I SPENT A LARGE PART of my childhood at the Utica Cat and Dog School. The name on the letterhead was the Utica Country Day Schoo. It was what they called a progressive school, which had something to do with the ideas of John Dewey. "Learning by doing." "The mind is not a muscle."
Some of the most elite kids in Utica went there, and we studied the Depression and the Dust Bowl and Hitler and the CCC in Curent Events. Those things were all very remote to us, and when we held a mock election in 1936, Alf Landon won in a landslide. Only Joan Derbyshire and I voted for Roosevelt. Joan was a senior and I was a fifth-grader. I was in love with her.
I don't know what happened to those schools. I guess the Bomb gave progress a bad name. yas far back as 1938, Dewey himself protested that many disciples were overdoing the education-by-experience thing. At any rate, they faded out with World War II, except for a few charming relics supported by parents who remember how it was. Today's drill-'em-and-test'-em folks in the back-to-basics crowd certainly aren't about to invite them back. It's a shame.
I know: Adults always say that education isn't what it was when they were young, and we will probably be hearing this again when schools open in several weeks. Our parents no doubt said the same thing. But for a kid at Utica Country in those days, it was great. We loved coming to school. The teachers were good sports.
In the first grade we were given little smocks and placed in front on standing easels with cans of poster paint -- I can still smell that clean, chalky odor, the smell of school itself -- and brushes as wide as your thumb. The teacher would gaze intently at some psychotic swirl of browns and muddy greens and say, "But that's a lovely border, Charles."
In the second grade we made a train out of blocks and sat in it in reverent silence. When we studied Holland with Miss Hentschke in the third grade, we made cocoa and, for some reason, bread.
All I remember is sitting in our low chairs eating bread and cocoa and listening to Walter Damrosch's music appreciation course, a major attraction of the school. In the public schools of that day, teaching by radio was considered radical nonsense.
That was the year we studied cavemen and built a cave out of chicken wire and burlap. We sat in it the whole day.
In the fifth grade, we had Miss Wells and studied ancient Rome. We loved Mis Wells. She was tall, rangy and gray. We spent about a month studying the Roman arch. We made one of plaster of Paris bricks, molded in tiny homemade cardboard containers. (If anything killed porgressive schools, it probably was that they ran out of plaster of Paris.) Then we made model Roman catapults.
Now, Roman catapults were all very well, but the thing that interested me that year, for reasons I can't possibly recall, was the guillotine. So I built a model guillotine instead. "Very nice, Michael," said Miss Wells. At the spring fair and field day, our Roman exhibits were ranged on a table in the corridor: the arch with its keystone self-righteously in place, six catapults and a guillotine.
The other thing we did a lot of was act in plays. Some we put on before the whole school, some we did just for ourselves. There always seemed to be a play in the works, the way certain people always seem to have a cigarette going. When we were studying ancient Greece we did "The Odyssey," or at least the homecoming scene. We wrote it ourselves. Sometimes we dramatized a book we had all discovered in the school library, like "The Lance of Kanana."
I wa Kanana, a brave little boy in the Holy Land. I always had the male lead, because Prentiss was too tall (he specialized in fathers), Jack and Dave were too short and Johnny's voice was changing. Besides, I stuttered. Learning was fun, and therapy too.
My greatest role was Kanana, however, nor Ulysses (come to think of it, I was Telemachus in that one, and Prentiss did Ulysses), nor the Trumpeter of Krakow. It was Hiawatha, in the second grade.
What a production. We performed it in the small pine woods behind the school. Jack was an owl and sat in a tree the whole time. Prentiss was Hiawatha's father, and Phyllis was Minnehaha. I was in love with Phyllis. hThe parents sat on folding chairs at the edge of the woods and peered into the gloom while we recited our verses.
As I say, we studied politics too. In the sixth grade, when Miss Robinson said we should elect a class president, Dave objected. "Everybody has presidents," he mattered. "Why don't we have a dictator?"
This was in 1937, you understand.
So Dave became the class dictator. He appointed the person who wiped the blackboards, the person who got to clap the erasers out the window, the person who fed the polliwogs. (We had captured the polliwogs on a field trip to the creek behind the school. We built a dam and a diversion tunnel and a holding pond, and it took us four hours and sank us up to our socks in mud and made us miss composition, geography and gym. It was very progressive.)
The dictatorship was a tremendous success.
The Cat and Dog School liked to say if offered preparation for life. I don't know about that, but certainly there was a bond, perhaps a sense of conspiracy, among kids who actually liked going to school. When I transferred to a public school in the seventh grade we took up cavemen again.
"Cavemen were prehistoric people who lived inthe Stone Age," our teacher announced. "There were the Neanderthals and the Cro-Magnons, and they lived from . . ."
I whispered to my seatmate, "Boy, those caves were really stuffy. And hot."
He snickered incredulously. "How would you know?"
"Because I built one once."