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Albert Maywood Courtright II

Reminiscences of Maywood Courtright

I Become a High School Teacher in Michigan

There was so little work for me to do in January and February that I began to wonder why they kept me on. Then, one day about the end of February, I received a telegram from a Mr. Tyler, superintendant of schools in a town in Michigan called Muskegon Heights, offering me a job as teacher of mechanical drawing at a salary of $1800 a year; immediate reply requested. I got out a map of Michigan and found that Muskegon was on Lake Michigan almost across from Milwaukee. I assumed Muskegon Heights was a suburb and the word "heights" gave me the impression it must be a high-class residential section. It ought to be a nice place to work. It didn't take me long to decide to take the job tho I had never given any thought to being a teacher and had no training in handling high school students. The next morning I went to Mr. Hadley's desk and showed him the telegram. He said, "$1800 a year! We can't beat that."

It took me all of the following day to clear everything with the main office. A number of machine shop tools were charged against me which I don't think I had ever used. Someone else must have taken them out on my number while I was in college; I hadn't worked in a machine shop for several years. I protested but they took money from my paycheck to pay for them.

I packed my trunk that evening and the following day set out with a small handbag to catch the train for Jackson. This time, instead of going east, I went west to Grand Rapids and then on to Muskegon Heights where I arrived late in the afternoon. From the depot where I got off the train, I walked several blocks south to the business district where I expected to find a hotel. Muskegon Heights was not at all the kind of town I had expected to find. There was a foundry right downtown and the streets were grimy with cinders and rusty iron dust. I couldn't find a hotel so I went to the police station to inquire and was told there was none; I would have to take a streetcar to Muskegon. The two towns were really one, the railroad tracks where I had got off were the dividing line.

I stayed at the Occidental Hotel that night - it was for many years the most imposing building on Western Avenue, Muskegon's principal street - and the next morning took the streetcar back to Muskegon Heights and went to the high school to announce my arrival to the superintendant whose office was next to the Principal's, a fat man by the name of C.F. Bolt. L. L. Tyler was a small slim man with a great deal of nervous energy whereas Mr. Bolt was a fat, jolly Hollander.

Mr. Tyler took me down the hall to see the drawing room then we returned to his office. He asked me how soon I could start teaching and I told him right away. But first I ought to find a place to stay. He called a Mrs. Carl, who was president of the school board, to see if she knew of any rooms for rent and she replied that I could have a room in her house on Peck Street as her son was away at college. Mr. Carl was the owner of the largest grocery store in the Heights. Modern supermarkets had not yet come into existence and a grocery would be considered large if there were six or seven employees. Then Mr. Bolt made arrangements for me to board at Mrs. Siney's, also on Peck Street, but only a block from the high school. Mrs. Siney was an Irish woman, a widow with two children, the older one a boy who had finished high school and was working, the younger one a girl of 13, very smart - she finished high school at 15 - who helped her mother serve her guests. Several teachers boarded there as well as a young lawyer by the name of Balgoyen who was also of Dutch extraction. That whole area of the state of Michigan was filled with Hollanders, most of them centered around Holland, a town a few miles south of Muskegon.

I went to work the next day, following the lesson sheets and the blueprints that the former teacher had prepared. His name was Misner and he had been in the trenches in France and had been gassed and suffered from shell shock. He had begun acting queer and had finally been unable to teach and was sent to the asylum in Traverse City. I never saw him. The high school building had been built only two years before and most of the teachers had "come with the building" as the students expressed it. Before that, students from Muskegon Heights had gone to high school in Muskegon. Junior and senior high school students were in the same building until a few years later when the junior high building was completed on Peck Street, so I had seventh and eighth graders as well as the older students, the former coming to drawing class twice or three times a week instead of every day as the senior high students did. A half-dozen seniors were doing architectural drawing which I had never studied, but it was easy enough for me to keep ahead of them. Most of what they were doing was merely copying drawings from a textbook.

My biggest problem at first was discipline, especially with the junior high students. They wanted to talk instead of working on their lessons. It didn't take me long to find out that teaching high school students took more than just knowing more than your students. If I had cracked down the first day I am sure things would have gone better but I was too inexperienced to know that once a pattern of behavior in a class has been established it is very hard to change.

I was naturally curious about what kind of place I was going to be living in so the first Saturday that came along I took a streetcar and rode to the end of the line, an amusement park on the beach near the channel between Lake Michigan and Muskegon Lake, a distance of about five miles. I believe the fare was still a nickel in 1924. Muskegon is built on the south shore of Muskegon Lake and the car followed the south shore of the lake until it reached Pigeon Hill, an immense sand dune at the west end of the lake. In the early days, the dune was said to be the roosting place of great flocks of wild pigeons, hence its name. Even the hill has disappeared now, as the sand was sold to a construction company or a foundry in Chicago and shipped away in freighters. The boats would anchor near the dune in Muskegon Lake where they would be loaded by automatic machinery. Eventually there was no more Pigeon Hill. There was, naturally, no activity at the amusement park in February, the buildings were all boarded up, but I got off the car and walked along the beach to the channel where I was just in time to see the steamer Alabama from Chicago enter the channel and go to its berth on Muskegon Lake not far from the Occidental Hotel.

