Miss Vanderhoof

by Tim Carleton


Miss Vanderhoof was my 3rd grade teacher at Waverly Avenue Elementary school. I think the year was 1955. She was a tall, straight, grey haired woman who often wore lace collars. She had a serious and slightly severe manner. I think she was nearing retirement and seemed ancient to us. It would be easy to turn her into a caricature, but she wasn’t one. Rather she was a dignified woman and an example of the professional educators who once taught in the schools of Newark. While she was likely tired, and rarely inspired, she did her best. And though not warm or encouraging, she usually succeeded in instilling the assigned curriculum in all of us little blockheads.

Each semester we often went on a field trip. In 1st or 2nd grade one of the first had been to Bond Bread (General Baking.) which was next door to our school. This ramshackle brick factory took up about half the block, and it was the source of the fragrance of fresh baked bread which greeted us most mornings, and which suffused the entire neighborhood.

But a greater treat had been planned for us in Miss Vanderhoof’s class; we were to visit the New Jersey Historical Society Museum. On the day we were all waiting for we filed onto the bus parked in front of the main school entrance on Waverly Avenue. The bus found its way through unfamiliar streets to what for our little minds could have been the other side of the moon.

Wow! This didn’t look like my neighborhood, this was fancy! I was impressed. Later, in the early 1970’s, I had occasion to visit this same building on Broadway for business. Not surprisingly, it had grown smaller but was still a substantial and beautiful building with a ground course of granite topped by two more stories of brick. But to the little boy, it seemed a virtual palace.

We filed in at our teacher’s instruction. “No talking! Stay in line!” And there we were greeted by a pleasant woman slightly younger than Miss Vanderhoof. They seemed to know each other, and exchanged pleasantries. The entire floor was taken up by a life-size diorama divided into individual rooms with what would have been the outside wall of the room left open. Each room was decorated as, and equipped with all the actual articles from the colonial era that would have been found in such a room. We were instructed to sit in a semi-circle in front of these.

Our kindly hostess greeted us and told us that she would explain how life was lived during the colonial era using each of the rooms, and take us through the course of an entire day. I was sometimes a serious kid and liked to understand how things worked. So I thought I had better pay close attention so I could really understand what was being explained.

I believe our tutor began with the kitchen, explaining how the fire was made and maintained, displaying the things needed for baking and other chores, and demonstrating how each would be used. I remember thinking, “Ok, this is good stuff!” I’m uncertain which room she moved onto next. I think there was a sitting room, or perhaps a drawing room, and probably a dining room. And as our presenter built a vivid picture of a day in the life of a colonial New Jerseyan, I kept waiting. Finally she reached the bedroom, and I still didn’t know!

She explains about the candles, the bed warmers, and the down bedding. Now everyone is going to bed, and yet she still hasn’t told us! Now the presentation has ended. Our cultured lecturer looks around at all of us and smilingly asks, “Are there any questions?” My hand shoots up! She looks in my direction, nods and says, “Yes?”

In a clear, loud voice I ask, “Where did they go to the bathroom?” From behind me I hear, like a rifle shot, “Timothy! We don’t talk about things like that!” Our hostess looks embarrassed, but I think perhaps as much for Miss Vanderhoof as for the question. I’m confused; I thought I was supposed to learn about all that they did during the day? So I try to explain, “Well, I understand the kitchen and the bedroom and all that stuff, and just wanted to know where they go to the bathroom? “

Both women are silent for perhaps 20 seconds, but it seems like an hour to me. Now I’m embarrassed too, though I don’t know what I did wrong. To make one last attempt to rescue everyone from their discomfort I blurt out, “Well?” This doesn’t work. So again, “Well?” By now all of the other kids are looking back and forth from our teacher to our hostess, each woman scarlet by this time. Eventually Miss Vanderhoof grumbles something along the lines of, “Maybe they went outside behind a bush!” I’m skeptical, but I let it pass. I don’t recall any further requests for questions before our departure.

The other incident I remember concerning Miss Vanderhoof was sadder and happened in our 3rd grade classroom. Waverly Avenue School, our 19th Century school, always looked like a castle to me. It even had a turret with a spiral staircase. In the classrooms the desks bolted to the floor were arranged in rows with the front of each serving as the back of the seat for the desk ahead. The wood tops contained disused inkwells, and the sides and supports were made of wrought-iron. These sides were quite elaborate and made to resemble grape vines forming an open lattice work.

These partially open sides permitted a peek at of some of the contents within. Teachers would occasionally scan these for any egregious contraband. One day while we were working in our workbooks, Miss Vanderhoof strolled the aisles checking to see how we were progressing and offering assistance where needed. As she was passing the desk of a small blond girl that sat two desks ahead of me in the aisle to my left, she paused, looked down and continued on, but only momentarily. She returned and stood studying the contents of the desk through the lattice work sides.

I looked to where her eyes were fixed and noticed some balled up green and white paper. I don’t recall this girl’s name, but perhaps it was Sally. Miss Vanderhoof asked, “Sally, do you have some play money?” Sally said quietly, “No.” Miss Vanderhoof continued, “May I see it?” Sally reached into her desk and withdrew three crumpled bills, handing them to our teacher.

By this time everyone’s attention was entirely on the small drama playing out before us. Slowly Miss Vanderhoof unfolded each bill. There were three $100 bills, equivalent to about $3,000 today! Miss Vanderhoof, “These aren’t real, are they Sally?” “Oh, yes, Miss Vanderhoof, my uncle gave them to me!” “Your uncle?” “Yes, he came to stay for a while, and he had a lot of money, and he gave those to me.”

Miss Vanderhoof, “I see!” She then instructed Sally to sit down, and the rest of us to continue working. But one member of the class was instructed to go to the office and return with the resident Vice Principal, Mr. Hy (Hyrum) Jacobs. Miss Vanderhoof met Mr. Jacobs at the door to the class where a brief whispered consultation took place. After this Sally was called over, and Miss Vanderhoof instructed the class to keep working while she, Sally and Mr. Jacobs disappeared.

During the 10 or 15 minutes of Miss Vanderhoof’s absence we did anything but work. An excited discussion of what was going on and what Sally’s fate might be continued until Miss Vanderhoof’s return. I’ll leave you to imagine what 8-year-old minds in that time and place conjectured.

After returning, Miss Vanderhoof said nothing about Sally, just asked us to shut our books, and then resumed the day’s lesson. But before she got very far, a bold classmate raised their hand and asked if Sally was coming back. “Oh, no, Sally won’t be coming back.”

I now often think of my childhood and its surroundings as having been bittersweet. And while at the time the first event described seemed bitterly embarrassing, it’s now become a treasured memory. The second offered mainly puzzlement and amusement when it happened, but beneath it was also a disquieting fear that we too might suddenly find ourselves swept away by a sometimes violent world we didn’t understand.


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