Depending on which source you consult, I was either born at the tail-end of the Baby Boom generation or the beginning of the notorious Generation X. Either way, I come from a time when the stork was working double-duty, and the powers that be were tripping over themselves trying to build enough new schools to accommodate all those millions of kids.
I attended six public schools in thirteen years. Most of the buildings were clinical, joyless affairs, with either no windows at all, or tiny little bands of glass up near the ceiling that emitted just a modicum of light and prevented daydreaming, while encouraging feelings of suffocation and a need for escape.
I have always been hyper-sensitive about my surroundings, and noticed a clear difference in things when I attended school in older buildings in Fourth grade and part of Seventh. Not only did these old schools have actual windows and unique touches like transoms and stained glass, but both of them carried palpable senses of history. In the modern schools I felt like a veal calf, stamped, prodded, and processed, but in the older schools the previous generations had left so many accretions, physical and spiritual, that I felt part of past, present, and future at the same time, a player in what Inspector Clouseau once called “life’s rich pageant.”
Austin’s Pease Elementary School is one of those places with a deep sense of the past, as well as a fully-functioning spirit of both present and future. It celebrates its 129th birthday on October 2nd.
As I have discussed several times before in this column, when Edwin Waller laid out this city in 1839, he numbered the initial blocks and set aside some for specific functions. The block at Rio Grande, College Avenue (Twelfth Street), and Mesquite Street (Eleventh) was designated the “University Block,” but for many years was just pasture land.
Funds were collected for the establishment of public schools, but for years nobody did anything with the money. The unwanted occupation government of the post-Civil War Reconstruction Era encouraged the establishment of a centralized public education system, but nothing came of this, and the people of Texas opened no public schools between 1861 and 1871. Finally, though, in 1871 laws were passed that actually created an organized state school system and allowed citizens to access those public funds to build and operate new schools.
Interestingly enough, Austin’s African-American children got a school first, which opened in Wheatsville. The white children got their own school, first called the “Austin Graded School,” in 1876. It was built on University Block.
The new school consisted of two main stories, a full basement, and twelve rooms, all topped with a fashionable French-style mansard roof. The building cost a bit over $20,000.
In the custom of the time there was a strict segregation of the boys and the girls except at special events and lectures. Boys came in through the front door and had classes on the second floor, while girls entered on the side and studied on the first floor. It was concluded that …“The meeting of the sexes will be sufficiently rare to stimulate the classes to proficiency in the presence of each other.”
The students were divided into four grades. The curriculum in those days was pretty impressive, and included reading, writing, “articulation” (?), spelling, written and oral drills in geography and arithmetic, composition, geology, English grammar, chemistry, Latin, elocution, English literature, natural philosophy, algebra, astronomy, physiology and hygiene, geometry, mental philosophy, and political science. Children were discouraged from playing outside the school before classes in the morning as such exertions were thought to render them unfit for studying. Of course, I can’t imagine how, with that kind of course load, the kids would have the energy left to play. But think of it–Fourth graders at this school knew Latin! When I was in 4th grade I couldn’t even dress myself. Perhaps grade levels were not the same then as they are now.
But some things about schools have remained constant. The teachers then, just like the teachers now, were not paid what they were worth, getting between $70 and $100 a month, while the Superintendent made $1,000.
When another grade school was built in East Austin in 1881, Austin Graded School was renamed the “West Austin Ward School.” One room of the building was eventually set aside to teach high school students, but that soon proved inadequate. Rooms in nearby houses were rented out as high school classrooms, then the teens were moved to the First Baptist Church and then the temporary State Capitol, before an actual High School building was finally erected.
In May 1896 the school burned. Apparently the arsonist was a student at the school who was obsessively in love with one of his female classmates. I guess the school officials just weren’t doing a good enough job keeping the sexes segregated.
Well anyway, this little girl was the niece of a fireman, the driver of one of the City’s fire engines. The uncle made it very clear he didn’t appreciate this strange boy’s interest in his niece, and the boy decided he needed to kill the uncle.
The boy set a string of fires around town, hoping that the uncle would be killed either while driving the engine or fighting the fire. The boy realized a paper-filled structure like the school would make for a huge fire, so one night he broke in, opened up desk drawers and threw papers all around, before setting the building on fire. Now some sources say the boy was not so much lovesick as he was fond of “seeing the fire truck run.” In any case, he was finally arrested and did some time in prison before being released on the proviso he leave the country.
Classes were moved to the County Court House until the school could be rebuilt. The basement was turned into a full ground floor and the front door was moved downstairs to that level, but because the front door was so tall, workmen had to make the ceiling in the entrance hall higher than it was elsewhere on the first floor. As a result, to this day, the hallway on the school’s second floor slopes upward on its eastern end. The school then as now occupies three full floors.
In 1902 the school was again renamed, this time in honor of Elisha M. Pease, a Governor who had been a strong advocate of public education, and whose estate had stretched almost to the western side of the school grounds.
In 1916 the school was remodeled again, the Victorian facade being replaced by something more in keeping with the tastes of the times. Six rooms and two staircases were added on to the east side of the building, although you can still see the plastered-over frames of the original east front windows in the new stairwells, and a large archway that used to dominate the second floor of the east entrance facade, now merely divides the second floor hallway. In 1926 a lunchroom, an auditorium (now the library), and three classrooms were added on to the building’s west side.
In my research I came across some called “The Little Newspaper,” published in 1949 by the students at Pease. It’s actually quite enlightening. Apparently in those days students from Pease often gave performances on local radio stations. The paper is filled with extensive, albeit hand-lettered, advertising from local businesses.
Student reporter Nancy Finley breathlessly informed the readers, “Oh, oh, guess what’s happened! They are building a Dr. Pepper plant on 5th and West Ave. Since ther (sic) is to be a new Dr. Pepper Plant, we ought to have more pep! Don’t you think so?” (I wonder if Nancy went into advertising.)
Under the listing “Page Of Fun And Foolishness” we find this joke:
What’s in a Name?
Lady: What is your brother’s Name?
Boy: We call him Flannel.
Lady: How peculiar! Why?
Boy: Because he shrinks from washing.
And Betty Jean Bryant offered a poem called “Napoleon:”
Napoleon is my pet,
Better than anyone’s, I’ll bet!
Every day he takes me to school
And brings me back, too, as a rule.
His stall is in the cellar,
And he’s always ready to greet a fellow;
Napoleon likes to hike
Because, you see, he is my bike.
Hey–in my book it works just as well as “I should have been a pair of ragged claws/Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.”
Equally as charming is “The Pease Star,” a student handbook the 6th grade class put together in 1949. The rules evoke a more polite time: “Be agreeable…Never meddle…Never act silly…Wait until all are seated before beginning to eat…Have pleasant conversation, not play, at the table…Never push in line…Never brag when you win.”
Pease got another major renovation in 1948, but by 1971 there was talk that the venerable old school would be demolished. Fortunately, the school’s principal, Mrs. Ruth Williams, and the PTA, mounted a campaign and got Pease a much-deserved historical marker, and thirty-four years later, Austin children are still studying on University Block, taking part in Austin’s history possibly without even knowing it. It’s a beautiful old school, sunny, welcoming, and homey, encompassing, as I said, the best elements of past, present, and future.
—October 27, 2005