson plans left by the regular teachers. She didn’t even bother to look at them. This frustrated the teachers, but always delighted the kids. The only “work” she ever had us do, if you could call it that, was her “Scrambles.” She’d write a few words on the blackboard, scrambled up, like “hoolsc” means “school.” And you had to unscramble them. That was it. Plus the words were always ridiculously easy. I had her several times a year, from kindergarten through sixth grade, and that was the only attempt she ever made at school work. No arithmetic, no history, no geography, no English composition, no homework. Even if our teacher was gone for the whole week. I swear she even scrambled the same words every year.
Mostly she told stories. By the time we entered third grade, we were old hands at dealing with Miss Cournious. We knew her routines, her likes and dislikes. New kids would be confused. We knew and loved her stories by heart. “Tell about the hotel you’ll gonna build onna moon”, class clown Greg Klembara would egg her on. This was a few years before the astronauts actually landed on the moon. One of Miss Cournious’ big obsessions was that, in the future, you could take an elevator to the moon. And she intended to be the first person to build a hotel there. We, as her favorite students, were of course guaranteed First Class reservations.
She didn’t like it when we shook our heads yes and no, she’d yell at us and call us monkeys. She hated that children’s song, “This Old Man” and whenever we sang, “This old man goes rolling home” she’d scream, “He sounds like he’s drunk, sounds like he’s a drunk old bum rolling home like that, he must have been in the bar all night.” She assured us some day in the not-too-distant future, we would be able to walk down the street and think ”ice cream cone” and one would appear, just like that. David Beatty would frantically wave his arm in the air, asking in his loud voice, “uh, Miss Cournious, uh, any flavor?”
She wouldn’t let us walk in the front of the room by the teacher’s desk. She called that the “Holy Ground.” For days following the regular teacher’s reappearance, we were a strange tribe indeed, ritually relishing our freedom to stomp all over the Sacred Holy Ground, giggling.
I watched the historic moon landing in July 1969 on the tiny black and white portable TV in our cluttered kitchen. Me and my goofy friend Cheryl Burdge, who always made me laugh. We drank home made milkshakes and watched the astronauts land on the moon. It was the summer between Beardsley Elementary and East Side Middle School. After history was made, we hung out on the back porch of my three decker apartment building, Cheryl chattered on about middle school and Harding High, make up, cute guys. She tried teaching me cheerleading moves. I was hopeless, a determined tomboy, not the least bit interested in either make up or cheerleading. None of which deterred Cheryl from frenzied attempts to make me act like a girl.
Barelegged and barefoot, we scratched mosquito bites. Tried to sing, “Hey Jude” but couldn’t remember all of the words. Laughed about good times at Beardsley School, worried about tough times ahead at East Side Middle. For some reason, this summer didn’t appear to spread out as long as previous summers. It didn’t seem as dreamy or as endless. Life was speeding up. I thought about those depressing factories near Beardsley School. I already knew I didn’t want to end up working in them. How would I ever get out of Bridgeport? I looked up at the moon and thought about Miss Cournious. And that damned hotel of hers.
Photo Credits: “Beardsley School” by Sara Jacobelli
The “Moon” photo is copyright free.
Update: “Elevator to the Moon”
Musician Greg Klembara:
 Davies, Robertson. Fifth Business. Viking Press: Ontario and New York, 1970. 129.