by Ann Angel Eberhardt
It’s September, the time of year that always meant back-to-school for 1950s children. The sight of today’s backpack-laden kids trudging off to school often as early as mid-August can still bring back those memories of long ago.
A song that would put anyone in a back-to-school mood is Chuck Berry’s 1957 rock ‘n’ roll version of “School Days.” As he sings about dealing with teachers, students and school subjects, he describes the high school experiences and concerns all of us can relate to then and now.
Elementary and high school occupied most of our young lives except for those three-month summer breaks each year, so it isn’t any wonder that memories abound, good and not-so-good. Join us as we recall those “dear old golden rule days” at Robison School during the early 1950s.
The Emma Robison School building sat like a stately mansion at the end of a long sidewalk that cut across the middle of the front lawn. The Y-shaped brick structure on Seventh Street had two stories, tall narrow windows, steep roofs and a sky-high chimney. At first, the building held six rooms for approximately 150 pupils, but later it grew to 10 room for 217 pupils. It was the place in which I spent my fifth and sixth grades at the ages of 10 through 12 years old.
A timeline on the Mercer County Historical Society website mentions that the cornerstone of the “Sharpsville Public School” was laid on May 25, 1892. Miss Emma Robison taught there from 1900 to 1937. According to an article in the 1924 Sharpsville’s Golden Anniversary Supplement to The Sharon (PA) Telegraph (page 10 ): “Miss Emma Robison has served as principal in the Seventh-st. School building for many years. She also teaches Grade Seven of that building.”
At some time in the years that followed that 1924 article, the school was renamed in Emma Robison’s honor. A vintage postcard depicts the school with a woman and child sitting on concrete steps leading to the sidewalk. (See image below.) The fashion of the woman’s clothing suggests that the photo was taken in the late 1930s or early 40s, possibly after Emma Robison’s last year of teaching in 1937 and when the school adopted her name.
Starting the Day
During the first week of the school year, the wood floors would be extra shiny and the interior would have a pungent smell of whatever they applied to the floors. Early morning before school began, students would be standing in groups or chasing each other about on the sidewalk and grounds.
To signal the start of the school day, a teacher appeared at the massive front door, stood at the top of the steps, and rang a handbell. We immediately formed a line and entered the building two-by-two, stamping our little feet to the beat of John Sousa marches emanating from a record player, climbing the wide wooden staircase to the fourth and fifth-grade classes on the second floor. We ended our march as we entered the dark recesses of narrow cloakrooms that were adjacent to our assigned homerooms, removed our hats and coats and hung them on rows of hooks.
The School Room
Entering our classroom through a doorway at the opposite end of the cloakroom, we moved on to our desks, which were assigned to us in alphabetical order by our last names. This seating arrangement continued into high school and, having the last name of Angel, I was always placed near the front of the room and always between the same students whose names came alphabetically before and after mine.
The folding seats and writing surfaces of our desks were made of varnished wood supported by wide ornate black wrought iron legs. The top of the desk, under which we would store our books, tablets, and pencil box, had a round hole for an inkwell in one corner and a groove to hold a pen or pencil along the top edge. On the wall was one of those typical school clocks with Roman numerals and a pendulum. Most likely there were the usual framed copies of paintings of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln hanging about the room.
Good penmanship was emphasized. To keep us reminded of this, a long white narrow paper chart displayed the cursive alphabet in upper and lowercase across the top of the blackboard. During writing lessons, which were based on the Palmer method, we would dip the nibs of our wooden handled pens into the bottle of ink that was securely fixed in the desktop hole and practice our characters, perform exercises such as circles and ovals, and learn the proper way to write a letter. Cursive writing was one area in which I excelled. My work was displayed on the schoolroom wall with the others and I was awarded an A in penmanship on the report card that I carried home to my parents every six weeks. Thanks to this early training, I had at least readable handwriting for the rest of my life.
There were about 20 students in each of the two fifth-grade and two sixth-grade homerooms. My homeroom teacher for both those years was Miss Allen. At the end of each day, she would read to us a chapter of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s book, Anne of Green Gables. We enjoyed following the exploits of that spunky red-headed girl, alternatively happy for her achievements and tearful during her rough times.
Each day, several teachers moved from classroom to classroom to present their lessons. Geography was taught by Miss Genevieve Bartholomew, using colorful pull-down maps of the countries. As for music, which she also taught, we often sang melodies from our music book using the scale (Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti, Do) instead of words to the songs. Although I had been taking piano lessons since the second grade, this was one lesson I could never master.
