Wiesbaden, Germany: 1947-1952
Escuela Bella Vista Maracaibo, Venezuela: 1952-1953
To the reader:
This is not an erudite paper on overseas schools in the late forty’s and early fifty’s. It is, for the most part, a child-oriented, child-centered collection of minutia of importance primarily to those who worked with young children during those years.
From the writer:
MY YEARS WITH THE AMERICAN OVERSEAS DEPENDENT SCHOOLS
I believe that unlike some of my fellow teachers traveling by Army transport to Germany in August 1947 with General Omar Bradley and Congressmen Rivers aboard, I went with less fear of the unknown because I had visited Europe in 1937. Also, except for some former WAVES, WAAFs and WACS, the military was not entirely new, as I had been a dependent” wife from February 1941 to January 1945 at four bases here in the States. My husband, Major George H. Nicholson, went overseas to the China-Burma-India (CBI) theater in January 1945. He was killed in a plane crash in New Guinea in May of that year. I ran the Post school at March Air Force Base in California in 1946-47 where I learned about the overseas school program. I knew something about the military and its jargon but I had not been in Germany, nor had I ever shared a “troop compartment” with 30+ other females. We were lucky though since our canvas hammocks were only double deckers, not triple such as the World War II troops had.
We elementary school teachers were aware that we might be teaching all eight grades as a one-room school or any combination of grades in converted houses. We had packed materials and ideas to use in many situations.
My assignment was with a first grade group at USAFE HQ in Wiesbaden, Germany. The three DAC teachers of the first year of the Dependents Schools 1946-47 had returned to the States. Mable Gibbons (Ft. Worth), with a wonderful sense of humor, was assigned a third-fourth grade, and Lydia Oja (Fresno), a former WAVE, was to work with the fifth and sixth grades, were with me as replacements. A kindergarten, a second grade and a combination seventh-eighth grade were taught by qualified military dependent wives. It was a good team. Al Rivers, a continuing Superintendent from the first year, was our boss.
We were assigned two double rooms on the fourth floor of the Palast Hotel. I had hoped for a single. Later I was told that there was one unoccupied single that had been damaged by a water leak some months before. I looked at it and opted for it. On the same floor with us were some of the higher GS rated civilians and WAAF officers. The other three floors housed male officers. We had manned elevator service, a bar, a dining room, maid service, and all rooms had telephone service, which was worked through a switchboard that was located just behind the front desk. Room keys with huge blocks of wood attached were left at the desk.
All rooms had a washbowl, period. Down the hall were several separate toilets and separate baths with tubs only. Thermal water was piped into the bath tubs (Wiesbaden) as well as fresh. There were two toilet rooms side by side. Lydia suggested that a shower be put in one of the rooms. Soon we had a shower sheathed in copper. What a joy. Porter service was available. A man was assigned to pick up our shoes, shine them, and return them in our absence.
We had been told that we could not ship a car. A Jeep was our transportation to and from school. The possibility of buying a car was very dim—- only by a lottery set up by the PX. A German car market did not exist. However, I heard that a sergeant about to return to the States was selling an Opel. For $1,000 I became the duly registered owner of a 1939, 2 door, 5 passenger Opel Olympia. It had a hole where a heater had been and the scratchy radio fell apart within weeks, but it had four wheels and it ran! Car owners were advised to leave cars unlocked, leave nothing in sight in the car and leave the glove compartment open and empty. Broken glass would result from pilferers. The skilled international gangs of car thieves would not be deterred by a lock from taking the vehicle.
Opelina got us to school early enough to finish getting our classrooms ready for the day, and gradually we trusted it to go as far as Luxembourg where we could buy material to be made up by a local dressmaker. Mable and I drove Opelina to Linz, Austria to take pictures of the area’s landscape. Mable’s brother, Bruce, was shot down in a raid on the Ploesti Oil Works during WWII. The reports indicated that he had gone down near Linz. We stopped at the USX in Linz and talked with members of the staff who told us that planes had been shot down over the area. Mable sent the snapshots of the picturesque countryside to her mother.
