• Donna Brown

Looking back to memorable school moments



Mr. Bill Heston, 11th grade English teacher at Hammonton High School was a stern man with high standards. The first day in class I chose a desk directly in front of him. As I tried to take the cap off my Bic pen the cap flew through the air and hit his desk, inches from his chest. At that moment I stopped breathing. He said firmly, “Miss Wilson, please retrieve your pen cap.”


As I slowly rose, my legs shook, and my hands got damp. How would I ever be able to function after such an embarrassment? I also remember neglecting to read an assigned chapter in The Scarlet Letter and when I couldn’t answer a question in class, I saw the look of disappointment in his eyes. He was tough but he cared and wanted to bring out the best scholar in each of his students. Mr. Heston had quotes from great American authors hung around the room and I fell in love with Ralph Waldo Emerson after reading the poster that has forever represented my feelings about life, “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.”


Mr. Heston also had his classes memorize Robert Frost’s, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. I’ve often thought that most Hammontonians in their 50s to 70s probably still recall the poem. Wouldn’t it be great if we could have a flash mob on Bellevue Avenue where hundreds gather to recite the poem? Could be a plan.


Robert Frost’s most famous poem, The Road Not Taken, questions our choices in life. He wrote, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” As we get older, we seem to reflect more on our youth and why we took certain forks in the roads that led us to where we are today.


Other than my family, the most significant accomplishment in my life was a 32-year career in education. My passion for teaching began in kindergarten and was reinforced in the Hammonton Presbyterian Church. In kindergarten I had sweet Mrs. Garofalo who was always smiling and encouraged us to explore and enjoy learning.


I remember the class sandbox, listening to a storybook each afternoon and making a plaster mold with our handprint in the center which I painted yellow and red. I still have it. I recall bringing in a turquoise bath towel with my name embroidered on it in yellow to use for our nap time. All the towels were placed on the classroom floor, and we’d lie down to rest.


Kindergarten was half day and following school I would line up my dolls on the bench in front of our fireplace. Each doll would have a pencil in hand, and I would instruct them on the alphabet. At the age of 10, I had built up a quite a library of Scholastic books purchased at school and decided to share it with my younger neighbors. I glued pockets in the front of each book, made library cards and recorded each book that circulated in a 10-cent notebook I purchased at the Penny Store on Vine Street. It foreshadowed my career as the middle school librarian.


The Presbyterian Church nurtured my love of teaching by giving me three truly kind Sunday School teachers as role models. Mrs. Wood had a disposition of an angel, Mrs. Small often brought in homemade cupcakes or cookies and Mrs. Packard told intriguing stories of being the daughter of missionaries in India. Caring women who for decades dedicated each Sunday and two weeks each summer to the congregation’s children.


By the time I was in seventh grade I was asked to help with Vacation Bible School, and they were the best two weeks of every summer for many years. VBS was a time when the Methodist Church, Episcopal Church and my church joined each morning to provide Bible stories, singing and crafts. As a 13-year-old I helped primary students make popsicle stick crosses covered in gold glitter, snow globes of plastic animals in baby food jars and painted plaques of the 23rd Psalm. Later in the day I helped serve Archway cookies and Hawaiian Punch to sweaty kids after a game of softball. Every minute was rewarding.


Through my teen years I aspired to be a costume seamstress for Broadway plays, to travel the world as a missionary or to become a curator for a museum, but those dreams were always short lived. Church is where I saw the fork in the road and began seriously considering teaching as a career. I chose the path that led me to see the look of enthusiasm in children’s faces every day. “And that has made all the difference.”


Donna Brown is a former Hammonton Middle School librarian and a columnist for The Gazette. To reach Donna Brown, send an email to wescoat@comcast.net.