After completing the sixth grade, the students from the Memorial Elementary School on Dale Street began their journey into Medfield Junior High. In 1959 junior high was in the 32-year-old North Street school building. Once named the Hannah Adams Pfaff Elementary School, the school became known as Fort Apache.
Before we left Memorial school, Mrs. Anne Field, one of our sixth grade teachers, told all of us that in September we were going to be classified according to our scholastic ability, with each student in one of four categories: A for excellent, B for good, C for average, and D for poor. The Medfield seventh graders of 1959 were among the very first pupils to be so classified.
It turned out to be an educational disaster! Bad in the seventh grade, and even worse in the dystopian eighth. It seemed almost as if the long-discredited pseudo-science of eugenics was again rearing its ugly head…only 14 years after the defeat of Nazi-ism.
Fortunately, most students at Fort Apache remained good friends within all four categories.
Consequences of Grouping by “Ability”
But a significant number of seventh graders in the C and D classes nonetheless felt dejected and humiliated and were sometimes ostracized. It’s fortunate that all those kids had a tremendous resilience. They persisted and carried on.
That’s mainly because the one concept forgotten and excluded in the classification process was the measure of one’s motivation to succeed. Somehow the C and D students eventually triumphed over that outrageous indoctrination. But a lot of damage was done before those students entered Medfield High School.
It was especially bad for the kids on the bottom rung, the D students. In particular, there seemed to be a disinvestment in these students. It became an acceptable way of saying they were expected to just learn a trade skill or attend secretarial school right after high school.
But who wants to be remembered by a demeaning alphabet letter? Who wants to live with that designation? In retrospect, that whole classification system became a fiasco and a failure from a humanitarian standpoint. It created dissension and resentment among many of the students.
That was just how basic the dilemma all came down to. Scholastically, the exceptional A-students were on the fast track to notable Ivy League and state colleges. There was the possibility of attending Harvard University, Annapolis, Boston College, and Brandeis University in their future. Some of our young women would apply to Radcliffe, Wellesley College, and the Rhode Island School of Design to name some of the many. One of those exceptionally bright young women was to become the class valedictorian, speaking at our 1965 graduation ceremony.
The B-students were not that far behind the A-students academically. Collectively, they received better grades than those of the C-students who often scored well on classroom tests, very often achieving the low end of what the B-students were capable of.
Nevertheless, the B and C-students notably shared a good camaraderie and solid bond. They were some of the kids who got up early in the morning, well before school started. They had their paper routes, and threw out the trash for mom and dad, the parents whose dads sometimes worked a 60-hour week, with devoted, stay-at-home moms who made the kids their breakfast. Those kids also made sure their family pets were fed and given fresh water before they went off to school. Some of those kids played sports after school, getting the sun and fresh air, and they studied in the evening after dinner.
From a non-judgmental viewpoint, some of the D-students were at times unmanageable and sometimes had to stay after school for detention more than the other students. Many of the boys started smoking at a young age and sometimes were caught smoking in the boy’s room, after thinking they could get away with it. They smoked on the way to and from school while living in the fast lane but with occasional boredom.
But they weren’t all that way. Many of them set their goals, with some of the girls becoming successful hairstylists and the boys working as mechanics. One of those kids went to truck driving school and later taught it in Norwood. Another ambitious kid became an accomplished chef at a prestigious country club in Newton. Those students may not have been college bound, but they took advantage of their many opportunities.
Life goes on, and despite all the inequity there were many good opportunities to learn and enjoy our classes. Most of us were working class kids and we kept moving forward, no matter how unrealistic the program was at times.
The multifaceted “Home Room” was a first for the seventh grade kids, a blend of students without any academic designation. We were simply seated in a holding pattern where the students first went to upon arriving to school in the morning. As soon as the first bell sounded, everyone went to their assigned class.
English class with Mr. Charles Laverty was the first class of the day. He encouraged us to start reading books from the Medfield Library, which at that time consisted only of the original 1917 Perry-designed masterpiece of a building. The basement floor of the library was where most of the junior high kids would sign out different books. The favorite books were the highly-acclaimed Landmark history series written for readers between 10 and 15.
