IN THE FALL of 1917 I started at Evander Childs High School although my condition had improved little and I had to use crutches. Mother encouraged my going, and often she told me of saints who had endured physical deformity. She made me feel I could accomplish anything I set my heart on, despite my physical limitation.
So I began my high-school years armed with crutches and high hopes. I walked the ten blocks to school and took my place with my class. From the beginning I asked no favors, and teachers and classmates soon realized how I felt and respected my independence.
That winter I got my first apparatus for walking. It was not very good, but it was better than the crutches. Now I really began to enter into school activities. I tried to do everything the other students did, even to going on hikes. I joined the Naturalists’ Club and went with members to the Palisades, hunting flowers and spotting birds. If I got tired, I sat down for a while till the others returned.
During those days, despite my difficulties, I was a happy girl. I loved life dearly and found pleasure in many little things. Sometimes, when outdoors, I would stop to listen, for I felt the whole world whispering to me. The spring wind seemed to talk of things far away and beautiful. Sometimes at night, when the moon shone through the chestnut tree beside my window and I could smell the iris and lilacs and lilies of the valley, I felt tears in my eyes and I did not know why.
The student body at Evander Childs High School then numbered more than a thousand boys and girls. They were mostly the children of Americans of Scottish, Irish, and German extraction but there were also some children of Italian, Russian, and other European peoples. We were of all faiths — Protestant, Catholic, Jewish. We were alike in that we were children of parents in modest circumstances, neither rich nor poor. No one attempted to accentuate our differences or to exploit them.
One day a girl from the East Bronx with whom I had talked about politics, a subject which was beginning to interest me, brought me a copy of a paper I had never seen before. The Call was a Socialist publication. That paper gave a new turn to my thinking. I sought other copies. I felt my heart beat with excitement as I read the articles on social justice. Even the poetry on the conditions of the poor, on the inequalities of their lives, held my interest. In fact, for the first time I felt a call, a vocation. Unconsciously I enlisted, even if only emotionally, in the army of those who said they would fight social injustice, and I began to find the language of defiance intoxicating. A stubborn pride developed in my own ability to make judgments.
At high school I could not take the usual physical-education courses so I was allowed a study hour with Miss Genevieve O’Connell, the gym teacher, who gave me courses in anatomy and hygiene. She was the only religious influence I encountered in high school. When she learned I was a Catholic, she invited me to attend with her the meetings of a girls’ club at the Cenacle of St. Regis in New York City. On Saturday afternoons she and I met a small group of girls and went to the convent at 140th Street and Riverside Drive.
Once there we sat in a circle and sewed simple garments for the poor while a nun read to us. I was not interested in the books read, but the simplicity, the calm, the acceptance of something real and unchanging, did affect me.
The Cenacle did not give direct answers to the questions I was beginning to ask, perhaps because I did not ask them aloud. But I went to several week-end retreats and I was so attracted by the atmosphere of the house that I asked to come for a private retreat. This proved a failure. I was so untaught in things spiritual and so ignorant of matters of the Faith that I could get no meaning from the spiritual readings given by the nun assigned to guide me.
Despite this failure I know that those week ends at the Cenacle did give me something valuable and lasting. I sensed there the deep peace of the spiritual life and I was moved by the Benediction service which I attended for the first time in my life. The brief prayers, the incense, the monstranced Host uplifted, the music, were a poem of faith to me who loved poetry. Many, many times in my later wanderings, at odd moments there stole back to my mind the Tantum ergosung by the nuns in that lovely little chapel.
But though my heart wanted to accept that which I felt stirring within me I could not, for I already had an encrusted pride in my own intellect which rejected what I felt was unscientific. In this I reflected the superficial patter, prevalent in educational circles of that time, about science being opposed to religion.
During my four years at Evander Childs I received good marks in English history and science, and I won a state scholarship which helped me to go to college. On graduation day I held tight to my diploma and to the copies of Shelley and Keats which were my prizes for excellence in English. Proud as I was of the prizes, my chief pride was that I had been chosen the most popular girl in my class.
In the autumn I entered Hunter, the New York City college for women. I had decided to become a teacher. I started with a determination to learn. There were many fields I wanted to explore. I lived at home and traveled back and forth each day on the new Pelham Bay Subway, recently extended to our neighborhood.
