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The story of Rainbow Ranch and what life was like in the Middle Island area - 2


Growing Up in Middle Island in the 1930s

by Anne Ferguson Nauman

Part II - East Middle Island School


 

The East Middle Island School

 

The East Middle Island schoolhouse was built not long after our family moved to the farm. It was modern for that day, with indoor bathrooms and a furnace. There were two classrooms and two teachers, one for first through fourth grades and the other for fifth through eighth. There was no kindergarten, no middle school, no junior high school. We went directly from the Middle Island grade school to high school in Port Jefferson. Everyone walked to school. We lived about two miles away, and were among the few lucky ones who were usually driven to school. The only bus was the one that took high school students to Port Jefferson.

Each classroom had about 20 students. It sounds as if it might have been confusing, having four grades being taught in one room, but it was actually an ideal situation. For instance, if you did well in reading you could join the grade ahead of you for that lesson. If you had trouble with arithmetic, you would be able to join the class behind you for review. And all along, you would be hearing lessons that you had already learned, so you were always reviewing, and you would also be hearing lessons that you wouldn’t have until the next year, so you would have a head start. In between lessons, everyone studied reading, practiced penmanship, studied spelling words or did arithmetic examples. It was a wonderfully flexible system that addressed each child’s special needs and provided for a lot of individual attention.

This system worked very well for me. I couldn’t wait to start school, and was even learning to read, so they let me start first grade a month before I turned five. My first-grade teacher was Florence Stakes, a very lovely Southern lady who married nurseryman Ernie Whitbeck and moved to East Patchogue. She taught me so well that I skipped second grade and started third grade at age five. I was always way ahead in reading, so I was allowed to read anything in the school’s small library instead of the regular textbooks. I was sometimes asked to read aloud from these books. However, I did very badly in arithmetic. I couldn’t even learn to tell time. Numbers were a mystery. In fourth grade I was still getting zeroes in arithmetic, so my parents and my teacher, Mrs. Jones, decided to keep me back for a year. My parents were also concerned that I wasn’t old enough to join the “big kids” in the other classroom, and staying back would put me with students closer to my own age. In my second try at fourth grade arithmetic, I finally got it. I always did well in math from then on, getting high marks on all the math Regents and going as far as analytic geometry in college. Without this special help with fourth grade arithmetic, I probably still wouldn’t know two times two.


The East Middle Island School, now the Central Office Annex building. Right - Anne Ferguson at the end of first grade. Photos from the collection of Mrs. Anne Ferguson Nauman

My brother Bill also accelerated through elementary school. At the end of seventh grade, he was allowed to take the eighth grade Regents. He passed with flying colors, was allowed to skip the eighth grade, and started high school at the age of 12. Both of us did well academically in high school, but we were at a great social disadvantage, being so much younger than our classmates. I graduated from high school at 16 and Bill at 15. Bill was small in his early teens, so he didn’t even try to participate in any sports, although he did enjoy the job of team manager. He made up for it in his senior year when he gained twelve inches in height in one year, with many nosebleeds and many outgrown pants along the way. He ended up at a lanky six feet four.

I was extremely fortunate to have had Mrs. Ruth Jones as my teacher for most of my years in the Middle Island school. She was a born teacher who truly loved all her pupils, and we all loved her in return. Everyone called her “Miss Jones.” I remember that she taught us about the Greek, Roman and Norse myths and had us draw pictures to illustrate these fascinating stories. I still have one of mine. I wasn’t much of an artist, but some of the students were very talented, especially Stella Godzieba. Her whole family was artistic, including Joey and Lucy, and I remember that their older brother Florian had aspirations of becoming an artist. I think they have changed the pronunciation of their name in recent years, but in those days they used the Polish pronunciation, “Ga-jebba.”

Mrs. Jones taught us to sing in Italian and French. We sang O Sole Mio, Frere Jacques, and the one about Mon Ami Pierrot. She taught us a folk song in Polish – I don’t know how to spell it, but it was something like Koshu Oichechana. She talked about the famous Finnish long-distance runner, Paavo Nurmi, who won nine Olympic gold medals. I remembered him 40 years later when I became a long-distance runner myself.

When I went into the “big kids’” room for fifth grade, my teacher was Mr. Ralph Thomas. He was stern and strict. But he was good in an emergency. When Jimmy Obiedzenski dislocated his thumb playing baseball, Mr. Thomas didn’t try to find a doctor, he just calmly yanked the thumb back into place. Jimmy was tough, and never even winced. Mr. Thomas would sometimes catch me daydreaming instead of paying attention, and he would pounce on me with a question. That was very embarrassing.

