Memories of Calhoun

by Else (Elly) Mayer McKean, Class of 1932
December 2015 

As told to her son, Thomas McKean, on the occasion of her 99th birthday 

Miss Jacoby started Calhoun for Jewish girls, German-Jewish girls to be specific. I never saw her but of course my parents did. I believe she was religious, or at least observant. This changed when the school was taken over by Miss Calhoun; religion was never mentioned. The only carols we sang at holiday time were non-religious "Oh, Silent Night" and "Good King Wenceslas" and Judaism was never referred to (even though, as far as I know, each and every one of us was Jewish). I started in second grade in those days, children weren't required to attend school and my older sister, deemed delicate, started when I did. Our governess took us. It was just a walk from Central Park all the way over to West End Avenue. My sister and I would chug along; it took around 15 or 20 minutes. Once in a while our mother took us because she was on the school board and seemed to be a very important member.

Mary Edwards Calhoun we really couldn't quite tell what Miss Calhoun was like because to us she looked about 10 feet tall. She had a hollow voice low and sonorous, but soft. She usually wore green and had a habit of going for little walks about the school, mostly at recess time, in order to get some real feeling of what the girls were about. For some reason, we never seemed to see her coming, but would be surprised when she would appear during a conversation without us hearing her approach. We nicknamed her "Gumshoe Mary." I remember one little girl who seemed to be taken to the movies a lot, compared the silent approach with what she called a cat burglar.  We all adopted this description, thinking it daring. She was a nice old girl, old Miss Calhoun. I felt that she was running a school for the girls, not for the girls' parents. I really loved that school; I remember so much about it. On the whole, I liked it better than Vassar.

In the second grade, we were all taught the fundamentals of reading ie, the names of all the letters, their sounds, the goal being that these little girls knew how to put those sounds together. Some learned and some didn't. Our teacher, Miss Raeder, seemed amazed that I knew all the letters and that I knew all the sounds and even more amazed the next day when we got into putting the sounds of these letters together, I seemed to know precisely how to do it. I read the word "cat" or "dog" with the greatest of ease and when Miss Raeder who was still terribly amazed, put down a longer word I remember the word was "mother" that was just apple pie for me. Miss Raeder went home in great excitement and immediately called my mother and told her that she, Miss Raeder, thought that there was a genius in her class and how very rapidly I seemed to get the whole concept of reading in just two days. Such a thing had never happened before. My mother started laughing heartily on the other end and said, "Miss Raeder, perhaps I should have told you before but Else has been reading since she was three. I taught her myself."

Miss Raeder was medium tall with very black hair and a very sweet expression in her eyes. In those days, women just put on a one-piece thing. I think she usually wore a little coloured scarf around her neck. She was pleasant looking. I'd say she was the kind of teacher who made children love school.

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I was skipped to the 4th Grade where our teacher was a southern lady from Tennessee  Flora Tachau. She was very skinny and wore glasses without frames, rimless glasses. She was very pleasant because by 4th grade most of the kids could read so there wasn't anything about that. She was interested in our social development and she wrote to my mother and said, "Else is a very mischievous child but we all love her, mischief and all." My mother liked that.

One of these mischievous things was locking that poor girl in the bathroom and eating her lunch. We had school-mate in the 4th Grade named Myrtle, whom we immediately nick-named "Moitel-Toitel." We thought Moitel had fabulous lunches: she always had a piece of cake, a cookie, and often she had grapes. In those days, we loved egg salad and she had that, too. She was one of those girls who people make fun of. Her mother dressed her so that she always had a bow in her hair that matched the dress she wore. She always wore two petticoats. She was a goody-goody and we thought that she was a big pain. In the way that happens with unpopular pupils like Myrtle, we ganged up on her, acting very nice, and told her that we were going to take her to see something very interesting, and of course she was delighted. We didn't blindfold her or anything, but we just walked her into the bathroom, shoving her into one of the open stalls, and I don't know how we got her locked in but we did, then we all ate up her lunch. Once we ate the lunch we let her out. The next day we were told that Mrs. Lederer had an interview with Miss Calhoun and Miss Tachau gave us a lecture, remarking that we wouldn't like to be locked in a bathroom when a good lunch was waiting for us when it was being attacked and eaten by enemies. Poor old Myrtle! I had to apologize to Moitel in front of the class it seemed like the most humiliating experience in my entire life. But we just didn't like Myrtle! She wasn't very bright; she didn't know how to behave, even the little bit that little kids know.

In 5th Grade we had a science teacher whose name was Miss Stewart who also was tall with dark hair. Unfortunately for her, she had terrible halitosis, and the thing she liked to do was bend down and talk to kids. She was awfully nice and knew a lot about science. Among us, we called her Miss Smelly and wanted to buy her toothpaste for Christmas but we didn't.

