The Electronic Music Lab at Masterman School – An Adventure in Mathetics and Pedagogy

The Re-education of Me Table of Contents

  1. What we investigate is linked to who we are
  2. The Me nobody knew then
  3. Mrs. Jefferson’s “Sympathetic Touch” meets Mrs. Masterman’s Philanthropy
  4. Discovering Masterman, discovering myself
  5. The electronic music lab at Masterman School
  6. The Interactive Journalism Institute for Middle Schoolers and the quest for computing diversity

“There are, at least, two approaches to education: the mimetic approach and the mathetic approach. The mimetic approach emphasizes memorization and drill exercises and is most efficient in inculcating facts and developing basic skills [Gar89, p. 6]. The mathetic approach stresses learning by doing and self exploration; it encourages independent and creative thinking [Pap80, p. 120]. In the mimetic framework, creativity comes after the mastery of basic skills. On the other hand, proponents of the mathetic school believe that self discovery is the best, if not the only, way to learn…”

Educational Outlook,”

Sugih Jamin, Associate Professor, EECS, University of Michigan

“Music educators can no longer ignore the possibilities afforded by computers and the related fields of science and mathematics.” With those words, Virginia Hagemann threw down the gauntlet to her colleagues in a 1968 essay for the Music Education Journal. It was the first of two articles she would write about the electronic music laboratory that she created at the JR Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School in Philadelphia in the late 1960s.

I was a participant in that lab, and as I read Ms. Hagemann’s essays, I was struck by the parallels between her arguments for the effectiveness of electronic music and a tool for expanding the horizons of secondary school students, and the research and findings from the Interactive Journalism Institute for Middle Schoolers, a National Science Foundation-funded project for which I served as a co-principal investigator. Like Ms. Hagemann, we found that given the opportunity to make media, young people can produce artifacts that reflect fairly sophisticated concepts. We also concluded that professional development that empowers teachers is central to successful curricular innovation. Ms. Hagemann also learned serendipitously that a budding media maker is capable of becoming a technology innovator.

In this essay, I want to place Hagemaan’s action research alongside the work of Seymour Papert and his intellectual descendants to turn computers into learning tools for children. While Hagemann was developing her ideas about electronics as a vehicle for musical composition and education, Papert and his colleagues at MIT were creating the LOGO programming language as a tool to help children construct their own knowledge about the world. With this foundation, he reasoned that teachers could then support students in moving to more formal understandings of concepts in mathematics, physics and other subjects that are generally considered abstract and difficult to learn.

Research shows that music education can be a wonderful foundation for teaching mathematics and by extension, computing.(Research on music and learning) The reasons are not hard to understand: both require that information be organized in certain structures. Pattern recognition is integral to both fields. Both have formal and informal “languages.” One can draw analogies between their elements – bits and bytes of computing and the diatonic scale in Western music, for example. Music has its own versions of computing’s “if-then” statements, loops, strings, recursion, modularization and other fundamentals. Both are fundamentally mathematical, although not necessarily in a “school math” kind of way. Looking back, I can see how many of these concepts were embedded in the work we did in Ms. Hagemann’s electronic music class.

For the sake of context, I should mention that I also had traditional classes in basic music appreciation and theory while at Masterman, taught by Gloria Goode.   Ms. Goode also expanded our cultural horizons. She added jazz, African and Brazilian music to our studies of Dvorak, Copeland and Stephen Foster. In sixth grade, we happened to have a student teacher who had lived in Brazil, so we learned to make their national dish, fejoida, home ec class and performed a Brazilian number in the school show. As one of the few black faculty members at Masterman, she was a powerful role model for the black students. She was also a crucial mentor for a small group of students who actually did become professional musicians in their adult lives. She also set an example for us as a life-long learner, sharing with us about her explorations of African music and dance, for example. Her 1990 doctoral dissertation, “Preachers of the word and singers of the Gospel: The ministry of women among nineteenth century African-Americans,” was hailed by the author Delores Causion Carpenter hailed as, “one of the finest treatments of 19th century black, singing, evangelist women” in her book, A Time for Honor: A Portrait of African American Clergywomen.

