Bernice Mildred (Maher) Strant: I was born May 20, 1907, in New Britain. I went to the New Britain Normal School,
the “new” one that had just opened. Now it’s Central Connecticut State University. It was a beautiful school. I lived two
streets down from it, in what we called the Belvedere section of New Britain. So I could walk to school every day. There
were girls who came all the way from Torrington – they came on the train every morning.
The Normal School was probably the most difficult school I ever encountered, and it was a good education, an excellent school. The two years I spent there would certainly be equal to any four in college. They piled on the work. They had no pity! If you couldn’t make it by November, you were let go. Miss Small was in charge of all the teachers and students, and she was enough to make you fear anything. You really studied, I can tell you that!
My mother used to get so provoked. She’d get up and see me sitting at the dining room table at half past one or two in the morning. She’d say, “I’m not going to have you sitting there. You can get out of that school. We’ll have you do something else.” I didn’t quit though.
At that time, all the students were women. We were divided into alphabetical groups, A to M, and N to Z. My maiden name was Weiant, so I was in the tail end of everything.
We went out to practice-teach for six weeks, the first year. The next year, we practice-taught for three months.
A teacher sat in with you, not all the time, but sometimes when you least expected it, you’d look in the back of the room, and you’d see the practice teacher there. She really controlled the room. She would take you aside after the class was dismissed, and tell you where you should have done better, and what you did well too. Some of the practice teachers had a reputation of being a bit more difficult than others.
Susan Barlow: How did you get the job in Manchester?
B.S.: Well, fortunately, I had very good marks. They only wanted “plums” in Manchester, they told me, “plums.” There had been a teacher-training school, right here in Manchester, but it burned down in the October 1913 school fire. The remains of it were around, because those teacher-trainers were now teaching children in school, so they were welcomed to be a part of the faculty.
Miss Porter, the Normal School administrator was trying to get positions for us girls as we graduated. I went to her and said, “Miss Porter, I’ve been offered a teaching job in New Britain, but I want to go somewhere else.”
"You do?” she said. “I thought you wanted to stay home with your mother and father. I think I have just the plum for you.” That’s what they called teaching jobs in Manchester, a plum. She said, “There are several jobs you could try out for. I’ll have the principal come down, and you’ll teach a lesson for her.” The principal was Miss Bennet.
I didn’t have any idea what Miss Bennet looked like, but when I saw her, she was a scary person, I’ll tell you.
She came into the classroom, and she had this great big black hat on – a straw hat – and a figured dress. She was a big woman. She sat there at the desk, and listened to me teach the lesson, a literature lesson. I didn’t think I did a good job, but she thought I did well, and she hired me on the spot.
My mother and father were chagrined, to say the least, that I wasn’t going to teach in New Britain, which did have a good reputation, but I was pleased about teaching in Manchester.
Coming to Manchester was just like going out into the country. Our Sunday school used to come all the way from New Britain to Manchester for picnics at Laurel Park.
I lived at Teacher’s Hall, located south of the old high school, where the Methodist parsonage is. Teacher’s Hall was in a big open space, and it went way back. There was the Open Air School, for children with TB and other diseases, beside it.
Teacher’s Hall was an eye-opener to me, as I had always lived at home. I had a room on the third floor on the very end, next to the fire escape. Boy, it was a fire trap, too.
I discovered that my friend from Normal School, Beulah Smith, from New London, was going to have the room right across the hall. That made me feel good, because I knew somebody there.
For all our meals, we were seated at a certain table, a certain place. When the gong sounded, we went to dinner, downstairs in the basement, where long tables were set up. The food was excellent. There was a principal at the head of each table. You sat when she did, and you didn’t leave the table until she did, even if you finished your meal. I’ll tell you, you were on your best behavior. Let no ill manners be shown!
There was a curfew, and you had to be in by about 9 or 9:30 p.m., and even with permission, 10:30 at the latest. If you wanted to stay out any later, you had to get a pass from the woman in charge. We were scared to death of her to begin with.
If you were late, you’d have to ring the bell, and she’d come to the door. You’d have to give an excuse for why you were so late. But I behaved myself pretty well.