The school building, a very large one for only six classes, was known as the Lahnstrasse School. It is my understanding that this German school had been taken over by our government because it had been used for military training by the Luftwaffe during the war. I dimly recall seeing adult-sized, two-student desks in the schoolyard awaiting removal. I believe that it was not our government’s policy to take over schools that had been used continuously by German children during WW II.
My first grade furnishings consisted of folding field tables lowered by cutting the legs a few inches. For seating we had many folding chairs the height of which had been reduced in the same manner. An adult-sized seat on an inadequate base made for hazardous situations with wiggling six-year olds. All too often a child concentrating on work on the table inched forward on the seat and was unceremoniously dumped on the floor, the high back of the chair hitting the table on the way down. I held my breath lest a head be hit, too. The wiggliest were assigned the few old, rigid kitchen-type chairs, reduced in height as were the others.
The chalkboards were black with many cracks and breaks through which the white plaster of the wall showed. The children, who sometimes used the board, and I adjusted to these visual handicaps especially after I presented the lower case “f” in a writing lesson. A small dot of white plaster which I had not noticed showed through on my big sample just above the cross bar of the “f”. Several children included the white dot in their reproductions in just the right place. Were these children perfectionists? Less able to follow verbal directions? More observant? I’ve often wondered and did learn to be more careful in avoiding white cracks.
Our paper supplies consisted of a very limited amount of unpainted newsprint for the easel and unlimited reams of legal-sized mimeograph paper. It was amazing to note how well the children accepted the same old mimeograph paper for art, or when folded in squares for math or in lines for manuscript writing ( a very sharp crease for the top and bottom lines and a soft fold for the middle line.) I noticed that for children with less hand-eye coordination, the creases were less demanding and the product was more satisfying than when using the conventional manuscript writing paper.
The Paris edition of the Herald Tribune provided material for murals. Pages without pictures or bold type provided a gray background for the tempera paint, which we had in good supply. The children worked on the floor as they created their masterpieces. Their awareness of the German architecture was evident in their productions early in the year.
Pre-primers, Primers, and First Readers, totaled in each set from 10 to 13. Because I taught in small groups such numbers were adequate. We had both “Dick and Jane” and “Alice and Jerry.” There was a chart accompanying the Scott Foresman series and the easel with its limited supply of newsprint provided for experience charts. The storeroom revealed a few odds and ends of basal readers from other publishers at several Grade I levels for a classroom library.
At a PTA meeting, concern was raised about the less than adequate library holdings of trade books especially at the primary level. The organization voted that night to give $500 (in 1947 dollars!) toward the purchase of books. The librarian at the headquarters in Heidelberg sent a compendium of juvenile trade books for me to study. The registration figures for each class K-8, a total of 180±, were obtained and a per-capita allotment was made for each grade. After several lengthy telephone talks with Heidelberg and much study, books were ordered. All of us were delighted when the books were shelved, especially those of us who were working with kindergarten and primary grade children.
The Pitney-Cunningham was administered early in September. One boy who scored well made very little progress in learning to read. Physically, socially and emotionally he was mature with a vocabulary well above that of the average six-year old. Along about February he opened up, revealing that he had been absorbing much and seemed to say, “Okay, Mrs. Nicholson, I’ve kept you on the griddle long enough.” He progressed from the “lowest” reading group to the “top” and by June had almost read me out of the storeroom. He made a good dent in our new library acquisitions.
There was another potential reading problem that I encountered, one I had not been taught to expect. “Boy falls in love with Girl.” When the children moved in pairs, Dick made sure he was Meg’s partner. At the close of school, Dick escorted Meg to her bus carrying her lunch box and raced six buses back to board his own bus. When the boys were invited to choose a girl partner in dances such as “Bruderlein Komm Danz mit Meir,” or in games, Dick dove for Meg. It was fun to watch the “love in bloom”….for a while.