Mr. Laverty emphasized grammar and punctuation. Not only did we have to do a lot of reading, but Mr. Laverty would give us homework every day with five new words to look up in the dictionary, before the next day’s class. He also suggested reading various biographies. One had to keep Webster’s Dictionary handy!
The following class after Mr. Laverty’s was science with Mrs. Betty Sauer. In that post-Sputnik era, most kids thought science was intriguing and a change of pace. From Mrs. Sauer we learned how Halley’s Comet came around every 75 years, so the next time it blazed across the universe would be in 1986. Many of us remembered to look for it in 1986 when the comet finished its 75-year trip around the sun.
We also found out in science class that the most famous asteroid of North America made its impact in the state of Arizona. Meteor Crater, near Flagstaff, is ¾ of a mile wide and over 1/10 of a mile deep! Mrs. Sauer had us write a term paper, that was more of a science project during the early springtime. We could choose any science topic to write about including photos pertaining to the subject.
For lunch, rain or shine, students had to walk next door to the high school cafeteria. It gave everyone a chance to sit with their friends, regardless of class distinction.
The third class of the day was math with Mrs. Nancy Keyes. The class taught basic math fundamentals, but solving those problems was time consuming and seemed tedious, though it the prerequisite for freshman algebra, taken at Medfield High School by ssudents planning on college.
In the early afternoon, Mr. John McGrath taught American history and civics, with the main focus on the Revolutionary War, Slavery, Civil War, with President Abraham Lincoln, and Reconstruction with Presidents Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant.
The last class of the day was geography with Mr. Marshal Chick. He was a Marine veteran of the Korean War and brought in slides of his time in Korea. They were fascinating, showing life in Korea, where the Marines took part in battle…and in sport, sometimes going into wooded areas to hunt for pheasant. He had been a dedicated soldier and knew a great deal about the world. Mr. Chick taught us about the different time zones throughout the world. He was a strict disciplinarian; few students tested his resolve. If they did, he’d make those kids toe the line during class, all in semi-boot camp style.
At the end of the school day, everybody walked down to Medfield center and converged on the soda fountains of Lord’s and the Clement Drug Store. From that point on, weather permitting, most of us went to play baseball in back of the high school at the Medfield Little League field at the end of Pleasant Street. If others wanted to play a game of touch football, we went over to the football field on Dale Street.
Medfield’s Unsung Concert Hall
During the seventh and eighth grades we attended gym class once a week at Medfield High’s basketball court where we took part in basketball, dodgeball, and tumbling on the cushioned mats. We also completed sit-ups, push-ups, and chin-ups, while some of us qualified for the tumbling team that later performed acrobatic stunts at all of Medfield’s home basketball games. When the weather was warmer, Mr. Ed Keyes held class outside with us taking part in various physical fitness tests and other sports.
(That basketball court happens also to be, far and away, Medfield’s best concert hall! Harry Ellis Dickson, the former Boston Pops conductor, and other prominent musicians have praised its excellent acoustics. But alas, it’s short on creature comforts and is little used as such. – Ed.)
The girls had a similar physical education class held at the high school basket ball court with Mrs. Lutasi. They played softball, dodgeball, volleyball, and badminton, in addition to taking physical fitness tests. Some of those very good student athletes went on to play very competitively with the Medfield High girls’ basketball team.
All the boys would participate in Industrial Arts, emphasizing carpentry skills with Mr. James “Shop” Morris over at the Industrial Arts classroom at the high school. All the girls would attend Home Economics once a week at the high school while learning culinary arts and hand-crafts.
We all entered the eighth grade in the fall of 1960, and that’s where and when the pyramid scheme of student classification was duly tested, at a time of rising juvenile delinquency in Medfield.
About that time the North Street School became known as Fort Apache.
There were four older students from the previous class who flunked the eighth grade while we were completing the seventh. The four were required to repeat the eighth grade.
Unfortunately, two of the teens had significant disciplinary problems and other menacing, visible issues. They were the type of people who you’d cross the street to avoid. If smaller students defied them, they’d get punched, slapped around, and beaten. Unless the bullies were caught in the act, their behavior was never reported because younger, smaller kids feared further retaliation. To a school administration in a small town setting, standing up to bullying in the year 1960 was not yet in vogue.