According to an article in a series titled “Life Stories” in The Herald dated March 27, 2006, Miss Bartholomew taught at Robison School for 38 years and was still going strong at age 95. (See the complete article here.)
Miss Helen Bruner was our arithmetic teacher. (See photo of “Seventh-St School Teachers” above.) Because I was behind in my math education when my family moved to Sharpsville, I was required to stay after school, along with a few other hapless students, to work on my multiplication and subtraction.
The Russians are Coming!
Although my time at Robison School felt safe and peaceful, the nation was in the midst of the Cold War and feared the possibility of nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. We were told that there was only one second between a flash and the explosion of a hydrogen bomb. As we practiced ducking under our desks, I tried to understand how long a second really was. I finally had to face the fact that I was doomed because there wasn’t time to do much of anything!
Judy Caldwell, who became my best friend, always had creative ideas for having fun. We spent many times together sketching our own fashion designs, writing to pen pals, collecting stamps, exploring Pine Hollow creek and woods, attending tap dancing lessons at Buhl Club, and swimming at the Buhl Park pool. My friend discovered that grade-schoolers could borrow books from the high school library. What a bonanza! At once I immersed myself in the lives of the impoverished but resourceful and happy Five Little Peppers, as described in a series of books about five children of the Pepper family written by Margaret Sidney.
The school provided at least one extra-curricular activity, weekly swimming lessons for sixth-graders at a pool in the basement of St. John’s Church that was located in the nearby town of Sharon. Learning how to save oneself from drowning was certainly a worthwhile endeavor, but that unheated water was very cold!
My brother Mike has the following recollections of those days:
The flagpole located in the front of the school was the center of a lot of play and ceremonial activity. I believe I was on some sort of detail assigned to raise the flag in the morning and another kid or two lowered it in the evening. When I saw the 1983 holiday movie, “A Christmas Story,” in which the kid got his tongue frozen to the flagpole, I immediately thought of the flagpole at Robison School where the same thing happened to [one of my friends]. I guess it was a common occurrence back then.
At one time, a tree planting ceremony was held in the front of the school commemorating something special (don’t remember what) – I wonder if the trees are still growing. The girls’ and boys’ restrooms were located in the basement of the school adjacent to the furnace room. I remember the smell of the furnace room as I think they burned coal (it really wasn’t offensive). The janitor must have been the best in the business because I recall how impressed I was as a little boy that the school was so neat and clean.
Something I always thought of: While attending the Robison School, I was told that at one time the 7th Street hill in front of the school was used for a soap box derby race. Kids would make a soapbox racer and race them at a yearly organized event until an accident of some sort occurred and the event was discontinued. I don’t know if the story is true or there were actually any races, but as a kid, I remember I was disappointed they no longer held the event because I would have been there with my racer.
Another memory: Prior to the school being dismissed, I along with others on the safety patrol left school early to attend to our assigned posts. My post was the crossing at 7th Street and Ridge Avenue. We picked up our long bamboo poles with red flags on the end, which were stored under the outside produce stand at the corner grocery store. When the students crossed the road, we held the poles out and stopped the traffic and let the kids cross safely.
I can’t recall the name of the grocery store but can recall what the owner looked like. [According to Judy Caldwell Nelson, the store was called “Stewarts’ Corner Grocery,” owned by the Stewart brothers.] He was real good with the children and treated them well. I bought a lot of penny candy from him.
Also, on Fridays two Filipino men hawked Duncan Yo-Yo’s at that location. The men sold Duncan Yo-Yo’s of all price ranges and special yo-yo string that sold for 5 cents each. They held yo-yo contests weekly and at the end of the school year the yo-yo company gave away a grand prize. It was a Duncan Yo-Yo encrusted with various colors of glass that looked like diamonds and must have been worth millions of dollars! I never won anything but enjoyed the event. I think one of the kids also won a bicycle one year.
The school year came to an end in May or early June. I don’t remember whether there was any preparation or guidance for our move to the Sharpsville Junior-Senior High School for seventh grade, but I do recall how sad Miss Allen was to see us go after having us as her homeroom students for two years.
The more that time has passed, the more idyllic those early school years seem to have been, unspoiled and full of promise. We were fortunate that those dedicated grade school teachers managed to provide us with a strong basic education, and in a building of such a grand design as the Emma Robison School.
— Ann Angel Eberhardt (SHS 1958), Goodyear, AZ,
with help from Michael Angel (SHS 1960), London, KY,
and Judy Caldwell Nelson (SHS 1958), Shoreline, WA. March 2012.