Something Else

Mike McGough
November 2023

Her mother and father were both graduates of the class of 1889 of Millersville Normal School.  Millersville, like other normal schools, was developed for the training of teachers in the “norms” of how children learn and how best to support and guide them, as they engage in the life-long process of making sense of the world in which they live and adapting to it.  After they graduated in 1889, her parents answered a call for teachers in Johnstown.  Several teachers in the public schools there had been killed in a great flood in May of that year that swept through Pennsylvania’s Conemaugh Valley.  They were both hired.   

She was born in 1898 and attended the public schools in Johnstown.  In 1916, she began the two-year program of teacher preparation at Millersville.  Because of cancelled classes during the pandemic of 1918, she graduated in 1919.   She returned to Johnstown and went into the family business—teaching.   She was assigned to the Gilbert Street School, a two-room building, in the Brownstown section of town.  She taught there for the next 42 years.  The building was only eight years old when she started.  When she retired in 1961, the building was closed.

She taught through three distinct generations: the Greatest Generation (1901 to -1924), the Silent Generation (1925 – 1945), and the Baby Boomers 1945 – 1964).  Just as her parents had taught through the difficult time following the flood in Johnstown, she taught through the Great Depression and World War II.  And just like her parents, she learned and was committed to the time-honored norms of the teaching profession.  She knew that regardless of the times or circumstances, teachers have the opportunity to help make the lives of students better in the present, while empowering them for the future.  She appreciated the reality that learning is a life-long process. 

There was something special about her teaching.  Oh, it included the required subject matter, but she also found time for life lessons.  For example, she was an early proponent of walking.  She regularly took her classes on walks, reinforcing the value of regular exercise and its impact on the body, the mind, and the spirit.  History was her favorite subject.  When she taught it, she offered so much more than name, dates, and events.  She focused on meaning.  She told stories, great stories, to offer insights into life, how it was lived, and how to live it better both now and in the future.   She routinely shared with her students, a new book she was reading, some interesting project she was working on, or a different way to look at some part of daily life.  She liked gardening, and one of her most enduring lessons, an excellent example of how she taught, was made possible not with books and pencils, but instead with shovels and rakes. 

Pearl Harbor thrust the nation into World War II.  Although war mobilization was largely the responsibility of adults, the reality of living in a country at war was very real for the children.  She knew their daily routines were stressful and fearful.  She believed they needed something else on which to focus from time to time, and she wanted to provide it. 

During the spring of 1942, she had her students bring shovels and rakes to school.  In a small plot beside the school, they planted a victory garden.  Victory gardens, dating back to World War I, were started to augment the food supply for both civilians and the armed forces.  Her students pitched themselves totally into the effort.  They were helping the war effort, and they were engaged and involved in something beyond their normal routine, which at that time was anything but normal.  Even though it didn’t end their fears or do away with the stress they felt, at least they had something else to engage in and think about.  If only for a time, that garden provided some respite, some break, and some relief from a routine complicated by a world at war.   She and her students maintained that garden long after the war was over.  She felt it was good for them, and she knew it was good for her.  Like many of the lessons teachers offer, that victory garden, planted more than eighty years ago, demonstrates great virtue and carries great value still applicable today.  The lesson is quite simple.

Look beyond your current responsibilities and think outside your daily routine.  Broaden your current interests by exploring, even if only briefly, something new.  Regardless of the times in which you live and irrespective of the complications that maybe part of your life, be open to the prospects of something else. 

Expanding your engagement with life, broadens your perceptions and enriches your perspectives on life itself!