Newark's Thirteenth Avenue School holds a place in alumni hearts

By Barry Carter | The Star-Ledger
Email the author | Follow on Twitter
on June 12, 2015

Reggie Smith, left, with his former eighth grade teacher, Cheryl Whitley. Smith gave Whitley an appreciation plaque at the Thirteenth Avenue School reunion, because she was a patient teacher who also purchased his graduation cap and gown when he couldn't afford it.

 

Reggie Smith keeps a picture of himself from eighth-grade graduation on his cell phone. He's wearing a forest green gown and holding the cap with two hands, looking quite happy. That was 31 years ago.

Smith, 43, has never forgotten that day or the Newark teacher, Cheryl Whitley, who bought the ceremonious attire when she learned he couldn't afford to purchase the garment.

"That stuck with me, that she would do that,'' Smith says. "When you have a teacher who makes an impact, it lasts forever.''

He's always wanted to tell Whitley, then known as Ms. Crawford, what it meant to him, especially after admittedly being a raucous student in 1986. Smith got that chance when his alma mater, Thirteenth Avenue School, held its first grammar school reunion over Memorial Day weekend at the Robert Treat Hotel in Newark.

In the crowd of 300 people, which included former teachers, students, parents and administrators, Smith found Whitley and showered her with praise – for caring about him that much, for being patient when he misbehaved.

"I didn't know I made such a difference in his life,'' Whitley says.

It's not a surprise to anyone who worked at the school or who graduated from it, that a teacher would do this. Making a difference in children's lives is what happened at the massive elementary school building between South 8th and South 9th streets.

The common thread at many of the tables, decorated in the school's green and white colors, and in every conversation was that the teachers always treated the children as if they were their own.

"When we left home, these teachers became our parents,'' says Joanne Cuttino-Alexander, who graduated in 1979. "They taught us. They taught us respect, they taught us how to care about ourselves and, by them teaching us how to care about ourselves, we cared about our neighborhood.''

This was a golden era of trust between teachers and parents, where everybody knew everyone, when the school was the neighborhood school that educated kids and made them feel safe. Discipline came in the form of firm, heartfelt words and, if necessary, permission from parents to let the teacher pop their kid across the hand with a ruler.

Cuttino-Alexander loved the place so much that she stayed in Newark, so that her daughter, Sarah Caldwell, a 2005 graduate, could experience the same nurturing environment.

The love came from all corners of the building, even the school aide, Annie Brown, who is still affectionately known as "Lady Bird.'' For 35 years, Brown made sure the kids behaved and stood straight in line between classes, but she also took time to find out why a child was having a bad day, helping to fix the sadness with a hug and a smile.

When the school opened in 1971, many of the teachers were fresh out of college and ready to teach, and the kids were ready to learn.The first principal was Bert R. Berry. He, like most of the teachers, is now retired.

But the reunion felt as if the entire school community was still together, as if they were still in class, or outside on the playground or in the auditorium for an assembly. The students and teachers came from as far away as North Dakota, Florida and Mississippi, and as close as Georgia, the Carolinas and neighboring Pennsylvania. They walked a little slower, their hair grayed by time, students and teachers alike.

The veteran educators had taught anywhere from 27 to 43 years. Two of them, Barbara Waddell and Iris McMurray-Matthews, are still there.

"We taught the children,'' says Eve Hobbs, a former teacher. "We stuck together and we cared about the kids. We really did.''

And that's why they gave a standing ovation to Berry, who hired many of them for their first job. Under his leadership, they received encouragement and students were recognized for achievement, attendance and outstanding citizenship, as well as honor roll awards.

"I can't call your names, but when I look at you're your faces, I know I love you and I hope that you love me,'' Berry said.

Cheryl Whitley almost couldn't put into words what it meant to be part of a school that was, in essence, a family.

But then she began to talk about a man who gave her flowers and a plaque of appreciation that evening.

That man was Smith, who had been her eighth-grade student. He had been waiting all of those years to do this, to thank Whitley for being a patient teacher who helped to make his graduation a lasting memory.

"I have never been so moved in all my years of teaching,'' she says. "He blew me away.''

So now they have something in common.

He was blown away, too.

The cell phone picture of him with the cap and gown says it all.

Do you like this post?

Be the first to comment