Dec 19, 2009

Miss Guernsey and the Amazing Explosion...

Oneida School, with gratitude to thee, Our hearts offer you this melody...

I attended Oneida Junior High School (now known as Oneida Middle School) in Schenectady. We were blessed with many wonderful, dedicated teachers -- Ms. Gladys Wise in languages, Mr. Schneck, the shop teacher, Ms. Tuttle my homeroom English teacher, Mr. Gay the math teacher and half-blind sponsor of the audio-visual club (remember the 16mm Bell & Howell projectors?), and so many others whose names I simply can't remember. But one stands out above all others -- Ms. Mildred G. Guernsey, the best algebra teacher ever. She would prefer Miss Guernsey, thank you very much. She would never be one to pussyfoot around with an ambiguous title such as Ms.

I had Miss Guernsey for 8th grade algebra. On the first day of her class, most of the rules were made quite clear. We would be addressed by our proper names -- one full name, one initial, and our surname. I became Robert M. Mead. I still use that formal name today on most of my work, thanks to Miss Guernsey. Andy Silber begged her to let him remain "Andy," since his proper name was Cornelius Anderson Silber. There was no compromise. He became C. Anderson Silber in Miss Guernsey's world.

Her teaching was superb. There were countless stories through which she taught the principles of algebra. One day, while we were about to address the subject of remainders, Miss Guernsey asked me to stand. "Robert M. Mead, if a fellow had guests over and was about to serve them apple pie for dessert (Not that I approve of apple pie), and if this fellow realized that he had cut all the pieces the same size except for one piece that was noticeably bigger, what might he do?" The answer she was looking for was to trim down the last piece to match the others -- thus a "remainder." My answer was a little more self serving: "Miss Guernsey, I would pass the pie plate to all my guests. If they were polite, they'd all take the smaller pieces and I'd be left with the biggest piece!" Her response was immediate.

"Robert M. Mead, you are a rude, selfish pig. And perhaps that explains those extra pounds around your middle. For every extra pound you carry, your heart has to pump blood through an extra 2 miles of blood vessels!" It was classic Miss Guernsey.

There were countless other math-teaching parables. We measured Mr. Peterson's house "from the basement to the ridgepole" using the rule of sines. In the process, we learned that Mr. Peterson grew prize geraniums and had spoken once to Miss Guernsey's garden club.

We would naturally stand when spoken to or addressing the class. We would form our written numerals with great care. If a 0 or 6 or 8 was not "closed" properly, points would be deducted. We were taught to make our 5's in one stroke so there could never be a detached top stroke. Penmanship was important.

So was homework. It was 10 points off for every day late and after 5 days, it didn't matter. All scores went to 0. And homework made up half of our grade.

Miss Guernsey was also a disciplinarian in other ways. If she snuck up on you while you were talking to your neighbor, you could expect to have her clap on your back several times with a chalk-laden eraser (or two). If she caught you chewing gum in class, you might expect to stand outside (rain, shine, sleet, snow) for the remainder of the class. When she rendered judgement, she would poke the offender in the solar plexus repeatedly with her bony, gnarled index finger as she lectured the poor victim. We tended to behave.

Which brings me to the great explosion incident. One of my classmates, Steve Anonymous, had decided to make some pipe bombs and use them to attack teachers. The first victim was a woman who lived near the intersection of Rankin Avenue and Eastern Avenue. The bomb blew her house off its foundation and damaged several neighboring houses. As the police were trying to locate the culprit, he struck again, this time attacking Miss Guernsey's house.

My recollection is that she wasn't at home and that the explosive device was placed in a bay window in her dining room. It removed most of the bay window. When Miss Guernsey arrived home, she noticed an acrid smell in her house and it was cold. She then discovered the damage and police were soon on the scene. Within a couple of days, they captured and arrested Stephen W. Anonymous. Steve's father was a prominent local businessman. Steve was given probation. We all felt that he had gotten away with the bombings because of his father's political connections. But all the influence in the world couldn't protect him from Miss Guernsey's wrath.

The first day he returned to class, Miss Guernsey wasted no time. "Mr. Stephen W. Anonymous, stand and come forward. Steve, trying to be cool, shuffled forward and mumbled, "Yes, Miss Guernsey." She maneuvered him into the corner and the Index Finger went to work. Poking him hard in the chest, she began, "Mr. Anonymous, you are nothing but a coward and a common criminal." She lectured him in front of the class for 5 minutes. "Are you so afraid of a little old woman that you have to try to kill her? Did you think you wouldn't be caught? How could you be so stupid?" He broke down in front of his class mates. Miss Guernsey had made her point.

As a footnote, I found a more recent article about Steve on the Internet. He is apparently still trying to learn his lesson. I also found a wonderful page of recollections of Miss Guernsey -- gone but certainly not forgotten.


Kibler said...

Oh my, was this ever fun to come across. I would try very hard to get the chalk dust out of my hair and clothes because if I went home like that my mother would know I misbehaved in Miss Guernsey's class and I would be in trouble again!!!
Yes....gum on the end of my nose and practicing "closing" my 6's, 8's, 9's & 0's.
I read later that she was the model for Miss Grundy in the Archie comics.
Thanks for these memories.
Mike Salvino, Franklin, Oneida, Linton ('64)

danceswikitties said...

Bob, I came to your blog post after doing a search on "Miss Guernsey Oneida Junior High School". I did this after a phrase that came from her passed through my mind, stuck there for over half a century. I thought surely someone would have written something about this remarkable teacher, and there you were. Memories of her and her ways will never be forgotten. I believe she taught us much more than just algebra, and I have often wondered if Archie's Miss Grundy was modeled after her. Could this be true? I remember every one of the other teachers you mention as well. Mrs. Rose was my home room teacher and I graduated Linton HS in 1962. I'm curious when you went through Oneida.

Bob said...

Danceswikitties -
I was at Oneida from 1952 until 1955. Thanks for your kind remarks.