Old Ironsides, A Poem of the Modern Family

Somehow I knew they were fighting over which one would hold sway – no, not Mother and Daddy, but rather, Mrs. Daniels or Mrs. Gosling, my two third grade teachers. They must have decided, perhaps unconsciously, that I was the epitome of their ongoing disagreements on what to teach eight-year-olds.

Mrs. Daniels and Mrs. Gosling were older, heavy-set women of German descent who taught in the elementary school in the small, farming community of Berlin, eleven miles from the county seat of Somerset, high in the Allegheny Mountains of Western Pennsylvania. They had been raised on farms in the area and, in turn, had spent their lives teaching farm children, the children of coalminers, the children of the out-of-work, unemployed, and, as my older brother Charley said, the lousy, good-for-nothings, and, even more recently, the children of the lucky few who got jobs in the potato chip factory next to the high school on the edge of town.

I must have fit in there somewhere, though it didn’t feel that way.

Mrs. Daniels and Mrs. Gosling learned over the years to focus on the basics, or rather the necessities, as most of their young charges would carve out their lives in the tough terrain on top of an unrelenting mountain where knowing the basics was key to survival.

Fortunately, with some, sometimes it is the dreams that had to be nurtured. Mrs. Gosling understood this and searched for this in her pupils, but Mrs. Daniels would not change for anyone, that is, until she met my mother.

Perhaps it was the times, or moving to the new school, but the paths between Mrs. Daniels and my mother were about to cross.

Back in the fall of 1961 Mrs. Daniels and Mrs. Gosling proudly led our class from the old school building near the center of town to the brand new elementary school behind the high school. Before the Depression when the new high school was built, our school, a six-floor cinder-block structure, had been the largest building in town and for generations the entire school. By the late 1950s, it sagged under the weight of too many kids racing through its scared halls and climbing its splintering stairs.

The day we moved to the new school Mrs. Gosling took up position in front of our class like a shepherdess leading her sheep, while Mrs. Daniels strode beside us like a tough old collie who made sure we didn’t stray. We were in a long procession of children walking down the town’s crumbling sidewalks to the new building a mile away. It was a parade with everyone participating: the girls in their colorful dresses and the boys with their clean blue jeans and bright shirts, all of us carrying our lunch boxes and backpacks, the county sheriff and his deputies, along with volunteer firemen in their only fire truck, stopping all the traffic at every intersections along the way, holding up the coal trucks or the farmers in their muddy tractors to let us go past, the townspeople stepping out of their weathered houses to stare at us and wonder what the world was coming to.

For my mother the new elementary school was the embodiment of President Kennedy’s bright new vision of America. Located on what had been fallow farmland behind the high school, it was a long, one-story structure that could accommodate the growing number of students entering the school system. Berlin didn’t offer Kindergarten, as my mother found out when we moved to our farm, and sixth grade was considered part of the high school, but now the elementary school was large enough to meet the county’s burgeoning needs.

Most importantly, the new elementary school housed Berlin’s first and only cafeteria; a modern dining facility that handled lunch for every student in all twelve grades – the high school kids coming to the cafeteria through a wide, brightly lit tunnel connecting the two buildings. Mother was thrilled. No more packed lunches for Holly, Charley, Allison, and me! We were thrilled too, no more paper bag lunches stored under our desks or glass bottles of milk from the only milk machine on the first-floor hallway of the old cinder-block building.

To Mother and Daddy, the new school represented the future: hadn’t they fought and won World War II, hadn’t they fought and held back the Chinese in Korea, hadn’t they contributed to America becoming an industrial giant, hadn’t they been rewarded with suburbia and country clubs, and now with a sparkling new redbrick elementary school, complete with a modern cafeteria and a large assembly hall, wasn’t the forgotten community of Berlin, so backward and out-of-touch on the mountain, finally benefiting from all of their success?

If Daddy was willing to drive to Pittsburgh everyday to build our nation’s wealth as a stocks and bonds broker, if Mother was willing to raise her children deep in the county, take art class once a week in Somerset, play bridge at night and golf in the afternoon at the country club, all the while running an active farm, then surely, surely her children could eat chicken nuggets and tuna surprise and drink chocolate milk from tiny throw-away cartons, just like the rest of the children in America.