Dick and Meg were both in my “top” reading group, Dick at the lower end and Meg sharing the limelight with several other fluent, expressive oral readers. I noticed that when Dick encountered a word not yet firmly in his “sight” vocabulary he would decode it by breaking into syllables and pronounce it. All well and good. But, Dick went back to the beginning of the sentence, raced through it and the word that had caused him to falter, and then kept going as fast as he could. Yes, he knew the meaning of what he was reading. This soon became a pattern. Could he be establishing a poor habit under “peer pressure”? Could he lose interest in demanding meaning? Was he just trying to imitate Meg’s fluency? Should I move Dick to the next lower group? My answer to the last question was, “NO.” Dick’s parents were both very cooperative and I knew that I could depend on them to help get Dick out from the pressure he had seemingly put on himself. I called his mother and asked if she had noticed difficulty with Dick’s oral reading of trade books. She hadn’t. Yes, he did speak often of Meg when mentioning anything about school. I described the situation at school, and asked for her help with my scheme. Normally, I did not allow a basal reader out the classroom until a group had finished it and then only for a short time as we needed the texts for others. In this case I suggested that she ask Dick to bring his book home where he could read to his parents “today’s story” and “yesterday’s story” but not read beyond where the group was reading. The plan seemed to work partly because he was getting a bit more practice and maybe, because Meg was not present. The “love story” ended within a few weeks. Meg, her mother and sister were flown to the States. Her father, a pilot, had been killed in a plane crash.
The Germans (and at least one Stateless person) who worked directly with the students and in the office all spoke English. Obviously, language was a prime requisite. About any background investigations that may have been in order, I know nothing. I am assuming that each person was carefully screened and that none had been a committed Nazi or other kind of enemy at any point. Our early naive questions about Hitler brought responses such as, “we knew nothing about him,” or “he was a fanatic.”
During the winter of 1947-48, we Americans were required to have a bag packed with canned food, blankets, etc. ready for evacuation. Car owners were ordered to keep the gas tank at least half full and carry a full jerry can in the trunk. I wondered about the indigenous people who had, as it were, cast their lot with us.
Some tension was felt by all of us after Czechoslovakia fell under the Iron Curtain. Some military wives and children were flown to the United States immediately on request. One family, friends of my late husband, decided one night that the mother and children should leave. The next day one of their six children came down with chicken pox. By the time the virus had run its course among most of the children, the tension had eased and the father was able to complete his tour of duty with his family intact.
German language classes were held at all levels. When the high school was established a German teacher, Frau Dr. Lepler, was hired to teach German. I did not speak German so I sat in on many classes with my first graders. On one occasion the children were being introduced to a finger play. The finger movements used, though acceptable in Germany, had crude connotations in our culture. I suggested privately that the activity be abandoned. My feeling was that classes in German were very important if for no other mason than that they might correct the “Kuchen Deutch” the children were absorbing from the maids in their homes. I had been told that the Wiesbadner dialect was not a good one. Some of the children had become quite fluent in it. In fact, one of my first graders served as my interpreter in communicating with Herr Mueller, the custodian. Early childhood educators are always beholden to the custodian.
A German medical doctor, a charming young woman, was assigned to the Lahnstrasse School in lieu of a school nurse. Her practice must not have been very challenging because all of us, military and civilian, adult and child, had recently gone through physicals and had shot records updated. We all had ready access to the hospital. (Anyone who has watched the return of the hostages and other debriefings has seen Wiesbaden Hospital in the background.) Our new doctor proposed that she test all students for hearing and vision problems starting with the high school students. I respectfully asked that she start with the youngest, the least able to tell us of a problem. Before she came I had occasion to question the visual acuity of one child and reported my observations to his parents. A few days later he arrived with glasses which he used for close work and did not use for board work. When I questioned the mother her response was, “Oh, we don’t want him to get used to glasses now because he is going to go to West Point.” In the case of a child named for his father I always asked what name or nickname was to be used. James Stephen Hall, Jr. was to be called “James.” For a couple of weeks when I called “James” I got no response unless the boy was looking directly at me. At recess one day I watched as “James” responded to a call across the playground. The call was, “Hey, Stevie.” It was reassuring to now have an authority on hand who could save me a lot of worry and speculation.
Music was offered by a classically trained German singer with a beautiful voice. Her approach was as exacting as if she were working with adults. She demanded volume from young throats and seemed impatient when a child could not match a tone. Her tempo was slow. I am not a musician but I asked to be allowed to work with my students in music.
