Pettingill School in Lewiston is closing this month after 83 years of educating children. It bridged two eras of school construction with its original 1926 classic brick architecture, and then the 1960-era additions of modern utilitarian architecture in glass, metal, and cinder block.

My class entered Pettingill for kindergarten in 1960 and finished sixth grade in 1968. We started school in the first half of the school’s lifetime, and we finished in the last half. During this period, we often found ourselves standing at the crossroads of history.

• When we started school, we pledged a double-allegiance to God and country with a daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance followed by the Catholic version of the Lord’s Prayer. Along the way, after second grade, the prayer was dropped and we pledged allegiance to the country alone.

• We started school during the Cold War, during which we practiced kneeling in the school basement with hands over our heads in case the Russians fired nuclear missiles at Brunswick Naval Air Station. Our teachers included Miss Murphy, Mrs. Robertson and Miss Nicholson, each of whom were born when wars were still fought by men on horseback. It must have been surreal for them to teach children how to protect themselves from missiles fired from Cuba.

Though starting school in the Cold War, we ended in a hot one. Vietnam and its discontents changed the educational, social, and cultural landscape of the country.

• Through it all Pettingill was a couple acres of stability and dignity. We started with Dick and Jane, who taught us about a reliable family with a dog named “Spot.” The books had a seriousness and earnestness which impressed young readers who wanted to become good citizens, mothers, and fathers. We were learning to read and how to behave as we got older. The books emphasized good advice and encouraged young learners to be friendly, help others, and “Look!”

We read great books at Pettingill, such as biographies of Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, and George Washington. Miss Nicholson read “The Secret Garden” to our fourth-grade class. There was no library at that time, but every class had two shelves of books. Such a limited collection had an interesting effect on our common experience; a lot of us ended up reading the same books.

“What did you do for your last book report?” someone would ask.

“I read ‘The Red Pony’ by John Steinbeck. It was very sad, but it was a great story. “

“Okay,” we’d say. “I’ll read that for my next book report.”

• Our teachers ran traditional classrooms, but Mrs. Robertson, Mrs. Dobbins, Miss Nicholson and Mrs. Sirois – all of whom taught at Pettingill for over three decades – were creative and skillful at introducing new material and keeping the interest of their classes. We studied history, learned about astronauts as they broke barriers and records during the 1960s and watched space capsules splash in the ocean live on grainy black and white televisions.

• We watched a few innings of the 1967 World Series when the Red Sox played the Cardinals in afternoon games. Our teachers were more comfortable explaining how polio had been eradicated or how the Declaration of Independence had been written, but for a few days in 1967, Bob Gibson and Carl Yazstremski rivaled Dr. Jonas Salk and Thomas Jefferson as figures in our classrooms. On a Red Sox-crazy playground, I won five bets on the Cardinals, raking in $1.25.

• For three cents a day, we got a glass bottle of Cote’s Dairy milk as a morning snack. Peter Conley and I had the prestigious position of milk delivery boys for a few weeks in fifth grade. We were told not to stack too many cases on the flat cart at once, but roll a few cases of milk to the classrooms, and then go back and get some more. But we grew confident of our milk boy abilities.

So one day we stacked all five feet of the cases for more efficient delivery. While making our first turn, the cases swayed and fell with a crash of glass that briefly interrupted the education of dozens of first, second and third graders who ran out of their classrooms to see what happened.

They saw the prestigious milk boys standing next to 200 broken bottles in a hallway slick with 25 gallons of spilled milk. Mrs. Sirois did not yell, even though we deserved it. She knew we were ashamed enough. We just lost our prestigious jobs.

• The playground was the scene of many great games such as kick ball, over the pipes, girls chase the boys, wall ball, and marbles. When I was in sixth grade, I noticed some clueless girls throwing marbles on the roof. What a waste of good marbles! Possession of marbles was sacred among boys because winners took all – the best players had the most marbles.

Charlie DeAngelis and I plotted and on a Saturday night, we climbed up the railings by the kitchen door and pulled ourselves on the school roof. In the darkness, we enjoyed a great harvest of free marbles and a few fancy rubber balls that we could find in the dark.

• After school, a lot of children took the bus downtown for weekly classes of various religious studies. On Tuesdays, four or five Jewish children would wait for the bus on the corner of College and Googin streets to go to the Jewish Community Center. On Wednesdays, there would be 25 or 30 students waiting for the bus to Catechism class at St. Joseph’s. On Thursday there would be five or six of us waiting for the bus to go to United Baptist Church for church league basketball practice.

The Jewish children learned Hebrew. The Catholic children learned Latin. The Protestant kids learned basketball.

• In September 1966 our class welcomed Mrs. Sirois to the school. She went on to teach in the same Pettingill classroom for 35 years. I found out when she was retiring, and went back and spoke to her class in 2002 at the end of her last day. The bell rang and school ended for Mrs. Sirois. I am proud to say I was with her during her first and last hour of teaching at Pettingill.

My elementary school, Pettingill, has been a kind of monument of education, inviting neighborhood families to send their hyperactive masses to learn math, science, history, geography, reading, writing, and spelling over seven years.

We played a lot of great games on the playground, ate a lot of good lunches in the auditorium and best of all, made many friends who are still our best friends.

Pettingill was a neighborhood school with outstanding teachers, who helped enrich the lives of the children who were lucky enough to grow up around it.

Peter Slovenski, a Lewiston native, is the track coach at Bowdoin College and a proud graduate of Pettingill Elementary School. E-mail: [email protected]


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