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Memories From The Early Years by Michael Monroe

When I reach back in memory to the many different changes that have occurred in my life, I find that the very first and perhaps the most profound change occurred more than 75 years ago, when I was still a child, but a serious and introverted one. I could still clearly remember some of the events which took place from the time I was 4 or 5 years of age.

I remember very vividly that I had a innate fear of my grandmother. She lived with us in a small row house on a street named Avondale in West Philadelphia. I had an older sister and two younger brothers, and yet, for some reason that to this day, I have not been able to fathom, my grandmother disliked me intensely. I never understood why she pummeled me around at times, with only the slightest provocation. I recall one instance in particular when she chased me with a broom. I sought safety under my mother's bed, where I lay for some time fearful of getting on my feet again.

From the time I was four, I have no recollection of seeing my father around the house. He had tuberculosis, and was hospitalized at a place called Mont Alto, Pennsylvania, which was some distance away from West Philadelphia. When I was eight, I remember standing beside my father's coffin in tears, as I tried to fix his face in my memory. I could recall only one previous time when I saw him alive. He sat in a chair some ten feet away from us children, forbidden to come any nearer because his disease was highly contagious. I have no memory of his hugging or kissing any of us children.

My mother worked at a general store just a few blocks away from our home. Under the burden of making a living for all of us, her workdays were often 10 to 12 hours long.

I attended a public school on Market Street, about a half mile from our home. It was almost 80% Negro and the rest were Italian kids. For three years, I was constantly afraid to go to school, as the black children, who were more numerous did not hesitate to bully and assault the white children. The only relief came when one of the larger built white boys called us together and taught us to take a glass milk bottle, knock out the bottom, exposing the sharp shards. We carried these bottles to school along with our books. While a lot of the bullying subsided, there was still a prevailing fear among the white kids.

My mother learned of an orphanage located in the very heart of Philadelphia, where boys who had lost their fathers were accepted. It was called Girard College (actually elementary grades through high school) and had been founded by a generous Frenchman named Stephen Girard. At the time of his passing Girard was reputed to be the wealthiest man in the United States. He was a merchant, mariner, and banker. He helped to finance the United States Government in the War of 1812 against Britain. He willed his fortune to the Board of City Trust of Philadelphia. What had once been a farm on the outskirts of Philadelphia, now had become a 40 acre facility with a 10 foot stone wall around it. Inside these walls were marble buildings for housing and in the center a beautiful colonnaded building that greatly resembles the famous Parthenon in Athens, Greece. This school for orphan boys opened in 1848.

While my mother applied for all three of her boys, however when word came back, only 2 of her boys were eligible. I was left out. My brothers ages 6 and 8 could be admitted but I could not since I would be past 10 for the class beginning in January, 1926. In other words, I was too old if I were to start in January. Children could only start at Girard if they were under 10. I so longed to get away from the public school I attended, but the prospects seemed dim.

My brother George was to become a Girardian in September of 1925, and Raphael would be accepted after June in 1926. My mother was left wondering what to do with me. She had hoped to just have my sister, who was 12 and capable of taking care of herself while she was at work, not a 10 year old boy too. My Grandmom had passed away and she didn't know what she would do. Then, a miracle! A letter from Girard stated that I could be accepted along with George in September of 1925, which was two months before my 10th birthday.

I now stood at the threshold of a new life, in new surroundings, with a promising future. When mother took us to the school in September, I was greatly surprised to hear the registrar call me Michael Massa. What? My name for all my life had been Milton. My family had always called me Milton. I disliked the name and used to imagine that I could have a nice name like Fred or Joe or whatever but not Milton. I learned the truth of my name that day. Mother had had a serious disagreement with my father's father, Michael Massa. I carried his name in true Sicilian tradition as the first born. She was so angry with her father-in-law that she wouldn't use his name and so I became Milton, after the best man at my parent's wedding.

My entry into Girard College marked a huge change in my life. This orphanage, at the time, had some 1600 students, all year round "live-ins." All our meals, our schooling, our clothing, our living quarters (which were mostly dormitories of about 40 beds each), our medical and emotional needs were taken care of by experienced professionals. After age ten, we were allowed 4 hour passes to visit our mothers every Sunday afternoon. In my case, it took an hour by street car and an hour back which left only 2 hours to visit. Until my brothers reached the age of 10, the only time they saw our mother was if and when she could come to the school.

The standard dress at the time consisted of knickers, shirt and tie, full length above the knee black stockings and high top black shoes called brogans. Additionally our heads were shorn of locks to within a half-inch. As a result, more often than not, people on street cars would say, "you must be a Girard orphan!" Fortunately, however, by 1928, "the powers that be" decided on full-length trousers and normal hair styles.

At the time of my entry into Girard, the school pattern of classes was modeled after the Eton and Rugby schools of London. We had "forms," not "grades." School hours were inflexible: 8 a.m. to noon and 1 to 3 in the afternoon. There was no missing of school hours unless you were in the Infirmary under the doctor's care. From 3 to 5:30 we were free for playground activities, sports, swimming, ROTC, band or orchestra practice. Some 300 of the students from 8 to 11 years of age were in a boys' choir, which had a reputation equivalent to the famous Vienna Boys Choir. They often were given the opportunity to sing with the Philadelphia Orchestra because they were so well trained.

This period was an exciting and formative time for me.

After 7 years at Girard I graduated at the age of 16. After graduation I was given the opportunity to take another year to do University level course work with 3 professors from the University of Pennsylvania. They came to Girard to provide instruction in languages and other college level courses. I also spent many hours in a carpentry shop making chests and bookcases, drawing plans that became blueprints and learned to play the flute and piccolo in the band and orchestra.

In retrospect, I can honestly say that while my first months at Girard were those of painful loneliness and homesickness, I soon recovered resulting in memories of real joy and happiness. I had left behind a disadvantaged school and home environment to a marvelous place of safety and of challenging educational opportunities. My classmates were more than just students but more like brothers who shared and lived together at a very important time in our lives.

When we left to make our way in the world we carried with us ties that have lasted throughout the years, even to the present. When we gathered together for graduation ceremonies, our emotions ran high as we sang:

"Farewell, farewell, dear Temple on the hill, We'll not forget you, `til our hearts be still!"

Originally Posted (Jul 02, 2002)

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