Though the library was inadequate at first, it did have a piano. When necessary, we moved tables so that we could have action songs, dancing, eurhythmics and percussion band activities. Though no child was identified as a ‘true singer’ or a ‘monotone’, choirs were formed with the ‘true singers’ in the back, the ‘near singers’ in front of them and the ‘monotones’ in front near the piano. Hearing the true tone from the back and from the piano in front seemed to help the children having trouble matching tones. I think we all had fun with the variety of approaches. I know I did.
Obviously the community was small during the first years. Although there was busing, as much as an hour each way, it was a neighborhood school even after the small high school was added about mid-year. We teachers knew most of the parents, and they knew us. We met frequently at the PX, at church services, at the two officers clubs and at the regularly scheduled PTA meetings. Our social activity consisted mostly of bridge and canasta in our hotels, dinner at the homes of some of the children, dinner and dancing or dinner and bingo at one of the clubs. One night the older sister of one of my children was celebrating her birthday with her family and a few of her friends. When I won a bingo game it was announced that the prize was a case of liquor, the young man from my class called out, “But, she doesn’t drink.”
Anticipating the year 1948-49, looking at my roster and having a good idea of the rotation policy in general, I figured that of the 30+ children I had in June some 27 could be there in September. I asked to be allowed to continue with them to Grade 2. Permission granted. I felt that I knew these children, their strengths and weaknesses. There had been many upheavals in their young lives and this could give them some continuity. Soon after we assembled in September, I realized that these children knew me, too, individually and collectively.
In a matter of a few months the second grade numbered 48 with new arrivals anticipated. Providing for individual differences became very difficult. The range of reading skills was much too wide to handle effectively. The third grade had also swelled in numbers. Standardized tests were administered and a qualified dependent wife was finally assigned to relieve the situation. I opted for a combined ‘high’ second and a low’ third. All but one of my former first graders scored very well on the test. Many exceeded its limits. By extrapolation they had scored at or beyond mid-Grade 3 level. The continuity I had sought for them may have helped. Some of the newly registered children who arrived in late September and in October had not been in school since June. Considering that there could be ‘summer forgetting’ then it becomes easy to understand the scores. Even those who arrived in November or December may have lost more than a month of second grade while visiting relatives, waiting for housing, the port call and then the ten-day Army transport from New York to Bremerhaven.
Judging by the fathers’ grade or rank, the children at USAFE at that time might be considered an elitist group. Non-commissioned Officers had to hold the grade of Buck Sergeant, at least, to be allowed to have their families overseas. Commissioned Officers who had their families with them included Generals.
The remaining part of my second year was demanding in that I had to work harder to stimulate my low’ third graders and change my ploys to keep my second graders at top speed. The latter group knew me very well. During the winter months I noticed that Betty, one of my second graders, was not responding as usual. I watched her more closely and noticed that she seemed to be breathing mostly through her mouth. I hesitated to call her mother right away because I knew she was a very concerned parent and a registered nurse. As it happened, Betty’s mother stopped in our room a few days later to make an announcement about Brownies. As she was leaving I told her of my observations. She thanked me and said, “I’ll have her checked at the hospital this afternoon.” She returned immediately after making her visit to another room and said, ” I’ve been thinking. You see Betty during her waking hours more than I do. Thank you for alerting me.” (The family lived at the end of a long bus route. In winter the child got on the bus at daybreak and got home at dusk at that latitude.) Betty’s mother called to say that Betty had a low-grade infection and was on medications. Betty was soon her own cheery self.
I’ll never forget an experience I had with another second grader later on. We had been issued new spelling workbooks. The teacher’s instructions guaranteed 100% success for every child, even the slower learners if followed carefully. Actually the plans were not unlike the routines I had been using without workbooks. I used sheets of paper for the Wednesday pre-test and final test which I collected, corrected and noted for more work with the children who needed it. I must have been caught up by the propaganda in the teacher’s manual because I had the children exchange workbooks on the Friday test, mark incorrect words, initial and return to the owners. Then I asked those who had all words correct to stand and remain standing as those who had only one wrong joined them. More than half were on their three wrong then joined the first two groups. One boy still sitting burst into tears and said, “Mrs. Nicholson, you know that I can’t do it” I was as humbled as I ever have been. Of course I knew he could not spell even seven of the words. The boy continued to sob. I went to him and put my arms around him. What I said I don’t remember. The workbooks were collected. Sometime later I asked myself, “I wonder how many knew how to spell all ten words the first day they were presented?” I have not forgotten how stupid and cruel I had been.