We had a special teacher for French and that teacher was Pinina Jonas. She was French and short with grey, wild hair and she always wore a dark dress with kimono sleeves and only talked French. She thought that was the way we'd learn. She would write some of the words that we missed (and we missed a lot) on the blackboard in big writing. I wouldn't say she was a good teacher because she didn't quite have the thing to make kids scared enough to behave well. We didn't like her we thought she was strange because she spoke French, even though that was what she was teaching!

An English teacher was named Mabel Montsir. She was extremely interested in proper grammar and taught it so well that I at 99 still remember how to parse a sentence and have no problem identifying subject, object, descriptive adjective, semi-colon, colon, and so forth. I really know when I'm writing something how to punctuate. She was medium height and had that kind of funny stance where the back is straight but the behind sticks out a bit. We were pretty sure that she dyed her hair black. I liked her but I don't think the other girls did; grammar didn't interest them. We read Tom Sawyer which we enjoyed.

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We had one wonderful art teacher Doris Rosenthal. She was also tall with blonde hair combed back into a bun and she was very excited about art. This was a volunteer class after school; there were just four of us. Because it was voluntary, we thought a lot of her. She lived out west after school and I know was mentioned in some American painting books. She painted things like wheat fields. One day, we were given a coloured sheet of paper and only five colours of paint to use (grey, white, yellow, orange, and light blue). I ended up with a dark blue sheet of paper I had wanted a brighter colour, red or yellow, but Miss Rosenthal showed me how the paint I had to use would stand out so beautifully on the dark background. My mother framed it and it has survived, now hanging in my son's apartment.

Then there was Miss Atlee she taught us World History in 8th Grade. We soon figured her out: whenever one of us misbehaved, Miss Atlee would send us into the hall as punishment. We'd wait a bit longer and then a second would misbehave. "Into the hall with you," Miss Atlee would say, and out would go the second girl to join the first. After a while, a third girl would misbehave and be sent to Siberia the hall, that is. It never occurred to Miss Atlee that this was exactly what we wanted to be all together in the hall, the three of us friends. Not that we stayed in the hall we'd troop down to the basement where the cook, a friend of ours, would give us a taste of whatever dessert she was preparing. She was a good baker. We had a good snack, a good conversation, and poor Miss Atlee was never the wiser.

The music teacher was famous! His name was Jerry Reynolds and he had a limp. We always had music in the gym because he liked to teach us choral singing. I thought he was great he really got good music out of us. But before he placed us in a chorus, he examined all of our voices. I had that funny experience with him: when I came into the room where he was sitting waiting to hear our voices when we sang, he looked at me. I was a shrimp. He said, "At last! My soprano! She might even be a second soprano! What is your name?"

            "Else," I said.

            He asked me to sing. After the first few notes his face fell. "Oh Lord," he said. "She's an alto!"

            "I said, 'What's that?'"

 He said, "Someone who can sing very low notes." He needed more sopranos, you see, and he had a silly idea that very small people can have a higher vocal range. He let all of us sing, and sing different parts. He had me singing second voice. I said I didn't know how to do this, so he said he'd have me stand next to a girl who did. It wasn't just our grade, it was the whole elementary school. I remember how Rita Meyer described him: she said, "We have a red-haired tyrant whom we all admire." He was quite short. I think he'd been in the war and one leg was shorter and he limped. He still walked very fast so he had sort of a rolling gait. He did nice things: he was in touch with a black school and knew of a very good black quartet whom he got to come and perform. I remember one singer he knew who was well-known. His name was Roland Hayes; he was a popular singer like Paul Robeson but a little more ethereal. He was more reserved; one didn’t feel as though he were reaching out the way Robeson did. He had a lovely voice and sang at places like Carnegie Hall.

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One girl, I remember her name Flora Voice wrote a limerick about him. We all thought it was very clever. It went something like:

                        At Calhoun a teacher there is

                        Who has for his hair a red frizz.

                                    When he says, "Watch my eyes,"

                                    We all look at his ties,

                        Though it really is none of our biz.


Our gym teacher was Miss Cummings. She had a good gym figure and wore her hair quite short. It was sort of brownish. She had a nice voice and would give instructions that were easy to understand. We liked gym. We had it twice a week, up in the room where we used to have singing. We did calisthenics and push-ups and lay on our backs and raised up our legs and made a bicycle with them.

One teacher, Miss Ives I remember that her first name was Helen wore a lot of perfume on her coat. We'd all go into the closet at recess time and sniff. She might have taught 6th Grade. She was very good-looking, tall with beautifully groomed hair, lovely features, and wore what we thought were very exciting clothes (I think she even had a belt around her waist.) She had what we thought was a beautiful coat with fur around the collar where she must have squirted a lot of perfume. She was not particularly a good teacher   I don't think she was very crazy about kids.

