This month, Hearts in the Highlands brings you reminiscences of the Fairmount Avenue School from Mary Thornton Hosterman and Martha Rappaport.
At the end of the 2018-2019 school year, the Delta Program, an offering of the State College Area School District, became the last instructional activity to be housed in the Fairmount Avenue School. Built in 1924, this building (with alterations) first served high school students, then elementary age students, and finally “alternative” education students as its mission changed over the years. The future of the building has not been determined.
If you attended classes or worked as faculty/staff at Fairmount Avenue School, the Editorial Board would like to add your remembrances to Martha’s and Mary’s to further memorialize this historic Highlands building. Please share your memories with any of us on the Board.
Junior High at Fairmount Avenue
by Mary Thornton Hosterman
After spending our grade school years at the comfortable and familiar elementary school in the village of Lemont, my classmates and I transferred to State College High School. In the fall of 1954, our class entered eighth grade in the block-long, brick building on Fairmount Avenue with its confusing hallways, tunnels, and multiple floors. Poorly designed building additions made it impossible to go directly from some rooms to our next class. We often had to backtrack, traversing long halls and dark passages.
The high school was intimidating to us country kids. We had been used to a simple building design and five acres of playground. Now outdoor recesses were replaced with the strange non-structure of study halls in the auditorium.
A few places in the Fairmount Avenue building intrigued us. A narrow, net-walled bridge,connecting one part of the building to another, ran above one end of the gymnasium. We could see the gym floor—and sometimes a physical education class in session—as we crossed the bridge. Then there was Mr. Shadel’s chemistry room with its slate counter tops and sinks in place of desks. Every term, Mr. Shadel had his classes do some sort of experiment with sulfur. The entire wing smelled terrible for hours. The only ventilation in those days came by openingwindows and doors.
Mr. Shadel’s wife, Gracie, taught English and literature at Fairmount. Everyone had to take one of her required classes. Mrs. Shadel was an opinionated lady of short stature and naturally–fuzzy gray hair. She reminded me of Albert Einstein. Her favorite outfit was a skirt, blouse, cardigan, scarf, and shoes—all in different shades of red. One of our smooth-talking Lemont boys figured out that he could receive a good grade from Mrs. Shadel without much work if he complimented her every day. He really laid it on when she wore her red outfit, while the rest of us alternated between embarrassment and laughter. I understand that boy eventually became an evangelist, where he undoubtedly used the skills he had honed during junior high school.
Each week Mrs. Shadel had her students complete a program called Ten Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary. We were required to do the exercise in seven days. On Fridays we copied ten new words from the list on the blackboard. On Tuesdays we handed in a paper with each word correctly spelled five times. It was amazing how many people managed to misspell words on that assignment. On Thursdays we submitted a paper with each word used correctly in a sentence. There were some students who never could write sentences of more than five words. On Fridays we were tested on spelling the ten words and using at least one randomly selectedword in a sentence. Poor Mrs. Shadel. I marvel that she could correct all those papers and maintain her sanity.
In Mrs. Shadel’s literature class, I read my first serious book from cover to cover, A Tale of Two Cities. Until that time, I had been a poor reader and probably lacked some comprehension and retention skills. I had always faked book reports or avoided reading by doing alternative projects. Now I found myself caught up in the story as Mrs. Shadel reviewed each chapter and explained the history of the setting and the subtle messages in the text. Most of my classmates did not read the assigned chapters, so I shone in classroom discussions. That was a first for me! I impressed Mrs. Shadel so much that I floated through the rest of her course. I would be absent on test days and Mrs. Shadel would not require me to take a make-up test. I eventually learned to enjoy reading on my own and can thank Mrs. Shadel for breaking down my resistance to opening a good book.
The cafeteria at Fairmount Avenue was in the basement. The lunch line extended up the stairs to the first floor. Students who had been awarded Hall Patrol belts stood duty at the landings, supposedly to keep order among their peers. Hall Patrol students made better-than-average grades, played junior varsity sports, or were cheerleaders. I longed to wear a Hall Patrol belt across my chest as my friend Cathy and my crush Jim did, but I was never chosen. The compensation was that I got to eat lunch sooner than they did. I excelled at lunch and my size showed it.
