102-year-old ‘class grandma’ compares notes with Bangor students
Fifteen fifth graders at Bangor’s Fairmount School quietly filed into an art classroom Friday afternoon and settled in front of 102-year-old Patricia Cunningham, who welcomed them with the song she used to sing with her students each morning.
Cunningham, who will turn 103 in May, spent the next hour telling the students about her life and her 34-year career as a kindergarten and first grade teacher in Stratton, Cumberland, Skowhegan and Pittsfield.
Cunningham, who now lives at Dirigo Pines, a senior living facility in Orono, first spoke with the class via Zoom last year when the students were fourth graders. That call, however, was interrupted by glitches, according to Jessica Lundquist, a Dirigo Pines employee whose son is in the class Cunningham spoke with on Friday.
With a bit of coaxing, as “Miss Pat doesn’t like to go out in the winter,” Cunningham decided to visit the class again, this time in person to avoid interruptions, Lundquist said.
“Miss Pat has adopted this class,” Lundquist said. “She’s like their class grandma.”
The students peppered Cunningham with questions about her life, both as an educator, and when she was their age. The questions ranged from “What was your biggest accomplishment?” to “What did you do on the weekends with no TV?”
Students were surprised to hear girls typically wore skirts to school when Cunningham was young, as pants were reserved for Saturdays, and children walked to school every day because there were no school buses.
Cunningham told students she saw her first television on a class trip to Washington, D.C., shortly after she graduated from high school. She also remembers the release of popular chocolate bars, including Milky Way and Hershey’s.
Another student asked Cunningham what her life was like during World War II. She recalled visiting her parents in Portland and being shocked at how dark the city was at night, as all homes had their window shades down. At one point during the visit, Cunningham was walking around the coast of Peaks Island when she encountered a man with a gun, who advised her to stay still and quiet because there were enemy ships in Casco Bay.
While there are several differences between Cunningham’s early life and theirs, students found several similarities, such as a mutual love for playing hopscotch and hide-and-seek with friends and enjoying sports, such as tennis, skiing and horseback riding.
Caleb Christ, 11, was thrilled to learn Cunningham’s students enjoyed skateboarding as much as he does now.
As a teacher, Cunningham even struggled to find a time when the copy machine wasn’t in use, as several educators still do today, though the machines themselves look very different.
Born in Pittsfield and raised primarily in Portland, Cunningham earned her teaching degree in 1942 from the Farmington Normal School — now the University of Maine at Farmington — where she met her late husband.
She began her career teaching kindergarten when the grade was first introduced in Maine. At the time, kindergarten wasn’t well-funded, so she taught in the basement of a local church and earned about $2 or $3 each week.
Cunningham said she was drawn to teaching because, “I just enjoyed children.”
At the end of the visit, students individually gave her valentines they made, as well as flowers and a bag of valentines for other Dirigo Pines residents.
“They’re very cute,” Cunningham said of the valentines. “I know they worked hard on them.”
Lundquist advised the students to talk to older adults in their own lives if they enjoyed listening to Cunningham, as they might be surprised to hear the details of their own grandparents’ lives.
“Enjoy them, get to know them and take the time to learn their stories,” Lundquist said. “There’s no better way to learn history from the people who lived it.”
Though she lives with her 63-year-old grandmother, Stephanie Christopher, 11, said she enjoyed listening to Cunningham because she doesn’t have several older adults in her life.
“I find it really interesting how different things were back then,” Stephanie said. “I liked her sense of humor and her personality — I wasn’t expecting her to be that funny.”
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