Lots of the teachers didn’t go home all week. Some of them came from as far as New Canaan, and didn’t even go home on weekends. My friend Beulah stayed for the weekend, because New London was a long trip in those days. She had to take the trolley to Hartford, then go on a couple buses. It was expensive, too, and we didn’t have much money.
My starting pay was about $1,100 a year. We didn’t get raises in pay very fast either. And shortly, the Depression began, when we all had an awful time with lack of money.
But we had some fun there at Teacher’s Hall. Thursday nights Beulah and I went out – you always went out Thursday night – that was when the Downtown was filled with people, the Salvation Army band was playing, and so forth. We always went up to the Center, where the fellows were standing. One particular night, we met up with some boys, and went out to the Crystal Lake Ballroom. The fellows wanted to stay longer for dances, and we were late getting home, almost midnight. We couldn’t get in the front door unless we rang the bell, and that would mean that the lady in charge would come out.
So somebody asked, “Why can’t you go up the fire escape to get in?” So we did. Three flights! It was scary going up the fire escape, because it was all open stairs, as high as the third floor on the old high school. Beulah and I got to laughing, and that made it worse. We knew the other teachers were asleep, so we tried to keep still, but the next morning, everyone knew that we had come in late.
Everybody in the dining room looked at us when we came in, and a few made some jokes about us, fooling around about the trouble we could get ourselves in. We never did it again.
Eventually we moved out. We got tired of the regime around there.
In 1926, I started out teaching second grade, which was typical for new teachers. It was the easiest grade, because the children had already learned to read and write. We were reviewing and getting them ready to go on to higher things.
We had marvelous teachers at Nathan Hale School. Two of them were known throughout the town for teaching first grade: Miss Lobdell, and Miss Jo Henry. The kids never left their room until they could read. I’d hear Miss Lobdell say at Christmastime, “Well, my pupils are going into the next level.” They were starting to read little books.
I should mention parents, too. When I was at Nathan Hale, they were mostly Italians. Many of the fathers and mothers had just come over, and were getting jobs in Cheney Mills. I never had better students. Some of them made their way in town, became political figures. Always, the parents would come to all the meetings right on time, and they’d ask if their children were behaving. They’d say, “Did he give you any trouble? Well, you let me know if he does.”
They don’t say that any more. But I really had very pleasant experiences in teaching.
I apparently made a pretty good impression as a teacher. So, sometimes, I moved up with the class. I taught third grade, and then I was in fourth, and fifth, and sixth. Sometimes I had the same students. So if they didn’t know something, I was the one to blame.
In fifth and sixth grade, we began to divide more into subject matter. In sixth grade, I taught English, and history, my favorite.
S.B.: So you moved out of Teachers Hall?
B.S.: Yes. We finally moved – Beulah Smith and I lived together for a while. We went to Mr. and Mrs. Hopper, on Center Street. We were supposed to have our meals there, but Mrs. Hopper was not the best of cooks. She also made comments such as, “I think I’m going to get in touch with your mother, because you have entirely too many boyfriends.” And she named off a couple that she knew.
We finally left there, and boarded with a Mrs. Clulow, on Garden Street. That was wonderful, because she was the most marvelous cook.
Finally, she said she said she didn’t want to take as many boarders, and I had to look for another place. I found room and board with Mrs. Puter, and lived with her for six years. She became one of my best friends.
S.B.: Were you still teaching at Nathan Hale?
B.S.: By then, Miss Bennet got me down to Barnard. I taught eighth-grade boys. The boys and the girls were separated. Many people opposed separating the boys and girls. It was Miss Bennet’s idea, and I thought it was logical and correct. She said that boys and girls at that age were better separated. They were just beginning to realize about each other. She said, “What do the wealthy people do with their children? They send them to girls schools and boys schools at this age, and they meet up again afterwards.”
Many years later I became friends with Miss Bennet. She had a lovely cottage at the Cape, right down near the water. I used to go up there, summers. She was very good to me. She was good to everybody. You were scared to death of her. But then you’d find out how good she could be.