My third grade teacher, Mrs. Daniels, with her jet-black hair and her stern disposition, was not so sure if all of these changes were for the better. So many new adjustments all at once inevitably would reduce discipline and the county coal mines and diary farms would suffer. With the new school, Berlin may have been forced to enter the second half of the Twentieth Century, but it was not Somerset after all.    

Mrs. Gosling, our shepherdess, was more tolerant about the future. With her wait-and-see attitude, bluish white hair and kind face, it was easy to like her. Mrs. Gosling taught history, science, and literature, while Mrs. Daniels, rotating in her polished black shoes reverberating between the two third grade classes, taught math and cursive writing.

In our class most of the kids could have cared less about literature; their parents simply wanted them to know how to read, write, and handle rudimentary math so when they dropped out of school, they would be ready to work the farm, apply to the factory, or dig coal in the surrounding quarries. Filling their heads with stories of Tom Sawyer or Rip Van Winkle was nonsense to life in the county.

However, Mrs. Gosling loved teaching literature and fought against the impulse to abandon it all. She focused not just on Mark Twain and Washington Irving, but also on poetry, poetry we had never heard before, poetry that would inspire any third grader willing to listen.

That fall Mrs. Gosling had us memorize Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees” and recite it in front of the class. Though I didn’t know many poems, I quickly learned I would never see a poem as lovely as a tree. I loved trees and I loved the line, “Poems are made by fools like me, but only god can make a tree.”

I repeated the poem at dinner to Mother and Daddy who were very impressed. My sister Allison, who sat across from me at the table, said she liked “The Night Before Christmas” better. My older brother Charlie, sitting beside me, called me an idiot. He said, trees were made for baseball bats.

We also memorized the beginning of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride.” When I recited the opening line at the dinner table, “Listen my children and you shall hear of the midnight ride of Paul Revere…” – Daddy said I might grow up to be a politician, but, for me, the line: “One if by land and two if by sea and I on the opposite shore shall be ready to ride…” – indicated who I wanted to be: Paul Revere. I would be on my steed, not Holly’s mean old horse Ginger, but a real horse like Hi Ho Silver, and I too would be ready to spread the alarm all over Somerset County. Daddy said that would be a tough ride, but if anyone could do it, it would be me!

The poem I loved the most, though, was “Old Ironsides” by Oliver Wendell Holmes. It was about an old U.S. battleship from the War of 1812. I loved the lines, “Beneath it rang the battle shout, the burst of the cannon’s roar, the meteor of the ocean air shall sweep the clouds no more.” – Yes, blood, valor, and righteous success fighting the British, who, to my mind, were no better than the Germans, Japanese, and the Italians, only several wars earlier.

Mrs. Gosling had us memorize the entire poem, but instead of reciting it in front of the class, she invited our parents to the school to hear us recite it on the brightly-shellacked stage of the new assembly hall. I practiced the poem every night for a week, and I even showed both Mother and Daddy how I would have fought on Old Ironsides had I been given the chance. Mother said I should focus more on memorizing the poem and less on dramatizing the action.

Mrs. Daniels, however, wanted to be clear: if we were to memorize anything, it would be our cursive letters and how they should be drawn on paper; if we were to achieve anything that year, it would be beautiful handwriting. After all, who knew where we would be next year or if any of us would go down through the tunnel to the high school!

Under Mrs. Daniels’ instruction, we moved from printing block letters to cursive writing where all the letters flowed together in a stream of penciled holography. For most of the class, this experiment came with learning, once again, how to hold the pencil, how to arrange the paper on the desk, and how to make the letters loop in just the right way so that it was easy on the writer’s fingers and the readers’ eyes.

Unfortunately, I was left-handed, which to Mrs. Daniels was unacceptable. To her, no one should ever be left-handed, and certainly any child who was left-handed, under her instruction, would learn quickly and efficiently that he or she, with equal amounts of discipline and commitment, was not.

Writing with my right hand was like learning a new language. As often as I tried to hold the pencil correctly, it would shift and fall out of my grasp. Mrs. Daniels would stride over to my desk and demand that I hold it right, that I work harder at night, that I catch up with the other kids in writing my name. But my name always looked like a summer storm crossing the wheat fields outside, or the stubble of corn stalks in the fall, or the permanent blemish of the open quarries throughout the county.

At night Mother could see I was struggling. Daddy told me Mrs. Daniels knew what she was doing and I should try harder. However, Mother was not so sure and said nothing when she saw I put the pencil back in my left hand.