My first college wardrobe consisted of two dresses, a blue voile and a gingham, a black skirt, two sweaters knitted by Mother, and a large collection of starched white collars which I wore with my sweaters. Today the wardrobe of a girl in college, no matter how poor, undoubtedly would be larger, but I was never conscious of an inadequate wardrobe. That was a feature of Hunter College, for the students, even those from well-to-do homes, were more interested in things of the mind.
College proved different from high school and at first seemed duller. The coeducational high school had been more challenging. Hunter College was at that time in a state of transition, passing from a female academy for the training of teachers into a real college. Although accredited to give degrees, the atmosphere and the staff were still the same as when it had been a genteel teacher-training institute.
Because of this difference there was an undefined sense of distance between faculty and students accentuated by the fact that some of the staff members constantly reminded us that we were getting a free education from the city and should be grateful. There was a current of resentment among the students who felt we were getting only that to which we were entitled.
Dean Annie Hickenbottom was a fine woman, middle-aged, gracious, and well-bred, herself a graduate of Hunter Normal School. We girls loved her, but in a patronizing way. We listened to her politely more with our ears than our minds when she told us, as she often did, how important it was for Hunter girls to wear hats and gloves and to speak only in low and refined voices.
Though the staff was chiefly made up of the old Protestant Anglo-Saxon, Scotch, and Irish Americans, there were a few exceptions. There were several Catholics in the Education Department, and a few Jewish teachers, among them Dr. Adele Bildersee, who taught English and who often talked to her pupils about the beauty of the great Jewish holidays and read aloud to us the ancient prayers and writings in a voice that showed how she loved and admired their beauty and believed in their truth.
The gentle lady who taught medieval history, Dr. Elizabeth Burlingame, was considered overly sentimental by some of the staff. Perhaps she was. Yet I owe her a deep gratitude for the appreciation of the Middle Ages which she gave me. From her came no cold array of facts but a warm understanding of the period. She gave me a love of the thirteenth century and a realization of the role of the Catholic Church in that era. Unfortunately her teaching was of a past we considered dead.
The teacher who affected me most as a person was Sarah Parks, who taught freshman English. Her teaching had little of the past; it was of the present and the future. She was different from the rest of the well-mannered faculty members. More unorthodox than any of the students dared to be, she came to school without a hat, her straight blond hair flying in the wind as she rode along Park Avenue on her bicycle.
Evidently Dean Annie Hickenbottom said nothing about it to Miss Parks. Nevertheless we students knew well what she would have said had she seen us riding down Sixty-eighth Street on a bicycle and hatless ! She would have been scandalized. I am certain she would have been more scandalized by some of Miss Parks’s advanced social theories. But in this period at Hunter the classroom was the teacher’s castle and no one would dare intrude. Miss Parks’s social theories were to me both disturbing and exciting.
During my first year at Hunter I joined the Newman Club, only to lose interest in it very quickly, for aside from its social aspect all its other activities seemed purely formal. There was little serious discussion of the tenets of the Faith and almost no emphasis on Catholic participation in the affairs of the world. In my young arrogance I regarded its atmosphere as anti-intellectual.
The faculty adviser of the Club was a dear little lady who seemed to me to be so far removed from reality that she could not possibly span the wide gap between the cloistered isolation of her own life and the problems facing the students. After awhile I gave up making suggestions for discussion and no longer tried to integrate myself in the Newman Club, even though it still seemed the reasonable place for me to be. I was finding it difficult to determine where I belonged. For the first time I began to feel uneasy.
I drifted into another circle of friends, girls with a strong intellectual drive permeated with a sense of responsibility for social reform. My best friend was Ruth Goldstein. Often I went to her home where her mother, a wise, fine woman with an Old Testament air about her, fed us with her good cooking and gave us sound advice.
On the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashana and the Passover Mrs. Goldstein invited me to meals and the family services. The age-old ceremonies impressed me; it was inspiring to see how this family remained true to the history of its people, how in this new land they strengthened their sense of oneness with the past by prayer. As I watched the candles glow and heard the Hebrew prayers I was conscious of the fact that my family was not so bound together, and now did not seem to belong anywhere. In spite of our devoted parents, we children seemed to be drifting in different directions.