So anyway, I had eighth-grade boys, and some of them were bigger than I was. You’d think you’d have a lot of trouble with them. They came in from the farms, some of them had high boots on, dragging across the floor. But they were good. I never had any trouble with them. Some were from the farm, some were doctors’ children, quite a mix. This was during the 1930s.
S.B.: Tell us about your memories of the Depression.
B.S.: It was very bad, I could start by saying that, although right now it’s hard to imagine how hard those times were. There were so many people without jobs. Many activities had to be curtailed, because nobody had money enough to do them.
My dad had a plumbing business of his own, and that business suffered during the Depression, as did other people’s.
The banks were closing, and many people lost money before they opened again. Many banks closed permanently. My mother lost several chunks of money in two banks that went broke in New Britain. All in all, she got very little back.
One of the best things that happened at that time was President Roosevelt’s election. I certainly can give him credit for many things. I didn’t think he was the wisest one to begin with, but he certainly turned out to be good for the country. He started many different programs. For instance, he took the young fellows, and put them to work in the forests, building walls and roads, and so forth. That was the CCC, the Civilian Conservation Corps. Roosevelt really helped the people.
There were so many people who were very prosperous before, and they lost everything they had. They had invested, and lost their stocks. It was such a terrible time.
People felt very depressed.
Of course, I was young. Things don’t seem as bad when you’re young, and I did have a job. Although, the mills here in Manchester began to close. Parents of children that I taught were out of work.
At school, we’d hear about people who were badly off for food, and there were some programs to help people out here. The Cheneys were wonderful to their help. They did a great deal for them.
But there just wasn’t much money.
S.B.: I’ve heard that the school system paid women less than men?
B.S.: Yes, they did. I’d forgotten that. It was quite a while before you found out about it too, because nobody talked about money, you know. I made $1,100 a year, and out of that I had to pay room and board, and clothes. I was lucky that my family helped me out financially. I remember that Mrs. Haywood, the matron at Teachers Hall, told us how much it would cost for our room and board for the month. We were paid twice a month. She’d say, “Your first check belongs to you, and your second check belongs to me.” So it took 50 percent of your income just to pay your room and board.
I don’t know what exactly they were paying the men. I never even thought of such a thing until I got involved in the Teachers Organization. That’s when we looked into the situation, and we discovered that the high school teachers made more than the junior high teachers.
The Organization of Teachers helped out in these matters. At one time, you didn’t dare open your mouth in front of anybody in the administration.
For example, we never questioned teaching school on New Year’s Day. Most people never heard of such a thing.
S.B.: Was that Miss Bennet’s idea?
B.S.: No, that was the Town’s idea. We used to say it was so the teachers kept on the straight and narrow, and didn’t go out carousing on New Year’s Eve.
S.B.: After you got married, were you still allowed to teach?
B.S.: I was married the first time in 1936, and many towns didn’t allow married women to teach. Manchester had just about gotten over that. I had a friend who taught in New Britain, and when she married, she kept it a secret, and the authorities never found it out, so she went on teaching. Some towns allowed it, and some didn’t.
We were expected to continue our education too. It became a requirement, and most of us were teaching and taking college courses, and studying. I took all my courses, and got my degree at Wesleyan.
S.B.: How long did you teach in Manchester?
B.S.: I retired in 1976. 50 years of teaching. I had many good students. I never encountered some of the situations that other teachers had to struggle with. There were always some poor things that go through their school years tormenting people, and doing things that, well, they just do.
We didn’t have the discipline problems that they have now. I certainly didn’t have anything like they have now, or I wouldn’t have stayed. If anybody talked to me the way they do now, they wouldn’t have done it more than once.
S.B.: What advice would you give to others from your years of experience?
B.S.: I would say, “Choose something that you’re going to be happy doing.” I know some people that went into teaching and hated it.
It helps to be familiar with the line of work you want to go into. I had a teacher in my family, and that helped me. My aunt was a teacher. I thought she was the most wonderful thing on this earth, very pretty and all. I thought, “I want to be a teacher, just like Aunt Lillian.”
This article appears through the consent and generosity of the writer, Susan Cronin Barlow, Manchester Historical Society and class of 1963.
Reproduced 2011 from www.mhs1955.com with permission of its webmaster Dick Jenkins.
All content ©