Our free time, especially four-day weekends, found us on the road. Opelina served us well even after the following episode. One Saturday morning as I was backing out of the parking lot across from the Palast Hotel the car zoomed back out of control. I shut off the engine and grabbed the emergency brake. The car stopped within inches of a tree. The startled Polish guard helped me open the hood. I noticed that the long rod to the accelerator had a three to four inch extension beyond an elbow. This connection to the engine was stuck by a ring that had gone over the elbow. The guard managed to get the ring back in place. The car was restarted. I crawled to a German garage. With little German and much gesturing I got the mechanic to firmly affix a nut just below the turn of the elbow. This acted as a kind of governor, but that was all right because the many cobblestones discouraged speeding in Opelina. We could speed on the autobahns, but remembering the nut we didn’t.
During those early years we had more than our share of cobblestones as we had to drive through many little villages off the autobahns. Our Army Air Force had bombed all the bridges and temporary bypasses were used. I returned to the states for just one summer, that in 1949. Before I left I sold Opelina with the nut still in place on the accelerator shaft. Arrangements were made for delivery of a new 1949 Chevrolet to Bremerhaven upon my return at a cost of a little over $1,400.00. This vehicle allowed us to go more places with more confidence for the next three years.
We had to work our travel within the limits of the school vacations. We could not take advantage of military flights available through the Foreign Flights Office as could the other DACs because return flights were not always on schedule and there was no ‘basket’ leave for us.
One Easter vacation a Mediterranean trip fitted our time exactly. We took the train to Genoa where we boarded a ship for Athens, Rhodes and Alexandria. We arranged for a car to take us to Cairo. Many European nationals were aboard, a few were German but the largest group represented Sweden, Spain and Switzerland. We delighted in seeing the fashions of the latter three groups concentrated in one place. We were starved for fashion.
Over the five years my travels including summertime, took me by plane, ship, train, tour bus, ferry or automobile from Syria on the EAST. Egypt on the SOUTH, Portugal on the WEST and Finland on the NORTH. To the North add, in late June during the waning Midnight Sun, a non-stop flight out of Stockholm. While flying hedgehopping we flew over the Arctic Circle. We were able to take pictures of the terrain at midnight.
Perhaps my most memorable trip was to the Holy Land as a Christian pilgrim. We were allowed to cross at the Mandlebaum Gate from Arab to Israeli territory on Christmas Eve 1950 and were in Bethlehem for midnight Mass.
I mentioned above that Mable Gibbons’ brother, Bruce had been shot down during WWII, reportedly over Linz, Austria. In 1950 Mrs. Gibbons was notified that his body had been recovered and she elected to have his remains reinterred in Europe. The Military Cemetery chosen was St. Avold near Metz, France. Mable was then stationed in Darmstadt. One Friday afternoon Lydia and I met her train and the three of us started for Metz. We found hotel rooms, located a florist shop and left an early call for Saturday morning. We had no difficulty following the cemetery superintendent’s directions and were at the graveside early. We took many pictures of the cemetery with its sea of wooden crosses and of course, of Bruce’s grave. Before noon, our mission was accomplished. What to do now?
We headed for Luxembourg. After we crossed the border we who had all been there shopping for clothing materials decided to move on. Lydia, our non-driving navigator, noted that we were not far from Brussels. Mable had never been there. We arrived quite late but got hotel rooms. After I returned from Mass on Sunday morning Lydia and I gave Mable a very informal tour of Brussels and headed back to Wiesbaden. Our map reader observed that if we drove about 20 kilometers out of our way we could go into Holland. Border crossings in those days were all carefully checked, but I had a carnet for the car which shortened the process. In our fifth country in one short weekend, the Dutch border guard discovered a discrepancy in the motor number as we were exiting Holland. After looking at all the stubs in the carnet, he shrugged his shoulders and waved us on. We got back to Wiesbaden in time to put Mable on her train to Darmstadt. Our mercy errand to St. Avold is remembered for the many crosses over patriots’ graves and for the many border crossings we made.
