Do you remember your first days in school? I vividly recall mine at Pine Grove Manor School in Somerset, N.J. (Franklin Township), a two-story, tan-colored building that could intimidate any five-year-old. It wasn’t referred to as an elementary school; I think the term we used was grammar school. (I don’t know whose “grammar” they were referring to. It wasn’t mine.)
The first picture in my mind is of dim hallways that seemed very expansive, at least to a kindergartener. Many years later I revisited the school – I think it’s there to this day – and discovered I could easily touch both sides of the hallway without extending my arms too far. But back then, the gap seemed huge. Perception is, after all, reality.
I walked into the classroom and saw a bunch of kids I didn’t recognize. What was I getting into? I wondered. But unless my memory tricks me, it didn’t take too long for me to get settled in.
My kindergarten teacher was Mrs. Aschenbach (I think that’s how it was spelled), a dark-haired, kindly woman who seemed the perfect match for inquiring five-year-old minds. I can’t recall what we did, however. I’m sure we did the usual – colored pictures, had our first introduction to letters and words, worked on counting. That kind of stuff. We also had toys, and recess was a big deal.
Kickball and dodge ball were favorite games at recess, although I doubt we played those in kindergarten. As much as I liked sports, I was never much of an athlete, so when teams were chosen I always had to wait awhile before someone called my name. I do remember the day I kicked a homerun in kickball. Our team captain that day – I think it was Billy Bittay – even presented me a note to take home in honor of my great athletic achievement.
Seems to me my teachers in subsequent years included Mrs. Clark, Mrs. Boso, Mrs. Varney, Mr. Mazzochi and Mr. Grow. (Again, I’m not certain of the correct spellings of names, but I can’t find a spell-check for teaching alumni of Pine Grove Manor.) Not sure, either, whether all the female teachers were Mrs., but back then no one was Ms., and we kind of presumed that if you were an adult, you must be married. Mr. Grow, as I recall, was a fairly short man, so he didn’t live up to his name.
Of all my teachers at Pine Grove, Mr. Mazzochi probably made the greatest impact on me – and it was in a very indirect way. As I recall, my mom had attended a PTA meeting and at some point my teacher told her he believed I was “college material.” Mom, proud to hear such a kind remark, came home and informed me of it. That brief comment implanted an idea in me that I aspired to all the way through high school. It also was probably my first experience with the positive power of words.
My grandparents all had immigrated from Hungary, and both grandfathers had labored in the steel mills of McKeesport, Pa. College was not a thought that ever crossed their minds, I’m certain. They were just happy to be in the United States, which back then was truly the land of opportunity.
And my dad spent more than 20 years in the U.S. Army, including deployments in Europe and Africa during World War II, and also serving a stint in Korea. He was a very intelligent man, and a good writer – at least in terms of writing letters – but the closest he personally ever got to college was working a few years as a campus security officer at Rutgers University after he retired from the Army.
So the idea of attending college wasn’t something that was expected in our household. My uncle, Joe Tamasy, had graduated from Rice Institute (now Rice University) in Houston, Texas, and later earned a law degree at Southern Methodist University. But in our home I was the first to even consider going to college. And it was largely because my fourth-grade teacher, Mr. Mazzochi, had declared me to be “college material.” Talk about casting vision! I hope that I’ve helped someone else through the years in a similar manner.