In a gang-like subculture, their cruelty to others had far reaching consequences. One younger student took a vicious beating from one of the two continually slapping him in the face. When the slapping stopped the younger kid tried to defend himself with verbal protest. That’s what got that younger kid slapped around again, receiving an even worse beating.
In a multiple, no-win situation, another kid cowered in a confrontation from these sometime vindictive, mean-spirited teens and ended up taking a “beat-down” anyway. Another defenseless, harmless kid who never bothered anybody got bounced off the walls several times, just for fun and sadistic amusement. One other student was called ugly because he had ingrown fingernails and was harassed and ridiculed on a nearly daily basis. As a result, he’d be frightened and practically in tears for the entire school day, finally consoled and safe upon reaching his home on Nebo Street.
The teachers were aware of that happening too, but for the most part hadn’t witnessed the fight nor were able to catch the aggressors in the act.
Another younger, very cosmopolitan student had recently moved from Boston to Medfield. For no reason at all the bullies picked on him and pushed him around violently. They just wanted to let him know where the local gang was coming from. Step out of line, and you’d get punked-out immediately. That’s what happened in Fort Apache’s thug life.
Due to that climate, these guys ruled the roost and had no hesitation in threatening first-year teachers. When that happened, Mrs. Laura Hall, who was teaching class to those students, had to call in Mr. McGrath to resolve the issue. He wasn’t about to tolerate any of that abuse.
However, strangely enough these two, maladjusted boys in question were afraid of each other. But that’s when the bigger of the two overcame his fear and decided to challenge and dominate the other teen. That’s when fist fights became an everyday occurrence on the front lawn of the junior high. It all first started with the two pushing one another. But in the survival of the fittest, only the tougher, stronger of the two prevailed.
Finally within the first school semester of 1960, the teachers wanted to stop the violence by getting rid of all four of those students who had flunked the eighth grade. But despite everyone’s efforts, the four students remained at Fort Apache for the remainder of what seemed like a very, very long school year.
Eventually, we all graduated and advanced to our freshman year at the new Amos Clark Kingsbury High School on Pound Street. Fortunately for the rest of us, three out of the four problem students quit high school at age 16 in their sophomore classes. All of the other students turned the page, grateful that they did not break under all the pressure.
Crazily enough, the Medfield junior high school’s brand of experimental eugenics didn’t last long, an unforgettable aftermath, ending in just a few years, and subsequently being restructured with improvements. It was high time that we celebrated and looked forward to the commencement of the freshman class of 1961. That’s because everyone could all choose the classes they elected to attend, regardless of academic capability. Graduation was only four years away in 1965. Somehow we had triumphed over an alien adversity, and yet the future was ours to be lived, achieved and rewarded. We nearly all survived and lived to tell our story. We were young and thought we could conquer the world. Life happened and we were yet to discover and experience new adventures. We were the nice guys and girls who finished first, all sliding safely into home plate. There was just no stoppin’ us now!
Fort Apache (1948); Fort Apache, the Bronx (1982); Blackboard Jungle (1955)
The junior high school students who had to attend school at the 1927 building nicknamed it Fort Apache due to the continuous conflict and everyday violence present there. There were two warring factions – the good guys and the bad guys. Spitballs were thrown in the classroom and thumbtacks were placed on unsuspecting students’ chairs. The atmosphere was disruptive and highly confrontational with unpredictable results, and thus dreaded by all who attended.
In 1948 (the birth year of many of the Medfield students) a highly-praised John Ford western movie, Fort Apache, was released. It starred John Wayne and Henry Fonda as Civil War veterans at Fort Apache, an outpost in Indian country in Arizona. Fonda plays an arrogant and egocentric commander unburdened with understanding or sympathy toward the natives, and things go badly for him.
In 1982 (10-15 years after the Medfield students graduated) Paul Newman starred in Fort Apache, the Bronx starred Paul Newman as a veteran police officer struggling to retain a sense of right and wrong in a tough, crime-ridden precinct in the Bronx.
In 1955 Blackboard Jungle was released, starring Glenn Ford as an idealistic young high school teacher in a tough neighborhood and a young Sidney Poitier as a student. It was the first film to have a soundtrack based on the then-new rock and roll, and it made Rock Around the Clock a #1 hit. And it was shown at the Medfield movie theater on the second floor of town hall!