Beliefnet
The Queen of My Self

September marks the beginning of the school year. And even if we have not attended classes in ages, we are still affected through our children and grand kids, as well as our own memories.

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I went to Superior Elementary School in East Cleveland, Ohio. Named ostensibly after Superior Road, the street where it was located at the foot of Superior Hill, Superior School was, indeed, a superior school.

This was due entirely to the singular visionary efforts of the extraordinary principal, Wilma Bayes, my childhood shero. The top picture on this article is not Wilma Bayes. She was not famous enough to have a Google image. But it is a reasonable likeness stylistically – another school principal who has the same general look, but a much more severe visage than did Miss Bayes. The bottom picture captures her gaze and warm, strong demeanor, at least in my affectionate memory of her.

She was the last of her breed of dedicated spinster schoolteachers. When she started her career in the early years of the 20th century, it was illegal for teachers to marry. So she chose to devote her life to educating and expanding the horizons of the students she loved. Wilma Bayes had been principal of Superior School for probably 40 years by the time I knew her. She was principal there when my mother was in the same elementary school in the late 1920s.

Miss Bayes was a spinster, all right. She spun devotion, passion and compassion; knowledge, understanding and practice; creative individuality and community spirit; art and science, and most seminal for me – ritual. (By the way, seminal does not refer to semen, but to Semele, an ancient Moon Goddess. But I digress.)

It has always seemed strange to me that in our endless discussions about education so little stress is laid on the pleasure of becoming an educated person, the enormous interest it adds to life. To be able to be caught up into the world of thought – that is to be educated.
– Edith Hamilton, Anthropologist

I have a Master’s degree in education and have read my share of educational theories, philosophies and programs. I have been in and out of many hundreds of public, private, parochial and charter schools as a teacher, teacher trainer and special guest presenter, and I have never seen one anywhere that was nearly as innovative as the one I attended 50-some years ago.

Though I do not know for sure whether she was influenced by John Dewey or Maria Montessori, Miss Bayes was, like them, an innovative proponent and practitioner of hands-on learning or experiential education. We did, indeed, learn by doing and creative thinking was encouraged. No, demanded. I never took a multiple choice or true/false test until junior high school and did very poorly on standardized tests when I first was exposed to them. All of our testing was though essay writing. The one thing I learned for sure in Superior School was non-standardized thinking.

Our curriculum and class schedule was also revolutionary. We only had regular classroom studies on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday. Tuesday was devoted to community and citizenship. In the morning there would be an educational assembly where we would watch nature films, hear special lectures, listen to stories of the old world from foreign born parents, and frequently see slide shows of Miss Bayes’s exotic travels.

The afternoon was devoted to community service. All of the students in the school were assigned to special clubs, each of which was conducted by one of the teachers, not necessarily our own. Each club performed a duty for the school or for the general community or taught a useful practical skill. As I recall, the choices included crossing guards, tutoring of deaf students, gardening, touch up painting, Red Cross first aid, lip reading and sign language interpretation, and old age home visitations.

Education is for improving the lives of others and for leaving your community and world better than you found it.
– Marian Wright Edelman, Founder and Director,
Children’s Defense Fund (see May 2008 issue of The Queen’s Chronicles)

Every class in the school had a year-long service project to benefit the school. One year my class got to repaint the gigantic world globe, 12 feet in diameter, that took up an entire alcove in the second floor hallway. It actually took us the entire year complete the detailed painting and stenciling, but you can bet my grasp of geography is very good!

Fridays were given over completely to the arts. Every Friday morning featured an assembly of music, drama, or dancing presented by a different class each week. These were fairly elaborate productions, and since there were only two classes in each grade K-6, every class had to put together about three programs a year.

In the afternoon we divided into clubs again, this time to pursue our chosen art, craft or musical instrument. Over the years I learned to draw; paint; weave baskets; make, glaze and fire pottery; knit; quilt; cook; play the flutophone and the autoharp; and folk dance.

The sciences received equal emphasis. Every spring, the 5th and 6th grade students were sent to a week-long science camp.Our studies were intensive and all inclusive. We learned how to make strict hospital corners on our cots, studied flora and fauna, learned to use microscopes, collected and prepared wild food and used telescopes at night to learn to identify the constellations and the myths about them.

Superior School was in a very diverse working class area with a large immigrant community, some of whom like the Cubans and Hungarians, were war refugees. Miss Bayes was my first tour guide into the delicious realm of multiculturalism. She was a fantastic community builder and produced wonderful family programs. The PTA sponsored frequent community potluck suppers where the entire student body along with their families would come together to eat dinner and chat. I have very fond memories of Mrs. Papadopoulos’ moussaka, Mrs. Russo’s pasta with red sauce, and my mom’s mandelbroit.

You must learn day by day, year by year, to broaden your horizon. The more things you love, the more you are interested in, the more you enjoy, the more you are indignant about, the more you have left when anything happens.
– Ethel Barrymore, Actor

Around Halloween the entire school worked to produce a fair in the cafeteria. Classes were put to work making signs, constructing game booths, decorating, making programs, signs and tickets. Everyone came to the Halloween fair in costume and spent the night playing games and eating sweet treats from around the world. In the springtime there was an evening Cake Walk with the cakes donated by all the mothers and many of the teachers.

There were several other all-school social events, my favorite of which were the sing-a-longs. We would gather on a crisp autumn evening, a school night no less, children, parents, siblings and teachers and their families, around a huge bonfire in the park across the street. Miss Bayes herself handed out song sheets and we would all sing American folk songs and spirituals and roast s’mores under the stars. How fabulous was that?

Every winter the two 6th grade classes painted the huge two-story-high windows in the stairwells, one with scenes and symbols of Christmas and the other with Chanukah themes. This was really special since the only two Jewish children in the school were my brother and me. This was before the 1960s creation of Kwanzaa, but trust me, had there been more windows there would have been a Kwanzaa mural for it, and for Divali and Soyal, as well.

Miss Bayes was a Queen Mistress of Ceremony. The ritual she designed for 6th grade graduation was called “Clapping Out.” All of the students in the school lined up along the walls on either side of the long central corridor on the main floor. The graduating students walked the length of the hallway in a stately single file. As they passed, the entire school applauded, and kept applauding as one by one they walked right out of the front door, leaving the school behind. It was so simple. So moving. So perfectly transformational. I can still feel the thrill of my own Clapping Out. How sweet it was to pass my brother’s second grade class and see him grinning toothlessly and waving at me, proud of his big sister. How can I ever describe the profound sense of change when I walked out of my beloved school and into my terrible teens.

Of all my fabulous memories of Queen Wilma, the best was when she defended me to my own mother. When I was in the third or fourth grade, my mom dragged me into Miss Bayes’ office to bemoan my terrible handwriting and to complain that I was not being taught Gregg penmanship properly. Miss Bayes’ turned to her former student and replied mildly, “So, she will type.” Oh, ecstasy!

Beatrix Potter said, “Thank goodness I was never sent to school; it would have rubbed off some of the originality.” And I say, “Thank Goddess I went to school. It steeped me in originality.” I am ever indebted to Miss Bayes.

 

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Donna Henes is the author of The Queen of My Self: Stepping into Sovereignty in Midlife. She offers counseling and upbeat, practical and ceremonial guidance for individual women and groups who want to enjoy the fruits of an enriching, influential, purposeful, passionate, and powerful maturity. Consult the MIDLIFE MIDWIFE™

The Queen welcomes questions concerning all issues of interest to women in their mature years. Send your inquiries to thequeenofmyself@aol.com.

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