At Hunter College there were also the children of many foreign-born people. I became friendly with several girls whose parents had been in the Russian Revolution of 1905. They had grown up hearing their parents discuss socialist and Marxist theories. Though they sometimes laughed at their parents they were the nucleus of the communist activities to come, full of their parents’ frustrated idealism and their sense of a Messianic mission.
My friends at Hunter College were from all groups. I was received by all but felt part of none. I spent many hours in discussions with different groups. Down in the basement of the Sixty-eighth Street building was a room which we had turned into an informal tearoom and meeting place. There we developed a sort of intellectual proletariat of our own. We discussed revolution, sex, philosophy, religion, unguided by any standard of right and wrong. We talked of a future “unity of forces of the mind,” a “new tradition,” a “new world” which we were going to help build out of the present selfish one.
Since we had no common basis of belief, we drifted into laissez-faire thinking, with agnosticism for our religion and pragmatism for our philosophy. There were religious clubs at Hunter at this time. The group I traveled with regarded them as social clubs which you could take or leave, as you chose. A few among us dared say openly, “There is no God.” Most of us said, “Maybe there is and maybe there isn’t.”
There were a few communists on the campus at the time, but they were of little importance. They were a leather-jacketed, down-at-the-heels group, who showed little interest in making themselves understood or in trying to understand others. Their talk was chiefly about the necessity of ending the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few families, and a glorification of the Russian Revolution. They were also interested in good music and European literature and read the “opinion” magazines, such as The Nation and The New Republic.
My own religious training had been superficial. As a child I had gone to church with Mamarella. I had been taught to say my prayers. In our house hung various holy pictures and the crucifix. But I knew nothing of the doctrines of my faith. I knew much more of the dogmas of English composition. If I held any belief it was that we should dedicate ourselves to love of our fellow man.
Sarah Parks spurred us on to the new and the untried. From her I first heard favorable talk about the Russian Revolution. She compared it with the French Revolution which she said had had a great liberalizing effect on European culture, something which the revolution in Russia would also one day accomplish. It was she who had brought to class books on communism and loaned them to those of us who wanted to read them.
During my first year with her as my teacher I wrote two term themes, one on how to grow roses, the other on monasticism. She gave both good grades, but the one on monasticism bore the ominous little order, “See me.“ She was too honest not to give a good grade if the work was well done, but she also had to speak her mind on the subject matter.
When I came in, she seemed sympathetic and asked how I came to choose such a topic. I tried to tell her about my reading in the medieval history course and how impressed I had been with the selfless men and women of the Middle Ages who served mankind by putting self aside.
“And does that seem a normal manifestation of living to you, a seventeen-year-old girl?“ she asked scornfully.
It was a question I could not answer, and her clever scorn raised doubts in my mind.
At the end of my freshman year I decided that I must earn money to help with expenses for the next year. So I got a job selling books, a rather daring choice since I still had difficulty in walking any great distance without pain.
The book I sold that summer was called the Volume Library, a tome filled with facts and items of information for children. It cost from nine to fifteen dollars, depending on the binding. My sales area was a section of Westchester County. Since it was some distance from home, I rented a room in the home of a farmer’s family near Mt. Kisco.
All summer I sold books, and I proved a good agent. It was tiring work but I made enough money that summer to keep myself in clothes and pocket money and for my school expenses the following year.
In the autumn I returned to Hunter. I was a different girl in many ways from the one I was when I entered college the year before. In a year my thinking had changed. I now talked glibly of science and the evolution of man and society and I was skeptical of religious concepts. I had drifted into an acceptance of the idea that those who believed in a Creator were anti-intellectual, and that belief in an afterlife was unscientific. I was tolerant of all religions. They were fine, I said, for those who needed them, but for a human being who was able to think for herself there was no need of something to lean on. One could stand erect alone. This new approach to life was a heady thing. It caught me up and held me.
That second year I did not have Sarah Parks as a teacher. But I often talked with her, for she invited some of us to her apartment, and we sought her advice as if she were a kind of unofficial dean.
To us who loved her Sarah Parks brought fresh air into a sterile, intellectual atmosphere where scholarship sometimes seemed pointless and where Phi Beta Kappa keys were garnered by grinds. We began to speak with contempt about grades and degrees. I remember we held one discussion on whether a true intellectual should accept keys at all, since they were based on marks and used to stimulate the competitive instinct of the rabble and often did not represent true intellectual worth. We held that we must be moved by a desire for real learning and for co-operation with other scholars, and not by a spirit of competition.