I had scarcely played my violin at all during the three years I was in Ann Arbor but after I took a room at the Carl's I got my instrument out and started practicing. Mrs. Carl told me also that I was welcome to come downstairs any time I wished and play the piano, an invitation she very likely regretted as I made a nuisance of myself, playing the piano for an hour or so after school and then practicing the violin after supper. After about a month she undoubtedly decided she had had enough. At any rate, she found me another room across the street with a Mr. and Mrs. Dick, another Holland couple. Mr. Dick was an employee at the Muskegon post office. The Dicks had no piano so I had to do my piano playing at Mrs. Siney's after the evening meal or on Saturdays. I had to compete with Miss Royce, the speech teacher, who also enjoyed playing the piano. She would try to improvise short piano pieces and I began to imitate her. Neither of us got to be very good at it. Mrs. Carl, of course, informed the member of the school board that I was a violinist and Mr. Bolt thought it might be an inspiration to some of the students to have me perform before an assembly. Miss Nina Coye, an old maid from Grand Rapids (she commuted each week to her parents' home there) was the only music teacher in high school then and she played my accompaniments. She also ate at Mrs. Siney's. She was an excellent pianist, a good sight reader, and played the pipe organ at her church in Grand Rapids.

Miss Coye was perhaps ten years older than I and dressed rather old-maidish but she was a good sport. She lived next door to the Sineys' and when the weather got warm I would sometimes go over there after supper and sit with her on the back porch. She seemed to enjoy having me for company. However, I'm afraid she got the wrong idea. She invited me several times to visit her in her home in Grand Rapids where she had the upstairs to herself, her parents lived downstairs. She had a small piano there and I tried to play piano duets with her but I couldn't read fast enough. I composed a couple of songs, taking the text from the bible, and she had one of the men in the choir sing them. I thought they were pretty good at the time but after I had studied composition in New York I realized how awful they were. I also played my violin for the offertory. I didn't think much about it at the time but I can see now that she was probably hoping we would become more intimate. I merely treated her as a good friend, which she was.

Miss Coye had several choruses; junior boys, junior girls, senior boys, senior girls, mixed chorus and glee club and she got the few musicians in school together for a small orchestra, three or four violins, piano, clarinet, a trumpet, or rather cornet and sousaphone. Someone had given the school a cello but no one knew how to play it so it remained in a closet unused. Miss Coye asked me one day if I would like to take it home with me and learn to play it. I jumped at the chance, bought some exercise books and soon learned to get a very nice tone out of it. After all, the cello is a stringed instrument like the violin. However I naturally tried to hold my hands as I would in playing a violin and didn't discover I was wrong until a couple of years later when the conductor of the Battle Creek Symphony, a Mr. Martin, saw me play at the Congregational Church and corrected me. I had little trouble changing. A few days practice and the new position felt quite natural.

William Stuart, a rather short young fellow about my age, was a violinist and taught violin in the Muskegon schools as well as directing the orchestras in high school and in junior high. He sang in the Congregational Choir whose director and organist was Horace Hollister. Horace directed and trained the choir and played the organ at the same time. When they heard that there was a new cellist in the Heights, they got in touch with me in order to form a trio; violin, cello and piano. From then on I practically gave up the violin. I also sang in the Congregational Choir which was the best in town. Choir practice was Thursday evening in the church parlors. On special occasions the trio would play. That was how it happened that Mr. Martin, Elsa Hollister's father, saw me play and was able to correct my hand position.

When Miss Coye's high school orchestra played for plays and other school activities she would ask me to join the group. Jim Burns played the clarinet and was a senior in 1923-24 while his brother Floyd, who was two years younger, played cornet. Floyd was a small meek boy afraid of his shadow, but he knew how to pay the cornet. Both Jim and Floyd had been taught by their father who also played clarinet and had organized a small orchestra which practiced weekly at the Burns' home. They needed a violin player and Mr. Burns asked me to join. It wasn't much of an orchestra - I think the instruments were two cornets, two clarinets, a trombone, two violins, drums and piano - but I hadn't played with an orchestra for so long I was glad to play with any kind of ensemble. I can't remember that we performed anyplace unless it was at the Methodist Church in the Heights, we just practiced for the fun of it.

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Last modified on 23 June 2009 @ 21:26