How I Survived 7 Years with the Penguins

The Former Saint Henry Church and Elementary School

The Former Saint Henry Church and Elementary School

To begin with, I have a terrible admission to make: I never finished First Grade. As my birthday is in January, I started kindergarten at Cleveland’s Harvey Rice Elementary School on East 116th Street in January 1950. I was not a huge success, as I did not speak a word of English. Mrs. Idell sent me home with a note pinned to my shirt that said, “What language is this child speaking?” Duh! She was teaching kids in a Hungarian neighborhood, so she should have guessed. But in 1950, people didn’t think that way.

Halfway through First Grade, my parents moved to the suburbs in what was then called the Lee-Harvard area. After half a year of First Grade at Harvey Rice, I started in immediately with Second Grade at the newly opened Saint Henry School on Harvard Avenue. Please don’t tell the authorities at the Cleveland School District that I didn’t complete First Grade, or they might come looking for me and make me sit for six months at one of those tiny school desks in which my adult posture would become stunted.

Dominican Sisters

Dominican Sisters (a.k.a. Penguins)

For the next seven years, I was a prisoner of a mixture of Dominican nuns (whom we referred to as penguins because of the color of their habits) and lay teachers. They included:

  1. Sister Francis Martin (Second Grade). She pulled my ears and called me Cabbagehead.
  2. Sister Marjorie (Third Grade). She was not a full sister yet, just a postulant; but she was rather cute as I recall.
  3. Mrs. McCaffery (Fourth Grade). A nice, warm-hearted Irish woman.
  4. Miss Cunningham (Fifth Grade). Something of a cold fish, looked vaguely like Tippi Hedren.
  5. Mrs. Joyce (Sixth Grade). Friendly and knowledgeable.
  6. Sister Beatrice (Seventh Grade). In her eighties, but with no diminution of her abilities.
  7. Sister Rose Thomas (Eighth Grade). A short martinet, but very capable.

I started Saint Henry with a rudimentary knowledge of English and ended up something of a whiz kid—with a specialty in English. In my younger years, I took a lot of guff because of my foreignness, so I deliberately set about becoming something of a specialist in the language. I could still diagram a sentence. (Do they do that any more?)