Miss Parks led a busy life because so many of us wanted to consult her. She was an important factor in preparing us to accept a materialist philosophy by mercilessly deriding what she called “dry rot” of existing society. I am sure she did help some students, but she did little for those who were already so emptied of convictions that they believed in nothing. These could only turn their steps toward the great delusion of our time, toward the socialist-communist philosophy of Karl Marx.
She questioned existing patterns of moral behavior and diverted some of us into a blind alley by her pragmatic approach to moral problems. In that sex-saturated period of the twenties, the intellectual young were more interested in the life around them than in the promises of the spirit. It was the day of the “flapper,” of bobbed hair, of fringed skirts and shapeless dresses, of spiritual blight, and of physical dominance. We considered ourselves the intelligentsia and developed our own code of behavior. Contemptuous of the past and nauseated by the crudeness and ugliness of the period, we regarded ourselves the avant-garde of a new culture.
In my junior year I was elected president of my class. Several of my friends and I became involved with student self-government. It was another opportunity to achieve a sense of importance, to express impatience with our elders, and at the same time to feel we were doing something for our fellow students to exhibit that sense of social mission. To Student Council meeting bright young girls brought in all sorts of dazzling proposals and I, ready to support the experimental and the new, listened eagerly to them all. Our little group grew vocally indignant as we read of fortunes amassed by people whose hardest labor was pulling the ticker tape in a Wall Street office. It was a period of ostentatious vulgarity in the city, and our group became almost ascetic to show its scorn of things material.
As I look back on that febrile group, so eager to help the world, looking about for something to spend themselves on, our earnestness appears pathetic. We had, all of us, a strong will to real goodness. We saw a bleak present and wanted to turn it into a wonderful future for the poor and the troubled. But we had no foundation for solid thinking or effective action. We had no real goals because we had no sound view of man’s nature and destiny. We had feelings and emotions, but no standards by which to chart the future.
Later in my junior year I attended with Mina Rees, the Student Council president, an intercollegiate conference at Vassar College. Vassar made us feel at home during the five days we were there. The days and evenings at the dormitories where we stayed were filled with good talk and an exhilarating exchange of ideas.
Many things were discussed at the conference, among them sororities and their possible abolition. Not belonging to a sorority had never troubled me. Now, listening to sharp criticisms of them by a group of delegates, I felt that I had not been too alert regarding this problem. I had always considered them rather infantile but the conference seemed to consider them a social problem.
We discussed the importance of an honor system under student supervision. In line with discussion of the honor system we talked about the question of the punishment of crime: was it to be considered a penalty or a deterrent? The dominant group thought it should be considered only as the latter. But I spoke up and said that surely it should be considered both.
In my senior year I was elected president of Student Council. That year I led the movement to establish the honor system at Hunter. Also in that year I brought politics into student self-government by conducting the first straw vote in the presidential elections. A little later I upset Dean Hickenbottom by insisting on a series of lectures on social hygiene. I was supported by a group of school politicians and I learned the value of a tightly organized group and was exhilarated by the power it gave.
During the previous year Professor Hannah Egan, who taught in the Education Department, stopped me one day in the hall. “Why don’t you ever come to the Newman Club?” she asked.
I tried to find a polite excuse as well as a valid one. Noting my confusion, she said sternly, “Bella Visono, ever since you were elected to Student Council and became popular you have been heading straight for hell.”
I was flabbergasted. This, I thought, seemed very old-fashioned. But I was dismayed too. I consoled myself by repeating a line from Abu Ben Adhem: “Then write me as one who loves his fellow men.” That idea cheered me considerably. I threw off the personal responsibility Miss Egan was trying to load on me. The important thing, I said, was to love my fellow man.
This was the new creed, the creed of fellowship, and it was clear the world needed it badly. It was a fine phrase which kept some of the significance of the Cross even while it denied the divinity of the Crucified. It was a creed that willingly accepted pain and self-immolation; but it was skeptical of a promised redemption. I kept reassuring myself that I did not need the old-fashioned Creed any more. I was modern. I was a follower of science. I was going to spend my life serving my fellow men.