Still, how could practicing holding a pencil compare to learning “Old Ironsides.” How could trying to make loops, lumps, and stick-like lines have any meaning compared to “decks once red with heroes’ blood”?

Mrs. Daniels didn’t have a chance, and when she walked down the aisle to work with the other children, I quickly moved my pencil over. Rather, maybe I didn’t have a chance. Inevitably, Mrs. Daniels would stand stalwart against such disregard.

The week of our “Old Ironsides” recital she caught me writing, once again, with my left hand and, this time, she was furious.

“This is the last straw,” she said. “I will not have you disobey me.” She walked over to my desk. “Get up.”

I sat there staring at her, not understanding what she wanted, feeling all the kids in the room staring at me.

“Jonathan, stand up this instant.”

Mrs. Daniels pulled me out of my seat and led me by the arm out of the room. She stood me next to the doorway and told me not to move until she called me.

“You will not be allowed in my class until you do it right.”

She slammed the door closed.

No one was in the shinny new hallway. Though all the doors were closed, I could hear the muffled sounds of teachers teaching their children. How long would she keep me out there? I hated the idea of kids going to the new cafeteria and seeing me standing alone in the hallway.

However, Mrs. Daniels opened the door after writing class and brought me back into the room. I didn’t look at anyone and gladly went to my seat. I didn’t say a word the rest of the day. Soon Mrs. Daniels was gone to her other classroom assignments and Mrs. Gosling was back teaching our class.

I wanted to tell Mrs. Gosling I was so sorry I couldn’t write with my right hand, as Mrs. Daniels wanted, but I didn’t say a word to her. Perhaps it was in fear I would get in trouble with her too. Still, even though I hated being teased at recess every day, I was relieved to be free of Mrs. Daniels’ cursive writing class.

All that week when Mrs. Daniels had everyone pull out their writing notebook, she would point to me and say, “Jonathan you may leave the room.” And I did; I would quietly go outside to stand in the hallway.

Aye, tear her tattered ensign down, long as it has waved on high. Many an eye has danced to see that banner in the sky.”

That Wednesday, when I was standing next to the door, she came out of the room and asked, “Well, aren’t you embarrassed. Here you are once again, while all the other children are learning to write.”

Her deck once red with heroes’ blood where knelt the vanquished foe…”

I didn’t say a thing.

I guess, this would have gone on forever, or at least, until the end on third grade and maybe even into fourth grade, except that on Thursday my sister Allison came out of her fifth grade classroom way up the hallway and saw me. She tentatively waved from afar and I reluctantly waved back, but I knew I was in trouble.

Allison would tell Mother. Allison was a little tattle-tail, always telling on Charley and me, and I would be punished. Mother would be really, really mad at me and she would tell Daddy when he came home from Pittsburgh, and I would have to wait in their bedroom with the door closed. Daddy would come in after dinner and spank me on his lap for being such a bad kid in class.

No more shall feel the victor’s tread, or know the conquered knee; — The harpies of the shore shall pluck the eagle of the sea.”

That evening when Mother was making dinner, she asked me why I was standing out in the hallway. Oh no! I blurted out I hated writing with my right hand and couldn’t get it to do the right things and I was not allowed back in Mrs. Daniels class until I was prepared to get it right.

Mother didn’t say anything but didn’t send me back to their bedroom either.

Daddy came home and everyone acted as if everything was all right. I didn’t talk at dinner and went to my bedroom afterwards. I knew Daddy would come back and deal with me, but he never came. Mother came to my room instead. She asked me to recite “Old Ironsides” one last time, as Friday would be the big day, but otherwise she kissed me good night and gave me a hug. “You’ll be fine,” she said.

Oh, better that her shattered bulk should sink beneath the wave; her thunders shook the mighty deep, and there should be her grave.”

That Friday all the kids in my class were very excited. Mrs. Gosling was wearing a royal blue dress and looked like she was going to church; she said we all looked great too.   Mrs. Daniels announced we wouldn’t have writing class that day due to presenting our poems, and when it was time for the assembly, we gathered in one long line in our classroom and quietly walked behind Mrs. Gosling down the hall past the fourth and fifth grade rooms to our glistening assembly hall where new metallic gray chairs had been arranged for us as well as for our parents and other guests.  

