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My first-grade teacher was a class act

Fred Marks, in a striped shirt in the

Fred Marks, in a striped shirt in the top row, in his first-grade class photo in 1946 in Farmingdale. Credit: Fred Marks

After barely passing kindergarten (I failed naptime), I was assigned to Miss Sarah Howitt’s first-grade class. She was a tall lady, primly dressed with steel-rimmed glasses.

On the first day of class, I found her classroom with about 25 other rambunctious 5- and 6-year-olds, and our worlds came to a screeching halt.

After she stood in front of us and called our names, we were assigned seats in alphabetical order and told these were our seats for the rest of the school year. We were told only proper first names were to be used in class, no Bob, Dick, Skippy, Katie, or Suzie. It was the first time I heard the words "proper noun."

Miss Howitt, who was the niece of Principal Weldon E. Howitt — Farmingdale’s "Mr. Education" — had rules: Hands and faces had to be washed before class; sneakers and shoes had to be tied with a double-bow knot; we were not to talk to our neighbor; no gum chewing or cracking gum; lunches were to be stored under our desks and only taken out at lunch time.

Everyone had a job before being dismissed for the day. Boys cleaned the erasers, washed blackboards, and emptied trash cans. Girls straightened desks and sharpened pencils for the next day.

The best job in her class was milk monitor. That honored person had to retrieve the small containers of milk and packages of graham crackers and pass them out to classmates. There were always leftover crackers, which you could eat yourself or dish out to your friends.

After milk-and-cracker time, we had to rest our heads on our desks for exactly 15 minutes. Occasionally one of the boys would make a rude noise and the class giggled. Miss Howitt would reward him with a glare over her glasses that would melt stainless steel. The number of rude noises decreased almost immediately.

Miss Howitt also insisted that we act properly. We learned manners, deportment and politeness. She taught all the subjects — math, reading, history, geography, etc.

If we went anywhere as a group, it was two by two, boys on the outside (gentlemen have to protect the ladies); no pushing or shoving, and no talking in line. She also enjoined us to join the Cub Scouts or Brownies when we became of age.

She had a neatly stacked pile of books on her desk that contained the wisdom of the ages, and she would look up the answers for us, and make the questioner read the answer. If you had a question, you raised your hand and waited to be called upon. She did not tolerate foolish questions.

I remember only one question that she could not answer. She taught us that Earth was elliptical and not round. Someone asked why the globe on her desk was round and not elliptical. After consulting her books, she fell back on the teacher fail-safe: "Look up the answer in the school library and report back to the class tomorrow morning." (I don’t recall if we ever found out.)

In short, Miss Howitt was Hollywood’s central-casting choice of a first-grade teacher.

Reader Fred Marks lives in Wantagh.

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