The exposure that she gave us to polyrhythms through the music of Babatunde Olatunji has particularly stayed with me. What follows is a video collection of the some of the music I was exposed to in Ms. Goode’s classes. I believe that what she taught me about the underlying structure of these diverse kinds of music would become important in Ms. Hagemann’s class, and in my later thinking about writing and problem solving. This collection includes not only Olatunji, but also Sergio Mendes, “Largo” from Dvorak’s New World Symphony, the folk song, “Goober Peas,” Della Reese and Wes Montgomery playing “Windy.” The last song especially sticks out in my mind because my first hearing of the song wasn’t Montgomery’s guitar version. It was our fifth-grade classmate Joel Bryant, who played the song for us on piano at her invitation at the end of class one day. Joel went on to become an accomplished professional songwriter, producer and accompanist with credits that include work with Philadelphia International Records and Gospel great Traimaine Hawkins. Joel was one of many professional musicians who came through Masterman.

Ms. Hagemann’s essays don’t explain what specifically prompted her to create an electronic music class, but she knew Robert Moog, the physicist-engineer whose experiments with the theremin led to his invention of the first popularly-used synthesizer in 1965.  She was an active composer with far-flung connections who reportedly studied with the legendary music teacher Nadia Boulanger. (This assertion comes from a posting on Facebook; I am in the process of trying to verify it.)

What we do know from her 1968 essay, “Electronic Composition in the Junior High School,” is that she described the lab as “logical outgrowth and extension of the [Music Educators National Conference] Young Composers’ Project,” an initiative funded by the Ford Foundation. She started the lab with a $316 grant from a fund established by Philadelphia Schools Superintendent Mark Shedd for innovative teaching projects. According to Salon magazine, Moog synthesizers were $11,000 in those days, so she focused on components instead. We had two reel-to-reel tape recorders, an oscilloscope, sine and square wave generators, splicing equipment, and tools for making musique concrete, such as a gong and a metronome. We wrote our compositions on graph paper, plotting frequencies on the vertical axis and time on the horizontal.

According to Hagemann, the 15 children were initially selected to participate in the lab, and several dozen students were admitted into the program before long because of popular demand. All of the students who were initially selected played instruments. If my memory is correct, I entered the program during the 1968-69 school year, when I was in the sixth grade.

Ms. Hagemann’s methods emphasized the mathetic over the pedagogic or mimetic. Each of us was assigned a partner,  which meant that we not only had the experience of composing and recording our own work, we also learned to play recording engineer for someone else. She exposed us to experimental composers and methods, and further broadened our cultural horizons. The video compilation below is a sampling of what we heard in class, and what we were taught to do. It includes Switched on Bach, Tibetan chants, a demonstration of musigue concrete composition and production techniques, and a Swingle Singers performance.

This early electronic music composition, “Lemon Drops,” by Kenneth Gaburo, was also part of our curriculum:

Hagemann cautioned her colleagues against being “guided by an outmoded philosophy that only the teacher knows best.” At the same time, she added,

“Although anything is possible, everything should not be permitted. In this incipient stage of a student’s musical development, the disciplined experi- ence of creating logical compositions within the frame- work of accepted musical form is imperative. Although students should become aware of the concept of alea- toric composition (eleven of the twenty-six members in the first class purchased John Cage’s book, Silence), the use of indeterminacy and chance elements in com- position should be reserved until the students have demonstrated their understanding of and competence to compose in various musical forms. Concurrent with a rigid adherence to traditional form, the children can be given a measure of freedom of expression to avoid stifling the possible creation and development of new musical structures.” (p. 88)

Hagemman reported surprise and delight at the quality and precocity of the musical compositions that emerged from the class (not from any of my work , though, I assure you!). But it was the technological innovation that took place that was an additional delight. She reports on page 90 that after field trips to Princeton and Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute:

“William Serad, age thirteen, submitted a technical report, complete with schematic diagrams, on the possibility of using an analog computer for writing electronic music. William thought that this computer would be useful in the writing of such compositions as “Study in Square Roots” or “Cube Root Canon.” His report was later discussed with Robert A. Moog, presi- dent of the R. A. Moog Company, Trumansburg, New York, manufacturers of electronic equipment, who agreed that this idea was feasible. With this encourage- ment, William constructed a four-sound, push-button switch, serial sequencer, which he used in writing an electronic canon. He has since made a working model of a tri-amplitude mixer module. Another member of the class, Randy Kaplan, age twelve, was inspired by the linear controller at Princeton to build a three- sound, push-button switch, serial sequencer with mixer. The teacher will not always understand every wire and transistor, but he can always tell if the equipment operates properly, and he can assist his students to use such devices musically.”

