This Commentary originally appeared in the April 19, 1990 issue of The Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel.]
Miss Powell possessed an unusual amount of progressiveness for a fourth grade teacher planning to retire in two years. One of three sisters, she had the kind of rugged individualism we, as Americans, have come to admire. She taught at Woodlawn Intermediate, located in the Bethlehem Steel industrial complex.
Teaching blue collar children, most of whom had been brought up in households full of ethnic ritual, must have been quite a challenge for the forward thinking Miss Powell. The area, while made up of primarily working class Democrats, remained faithful to old fashioned values. (Within a year Jack Kemp would win his first term as Congressman from the district.) Yet, for all her looking ahead, her own traditional upbringing allowed her to proudly pronounce her conservative values.
For instance, the very first comment she told her wide-eyed nine-year-old pupils in September of 1969 dealt with an issue of some controversy. With the Supreme Court only recently having outlawed school prayer, Miss Powell carefully explained to the young scholars the moment of silence after the Pledge of Allegiance would be use for prayer or any other individual purpose.
Yet, she refused to allow Washington D.C. to revoke what she considered community values. She would often offer a prayer during this moment of silence, being sure to ask all those who did not want to participate to step out into the hall for a few minutes (no one ever did). We prayed for our soldiers in Vietnam. We prayed for our fathers if steel plant layoffs loomed. We prayed for the students at Kent State and for the Astronauts of Apollo 13.
We also prayed for ourselves and our future. Miss Powell treated her disciples as young adults capable of understanding worldly affairs. (Though she quite wisely refused to permit us to think we could solve worldly affairs. “No,” she would say, “wait at least until you’re in the twelfth grade.”)
By the time Earth Day had rolled around, Miss Powell had primed her third last group of students. She had ingrained within them a zest for intellectual pursuits, but had tempered that euphoria with the governor of common sense. She encouraged free speech and individual interpretation, yet punished girls for passing notes in class and admonished boys who let their fists talk.
Miss Powell warned us of the evils of drugs and the carefree irresponsible society of the hippie. Still, she commanded that we fully appreciate environmental concerns, an issue more commonly associated with the radical left. “My generation is making a mess that your generation might have to clean up,” she said. Though she rarely condoned the rising radicalism of the youth movement – especially its unconstructive demonstrations and rallies – she prepared her students to march for the environment on Earth Day. Ours would be the only class permitted such a privilege.
“We did it, we can fix it!” proclaimed the sign I made for the day. We all obediently walked in a circle as the reporters of the local newspaper snapped pictures and interviewed. After our allotted time, we went back into our classroom and talked.
We discussed the poison of pollution and the need to resolve the problem before its effect became irreversible. We all clearly agreed on this point. Yet something still disturbed us. The most obvious violator of the air stood across the street. The smell from the steel plant’s blast furnace betrayed the noxious contaminants it belched in billows of beige smoke.
While we knew pollution must be curtailed, we could not justify closing the steel plant solely for this reason. Our families – and our community – depended too much on this single industry. Miss Powell had succeeded. We understood the dichotomy. Practical considerations can quickly thwart theoretical gusto.
Years later, less expensive foreign steel triumphed and Bethlehem closed the plant. The area’s economy suffered greatly. Steelworkers who had lived and breathed steel had their whole live – their past as well as their future – taken from them. Six lane highways, once tightly packed with cars three times a day as the shifts changed, became barren wastelands.
Overnight, the closing of the plant transformed a once bustling community into a veritable ghost town. Striking in the midst of a national recession, people could not find jobs so were forced to move. Other businesses, lacking customers, also closed. Two of the three elementary schools I attended were closed and sold. For the residents and workers, the world – and their lifestyles – had forever changed.
Miss Powell understood the critical importance of the steel plant. She saw how its ultimate closing would wrench the community. She envisioned two wrongs. Pollution, the more apparent of the two, had received the media attention. The second – economic depression – could only be imagined, for it seemed so far away coming out of the prosperity of the sixties.
While sins cannot be overlooked, one must be careful the cure does not kill the patient. Sometimes it seems some unforgiving folks take an unholy pride in desecrating institutions. It’s too bad everyone didn’t have Miss Powell for fourth grade. If they had, people would probably think twice before jumping on the bandwagon and bashing the economic spinal cord of the community which they are a part of and which they ought to more faithfully serve.
Ed. Note. The Carosa Commentary reflects the opinions of its author, and not those of this newspaper or its management.
[What is this and why is here? See Interested in Discovering My Time Machine? for more details.]