In 1951, the Lahnstrasse School was not large enough to handle the enrollment. Two kindergarten groups (morning and afternoon) and five first grade groups were assigned to a partially rebuilt, lower floor, of a bombed barracks building at the Kaserne. Four kindergarten groups were housed temporarily in the Chaplain’s Center downtown. Eventually, the second floor of the barracks was completed, the noise of construction stopped and the four kindergarten groups from downtown joined us. Three morning kindergartens and three afternoon kindergartens were with the five first grade groups for a total of 330 children taught in one building. We had our own mess for the first graders.
Six years after the American Dependent Schools were started it was still difficult to convince the Military and Civil Service that schools are different from offices, hangars, BOQ’s and barracks, and that five and six year olds do have needs that differ from AF officers and men, secretaries, clerks and WAFS. Children should have commodes low enough for them to sit. Despite carefully spelled out work orders, on first inspection, it was found that adult size toilet seats had been installed with no platforms surrounding them to lower the seats a few inches. The doors had workable locks that said, “Frie and Besetz.” Before school started the platforms were in place but the locks on the doors remained yet to be fixed. Yes, a boy did lock himself in. One of our German assistants reported to me. I left her with my group while I hurried to ask the secretary – nurse to call for help and then to the imprisoned child. Softly we talked about the lock and how it worked. He tried and tried to no avail. He remained remarkably calm as we talked, told each other stories and sang of some of our kindergarten songs. After about fifteen minutes, a kindly, older German worker arrived. He took the pins out of the hinges and removed the door. A relaxed, cerebral palsy victim grinned at us from his throne. The German gentleman picked him up and gave him a big hug. The locks were removed the next day.
Civil Service had difficulty accomodating to our schedules. We did have extra days at Christmas and Easter and we had the summer off unless a conference was scheduled or a short summer session offered. We were on a one-year contract instead of two and we did not work from 9-5. Our days were from 8:30 or before, getting ready for our classes, to after 4:00 p.m. when we put the children on their buses. With lavatory duty, sack lunch duty and yard duty, any of us might work a straight eight hours. In Wiesbaden we teachers ate lunch in the mess with the children. No one would think of writing report cards (a note home? yes), working on a plan book, correcting papers or checking the storeroom for supplies while children were the first responsibility. All such work was done on one’s own time. A gentleman from school headquarters visited one of our regularly scheduled after – schoolteachers’ meetings. The thrust of his message was that we not be seen in the PX before 5:00 p.m. on a week-day afternoon because other Department of the Army Civilians resented it. I recall asking the gentleman, “Please name one state in the United States which has a law that keeps a worker at her job for as much as four hours without a break?” Adding, “Children are not pieces of paper, children, especially little ones, need constant attention.” We heard no further complaints, none that reached my ears. (In a real emergency the teacher nearest was to be alerted and two children dispatched to advise the Office.)
Fire drill practice was started within the first week of school. A large triangle was the alarm. Considering the noise of construction, it was remarkable that the triangle could be heard. Morning and afternoon drills had to be held because the kindergarten classes were on a double session. Later, when all classes were in the building, it was found that another triangle was needed to relay the signal to the second floor. During one such practice in the spring a gentleman in khaki chinos with a black belt, black shoes, black visor and a black tie came in against the outflowing traffic. “Excuse me, Sir, this is a fire drill. Go out immediately”, was my order. When the assigned German assistants reported that the lavatories, etc. were clear and everyone was accounted for, the teacher took their classes inside. It was then that I turned to the man in the odd uniform and said, “I’m sorry to have been so abrupt with you; what you saw was a fire drill.” The gentleman identified himself as the Fire Marshall.
Despite repeated requests that the playground be resurfaced and fenced, nothing was done. We took our classes for walks on the concrete sidewalks or a short distance away to a football field. Finally, the fence was put up but the playground became a quagmire. A German construction worker wearing hip rubber boots rescued one boy who had ventured too far, brought him in spread eagle and returned to retrieve the boy’s boots. Eventually heavy machinery was moved in to resurface the yard. Some of the fence had to be removed for the project.