Hagemann concluded her article by noting that keeping up with her students had required her to embark on a new path of professional development for herself. She enrolled in an electronics course and started reading electronics reference texts.  She picked up the theme of the necessity of teacher development in a Dec. 1969 article for the Music Education Journal, “Are Junior High School Students Ready for Electronic Music? Are Their Teachers?”  Hagemann asserted that if teachers open their minds and become resourceful about using electronic music classes as a means of allowing students the “freedom to create” (.p 36) ,

“The adolescent need for independence will be satisfied by the creative free- dom encouraged within the labora- tory. The study of the basic con- cepts of electronic music will help the student gain a critical perspec- tive of himself, of his social environ- ment, and of the ways he can shape new goals of learning.” (p.37)

I was astounded to read these words nearly 40 years later, because they are remarkably similar to the conclusions that we reached with regard to the results of our Interactive Journalism Institute for Middle Schoolers in exposing middle school students and teachers to computing and journalism as as means of creative expression and civic engagement.  More about that in a future post.

Update: April 30 – Thanks to fellow Masterman alum and musician Ilene Weiss, who send these .mp3s from the online archives of Masterman student compositions on a Philadelphia radio station WFMU.


Music Educators Journal articles by Virginia Hagemann referred to in this post:

For examples of research on music and learning, see,


  • Hetland, Lois, “Learning to Make Music Enhances Spatial Reasoning” Journal of Aesthetic EducationVol. 34, No. 3/4, Special Issue: The Arts and Academic Achievement: What the Evidence Shows (Autumn – Winter, 2000), pp. 179-238 (article consists of 60 pages) Published by: University of Illinois Press

    Stable URL:

  • Habib, Michel and Mireille Besson. “What Do Music Training and Musical Experience Teach Us about Brain Plasticity? Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Vol. 26, No. 3, Music and Language (Feb., 2009), pp. 279-285
  • Wendy S. Boettcher, Sabrina S. Hahn, Gordon L. Shaw, Mathematics and Music: A Search for Insight into Higher Brain Function Mathematics and Music: A Search for Insight into Higher Brain Function,Leonardo Music Journal, Vol. 4, (1994), pp. 53-58

One of those “intellectual descendants,”, my colleague and collaborator Ursula Wolz, was researcher in Papert’s LOGO lab in the 1970s. In the early 1980s, she and Jim Dunne began teaching LOGO to children and teachers at Columbia Teachers’ College’s Microcomputer Resource Center. (See contemporaneous popular press reports on that work from Popular Mechanics and Infoworld. Wolz is the Principal Investigator of the IJIMS.

I thank my former Masterman schoolmate and academic colleague Elizabeth Gregory for her help in locating both of Ms. Hagemann’s articles.

What Would WEB Du Bois Tell Henry Jenkins and Soulja Boy?

The Criteria for Negro Art in the Age of Computational Media

In June, 2008, I attended a presentation in which Henry Jenkins, then Director of the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT, contemplated the lessons of Soulja Boy Tellem’s use of what he calls “participatory culture” to create a career as a hip-hop star. Jenkins described how teenager DeAndre Ramone Way (Soulja Boy)  built a fan base by posting the music and a home video of his song, “Crank Dat,” and encouraging listeners to remix it, make video responses to it, and share it freely. (The presentation video is only available to members of the New Media Consortium.)

The process illustrates Jenkins’ concept of “spreadable” culture — a term that he argues is more accurate than the  “viral”   model, since viruses proliferate by attacking their hosts, while “spreadable” culture invites voluntary participation. He showed examples of fan videos of “Crank Dat,” including produced by his MIT grad students. Then Jenkins paralleled Soulja Boy’s encouragement of artistic appropriation and the cultural borrowing employed by Herman Melville in crafting Moby Dick.

In his blog, Jenkins mused about Soulja Boy’s precocity:

I can’t decide what fascinates me the most about this story: the fact that this teenager broke into the front ranks of the entertainment industry by using tools and processes which in theory are accessible to every other person of his generation or the fact that he has recognized intuitively the value in spreading his content and engaging his audience as an active part of his promotional process.

