John W. Donohue

Theodore Roosevelt High School stretches for nearly a block along Fordham Road in New York City’s borough of the Bronx. It was built in the late 1920’s for a student population of 2,500 to 3,000. Most of these were the children of Italian-American, Irish-American and Jewish families.

 

Across the way from Theodore Roosevelt is Fordham University’s Bronx campus. Before World War II, Fordham College, the university’s oldest school, had this 85-acre compound pretty much to itself, and at that time enrolled only men.

In the spring semester of 1939, some 40 Fordham seniors were taking an elective in education. Many had signed up because the course was known to involve no heavy academic lifting. A few others hoped to qualify for a teaching job in the public schools. They were required to observe some classes at Theodore Roosevelt and do a bit of practice teaching there.

Not long ago, two survivors of that group agreed that they had been favorably impressed on their visits to Theodore Roosevelt. One of these old-timers had been assigned to the English department, which then had about 40 teachers. The chairman was Dr. Stella Stewart Center (1878-1969), who looked like a Norman Rockwell portrait of a rural school mistress—gray-haired, bespectacled and plainly dressed. In fact, however, in her life and work she was more distinctive than typical. She was born in the town of Forsyth, Ga., and was the great-great-granddaughter of a certain William Hill, who had enlisted in the Revolutionary Army in 1776, when he was 16.

In her long professional career, Dr. Center attained prestige of her own as a specialist in teaching reading to children and teenagers, mostly boys, who were baffled by the printed page. She also wrote or edited a number of books, including The Art of Book Reading (1952).

Dr. Center scheduled the Fordham visitor for a class she herself taught, a 12th-grade section of the best students. When they met, she reminded these 20 or so young people that they would be reporting that day on some of their memorable reading experiences.

She opened the discussion with a memory of her own. When she was a girl, she said, she spent a summer on a farm near the area where the Blue Ridge Mountains reach into northern Georgia. Late one afternoon, she was sitting on the porch reading a 17th-century religious allegory, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. Just as the setting sun was flooding the sky above the mountains with golden light, she reached the ending of the novel’s first part, in which the pilgrims arrive at the gate of the Heavenly City. It seemed to her, she said, that the sunset and Bunyan’s vision were complementary symbols of the same reality.

The first of the student speakers was a young woman who continued this lofty discourse. Her greatest literary experience, she said, was reading Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound and seeing in the Titan who brought to earth the civilizing tool of fire a foreshadowing of Christ, who would redeem mankind.

When the Cross-Bronx Expressway divided the borough after the Second World War, many neighborhoods were split up and their schools were transformed. The place Dr. Center knew is now called the Theodore Roosevelt Educational Campus. Its 2,900 students, predominantly Hispanics with a sizable percentage of African Americans, are organized into thematic groups—liberal arts, performing arts, business and technology, and law.

These changes might not have fazed Dr. Center. In her 1932 presidential address to the National Council of Teachers of English, she advised her colleagues not to worry about road signs that say “Go Slow” rather than “Go Slowly” or to admonish students when they say, “It’s me.”

Colloquial usage has validated these expressions, she said, and added: “Nothing is permanent but change.”

All the same, she might have agreed with John Bunyan that across this changing world the human family will be making its way to the Heavenly City until the end of time.

John W. Donohue, S.J., is an associate editor of America.

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