Big muscle equipment (swings, seesaws and a slide) was installed near the building where the ground was not likely to become muddy and where a sandy surface was needed. Early one morning, I happen to look out the office window and saw a lone GI walking across the yard. He passed the slide, went back, looked up, climbed the steps, stopped at the top, looked back at the step and evidently decided to slide down anyway. The back of his fatigues were soaking wet from the dew that had not yet evaporated. GI’s and well cared for children are different.
As the Christmas season approached, the question of a Christmas program for the parents arose, I suggested that instead of taking precious school time to develop a polished performance, that each class develop and display one of its activities. Each class could then ‘entertain’ the rest of the school. A letter was sent home telling of our plan and inviting the parents to come and watch us entertain each other. We had just one rehearsal in the auditorium where the children had an opportunity to become somewhat aware of their surroundings and not be overawed by the elaborate backstage equipment of the theater. The program consisted of several dances, Christmas carols (Remember, it was 1951), songs, action songs, choral speaking, finger plays and a playet. As the curtain closed on one group, a child called out,”Bye Mommy”, and the others joined in. That was not rehearsed but it was delightful.
That year at the Kaserne saw many changes in the personnel of the military with families returning to the States and many new ones arriving. By June, some of the first grade teachers had only four and five children who started in September, yet their enrollments did not exceed 31, averaging about 28. Assessing and assigning the newcomers was not easy. I remembered a rough screening device about which I had learned at Boston University in 1934-35. Stories were cut from the middle and last of the Pre-Primer and first, middle and last of the Primer and First Reader and made into booklets, one from each of the basal series we used. While talking with the child and asking questions about people he had read about in his school in the States I was able to guess which series he might have worked with and start him at an easy level. If the child read with ease, another level was presented until I found where there might be difficulty with words not in the ‘sight’ vocabulary. Questions as to meaning were asked all the way. The teachers kept me informed as to the materials they were using in their groups. Such cooperation made it a bit easier to assign a child. Many of the children had lost a lot of school time, a fact that we learned to respect.
Looking back on my experiences of almost two generations ago, I realize the magnitude of the tasks faced in 1946 when the first schools were started. I understand that the Calvert System, a kind of at-home teaching plan, was adopted and adapted to school situations in Japan. In Germany, the schools were started from scratch. They were small and by 1947 were still small, but very difficult to understand by the powers-that-be in the Military and its Civil Servants at the time. The logistics must have been overwhelming; communication at times almost impossible. The hurdles faced by those of us who worked with young children were often, seemingly, insurmountable.
During the later years of the period about which I have written, we were blessed by having as our Superintendent, Harry K. Heiges (Dr. Harry K Heiges since 1957.) Harry was a gentle but firm leader who listened to his teachers and fought for the children and us. Because of him, we eight teachers survived the first year at the Kaserne, 1951-1952, and were able to take our problems in stride. With a working concrete mixer outside her window, a first grade teacher reported at the close of school, “We played, ‘You do what I do’ all day today.”
The first grade teachers were: Ruth Cambell, Virginia Hawkins, Betty Erhard, Rosemary Water Black, and a military dependent wife. The kindergarten teachers were: Lorraine Ahee, a civilian dependent wife, and myself, Alice Nicholson. There were five first grade teachers and three kindergarten teachers. The names I cannot remember. We all took our own thoughts, worries and school work with us as we left the building. Rosemary had taught with us before she married, and Lorraine was the wife of Carl Ahee, our high school principal at the time. The rest of the DACS went back to the hotels where we were billeted. The wives, DAC or military, went to their homes.
The spirit of the Kaserne group was superb. I am grateful to have been one of its members 41 years ago.
MY YEAR WITH ESCUELA BET LA VISTA
I decided during my fifth year in Germany that I had to return to the States and graduate school, but the lure of seeing something of Latin America got in the way. I left Germany in June 1952 having signed a one-year contract with an Inter-company Joint School (Oil companies), Escuela Bella Vista in Maracaibo, Venezuela, starting in August 1952. Ben Stout, the superintendent, assigned me to a ‘high’ first grade and a ‘low’ second grade in this K-8 English-speaking program. I shared Casa 42 in Shell Camp (Royal Dutch Shell) with four other teachers. Each had her own room and shared the adjoining bath. We took turns, a month at a time, planning meals and purchasing food and other household needs. May, the cook, was a bilingual Trinidadian, and Cela, the second maid, a Venezuelan. Casa 42 was across the sheet from the Shell Club and its pool.