Jenkins did not address the actual lyrical content of Soulja Boy’s music, and the actual ideas being packaged in the catchy beat and the playful dance steps. The content wasn’t the point of the presentation. The lyrics offer the kind of  puerile vulgarity one might expect from a boy who is trying to impress his peers with stories about his sexual prowess and toughness.  “Crank Dat” includes such lines as:

“Soulja boy off on this hoe…

“Then Superman that hoe…”

“I’m jocking on your bitch ass
And if we get the fighting
Then I’m cocking on your bitch ass…”

The lyrics reflect the cliches associated with the worst of hip-hop:  degrading women while  declaring dominance over other males by feminizing and threatening them.  When Soulja Boy released “Crank Dat,” he was a 16-year-old high school student, and the song was spread largely by other teenagers.  The character that Way portrays in the video is the stereotypical black male hip-hopper: hypersexual, prone to violence, gaudily attired. But the implausibility of the lyrics suggest that, like most amateur writers, Way is imitating what he has heard or gleaned from listening to others, not writing from life experience.

Jenkins showed videos of smiling teenagers and young adults bouncing on one foot, cranking their arms and lunging forward to make the “Superman” gesture.

In conversations with other conference participants, I seemed to have been the only person who was profoundly disturbed by the content that Way, AKA Soulja Boy, his minions, and ultimately, his record company were spreading. In part, I later learned, that was because many of my colleagues weren’t familiar with the lyrics. There was also the fact that “Crank Dat” was only another in a long list of songs, cartoons, games and other media content that they knew kids were exposed too. It wasn’t the worst thing most kids would be exposed to. And after all, it’s not as if vulgar or even racially stereotypical music originated with remix culture.

I probably sounded like the scolds of the 1950s yelling about rock and roll, or the highbrows at the beginning of the 20th century inveighing against comic books and “pulp” novels. The Republic was still standing. I’m sure some thought I needed to smooth out that bunch in my panties and move on.

Or maybe not. The practice of analyzing form and distribution apart form content sits well within the tradition of media studies, going back to Marshall McLuhan’s declaration that “The Medium is the message,” and in rhetorical terms, “The medium is the massage.” However, I find Kathleen Welch persuasive when she argues that rhetorical analysis of both content and delivery is important to understanding the social justice implications of modern communications. If one follows the history of remixing trail of “Crank Dat,” one finds that its commercial success, facilitated by social media, led to the song being played in venues that would have been unimaginable in earlier times.

For example, a few months earlier, I had been sent a link to another performance of the song by a frustrated colleague and fellow member of the National Association of Black Journalists. It seemed that someone thought it would be fun to liven up a New York local morning traffic report with a performance of the song. The traffic reporter, Jill Nicolini, was part of the morning news “happy talk” format. A former Playboy bunny and occasional reality TV star, she routinely drafted men to dance with her after detailing the morning’s jams, delays, and alternate side-of-the-street parking rules. On this particular morning, she summoned Craig Treadway, the co-anchor, as her dance partner.

The Dancing Weather Girl – Watch more Funny Videos

The most telling moment for me was when Treadway broke into a tap dance.  What was Treadway’s shuffle? And what do we make of the black male crew member bunny-hopping in the background?

I don’t know Mr. Treadway, Nicolini or any of the other members of that newscast, and I have hesitated for more than a year about writing this post because I’m not trying to cast aspersions on him or any other cast member of the show. If this post does that, I apologize in advance.  They were doing their jobs, and perhaps they even had some fun. What I am trying to probe, as delicately as possible, is the meaning of the moment for journalistic norms in the age of remix culture.

Of course, the packaging of local television news as entertainment has been going on for a long time. A quarter-century ago, Neil Postman demonstrated the emerging parallels between the television news show and a television show designed as entertainment in his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in an Age of Entertainment (Penguin, 1985.):

“If you were the producer of a television news show for a commercial station, you would not have the option of defying television’s requirements…. You would try to make celebrities of your newscasters…. You would have a weatherman [sic] as comic relief, and a sportscaster who is a touch uncouth (as a way to relate to the beer-drinking common man.)  You would package the whole event as any producer might who is in the entertainment business.

“The result of all this is that Americans are the best entertained and quite likely the least well-informed people in the world….” (p. 106)

I came of age professionally during the early 1980s, so as a news consumer and media professional, I understand the pecking order of news shows. The anchor might smile and exchange some banter, but the anchor stayed dignified. I wasn’t thrilled at Nicolini’s shtick, but I understood it for the reasons, Postman described. What I wasn’t ready for was an anchorman to be drawn into the clowning. It is very likely that what stuck in my craw was the sight of Treadway, who probably had to endure a great deal to attain an anchor desk in a major market, pulled out of the role on which, traditionally, his credibility rested.

