I have many fond memories from my days at old , but none more so than Feb. 20, 1962 when Astronaut John H. Glenn Jr. became the first American launched into orbit.
I was in my freshman year and finding the world of high school academia to be quite unlike what I had experienced in my previous eight years of school.
I was fairly bright and had never found it necessary to study much in grammar school or junior high. Things came easy to me and I was content to get by with a few A’s, a smattering of B’s, and a C on occasion. Life was good and school was my personal playground.
Then along came high school and I was caught completely off guard. Not only was I expected to study; it was undeniably necessary. I was enrolled in the College Preparatory Program, which required I take four years of English, four years of math, four years of science and four years of a foreign language.
This hardly seemed fair as some of my classmates who had enrolled in Industrial Arts were able to fulfill their academic requirements by studying basic English, basic math and fashioning shiny strips of metal into random household trinkets.
One of my friends tried to enroll in English as his foreign language requirement and, when informed by his guidance counselor that English was not a foreign language, he responded, “It ain’t?” Had he taken the Mansfield school system to court, I believe he could have made a case that, for him; English was, in fact, a foreign tongue
I was awarded my first F, in my freshman Ancient History class, taught by Eddie Albertini, a first year teacher who apparently expected more of me than I did of myself. Nebuchadnezzar? Nabopolassar? Babylonia? Mesopotamia? I had no interest - thus the F. But that didn’t faze me in the least. Why should it? I detested Ancient History. My justification? It was boring and, well, let’s be totally honest; it was……..ancient!
Of course, my parents were exceedingly proud of that F and showed their undying appreciation of my efforts by rewarding me with a one month, all expenses paid vacation…..…in my room - studying! No hanging out with my friends after school, no watching TV. Nothing - just studying.
Getting back to John Glenn – you knew I’d get there eventually didn’t you? See, you’re starting to catch on – starting to understand how my mind works. That could be a problem for you – the ‘understanding me’ thing. I know it’s certainly quite a burden for me, so I can only imagine the albatross it must be for everyone else.
I was in Miss Welch’s American History class. It was an exciting day, not so much because of the space launch, but more because we were going to watch the whole thing on TV, which meant screw-off time at school - no lectures or note taking. No reading or testing.
On that day, every classroom in the school had a TV that had been set up by the AV class – the audio-visual geeks. Now if you were one of those guys, I’m sorry; I don’t mean to be offensive, but let’s face it; you spent most of your school day stuffed in to your gym locker, banging on the door, praying that someone would let you out. You and your plastic pocket protector, your pens and pencils and an occasional protractor. Admit it. You know it’s true.
To really appreciate what I’m about to share with you; it’s imperative that you understand the times, and more importantly that you understand Miss Welch.
TV was rather tame in the early sixties – prudish by today’s standards, or perhaps I should say, ‘today’s lack of standards’. There were no Victoria’s Secret commercials, no half naked 20-year old women soaking themselves down with a hose while trying to convince you to eat at Burger King, no ads for anything that might even hint at anything sexual or off-color. Ozzie and Harriet slept in separate beds. That was how it was – modesty ruled the day.
Margaret Welch, affectionately known as Mag Wheels to her students, was an icon at Mansfield High. Not because she had done anything special, but more because she had been teaching since Moses was a child. I’m not quite sure how old she was, but when my mother was at MHS, which was then in the building that now houses the ; she had Miss Welch for history. I think we can safely say that Mags was a bit ‘long in the tooth’.
She was a spinster and it was evident, even to a clueless 13-year old, that history was her first, if not her only love. She was noticeably aroused as she waxed poetic regarding the exploits of Jefferson and Madison and a bevy of ancient, dead guys in whom most of us had no interest. She sported a vast wardrobe of two-piece suits in varying colors and fabrics – wool in the winter and cotton in the warmer weather, always with a frilly blouse underneath, buttoned all the way up to the top of her neck. She frequently wore a fancy brooch or a cameo on her suit coat. She reminded me of the old schoolmarm on Gunsmoke.
Her classroom was always hot. Okay, not really hot – more like stifling. The heat was cranked up to the max at all times and if anyone even tried to crack open a window; she was on them like white on rice.
Okay, now that you have a reasonably clear picture of Miss Welch; let’s get to the crux of the story, shall we?
We had gathered in Miss Welch’s classroom to view the first American to venture in to outer space, to go where no man had gone before. OK, that’s not exactly true. The Russians had already done it, but I had to set up the Star Wars clip somehow. Let’s call it ‘Poetic license’, shall we?
So, the truth is that John Glenn was about to go where no American man had gone before. There! Are you happy now? I certainly hope so because I wouldn’t want you to report me to the Writer’s Guild. They might revoke my ‘poetic license’; then I’d have to find another profession and at my age, well, let’s not go there.
It was truly an exciting day. It was the dawn of the space age; a milestone in American history. Over the years the exploits of the space program have waned in popularity. They’ve become routine, even humdrum. Space shuttles are launched and return to Earth unnoticed by the vast majority of the population. As with many things in life, the bloom has come off the proverbial rose. It’s just not a big deal any longer.
But on that day, Feb. 20, 1962, in Margaret Welch’s American History class at Mansfield High School, the excitement was palpable.
Miss Welch stood proudly in front of the 19-ninch Zenith black and white TV and asked us to take our seats. The launch was imminent. She flipped on the TV and there it was in all its splendor. The Friendship 7 spacecraft sitting high atop the powerful Atlas rocket that would soon propel it in to space and launch John Glenn in to the annals of history.
As the TV station broke away for a commercial, the announcer said, “….and now for a word from our sponsor. The Playtex Cross Your Heart Bra.”
Miss Welch’s head spun around faster than the revolving door at a Filene’s Basement wedding dress sale. The commercial began.
Mags was a rather pale woman, but on that momentous day, her face was rosier than her bright red wool suit. “Oh, my,” she chortled like a schoolgirl, “This is quite an eventful day, isn’t it class?”
It’s been 49-years since that day when one of the most significant events in our countries history was forever entrenched in my memory. Not because of the event itself, but because of a Playtex Bra commercial.
I still laugh when I think of the look on Miss Welch’s face. I can’t begin to imagine how embarrassed she must have been. I don’t recall that she ever again had a TV in her classroom.
Margaret Welch was a wonderful person and a terrific teacher; an old-fashioned educator from a generation long past. Her love and respect for American History was infectious, even for a kid who was trying to get by with putting in as little effort as possible – a kid like me.
Oh, by the way, I got an A in American History. For some reason I worked harder in her class. I think maybe it was because I knew how much she cared – how important it was to her. She wanted us to appreciate and understand where we had come from; the sacrifices of those who had gone before us.
I graduated from Mansfield High School in 1966 and went on to Westfield State College where I majored in psychology and, inspired by my high school history teacher, Margaret Welch, also pursued a minor course of study in Revisionist History.
What? You don't believe Revisionist History is a real class? Well it is! Honest! I wouldn’t lie to you. Cross my heart!
Make it a great week!
Bob Havey is an Easton-based freelance writer. His column, "The View From Here", appears each Tuesday at http://easton-ma.patch.com and his other column "Take Me Back" runs every Friday at http://mansfield-ma.patch.com.