We sat down front. In fidgeting around waiting for the presentations to begin, I spotted Mother several rows behind me. Her face was tight and her lips pursed, like it was when she was about to get mad at Daddy, but she quickly gave me a smile when our eyes met. With her styled, short blonde hair and red lipstick, my mother was beautiful, like Jackie Kennedy. Unlike most of the parents who came into the auditorium wearing work clothes or jeans, she was wearing a sharp gray skirt and a white blouse under a blue blazer; she looked like she was going to a meeting in Somerset and not to the elementary school to be with me. However, there she was and, other than briefly waving to me, I could see she was serious.

Maybe I should be serious too. When it came to my turn in reciting “Old Ironsides” on the stage, I burst out with my best rendition of the poem for everyone to hear.

Aye, tear her tatter ensign down, long as it waved on high.”

It wasn’t long before I had recited the entire poem, ending loud and strong.

Nail to the mast her holy flag, set every threadbare sail, and give her to the god of storms, the lightning and the gale.”

When I finished everyone clapped and Mrs. Gosling stood and said “Thank you, Jonathan, that was wonderful.”

Even though I was on stage and a good ten feet away, I could tell Mrs. Gosling had a tear in her eye. I loved Mrs. Gosling. However, from the stage I also saw Mrs. Daniels standing in the back of he room with her arms folded across her chest. I hated her.

When we were finished, all the parents and even our principal stood and gave us a standing ovation. Our parents came forward and congratulated us. Mother said I did a great job and gave me a hug, but she whispered she needed to talk to Mrs. Gosling and would see me when I got home.

As we still had lunch in the new cafeteria and class all that afternoon, it wasn’t long before Mrs. Daniels gathered us, once again, into a straight line. Mrs. Gosling was talking to Mother and shaking her head no, but when Mrs. Daniels called her over, she nodded to Mother and took her place at the head of the line.

As I walked by, Mother reached out and squeezed my hand.

Mrs. Daniels was straightening the line when I heard Mother say, “Mrs. Daniels, may I speak with you?”

Mrs. Gosling led us back to our room, but Mrs. Daniels didn’t join us. When Mrs. Daniels came into the class for math later that afternoon, she and Mrs. Gosling didn’t talk or even acknowledge each other when Mrs. Gosling left the room. During class, Mrs. Daniels seemed angry, distracted, and refused to look at me.

That night Mother was humming while making dinner. She said she was very proud of me. She couldn’t wait to tell Daddy. He would be proud too.

Then, out of the blue, she said, “Jonathan, we all love you very much.”

That sent goose bumps up my back.

When I went to my room before dinner, I couldn’t help but jump on my bed and fight off the British sailors attacking from the closet.

Dinner was great, everything I liked: meatloaf and mash potatoes with brown gravy, canned green beans and plenty of ketchup. After dinner, Daddy had me recite the poem again and Charlie didn’t make fun of me once and even Holly stayed to listen though it was a Friday night, I was only a kid, and she was in high school.

On Monday, all the excitement from Friday was over and we were back in class. When it was time for writing, I started to get up to go out to the hallway, but Mrs. Daniels stood in my way; she told me to sit back down in my seat.

I shuddered. I couldn’t, I wouldn’t write with my right hand no matter what she did or said. I hated her. I hated her.

To my amazement, she said from now on, things would be different. I could either put my head down on the desk until class was over, or I could try to write as she instructed – but with my left hand!  I was shocked and so, so relieved. I almost cried.

She added, she didn’t know what the world was coming to – what with a Catholic president, Elvis Presley on the radio, and people living in the county who shouldn’t be there – but if I ended up with horrible handwriting, it wouldn’t be her fault and it would be just fine with her.  

Mrs. Daniels was right, I did end up with horrible handwriting, but, being left-handed, it wasn’t my fault and that was just fine with me too. Still, “Old Ironsides” and so many of the poems Mrs. Gosling taught us back in third grade are now part of my being, part of my very soul, part of the wonderful memories I have of a time when we lived on a farm on top of a mountain in Western Pennsylvania, when Mother and Daddy were together, and we were a modern family.



Categories: A Fictionalized Biography, Memoir, My Family Story

2 replies

  1. Oh Jonathan. I LOVED it. I was there with you.
    I felt your embarrassment, pain, pride, and love. I saw it all the eyes of a 3rd grader. I loved your Mom, your Daddy, your brothers and sisters and Mrs.Gosling. I hate Mrs Daniels too. Thank you, Cathy

  2. Thank you, Cathy! Your comments mean a lot to me. Thank you for taking the time to read my little story! Very best regards, Jonathan

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