There is one sense in which the problem is entirely mine, because it represents a collapsing of norms my generation of media professionals can’t quite stomach. It has become clear in recent years that there is a great deal of skepticism about the kinds of conventions that journalists traditionally adopt, whether it be certain standards of decorum, or a studied modesty about stating their political views.  Even a growing number of journalists reject that last standard.

Then, too, there is the shifting calculus of racial symbolism to consider. Surely, the sight of a black man dancing alongside a young white female in 2008 does not mean what it meant in my childhood during the 1960s. In those days, such a sight was restricted to Shirley Temple movies. Treadway and Nicolini’s performance occurred the same year that a man with an African father and a wife descended from slaves won the White House.

It’s unlikely that WEB Du Bois would have approved of SouljaBoyTellem’s art, or much of hip-hop, for that matter. The pioneering scholar, editor and activist hoped that those African Americans who gained access to the instruments of culture making would infuse high culture with the gifts of Africa. For him that meant spirituals (delivered Jubilee-style, of course) the vibrancy of traditional African art and artisanship, the nuanced poesy of a Jessie Fauset or Countee Cullen, with the occasional swinging riff from the deceptively accessible Langston Hughes. In his definitive essay on aesthetics, The Criteria of Negro Art, he implored:

“If you tonight suddenly should become full-fledged Americans; if your color faded, or the color line here in Chicago was miraculously forgotten; suppose, too, you became at the same time rich and powerful; — what is it that you would want? What would you immediately seek? Would you buy the most powerful of motor cars and outrace Cook County? Would you buy the most elaborate estate on the North Shore? Would you be a Rotarian or a Lion or a What-not of the very last degree? Would you wear the most striking clothes, give the richest dinners, and buy the longest press notices?

“Even as you visualize such ideals you know in your hearts that these are not the things you really want. You realize this sooner than the average white American because, pushed aside as we have been in America, there has come to us not only a certain distaste for the tawdry and flamboyant but a vision of what the world could be if it were really a beautiful world; if we had the true spirit; if we had the Seeing Eye, the Cunning Hand, the Feeling Heart; if we had, to be sure, not perfect happiness, but plenty of good hard work, the inevitable suffering that always comes with life; sacrifice and waiting, all that — but, nevertheless, lived in a world where men know, where men create, where they realize themselves and where they enjoy life. It is that sort of a world we want to create for ourselves and for all America.”

Part of Jenkins’ point is that participatory media expands the ranks of the tastemakers beyond Hollywood elites, intellectuals, and activists. Jay Rosen has been saying similar things about the shift to participatory journalism in essays such as The People Formerly Known as the Audience.” But when the ethos from which these new media products emerge can be tainted by values that are corrosive, a critical perspective is necessary.

In her essay, “Learning the 5 Lessons of Youtube: After Trying to Teach There, I Don’t Believe the Hype,” Alexandra Juhasz makes the argument that corporate dominance of this major media sharing site has turned do-it-yourself culture into a tool for replicating ideas and values that are fundamentally anti-democratic. In particular, she and her students found that depictions of African Americans that reinforce vulgar race and gender stereotypes are more popular, and thus more prominently featured, than those promoting more positive images or cultural critique.

And this is part of my concern, even as I contribute to this participatory culture and teach students to do it as well. The uncritical replication of negative images of black males in particularly is particularly vexing, because it undermines the effort to transfer of positive values from one generation to the next. In some ways, the current environment is arguably more challenging than the pre-Civil rights era, because in those days, there were alternative, black-controlled civic institutions that promoted images that countered the stereotypes of the dominant culture.  Byron Hurt’s 2008 mini-documentary demonstrated Barack Obama’s rise exposed a deep-seated confusion and ambivalence about the possibilities of success, respect and power for black men in an era that is supposed to be “post-racial:”

I thought about this ambivalence as I watched clips from DeAndre Ramone Way’s videoblog, which has since been removed. He has been known to talk about his interests in art, education, and business along with his  “beefs” with other rappers, his jewelry and his cars.  Pop culture never was a good place for a complicated persona. When pop culture goes “spreadable,” what gets lost? Sometimes I’m afraid it’s the substance of a culture that we can’t afford to lose.

