Sam Smith – My elementary school in DC was several blocks away from our house, a classic red brick building with small playgrounds on either side. There were four teachers for 160 kids. Two of the teachers were maiden sisters and everyone, student and parent, called them The Fat Miss Waddy and The Thin Miss Waddy. The former was sweet and kind; the latter tough as she looked.
Jackson Elementary was a happy school. As far as the thin trail of paper and memory reveal, I was a good student with a record marred only by a temporary speech defect caused by the inopportune loss of my front baby teeth and problems with my “tables” and spelling. Although the latter deficiency would plague me through life, within a few months the Thin Miss Waddy was writing in her best pedagogical manner to my parents, “I am quite pleased at his effort to overcome his spelling. Our real worth is measured by how we do that which is hard rather than the excellence of the easy tasks.”
Miss Waddy lived in a world in which one’s real worth was constantly being measured by some nameless judge according to standards as immutable as time itself. Miss Waddy was strict, but she was not cruel or mean. After all, the mystical measurer was sizing her up as well and she was only trying to prevent her charges from coming up short. She may even have had certain reformist inclinations. She let left handers like myself turn our paper sidewise and write down the page rather than forcing us into the contorted position insisted upon by most teachers of the era. We also learned about the poor living conditions of Chinese workers. And Miss Waddy’s standards did her no harm. She was sighted years later by a fellow Jackson alumnus at the Georgetown Safeway — in her nineties, still correct and erect.
The official report card of the DC public schools listed a full page of “habits, attitudes and appreciations, which the school considers important.” Among them:
• Uses time and materials wisely
• Claims only his share of attention
• Acts promptly at all times
• Appreciates advantages and opportunities offered by school and home
• Learns and applies necessary health rules such as. . . sleeping ten hours with windows open; keeping body clean including teeth and nails…
Jackson almost didn’t exist anymore. According to the Georgetown Metropolitan newspaper, “Due to a drop in enrollment from 320 to 120, the school was threatened with closure in 1942. Georgetown parents protested the closure [which was] announced just days before the school year.”
All the furnishings had been removed. But the parents petitioned and managed to reverse the move and classes resumed only two days late. My mother recalled visiting one parent and being told, “I don’t see why I think I know more than the Board of Education. If they think this school ought to be closed, I don’t see what right I have to say no.” My mother’s reaction: “And this was just when Hitler was roaring over Europe and you felt this is what makes Hitler. It was terrifying, terrifying.”
My older brother and sister had started out at a private school. But my parents decided they were wasting money with a good public school nearby. The headmistress at the National Cathedral School was understanding, but at the boy’s school, Beauvoir, the headmistress said, “It’s all very well for you to be democratic, Mrs. Smith, but you don’t need to go to the gutter.” It made my mother furious.
My older brother eventually went to Gordon Junior High School. The idea of a public junior high was still new and already it had problems. So the parents were also busy there, organizing patrols to stop knife fights in the halls and rowdiness in the lunchrooms. My brother, four years older than myself, carried a knife and had his nose broken in a neighborhood fight. DC was still segregated and Gordon and Jackson were all white so nobody blamed the rowdiness and the knife fights on race.