In June 1925 I was graduated with honors. Commencement had brought the necessity of thinking about my immediate future. I had already taken the examinations for teaching in both elementary and high schools in New York City and because of the scarcity of teachers I was certain of a position.
The day after commencement I was at Ruth Goldstein’s home. We had both enrolled for the summer session at Columbia University, intent on getting masters’ degrees, and her older sister Gertrude startled us both by asking why we were going to Columbia at all. “Now that college is over, you girls must get a job — and also a man,” she said.
Ruth and I smiled at her words. They did, however, start a chain of thought. During my years at college I had been a student, a politician, a reformer. Now, with time to think, I realized that I was also a woman. I realized also that my education had done little to train me as a woman.
For some time I had known that I must have further surgery on my foot. Now that I was free from school work I made a sudden decision. I went to St. Francis Hospital in the Bronx. Why I chose that hospital I do not know. To the nun who appeared to interview me I said I needed surgery on my foot and I wanted the name of the best surgeon connected with the hospital. She gave me the name of Dr. Edgerton and his office address on Park Avenue. I went immediately to see him.
Dr. Edgerton was a man well over six feet tall and he looked so big and capable that I had confidence in him immediately. I showed him my foot and asked, “What do you think of it?”
His answer was direct and emphatic. “It’s a rotten amputation,” he said.
“Can you do anything for me?” I asked timidly.
“Of course I can,” he said. “A clean-cut amputation and you’ll be able to walk easily. I promise you that you will be able to dance and skate six weeks after you leave the hospital.”
There was a further important matter to discuss. “How much will it cost?” I asked. He named what was no doubt a modest sum for his services. With a self-confidence that surprised even myself I said, “I have no money at all now, Dr. Edgerton. I’m just out of college but I’ll get a job as soon as I am well and then I’ll pay you as fast as I can.”
He smiled at me. “I’ll take a chance,” he said, and made arrangements for me to enter St. Francis Hospital the next morning.
I was in excellent hands. The Franciscan nurses in charge were competent and so were the lay nurse assistants. When I entered the hospital and was questioned as to my religion I said I had been a Catholic but was now a freethinker, making the statement no doubt with youthful bravado.
As I look back on that time I think it was a pity that no one paid attention to my statement regarding religion. The nuns went in and out of my room and were efficient and friendly. Once or twice I saw a priest go by, but none came in to talk to me. No one spoke to me of religious matters while I was there. Had they done so, I might have responded.
Six weeks after I went home I was walking well, as Dr. Edgerton had promised. I soon obtained a position as a substitute teacher in the History Department of Seward Park High School which, with discipline at a low ebb, was considered a hard school. I was to have six classes in medieval and European history.
When I appeared on the scene the students had been without a teacher for weeks and were at the chalk-and-eraser-throwing stage. I came to my teaching with a sense of reverence for the task and a determination to keep to my ideals, but like all young teachers I had to learn that there is a wide gap between theory and practice. It is in the classroom that a teacher learns how to teach. All courses given on methods of teaching are but guideposts to a basic objective.
The boys had evidently decided to test me. On my second day of teaching I came in to find a fire at the back of the room. I walked over to the smoking debris, put out the fire, and collared the four nearest boys.
“Who lit the fire?” I demanded. They denied having anything to do with it. There was nothing more to do at the moment. The fire was out, so the lesson in European history continued. I decided to solve my problem without calling either the head of the department or the assistant principal. I asked one of the older boys for help.
“Evans,” I said, “you are older than the rest. Help me with this problem.”
Evans scratched his head and said thoughtfully, “Listen, Miss Visono, what you have to do is show them that you can take their gaff. After that they’ll settle down.”
It was good advice. I worked hard to stimulate interest and they did settle down. The rest of the term passed without any more violent demonstrations.
I tried, in line with my acute interest in politics, to interest my young students. I made them bring newspapers to class and I started lively discussions. Most of the boys brought the tabloids and when I spoke of this choice with some annoyance, one of my students, young Morris Levine, said to me, “Aw, Miss Visono, what do you want me to read — the Times ? I don’t own any stocks and bonds.”
The school term at Seward Park was to end at the beginning of February. Sometime after the turn of the new year in 1926, Dr. Dawson, the chairman of the Political Science Department at Hunter College, called and offered me a post at the college. I began teaching at Hunter College in February 1926.