My father was ill the fall our class made the move to Fairmount Avenue. He had surgery on Christmas Day, 1954, and died the following March. When I returned to school after the funeral, the vice principal quizzed me as I stood in the lunch line. She asked what had caused my father’s death. I told her that he had cancer, but that didn’t satisfy her. She kept asking questions I couldn’t answer. It was a thoughtless thing to do to an insecure thirteen-year-old. When I told my mother, she was as furious as I had ever seen her. I was never quizzed again after that. I carried my father’s obituary with me for months and sometimes silently read it during class. It never did tell me why my father had died.
I muddled through three years at the high school on Fairmount Avenue with good grades in art, music, and home economics offsetting my usually dismal marks in scholastic courses. I worked hard for teachers I liked and ignored assignments from teachers I didn’t like. My mother’s comment to Mrs. Shadel on the back of one report card revealed my status. “Thank you for your patience,” she wrote.
However, I had friends and some good times. Sock hops were held in the gym after football games, and I regularly attended both the games and the dances. If a good movie was showing at the State or Cathaum Theatre, I would skip the bus ride home and walk downtown, pay fifteen cents, and watch a show. I kept a nickel to call home after the movie. One of my brothers would come get me, usually grumbling about being interrupted, but secretly enjoying the chance to drive the family car.
The Fairmount Avenue era of my life ended in the fall of 1957 when the new high school on Westerly Parkway opened. I completed eleventh and twelfth grades there and was part of the second class to graduate from that building.
Mary Thornton Hosterman grew up in Lemont. She currently lives on a small farm near Aaronsburg and writes life stories as a hobby. She began writing to preserve the oral tradition stories told by her mother and continued through participation in a CALL (now OLLI) class and a monthly writers’ group.
A Memory of Fairmount School
by Martha Lestz Rappaport
I was a student at Fairmount Elementary School for 5 years between fall, 1965 and spring, 1970. I lived on Fairmount Avenue, one house in from Atherton Street, and my walk to school took about 5 minutes. The student crossing guards took their duties very seriously (the job came with a vest and badge, after all) so crossing Fraser Street was safely done without parental supervision. In fact, the whole walk was kids -only with older looking out for younger and bonus time on the playground if we arrived before the bell.
From the beginning, (I was only 7), the building felt like a second home. Because of its years of previous use, nothing was shiny and new. On the contrary, this huge warren of staircases, corridors, and classrooms felt very lived in, welcoming, and open for exploration which we did at every opportunity. Hands shot up when teachers asked for volunteers to deliver messages because we knew it was a chance to stretch our legs, indulge our childish curiosity, and discover or revisit parts of this sprawling building. There was a main staircase going from basement to first and second floors but, for those of us in the know, there were also 2 minor staircases at opposite corners of the building that, with some creative twisting and turning through hallways, could also get you anywhere in the school.
My first 3 years (2nd-4th grades) class numbers were small and comprised of only kids from the borough. Students were bused in from greater State College for 5th and 6th grades so numbers swelled. Being a part of a small class in the early grades afforded much 1:1 attention and contributed to the feeling of hominess. By the time we reached 5th grade we were ready to take on the “newcomers” or even leave them in our dust as they repeatedly became lost between classroom and gym or cafeteria. We had phys ed classes in a real gym or on the football field across Nittany Ave. We had lunch in a real cafeteria complete with stern lunch ladies and 4 cent milk cartons. Our assemblies were in a real auditorium where classes were encouraged to perform on the stage and high tech presentations came from film strips and movie projectors. There were no “all purpose” rooms in our school and every space felt special for being dedicated to its particular use.
I don’t know what the future holds for this special building on Fairmount Ave but I do know that my educational and emotional growth had a lovely beginning within its doors.
Martha Lestz Rappaport grew up in State College, PA living on West Fairmount Ave. until she left for college in 1976. She has been a frequent visitor over the years as her parents have lived in the Highlands for 55 years and continue to live in the West Fairmount Ave. house. Martha’s brother and sister-in-law live in the Highlands and two of her children attended Penn State.