San Quentin, More memories from Jim Price - Mrs. Hall
golden poppies gleaming in the sun
Closing up at evening when the day is done
California’s flower, flower of our state
Growing from the mountains to the Golden Gate"
Our voices rang out in song as Mrs. Hall played the piano. Every morning we sang—songs like Poppies, Golden Poppies and Carmen Carmela about California, Stephen Foster songs like Swanee River and Old Susanna about 19th century America, and national songs like America, Columbia the Gem of the Ocean, and America the Beautiful expressing the pride we had in our country. We would alternate through our favorites each day except for one song. We always sang The Marine’s Hymn. It was 1946 and World War II was still fresh in everyone’s mind. Our country had saved the world and we were proud.
Mrs. Augustine Hall was the teacher, principal, and superintendent of the San Quentin School. She once told us about walking as a young child with her mother on the streets of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake, so I would guess that she was in her mid forties when I was in the first grade. At the time we children thought her to be an old battle….well lets just say ancient. Our school had 30 children from the first through eighth grades—all in one room. Mrs. Hall would rotate her work with each grade at a round table in the back of the room while the other grades worked on their assignments.
The following year, when I entered the second grade, Mrs. Moldt came to our school to teach grades one through four. Although we would now only have 4 grades in each room, the routines were similar. At recess, Mrs. Moldt would take us younger kids to the school playground filled with swings, teeter-totters, monkey bars and a merry-go-round while the older kids played softball, volleyball or basketball. Mrs. Moldt didn’t play the piano as well as Mrs. Hall, but we still sang every day.
When I reached the fifth grade, I went back in to Mrs. Hall’s room. Each year she would give us the lecture “This year I am going to crack down on you children….” One time, she was scolding a somewhat overweight boy named Earl Roberts for bad behavior, when he began looking up at the ceiling. Mrs. Hall quickly said: “Earl, you don’t need to look up there. No one up there is going to help you.” To which we all began to laugh.
Choosing softball teams was a Monday ritual. About 15 minutes before our long 11 o’clock recess, the next two team captains would be picked in rotation. Then they would in turn pick the members of their respective teams. Since all the students in Mrs. Hall’s class (grades 4 through 8) played together, our abilities varied widely. Jack Fielder was always chosen first. He could hit the ball so hard that it would almost reach the windows of the school. Then came Bob O’Connor, I was somewhere down the list. Finally the team captains would get down some of the 4th grade girls like Barbara Shadle and Janet Rigg amid groans. I’m sure it was humiliating for them, but we weren’t long on compassion. It was recess time and we had a game to win. Hopefully we could put them way out in right field where they couldn’t do too much damage.
Every spring we would have a May Day celebration. Children would come from the Dixie (now Marinwood) and Nicasio Schools which were also part of the Marin County School system. We would play games and have a picnic lunch and the highlight of the day was the maypole dance. The maypole was a 12-foot pole on a stand to which were attached long colored streamers. The girls and boys would alternate each taking a streamer. Mrs. Hall would put on a record. I remember how unusual that record was because the needle started at the center of the record and worked its way toward the edge. When the music started we would all skip around the pole holding the streamers—first in one direction then in the other. Then the just the girls would turn and go in the opposite direction and we would weave the streamers down the pole. We would pass the first girl on the inside and the next on the outside—in and out around and around until the streamers were woven on the pole. Next we would try to reverse the process and weave them off again, but someone would always make a mistake and Mrs. Hall and Mrs. Moldt would end up untangling the web of streamers for the next group of children.
As seventh and eight graders, we had the privilege of being monitors. Monitors helped with various tasks. The lowest of the jobs, usually going to a 6th grader was that of eraser monitor. The eraser monitor would take the erasers outside and hit them on a concrete wall removing all of the excess chalk. On Thursday afternoons some inmates from the San Quentin Fire Department would come and show us a movie. When I was in seventh grade the school bought us our own projector and the movie projector monitor became a coveted position—one that went to me. The top job, only for eight graders was that of flag monitor. We took the responsibility of raising and lowering the American and California flags very seriously always being careful to fold the flags in the proper triangle.
In the eighth grade we studied California government. Our textbook was called Our California Today. On the cover was a picture of cars on a highway, a ship in a canal, a railroad, and a factory with smokestacks. California was growing and we were positive about our state and ourselves. Our confidence was reaffirmed as thousands of people moved into California each week. Throughout the state, new schools were being completed on a weekly basis to serve the increasing number of children and families moving into the state. We still sang the songs and added a few popular ones like Mockingbird Hill.
Several years after I graduated from the eight grade, they decided to close the San Quentin School and bus the children in to a new school in the “Canal Zone” of San Rafael. They said that the San Rafael Schools offered more curriculum choices. Mrs. Moldt moved to the new school but with the closing of San Quentin school Mrs. Hall retired.
In 1988 we had a San Quentin School reunion at the school on the prison grounds. It was nice to be able to walk through the hall and check out the rooms although it seemed as if the school had shrunk over the years. Everyone we could find who had attended the school was invited. Many members of my family, the Duffy’s and Zublers, had grown up at the prison and were there as were many of my childhood friends. I passed out bumper stickers that said, “I was an honor student at San Quentin Elementary School.”
Jack Fielder and Karen O’Brien were there and my cousin Carol and I finally got to tell them a secret we had been keeping since childhood. We got them off to the side and told them about the time we had picked up our party line phone and heard Jack talking to Karen. He had just bought his 1952 Mercury hardtop and was trying to get her to go for a ride. Here was Jack the big tough junior in high school, trying to get Karen, who was only in the eighth grade, to go out with him. He kept saying, “Oh my passion flower, come with me in my passion mobile”. This didn’t fit the image of the cool guy he was. Carol and I almost died on the floor laughing. Luckily we had unscrewed the transmitter from the phone so we couldn’t be heard. We had kept the secret from Jack all through the years. What fun we had telling him. Carol, Karen and I were all cracking up over it and Jack was cringing saying: “Please, please, don’t tell my wife.” What a wonderful day it was.
Although Mrs. Moldt had died several years earlier, Mrs. Hall was at the reunion and we were all glad to see her. We expressed our thanks for her dedicated efforts and strict discipline. She then told us how she came to teach at our school. How she had been the first married person to be hired as a teacher in Marin County. How difficult it had been at the beginning to maintain discipline with all eight grades in the same room. She said that some days she had gone home in tears—something we found hard to believe. We all thought they didn’t come any tougher than her.
About 6 months later I heard that Mrs. Hall had died.
A few years later the State of California did a study on improving the self-esteem of children. After a year’s worth of research, they determined that children felt better about themselves when they sang.
Heck! Mrs. Hall could have told them that.