Noe Valley Voice May 2004

Growing Up in Noe Valley

Alvarado School Bells

By Paul Kantus

Now, when I was a lad, growing up in Noe Valley in the 1930s, things were a little different than they are today, especially for those of us who attended public school.

Alvarado Elementary School at 625 Douglass Street drew strictly from our immediate neighborhood. Kids who lived further away, say six or eight city blocks, might go to Edison at Chattanooga and 22nd, or to Kate Kennedy, at the other end of the neighborhood, on 30th Street.

I attended Alvarado in the Depression years, from 1931 to 1937, for kindergarten through the sixth grade.

Kindergarten-class parents paid the school to have milk and graham crackers served to the children at midmorning. I remember getting my milk and crackers for a while. Then I was cut off, along with several other kids. Naturally I wondered why. The reason was my father wasn't getting steady work. He was a marine machinist who worked on repairing the Matson Line ships when they were in port. When no Matson ships were at the dock, there was no work. So at times our family--I was an only child--found it hard to pay for niceties such as milk and crackers at school.

I also remember when I was a member of the Traffic Patrol in sixth grade and we marched with all the other schools in a big parade at Civic Center. We were supposed to wear white shirts and white sweaters, but my folks couldn't afford to buy me a white sweater, so someone else (another parent?) loaned me one for the parade. There were also a couple of years when I didn't get class pictures, because my parents couldn't pay for them.

But we had fun anyway. We started school at eight in the morning and went home at three in the afternoon, with a recess both morning and afternoon and a lunch break. Since I lived only a block from school, I went home for lunch.

All the teachers were women in those days. I remember one year how puzzled we were when Miss Bresler came back from summer vacation with a different name as Mrs. somebody.

The woman I remember most clearly was Miss Torpey, the vice principal. We called her "Torpedo" behind her back. She was in charge of the schoolyard during recess. She brooked no rough playing in the yard. She would grab a recalcitrant kid by the ear and march him up to the principal's office. She carried a large brass-clappered bell with a wooden handle, which she rang to get a young miscreant's attention. And should the poor misbegotten soul try to run away, she'd throw the bell at the kid, and with pretty good aim.

She was tough, but she was also fair. She would listen to your side of the story. And my deaf friend Teddy, who lived across the street in the tiny little house on the corner of Douglass and Alvarado, attended Miss Torpey's lip-reading class.

One of my friends in the third grade was Jimmy H. He smoked! He would buy a dime pack of Domino cigarettes at the corner store at 23rd and Eureka, saying they were for his father. Before the bell rang in the mornings, he would stash his pack in a little hiding place under one of the kindergarten rooms. Then he would have to stop at the principal's office and empty out his pockets on Mrs. O'Connor's desk. If there were no cigarettes, he could go to class. Jimmy was short for his age in those days. I wonder if it's true about smoking stunting your growth.

Because my mother taught me to read at a very early age, the school system decided to have me skip a grade. I was led up to the third-grade class on the second floor and told to read a paragraph that was posted on the blackboard. I did so rapidly, and I was told to take an empty seat. My mother was called down to the school for a discussion, and I kept the seat in the third grade.

The only problem I had was that I was always a year younger than my classmates all through school. So in those early years, my classmates were bigger than I was, and you know what that meant in the pecking order!

However, sometime during my three years at James Lick Junior High, I caught up--in height anyway. m

For many years, Paul Kantus has been the chief caretaker of the Noe Valley Historical Archives housed at the Noe Valley-Sally Brunn Library on Jersey Street. If you have stories or old photos to share, give him a call at 647-3753.