I may have had Roy Albin for a year, but I can’t remember for sure. He was a long-time resident of the area, and a friend of the family. I know Edith had him in grade school, and we both had him for high school English at Port Jefferson. He was a good teacher and a cheery, good-natured person, so he was well-liked by his students. I remember that he had a big house in Swezeytown and dog named Honeybee that he was very fond of.

Fortunately for me, Mrs. Jones moved into the upper grades, so I had her for my eighth year, and I think also for the seventh. She prepared us well for high school. She strongly emphasized English grammar. We had to diagram sentences. You can’t do that unless you really understand parts of speech and proper syntax. I remember how she taught us the predicate nominative. We had to chant in unison, “It was I, it was I, it was I; it was he, it was he, it was he…” and so on. We felt so silly that we never forgot it.

My sister remembers that Mr. Thomas tried to drum into them the difference between “its” and “it’s.” But she admits that to this day she is sometimes unsure about which to use. I groan when I see advertisements for “Such-and-such at it’s best.” I guess it’s a losing battle, trying to insist on its proper usage.

My daughter teaches remedial English to college freshmen, and she is constantly amazed and amused at her students’ poor command of the language. Surely a college student should be able to write a grammatically correct sentence. Our present-day schools need to do a much better job of teaching basic English. The ability to write and to speak proper English is so important for success in today’s world. If students spent more time reading good books, and less time with TV and computer games, it would surely improve their English skills. At least the Harry Potter books seem to have done a good job of getting more children to enjoy reading.

Mrs. Jones put together an “Entertainment” at graduation time each June. We would do recitations, songs, dances and a play. My mother often wrote and directed the plays. Mrs. Jones taught us simple folk dances. I can still do an Irish jig. I don’t remember the plays, except that in one cowboy production Jimmy Obiedzenski sang The Dreary Black Hills. We did a lot of memorizing in those days, and we enjoyed it. I remember being able to recite Longfellow’s Paul Revere’s Ride. I can still remember the first 20 lines or so. We were urged to recite “with expression,” but I think we just rattled away as fast as we could. Fortunately, none of us had acting ambitions. We had to memorize all the U.S. presidents, and I can still remember the first 18.

The graduating eighth-grade classes were very small. My class in 1940 consisted of Frances Depta, Frances Szuster, Henry Buniski and me. My sister’s class was even smaller; she and Vera Depta were the only graduates in 1936.


Three future members of the 1940 8th grade class. Frances Szuster, Frances Depta, and Anne Ferguson. Photo from the collection of Mrs. Anne Ferguson Nauman


Edith Ferguson, one of two graduating 8th grade students in 1936. The graduating class in 2006 numbered 836! Photo from the collection of Mrs. Anne Ferguson Nauman

 

We also did a program for families at Christmas time. We had a Christmas tree, sang carols, did a Nativity pageant, and had Santa Claus hand out small gifts. I remember playing the part of the Christ Child in my first year, because I was the smallest in the school. All I had to do was lie in the hay. In those days, no one thought that a Christmas program at school was inappropriate. Everyone in our small community was Christian, of one denomination or another, so there was no chance of offending or excluding families of other faiths. I’m sure that there is greater diversity now in Middle Island.

We did a lot of running around at recess time and lunch hour. We played red rover, ring-a-levio, kick the can, hide-and-seek, tag, and dodge ball. Sometimes the boys played baseball while the girls played jumprope and double Dutch. We had a lot of singsong rhymes for jumping rope, but I can’t remember them. And there was hopscotch and potsy. Sometimes we all played baseball.I was not good at it, mostly because I couldn’t throw or catch, but I loved to run and could run as fast as the boys. There were no girls’ track teams in those days, or I would have joined one in high school. As it was, I waited until I was 46 to start running again, and then became a competitive age-group racer and marathoner. Better late than never. Girls nowadays who are interested in sports are very fortunate that they have such a wide variety of opportunities.

I remember that Helen and Frances Szuster were outstanding in girls’ sports when we all got to high school. They also excelled academically. Some of the Middle Island boys did very well in high school sports. I remember that Ed Zebrowski was active in many sports and LeRoy Still and Rudy (Kayo) Carrabus were especially good baseball players.

