By Reilly Platten Sharp
Safety scissors. A crayon. A hairbrush. An eraser. A journal. A toy car.
Artifacts like these are memories you can hold in your hand. In the grasp of those who once put them to use, they have the power to transport you back to times and places when life was different, simpler, and new. In a fourth-grade class at the Long Beach Island Grade School at Ship Bottom a lifetime ago, one little boy read a new issue of National Geographic. When his social studies teacher told the class he wanted to do something special, something that would carry into the future a reminder of who they were and what they were about, Mike Smith put his magazine inside the time capsule that would preserve this snapshot of student life from 1972 within the very walls of the school for fifty years until the time was right to hear the echoes from their past selves. And on an ordinary October day in the fall of 2022, that time had come, and the children of George Cafarelli’s class returned to their old room and the school auditorium to step into the past and for a moment remember the child within. As Smith put it when the moment came, it was not just a step, it was a “blast from the past.” For the students and the school officials, it was a moment to reflect on where they had come from, especially at a time when the controversial end of an era has been looming over a school facing closure at the end of a long, storied but, like its predecessors, now antiquated life.
In the wake of World War II, the Island, like the nation, saw an explosion of development and growth and the arrival of the nuclear family seeking a home with a yard and picket fence. The filling in of the Island’s bayside and the spread of the familiar cape cottages meant the summers would be more crowded in the years and decades to come, but also increased the permanent population who did not retreat from the cold winters and waters to suburban neighborhoods and big cities. And that meant more children. There were years during the first half of the 20th century when the old one-room schoolhouse at Barnegat Light, the equally rustic Barnegat Elementary, and the large but modest Beach Haven Grammar School had classes with a dozen or fewer local children in them. By the 1940s, though, that was no longer the case and classes began to swell to capacity, and over capacity, testing the creativity of principals and teachers to fit classes in and maintain an effective educational standard for all. At the end of the decade this “good problem to have” for the Island community was acute and needed a solution.
In 1948 discussions and referendums first attempted to merge the Beach Haven and Barnegat Light schools to address the overcrowding problems, with a new school an eventual goal. The vote failed in spite of conditions at Beach Haven, the largest of the three schools whose residents also voted down joining the consolidated district, forcing three classes to be held in the basement. On the north end of the Island at the Barnegat Light School, teacher Freida Cranmer was struggling more and more to handle over 30 students spanning multiple grades in the one-room classroom. And more were going to be attending in the coming years from new and growing neighborhoods in Long Beach Township, Ship Bottom, Surf City, Harvey Cedars, and Loveladies. The school district recognized the problem and plans got underway in 1950 for a new, modern school to be built in Ship Bottom that would address the overcrowding. A referendum was successful, and construction began soon after.
The cornerstone for the new school was laid on July 4, 1951, and the school opened in September, just in time to hold a 180-day school year. At a cost of $350,000, or $4.1 million to today’s dollars, the school featured 10 classrooms designed for 275 students. A few years later an auditorium capable of holding 1000 children was added for special events.
In spite of the school’s addition and the upgraded facilities, the problem was not solved. Attendance was at capacity already in the new school’s first year. In 1952, it was already over capacity with 305 students. Modern programs requiring class space, such as home economics and arts classes, were now a part of school offerings. But as the 1950s wore on at the LBI School, those classes sometimes had to be cut to make room for core curriculums. The problem received a band-aid in 1958 when Southern Regional High School was built, and the former high school building became available. The district relocated Barnegat Elementary to the new larger accommodations and tore down the old schoolhouse. Even so, the problem remained until another elementary school was approved for construction on the Island in 1967. A year later, the fourteen room 6.7 million dollar Ethel Jacobsen Elementary School opened in Surf City for kindergarten through second grade children.
With the three schools from the Island over to Barnegat now working in sizable tandem, the overcrowded classrooms were thinned out and specialty classes were able to be offered again. The children of Cafarelli’s fourth grade social studies class at the LBI School of 1972 were one of the first to come up in the expanded district and its new facilities. They were the first of generations to come who would experience far less upheaval and change than their older siblings or parents. Last October, memories of those experiences flooded back into the minds of those former students.
Smiles, laughter, furrowed brows, and a few watery eyes. The former students, in some cases now grandparents, were touched with emotion as they gazed into the time capsule they prepared when they were just beginning their journeys on life’s path.
Wayne Henderson and Tom Logue pressed themselves into child-sized desks in their old fourth grade classroom. Tim Brindley stared up at the framed note on the wall near the ceiling marking the space where the time capsule was hidden. Brenda Snow laughed as she read from the journals she and her classmates made documenting their school day. James Guld studied a cream-colored plastic device as all tried to remember who put it in the capsule and what exactly it was. Sam Wieczorek plopped himself on the edge of the auditorium stage and poured over an old magazine, his feet dangling free above the floor like a care-free kid again.
The attending children of LBI School along with school officials filled the auditorium, the sun beaming in through the windows as alumni joined the children to become curious students once again.
Mike Smith joined the group later, remarking with amazement that they put that capsule together and here it was once again, containing these relics from their former selves. Some forgot what item they had placed in the time capsule. Others rediscovered long-forgotten details of their days and pictures of themselves that brought them back to a simpler time.
The one person missing from the happy, surreal day was their teacher, George Cafarelli. Living in retirement in Manahawkin, he passed in 2008 while his wife, Jane, also one of the group’s teachers, passed a few years later. But he was there that day in spirit. The first item out of the capsule, the cream-colored device everyone struggled to explain, was after discussion confirmed to be Cafarelli’s contribution. He enjoyed studying the weather, they recalled, and this was a radiosonde that could transmit weather data when launched with a high-altitude balloon. From there, the former students took turns going through the box, sharing stories with the children who stayed after the ceremony to hold an object as ordinary and similar as any they still use today but a small reminder that big things have small beginnings. Lives sprawl and meander through joy and tragedy, success and failure, childhood and grandparentage. But each life begins with the little things like a crayon, scissors, a classroom, or a dream of what you will be when you grow up on an island you call home. Carfarelli’s students knew that for certain last October, and maybe the children following in their footsteps got a small sense of it, too.