In the early 1940s, my father’s brother, Arthur, was a student at the South School in Somerset, Massachusetts. When he was in the fifth grade, his teacher, Miss Sullivan, became annoyed with him. She took his chin in her hand and shook it. You could do that in those days.

Uncle Art was unwell. He’d had two teeth pulled the night before. But as a self-described naughty boy (and a member of the irascible Soares family), there was no way he was going to endure this injustice. Art stuck his tongue into the holes where his teeth had been, to make them bleed. Miss Sullivan recoiled in horror when blood rolled down his chin and she saw what she had “done.”

Art recalled this anecdote in a story he wrote about his grammar school experiences for his high school alumni newsletter. As an educator, I sometimes think school life was better back in the day. But while teachers in the 1940s didn’t have to worry about mass shootings, their lives weren’t all rainbows and unicorns.

There was a war on, for one thing. By 1944, the South School’s principal and its coach had both gone as soldiers. A female teacher was named interim head.

During history lessons, Art wrote, Miss Sullivan “would rise in anger over the Nazi domination in Europe, and with the veins in her forehead popping, she would wave her arms as she spoke of the evil forces at work in the world.”

Sometimes Art, daydreaming and looking out the window of his classroom, would see servicemen rise, as he put it, “with or without a partner” from a nearby field, where they had slept, and head over to the bus stop to go back to the city.

The students weren’t angels. My father, Raymond, started smoking while he was still at the South School. When Art was in the third grade, a classmate catapulted an elastic off the edge of his textbook. It wrapped around the teacher’s ear. She didn’t notice it for the rest of the day. The students’ amusement was made only sweeter by the fact that the teacher’s father was the superintendent of schools.

The older boys (this was a grade one through eight school, and students were kept back until they passed, so some of them might have been 16) often fought on the playground; the younger kids ran alongside them, shouting and cheering. They were excited, Art wrote, by the “blood, anger and sheer brutality.” The teachers on duty “could only watch and report to the principal, since it would have been near suicide to try to intervene.”

Once, a school soccer ball was left in the nearby field and an older boy took it. He lived in the Soares’ neighborhood, and Art was part of a “gang” of boys aged eight to 18 who played pickup soccer. They were delighted with their new ball.

The principal got wind of the situation and grilled Art and other South School students in the gang. No one wanted to fess up, so the principal ordered each of them to pay a dime to cover the cost of replacing the ball. And, amazingly, they did.

Teachers and administrators didn’t try to reason with students in that era, or to use “positive behavior modification” techniques. Instead, they threw books at students when they misread a word. The principal readily slapped and kicked unruly boys.

Although special education wouldn’t appear on the scene for years, the South School had “the Portable.” This must have been a temporary structure of some sort, maybe even a trailer. The “most difficult” students were assigned to the Portable, and they were mostly English-language learners from immigrant families. At that time, in that neighborhood, it is hard for me to imagine they were anything but Portuguese speakers from the Azores, Madeira, or, like my grandfather, Brazil.

The local parish priest, also a Portuguese-American, called the Portable “racist,” Art wrote. My grandfather, Victor, was a member of the town Finance Board at the time, and he said the segregated classroom was “an affront to the poor and disadvantaged,” and demanded that it be closed. It was, but Victor was never reappointed to the Finance Board.

Uncle Art’s memoir was the first I heard of this story, but I was not surprised by it. My father always insisted that my sister and I stand up for what we believe in.

I take heart in that story as I start a new school year. And I truly hope that I remain safe from projectile rubber bands.

Liz Soares welcomes e-mail at [email protected].

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