In the spring, we sometimes did something that I am embarrassed to recall. We would go into the woods across the road from the school and pick pink lady’s slipper flowers. We would take them back to school and put them in our ink wells, and all the veins in the flower would turn blue. Of course these spectacular flowers are now on the list of protected species and it is illegal to pick them, but in those days they flourished in great profusion.

The blackboards were messy and the felt erasers accumulated a lot of chalk dust. When they became clogged with dust, a lucky student would be assigned to take them outside and clap them against the cement wall on the south side of the building. Clapping the erasers was a coveted job.

Mrs. Jones never had a discipline problem. If she was displeased with a student, she would put on a very reproachful expression, bite her lower lip, and say gently, “I’m sorry, Johnny,” or whoever. And that would be the end of the problem. She made you feel two inches tall. Maybe kids were just better behaved in those days. I don’t remember anyone ever playing hooky. There was some teasing, but I don’t remember any bullying or fighting. Bad language was rarely heard. Gangs and drugs didn’t exist. We were fortunate to grow up in such an innocent time.

There was one boy who was very “hyper” and couldn’t sit still for a minute. He wasn’t disruptive, but was more like a happy, cheerful little cricket. Thinking back, he probably had ADHD, although nobody had ever heard of it in those days. Another boy had some difficulty learning to read because he seemed to see everything backward. He probably had dyslexia, but nobody had heard of that either. Students now are fortunate that these problems can be recognized and can be helped.

I remember only one African-American family having children in the school during the eight years I was there. The Burwells lived in a small house on Biz Miller’s farm at the top of our hill. Willie Lou was a tall and dignified girl, and Thomas and Catherine were younger. I think they were only there for a year or two. In those days, African-American families were not free to live wherever they chose. In our area, they mostly had to live in Gordon Heights. We had a farm worker, Allen Washington, who lived in Gordon Heights and usually walked back and forth to work. He was in his sixties. My father told him that he thought it would be disrespectful to call him Allen because of his age, but Mr. Washington would be too formal, so what would he think of being called “General” Washington. He happily agreed, and we always called him the General. He was a respected and loved part of our farm family.


Allen “General” Washington. Photo from the collection of Mrs. Anne Ferguson Nauman

There were a lot of nicknames at school. I was always called Bumby. This was a family nickname. Supposedly I looked like a bumblebee when I was small. On the rare occasions that I hear that name nowadays, I know it must be someone from the old days in Middle Island. Left-handed Eddie Nowaski was called Lefty, Florence Buniski was always called Tootsie, and Rudolph Carrabus was Kayo. Joseph Obiedzenski was called Yuzhu which I think was Polish for Joseph. His brother Jimmy (Zygmund) was called Jimmy O. to distinguish him from Jimmy A. (Ashton). And there were my classmates Frances S. (Szuster)and Frances D. (Depta). Jimmy O. was later called Rubberhead. My mother gave him a lift home from school one day, and as he ran across the road to his house he was hit by a car. According to the story, he landed on his head and bounced up unhurt. Needless to say, my mother was horrified and was exceedingly grateful that he was not injured. The name stuck, and it was really affectionate, not at all teasing or mocking. I think that all of us left those nicknames behind when we got to high school.

At one time or another, all the children in school got chickenpox, measles, mumps, and German measles. Some of us got whooping cough. My sister and I got scarlet fever and had to be quarantined for a month in our bedrooms. She had a bead loom and spent the time making beautiful belts and other beaded pieces. I guess I just read books and played with “activity” books and paper dolls. They had to burn everything at the end of the quarantine period and Edith was heartbroken to lose her loom. Scarlet fever could have been treated with penicillin and cured quickly, but penicillin had not yet been discovered.

We were all vaccinated against smallpox, but that was the extent of the immunizations. Polio was the most dreaded of the childhood diseases, and there was no cure or immunization in those days. One of the girls, Lois Ashton, had been a polio victim and had to use special shoes and crutches, which she called her “sticks.” But she was one of the sunniest girls in the school, always smiling, and was determined to do everything her schoolmates could do. She even played jumprope – we would leave the rope on the ground long enough for her and her sticks to hop over it, and I still remember the look of pure joy on her face when she was jumping rope. Thankfully, children nowadays can be immunized against polio and will never have to face such difficult challenges. Lois and her brother Jimmy were always driven to school. I remember admiring their mother, a handsome woman who was always impeccably groomed and smartly dressed.

 

Part III - Family Life

 

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