I had a lot of respect and admiration for Mrs. Lenahan, our history teacher. Her full name was Mary Lovell Lenahan. She, I think, was the best teacher I've ever had. She taught us two years. The first was Greek and Roman history I loved that. The second year was American history. The way she taught was really terrific: she just could talk in a way that was easy to understand and wasn't so didactic. It was as though she were conversing. She was Scottish, that I remember, and tall, and sort of gaunt, with very large brown eyes and a sort of a tannish skin with rather deep wrinkles in the face. She always stood as straight as a ramrod. When she talked you could hear a pin drop. She was married to a man named Peter and she wasn't ashamed to tell stories about him, one of them being that she had to pull him out of bed in the morning. We all thought that was funny; so did she. She was a very commanding figure we all liked Mrs. Lenahan. For some reason, we wanted to please her. The first test she ever gave us, I remember what she wrote under it when she gave it back. She said, "Your answers are all correct, but so stingy are you that sort of a girl?" Oh, she had a terrific sense of humor!

She and Dietzy Scout were very good friends. Her name was really Dietz, but since she led the Girl Scouts and was the scout master we nicknamed her Dietzy Scout. Miss Dietz was the math teacher. She probably was a good teacher, because she got me through math. She was tall, had black hair parted on the side, very athletic in her movements - and very, very flat-chested. The only time I ever saw her without top and bloomer was the time she came to us for the weekend. My sister and I were pretty young; I'd say probably nine and close to twelve. We were pretty sure she wouldn't get married and have children because she wouldn't be able to feed them   we thought that was the way you had to, and she was that flat-chested. I think Dietzy and Lenahan were my two favorites.

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When we got older, what we liked was the minute we got out of school and at the corner we'd immediately put on lipstick and rouge because we were not allowed to. We were not even allowed to wear high heels. We had school bags and some girls put their high heels in their school bags. On the corner, they'd take off the big ones and put on the nifty ones. There was no uniform but no one looked at any one else's clothes in any kind of critical way. They wouldn't know if you wore the same thing twice or three times in a row. What we usually wore was a skirt and a top and we did have a gym uniform: green serge bloomers, a white top, and a yellow scarf (because our school colours were the green and the gold). I'm not sure if Miss Calhoun looked out and saw us slipping into our high heels; if she did, she would not have been pleased. She took a dim view of such things. I know this for a fact: when I was a junior, in admiration of Jean Harlow, I decided to bleach my black hair to platinum blonde. I even shaved my forehead to have a higher hairline like some other movie star I admired. My mother was incredibly naïve, and believed me when I told her that the sun had done it (I lightened my hair gradually so as to make it more believable, though not much.) At last, one of my mother's friends asked her, "Edith, how can you let Else dye her hair?" My mother protested that the sun had done it, but was soon enlightened otherwise. I was marched down to the hairdressers' and my hair dyed back to its original black. The shaved area around my forehead had to grow in gradually and looked dreadful for some time. As I said, Miss Calhoun was not pleased by this and when my name was put up in nomination to be on the Student Council as a senior, Miss Calhoun struck my name from the list of nominees, stating that I was not suitable to represent Calhoun in such a manner. The other girls were amused by all this, and under my photo in the yearbook someone had this motto inscribed: "All that glitters is not gold." But she must have forgiven me: when I married in 1942, Miss Calhoun sent me a silver spoon with "Calhoun" engraved on it.

I only disliked one girl heartily: her name was Jane Abrahams. She was tall and skinny, very bright, and very envious. I guess I had a lot of friends and I was class president a few times you know, I don't like the word, but sort of a leader. Of course, Hazel Levine was my very good friend and Hazel became the head of the student council. One time, when I was maybe 11 or 12, Hazey and I were in study hall. Calhoun was in a private house and had 4 floors and a basement and the classes were distributed on all the floors. I know that 1st and 2nd Grades were on the 1st floor and so was the 3rd. Downstairs was where we had lunch. Upstairs were the 4th, 5th, and 6th  Grades, and the top one had more classrooms. At any rate, as I said, Hazey and I were in study hall when Miss Calhoun stalked in, taking us by surprise. She looked at us severely and said, "Girls, do stop giggling. Do you want to use this precious time giggling, or would you rather work towards future interesting, satisfying lives?"

            To which I, for better or worse, replied: "Well, Miss Calhoun, I do like to giggle."

In January 2016, Else (Elly) Mayer McKean was still living in Iowa, having moved there in 1997. Until then, she'd live in Edgemont, New York (Westchester County). She and her husband had two sons; she now has four grandchildren and one great-grandchild. After college, she worked as an author and illustrator of children's books, including two which, back in the late '40s, featured short biographies of African-Americans who'd achieved great things but little recognition. In addition, she worked as a professional photographer and in middle-age returned to school, getting her MA at Columbia after which she taught reading. She also continued her artwork.

--Thomas McKean, January 2016:

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