Abington Avenue School - Meeting Dick and Jane

by Harry T. Roman


I hadn’t been inside the old, red brick, North Newark school in over 40 years…… but I still remembered where everything was. I have often dreamed about this warm, cozy school, and still do. So when the opportunity came to visit this memorable place, and speak to the 8th graders I jumped at the chance.

As an engineer and inventor, teachers often invite me to speak to their classes about science and technology, and how inventors do what they do. I must have spoken to thousands of young students over the last 30 years. It is always great fun, most particularly at Abington, because I could tell the students what the school was like many years ago.

Just walking through the old entrance was a thrill as I experienced once again the happy, timeless sound of children getting ready for class. Walking the halls evoked an avalanche of memories. The smell of the cafeteria. Mr. Panetta our music teacher. Mrs. Wilson an inspirational teacher who introduced me to Thomas Edison my boyhood hero (who influenced me to become an engineer and create and patent my own inventions). Mrs. Wooly our vice principal. Mrs. Barhash who instilled me with a love for poetry-something I happily compose and publish today. Mrs. Fogarty with her white hair and lilac perfume. And of course, Mrs. Williams, my first grade teacher, and personal guide to Dick and Jane.

It was a warm and friendly school back in the 1950s, and it still felt the same way that cool November morning. The faces were all different, but this now 100 year-old school welcomed me with open arms. The years melted away. Even the auditorium floor squeaked like it used to.

I went to Abington from 1954 to 1959, from kindergarten to 5th grade. Then our family moved from one side of Bloomfield Avenue to the other and my grammar school district changed, forcing me to go to another school. But Abington Avenue School will always be my first love, because it was there I met good life-time friends, especially Dick and Jane.

You remember Dick and Jane don’t you? About 80 million kids learned to read using those classic books, which enjoyed a publication run from 1930 to 1970. Ask anyone in their 50s and 60s if they can name everyone in the family….. and most can do it. There was Dick, Jane, and Sally….Mother and Father, Spot the dog, Puff the cat, and Tim….Sally’s teddy bear. And don’t forget grandmother and grandfather; and their farm where many weekend adventures were read about.

I remember Mrs. Williams sitting us in a semi-circle arrangement while we read from these now nostalgic, and highly collectible readers. We had to sound out the tough words and pronounce them correctly. The colorful pictures made reading fun. Usually after our morning reading lesson, we would enjoy a milk break. Most times during cold weather, we would leave the milk cartons on the outside window ledge to chill. One person in the class was in charge of the milk cartons, careful not to let them drop down to the sidewalk. It was a simpler time. In the winter snow, we would dry our clothes on the big wall radiators.

I love those old reading books so much, about fifteen years ago I began trying to collect them. With the Internet now you can find them quite easily, but when I started, it was often difficult to locate some of the titles. Every time I look through the old books, I can see and hear my friends sitting there, reading in front of Mrs. Williams. We are young again, with pretty Mrs. Williams smiling down at us in approval. She stole my heart.

I’ll close this memory with a most unusual coincidence that involves Mrs. Wilson. In her 4th grade class, every student had to do a term project that involved writing away to a company to learn about what they did and then doing a term paper and an oral presentation to the class. Mrs. Wilson was very big on public speaking. She gave me the Thomas Edison Company to write away to, and that set off a life-long love affair between me and the great inventor. Well, as fate would have it, about 25 years later, I met and fell in love with my wife……who just happened to be the niece of the man who managed the company I had written to! Pretty amazing, huh? But wait there is more. The teacher who invited me to come back to speak to the 8th graders got a big surprise when I showed up. As we were talking in the teachers lounge before class, we discovered she had gone to school with my wife! I also got another surprise, for into the teachers’ lounge walked a woman I had gone to Barringer High School with, who was now teaching at Abington. We hadn’t seen each other in 35 years.

That old red brick school seems to follow me wherever I go, but I certainly don’t mind. There, my good habits were formed, by teachers who really cared. And those kinds of teachers are there still…..making me very happy indeed. Thanks for the memories Abington Avenue, here’s to another 100 years of loving education. Abington is one of the main reasons I work with teachers and students today. I have a great debt to repay those wonderful teachers who showed me the way. God Bless them all.


Post Script

About Those Old Dick and Jane Readers

Today, I collect the old Dick and Jane readers, along with many of the other books in the reading series. Fun with Dick and Jane was for the pre-readers and first grade classes. By second grade, Dick and Jane were mostly gone from the stories, except for an occasional story. Then by 3rd grade there was Streets and Roads, followed by other readers like Times and Places, Days and Deeds, People and Progress, and Parades all the way on up to 8th grade. The stories got more mature, longer, and meaningful as you advanced through the grades.

My two favorite stories were Bartholomew and the 500 Hats and Billy Goat’s Gruff about the old troll who lived under the wooden bridge. The troll was eventually butted into the water by one of the goats. Back in the 1940s and 50s, each textbook actually cost the school about $1.00-$1.50. Today, those same texts are going for anywhere from $40-$300 depending on the age, condition, and rarity of the book. Remember those big easel books that the whole class could read from? Some of them are going for $750-$1000. Who says the past isn’t valuable?!


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