We Just Wanna Be Successful: The Shrinking of the Black American Dream

Consider two songs from two generations. One, Drake’s  “Successful, ” was one of the most popular songs of 2009, making an international rap star out of the unsigned Canadian former child actor. The other, “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now,” was a signature hit for the songwriting producing duo of McFadden and Whitehead. Both employ narratives of aspiration and determination in the face of obstacles. But Drake’s song, produced in collaboration with singer Trey Songz is fraught with ambivalence and alienation, while McFadden and Whitehead’s anthem brims with optimism.

[Read more…]

You can’t go home again

Mom, mid-1960s
Mom, mid-1960s

Hi Mommy,

It’s been awhile since I’ve written, although you know I’ve been talking to you every day. I have everything else in the world to think about this time of year, but my mind ventures back to 626 Pine Street in Camden – the neighborhood, our lives together there in the early 1960s. How many times did we talk and laugh about that narrow first-floor apartment with the big backyard in that rowhouse  that seemed so big to me.

You know I drove down there one a day off in 1990, parked across the street and just looked at that tiny little row house. There were workmen rehabbing the building and one of them,  seeing me with a nice car, professionally attired. struck up a conversation about how they were fixing things up, trying to bring the neighborhood back, and maybe I wanted to buy a nice investment property? Maybe so, I smiled. I used to live here when I was little, I volunteered. Then, you should come back and invest in the neighborhood, he said. Yes, I said, perhaps I should.

And I knew I wouldn’t. I had come back there for a glimpse of a world that no longer existed. I remember the sidewalk were I crouched and scratched at the dirt between the concrete slabs with a popsicle stick, trying to dig my way to China. I remember summer afternoons where people came out, swept and scrubbed their steps with a broom dipped in hot sudsy pine cleaner.  The step-scrubbing came only after the insides of our homes had been scrubbed, dusted, and tidied to a fare-thee-well, of course. And all of that might have come on top of a day’s work, or a night shift at the Campbell soup factory.

And here in an evening, or on a Saturday afternoon, the kids would play and the adults would sit on the steps and watch us. We were especially close to the Bennetts – Cheryl and Butch were a few years older than me, but they let me tag along behind them.  They had an older relative we knew as Aunt Sug, a wizened woman with ebony skin, care-worn hands and the kindest eyes. She sat in her lawn chair and regarded us with amusement. Occasionally, she’d share a clump of  her Argo starch with me. (Apparently, this starch-eating phenomenon surprised and distressed Northern physicians, who believed that it contributed to anemia and folic acid deficiency in pregnant women. This 1967 Time magazine article reported:

To their astonishment, Northern doctors have lately discovered that eating laundry starch is all the rage among Negro women—especially pregnant women—in many Northern-city slums. At D.C. General Hospital, Chief Obstetrician Dr. Earnest Lowe estimates that up to one-fourth of his patients are starch addicts. At Los Angeles County Hospital, three or four patients a week are diagnosed as having anemia apparently caused by starch binges.

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Aunt Sug also dispensed discipline.  Her favorite admonition was, “You better be good or I’ll shoot you!” Actually, she was always threatening to shoot me. The last time I saw her, I was leaving with Dad for the weekend and she said, “You’d better come back and see me, or I’m gonna shoot you!”  Years passed before I stopped being afraid that she really would come get me for not visiting her.

The neighbors congregated around the Bennetts’ steps to play checkers, drink Coca-Cola, and talk about the issues of the day. It was there that they debated whether the 1963 March on Washington would do any good. I have a couple of distinct memories of that time. One is the day that a bunch of men with fezzes marched down our street. I don’t know why. Another was the Saturday afternoon that someone shouted out, “Colored boy on American Bandstand!” and everybody ran in the house, turned on the TV and saw:

When the song ended, we ran back outside, excited.  The older kids knew all about him. “You know he blind?” “I’m gonna get that record!””What’s his name?””Little Stevie Wonder!”

I locked my car and walked down to the drugstore on the corner. That corner and that building fascinated me because both were triangle shaped:

The drug store, of course, was tiny compared to my memory. When you entered, the counter ran along the left side and the back wall, where the prescription counter stood. I remembered the two white men in white pharmacist’s jackets who worked there. There were shelves filled with merchandise in front of me. I don’t think that in the early 60s, the store had such an array of rat and roach killers: borax and Raid and those big-barreled pump-action insecticide spray guns. Rat traps. Bait. Mousetraps. I walked back to my car and looked my old house one more time.