Each of the companies involved in the school bought a share of the stock for each child whose parent worked for that company. Tuition for each child was paid for by the company or, in a varying percentage, by the parents. These children represented many different nationalities. Venezuelans, not affiliated with any of the companies and numbering quite a few, bought the stock and paid the tuition so that their children could attend an English-speaking school.
My first grade had several Venezuelans. Fortunately, I had enough bi-lingual children (many American and Canadians, who lived most of their lives in Venezuela, one Trinidadian and one trilingual Dutch) to pair with my monolingual Spanish. At the start of the year my always sought after busy hum was replaced by a noisy chatter as the translators did their assigned tasks of relaying instructions. Routines had to be less varied in order to give the Spanish-speaking more security.
At about 11 degrees north of the equator and very near sea level, Maracaibo was hot almost all the time. Central air conditioning in homes was not yet available to my knowledge. The children played hard and ran as much as any I have known. There was a small, unused building on the playground around which the children used to run. My Trinidadian interpreter ran to me during recess saying, “Mrs. Nicholson, Richardo was molesting.” I coolly asked, “What did Richardo do?” The answer was, “He was pulling my sash.”
When looking to buy a car, I was advised to be sure that it be a 4-door with all hinges at the front of the doors, and door handles at the rear. The reason was that the best chance of re-sale was to a Jitney Service and that cars with rear door handles at the front were not wanted. I found an Oldsmobile. Travel by car was limited in 1952-53; no weekends by auto as in Europe. We drove a few times for a swim in Lake Maracaibo but its brackish water was not inviting. Travel by air was the only way to go, but it was costly in a land of great distances. Arlene Bucher and I flew to a couple of resorts in the mountains and at Christmas went to Lima, Cusco and Macchu Pichu, with stops in Colombia where we were entertained by friends of a family in Maracaibo, and in Equador where Church of the Brethren friends of Arlene were in missionary work in a village outside of Quito.
The year was a rewarding one in that I lived closer to the culture than in Germany, especially during our first years there when non-fraternization was almost a rule. The children at Escuela Bella Vista presented different kinds of challenges, their parents were appreciative though direct communication was not often easy, since my one-year of Spanish was inadequate. The administration, especially Ben Stout, was most cooperative.
Children and adults, too, can be hurt by authority figures no matter how loving and caring those figures may be. Adults may tell you if you have hurt them; children often cannot verbalize their hurts or even if they can, they may be afraid to speak. The second grade boy struggling to learn to spell told me that I had hurt him. His telling me did not lessen my remorse one iota and I am grateful to him. But what about all the others? I hope that he and they have forgiven me. How easy it is for authority figures to look and read but not see and listen.
The first two years in Germany are rich in my memories. Maybe it is because the cast of characters remained almost the same. At Christmas, after 46 years I am still in touch with parents of two of the children. One lady is a fight attendant for a major airline and is co-owner of a gallery. I have been a houseguest of her parents at several posts in the States in the 50’s and 60’s. One gentleman is now a Group Vice-President of one of our most prestigious publishing houses. He and his wife were dinner guests of mine in New York. When his mother came to visit we had a reunion dinner at his home in the early 70’s.
One of my pupils in Venezuela 41 years ago is an Episcopal Priest and father of two children who are doted on by their grandparents. His parents have entertained me in California in the 50’s and in the East in the 60’s. They were my houseguests in Florida in the 80’s.
The oldest of the children about whom I have written would now be about 52 years old. Startling, isn’t it! To me, it is!
I am grateful to all the children, parents and fellow teachers who worked with me; they all taught me lessons from which I have gained much. I am grateful to the administrators, especially Harry Heiges and Ben Stout, who afforded me these many opportunities to learn.
Copyright 2004 American Overseas Schools Historical Society