As a second grade student at Rose Avenue Elementary school in New Castle, Pennsylvania, we knew very little or cared about politics. At the age of 7, we had other interests. But we were attracted to colorful pens, badges, flags and banners. And during this major presidential election year of 1940, all political pins and badges were plentiful.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt was running for an unprecedented third term for the Democratic Party. His opponent was Indiana businessman Wendell Willke, a Republican. It was a long, heated campaign, and the local headquarters of each party flooded the area with their respective posters and literature. This included the small red, white and blue lapel pins with each candidate’s picture.
As children, we were attracted to the bright, colorful pins. The candidate’s picture or political party meant little to us. The game amongst us was to see who could collect the most pins — similar to who had the most marbles, bottle caps or baseball cards in their cigar box.
Some of the boys would wear two, three or four pins on their shirts or baseball caps — often with both political candidates. The girls didn’t seem too interested in this ritual.
Our second grade teacher was a strict disciplinarian. Miss Armister was straight-up-and-down tall. Wire-rim glasses rested near the end of her nose, attached to a gold chain around her neck. She had the strangest blue-white hair, talked in a deep voice and rarely smiled during her class period.
As she conducted the class lesson, Miss Armister would slowly walk up and down the rows of small desks while carrying the standard long, wooden pointer stick with the black rubber-tipped end. Often, she would lightly tap the shoulder of a day-dreaming student as she passed his desk. Most of the students, especially the boys, disliked her.
Miss Armister was a solid Republican, and supposedly had ancestral ties to the Mayflower crossing — and she often reminded her students of this unproven fact. One day in early October 1940, at the beginning of class, she sternly ordered that students wearing political campaign pins should stand at their desks.
While the obedient students, mostly boys, stood straight and tall, she instructed those wearing a Roosevelt pin to march in single file up to the front of her desk. Those wearing Willke pins could be quietly seated.
Once at her desk, Miss Armister instructed the second grade children to remove the Roosevelt pins from their clothing and discard them into the metal wastebasket located the side of a large desk.
The continuous clatter of 10 or 12 cheap metal pins hitting the bottom of the wastebasket echoed throughout the silent classroom. Once cleansed of the pins, the offending students were ordered back to their wooden seats. The class lesson then resumed, and I’m sure Miss Armister was now smiling — but only to her inner self.
The following day, no student wore a Franklin D. Roosevelt pin, except for little Jimmy Ryan. Jimmy was the shortest boy in the class. Even a few of the girls were taller. In 1940, it would be 11 years before the cartoon character of Dennis the Menace would be created. But Jimmy could’ve been the living model for the future Dennis, due to his looks, deeds and mannerisms.
After the morning bell rang to begin the lessons and all the children were quietly seated, Miss Armister spotted Jimmy. He was seated near the end of the front first row of desks. The teacher order Jimmy to stand. He was wearing two Roosevelt pins, one on each collar tip of his shirt.
The teacher, now standing at her desk with the wooden pointer stick resting on one shoulder like an army rifle, a mean scowl on her face, ordered Jimmy to the front of the classroom. Once there, Jimmy was ordered to throw the pins into the wastebasket.
After the second pin was noisily deposited, Jimmy did the tennis-shoe shuffle back to his seat — all the while wearing a devilish smile that could be witnessed only by the obedient students. This defiant routine was repeated for two additional days before it came to a sudden halt.
It was only doing my high school reunion many years later that Jimmy, still short in stature and still in possession of the friendly, devilish grin, told us the rest of the story. When Mr. Ryan questioned his son about the request for more Roosevelt pins, he told his father about the teacher’s prejudicial policy.
Unfortunately for Miss Armister, Mr. Ryan was a ranking member of the Lawrence County Democratic Re-election Committee. The following day, a long, closed-door meeting was conducted in the principal’s office. In attendance, along with the principal, were Mr. Ryan and Miss Armister.
The principal directed at the teacher to amend her unorthodox policy. The situation was resolved.
Miss Armister soon received another devastating put-down. In the November 1940 election, Franklin D. Roosevelt received nearly 55% of the popular vote and 449 to 82 in Electoral College votes. Pennsylvania awarded all of its 36 votes to President Roosevelt.
The author, who has changed the names of the people mentioned in this story, lives in Lancaster.