Our apartment door was immediately on the right when you entered the house. A flight of stairs directly in front of you led to the upstairs apartment. There were also steps that went to the basement, where I occasionally went to visit toys that were stashed there, or to squash waterbugs. I don’t recall our upstairs neighbors. Open the door to our apartment and you are in a small living room. A couch is directly across from you. To the right of the couch, there’s a small bookcase that holds some volumes of children’s stories, a Bible, and a few odds and ends. A small black and white television is on the same wall as the door.

To the right of the living room area, there is the front room where you had her bedroom furniture. We slept there, except for when I slept on the couch. To the left was the kitchen, and behind that, a short hall that led to the back door. The  bathroom was tucked behind the kitchen, on your left as you went out to the backyard.

I remember the routines. How I would come home from kindergarten at the Broadway School and ask for permission to have a slice of bread and butter. It was my favorite treat. How you used to wash our clothes with a big old pink old wringer washer you’d been given, warning me not to ever go near it.

How, on Saturday morning, you would dress me in my itchy crinoline, vaseline on my legs,  anklet socks and patent leather shoes and we would walk to our storefront church. (I was always confused by that church, not only because we went on Saturday, but also because when you got to the front door, you would raise your hand in salute and say, “Hail!”) A woman at the door would do the same gesture, and we would go in for the service, where I was frequently pressed to sing, “Yes, Jesus Loves Me.” Other than that and the memory of you singing with the a cappella choir, I only remember that the other kids in the church were two boys. Sometimes we were allowed to leave the service and sit in the kitchen. The boys got me to play this game where we took one of the pennies we had for the collection plate, licked it, and stuck it to our forehead. I think the object was to make your penny stick the longest. It was great fun until one of the boys swallowed his penny. They made him eat a lot of bread. It took a couple of years before I realized how that was supposed to make the penny come out.

I think I was about six when the Pastor of that church, Evangelist Crowdy, died in a car accident. John Facenda announced it on the news. I didn’t tell you. I don’t think I understood what death was. Eventually, a church member told you and you came and told me. When I told you I had seen it on the news, you were shocked. “Why didn’t you tell me?” I didn’t have an answer. I do recall filing past his coffin with you. I think I touched his hand. It felt funny.

I remember the special times, too. Two moments stand out for me. There was my fifth birthday, when you threw me a party and Cousin Ralphie and I danced the Twist.

Ralphie and I did the up and down part, to the floor and back, while the adults cheered us on:

You gave me a tricycle, which was my favorite of favorite toys until I got a two-wheeler three years later. Here we are, cutting the cake as Ralphie looks on:

Cutting the cake

The other was from being the flower girl in your best friend’s wedding. I never felt so pretty as I did that day. My first time having my hair straightened and curled, so it looked more like yours.

I was the flower girl, Mom was the bridesmaid
I was the flower girl, Mom was the bridesmaid

I know. You want me to talk about the coat. How it was a blazing hot day, and we’d walked to Broadway.It was a big and busy street, then, prosperous enough that there was actually a Tiffany’s jewelry store. Not our destination, though. We went to the Goodwill. I needed clothes. While you were browsing the short sets, I saw a red ski jacket. I had to have it. You said no. I whined. You said no, again. I whined louder. This went a couple of rounds until you got frustrated and said, “Fine!” You bought the coat and insisted that I wear it home. I whined about being hot. Suddenly, you seemed to have gone deaf.

You laughed about that for years afterward.

And of course, an account of Pine Street wouldn’t be complete without a mention of the time I walked into a brick wall. It’s not as stupid as it sounds. Well, it is, but I keep in mind that i was about five. I was playing Space Monsters in the backyard with my friends. The narrow lane on the side of the house was the safe area; the backyard was where the space monsters could grab you and make you blind. We would run out, be “blinded,” and have to find our way back into the alley. That was how I walked into the wall – my eyes were closed. Mom they’re laughing. Hey, I was five. Give me a break!

I remember the gush of blood from my forehead. I remember walking into the kitchen where you were cooking. I was trailing blood on the hall floor. I remember saying, “Mommy,” and I remember your horrified face. I must have looked a bloody mess – you know how they say face wounds look worse than they are. I remember you getting a washcloth and my face turning it bloody red. Somehow, Uncle Sonny was summoned, and he carried me to the ER in his arms.

It occurs to me now that you were only about 22 when this happened, and he was even younger.

Since then, I have carried a small dent on my forehead.

Sleepytime, Mommy. I missed you at Thanksgiving. I love you very much.