In the early 1970’s, the North Baltimore School system was facing an overcrowding problem. As a solution, a decision was made to move the fifth graders en masse to the abandoned Hammansburg School. Having served on a school board myself, I am fairly certain that many parents were less than enchanted with the idea of busing children, many who had never ridden a bus before, into the country to attend school in a building well past its glory days.
My class (NBHS ’78) was the second class to attend fifth grade at Hammansburg School. I distinctly recall members of the class of ’77 telling us horror stories about the Hammansburg building: sulfur water, terrible lunch food, long bus rides. Since we were younger, we believed them. We spent the summer prior to fifth grade worrying about the pending transition to a new school.
As always, summer passed quickly and we soon found ourselves loading the bus for our first day of fifth grade. When the students who had previously attended Powell School jumped off the bus at Hammansburg School on the first day and surveyed our surroundings, the reports from our elders seemed to be true: the odor of sulfur water emanated from the tired, old building. We were still contemplating our fate when a second busload of students who had previously attended the Main School arrived. Of course, we knew some of them from church or sports teams, but most of them were brand new faces.
Who could have known that the moment we found ourselves surrounded by strangers and preparing to enter a spooky-looking building would have been the beginning of the best year of our school career?
Cherie Seiler, the school secretary, set the tone with her friendly greeting. She helped us locate our classrooms. There were four classes taught by Mr. and Mrs. Wright, Mr. Gerig, and Mrs. Shearer. There was a lunch room attached to the school building that doubled as a band and music room. We had an art room full of supplies and half-completed projects. Maybe the most exciting amenity was a standalone gymnasium replete with bleachers and a stage.
Almost immediately, we bonded as a group. Soon, old alliances formed at Powell School or Main School were expanded to include new friends that we hadn’t known before fifth grade. It seems like recesses were extra long at Hammansburg School and that helped us bond. There was ample space for many outdoor activities: monkey bars, merry-go-round, and slides; grassy places to play baseball or touch football; and lots of pavement for games like four square, jacks, or dribbling a basketball. In the winter, the puddles froze and we were able to slide about on the ice.
Within the classroom, I remember excitement as we rotated to different teachers’ rooms for various subjects. It almost seemed like we were already in junior high! For some of us, there was the added thrill of learning to play a musical instrument in fifth grade. For the boys, this was the year when they began to play on basketball teams on winter weekends. Much conversation focused on those important games.
My homeroom teacher was Mrs. Shearer. I remember breaking into small groups to decorate bulletin boards as a way to learn about the continents. My bulletin board was Antarctica which we unfortunately misspelled, significantly detracting from our grade. Mrs. Shearer, you will be happy to know that I haven’t misspelled Antarctica since then. Another time, she allowed us to arrange our desks in the shape of a peace sign. Not surprisingly, I found myself sitting at the very bottom of the straight line in the peace sign which was exactly in front of the teacher’s desk.
During that year, we also made an erupting papier mache volcano at Julie (Stephens) Cowan’s house. In a recent conversation, Julie said, “I remember using lots of plaster of Paris, paint, and little plastic trees for landscaping to build it. I made it in our basement and didn’t plan on how heavy that dang thing was going to be carrying it up the stairs. I’m sure my dad (Ralph Stephens) about had a heart attack carrying it out of the house.” Another memorable project involved the creation of a plantation. Kathy (Vermilya) Cramer’s dad (Rich Vermilya) built the plantation house. My grandpa (Ed Slaughterbeck) helped me build two tobacco drying sheds.
By far, the most fun portion of each day was the morning and afternoon bus ride. The two bus drivers were Bob Mong and Maurice Hough. Each morning, Mr. Mong would say to each of us, “Make sure you learn something new today.” Maurice Hough often led the bus in a jolly rendition of “Yes, We Have No Bananas” as he drove us home.
Nine months later, another summer was upon us. When we went to the Quarry that summer, we had twice as many friends as we had the summer before due to our magical year at Hammansburg School. We were confident and ready to move to sixth grade at the Main Building. And I’m pretty sure, we lied to the incoming fifth graders and told them horror stories about the decrepit Hammansburg School building and the sulfur water and the bad food and the long bus rides. I bet they believed us too.