Elaine DiCicco
Principal, Concord-Carlisle High School

Age 57

Interviewed December 11, 1998

Concord Oral History Program
Renee Garrelick, Interviewer.

Click here for audio in .mp3 format

Elaine DiCiccoMy father was born and raised in Concord and so was I. He and his family lived on Belknap Street near the depot and he grew up there. My mother happened at the time that he met her to be living in Lincoln, and they were married and built a house on Fairhaven Road in Concord where I grew up. So I had the experience of visiting the Belknap area where my grandmother lived at the time, growing up on Fairhaven Road, and actually through the course of growing up seeing all the development that took place on Fairhaven Road, Southfield Road and the Riverdale Road area which was all new at the time.

At the end of Elsinore Street and, at that time, at the end of Belknap because they both ended up at the same place, this was before they connected Elsinore and made the round circle, there was an event called the cattle show. I can remember my father and my aunts and uncles talking about it because their home wasn't that far from that end of Belknap Street. Apparently it was a place of fun activity at the time. We used to walk there when I was a child. We'd walk up and look at the river. They weren't doing the cattle any more at that point, but I can remember their talking about it. Across the street from my grandmother's house we were told was Thoreau's pencil factory, at that time a rather dilapidated house but it was a source of great interest and intrigue to us as little children. First, to even imagine that somebody actually made pencils, and then to know that it was Henry David Thoreau.

Regardless of people's occupations at that time, everyone had chickens. My grandmother raised chickens. In fact that story was always retold to me, because as a child I could never understand why my father wouldn't eat chicken or turkey. As it turns out, it was his responsibility I guess to kill the chickens when it was time for them to be prepared for eating. I can remember seeing the chickens in her yard when I was a small kid. Gardens were also something that everybody seemed to have. My grandmother also had a grape arbor, and it was always fun when the grapes would ripen and we would get together and pick the Concord grapes. My grandfather used to make a wine. I never really had any occasion when I was small to experience it, but I remember on my parents 25th wedding anniversary, my father removed from the preserve closet in our cellar a bottle of wine that his father had made when they were married and had given them. It intrigued me that all of the color had now gone to the side of the bottle and when they poured the wine, it was totally white. It wasn't too bad. Some of the other bottles had turned to vinegar by that time. But that was something that they did. Of course, the children then including my father worked on the farms in the afternoons usually picking asparagus. He talked about delivering vegetables and selling them to various places in town along Main Street. My grandfather actually worked for the town and as I understand it was in charge of building Thoreau Street which impressed me to think that he did that. He was with the highway department and I guess the supervisor at the time.

Not many people had cars at that time. You had to do everything on foot and socialization was done around people's homes. I remember very clearly from growing up on Fairhaven Road, we had a very close-knit neighborhood that went all the way from Route 2 where Fairhaven Road began for us all the way down to Sudbury Road. That was the neighborhood. It wasn't just two or three houses immediately around your own house. I can remember neighborhood children in our yard all the time playing. My mother later told me that was the case because she liked to have the children there and enjoying what was our swing and our sandbox at the time. The entire neighborhood used to come together every summer for a clambake. Everyone would bring something and they would actually steam clams and cook lobsters and have hot dogs and corn and play games in the field behind our house that was used by Amendolia at the time to grow different crops, mostly asparagus. I also remember deliveries coming to the house because we didn't have a car. The baker would arrive once a week, and it just seemed that everybody knew when the baker was coming. So all of us kids would be in the driveway waiting for Rip, Brockelman's baker, to back his truck into the driveway. My mother would come out and the back doors of the truck would open and we would all see the wonderful food in drawers. I can always remember the drawers in the back of the truck. My mother would always make sure she bought something for everybody so we would have a treat that afternoon. That was pretty special. The milkman came and milk was in bottles. I have vague remembrances of an ice truck that used to go by the house although we had a refrigerator when I was small, but there was still an iceman who came by. So deliveries had to be made.

If we needed to go anyplace, we walked and we weren't that far from the center so that it didn't pose that much of a problem. I can remember walking to the town library, being introduced to the library by my mother, spending time there searching through the books and meeting Mrs. Norville who was the librarian. We walked everywhere even to the center of town, to the stores that were there at the time so that my mother could do her errands and then we would walk back to the house.

Life centered around the family, the neighborhood and church. Church was very important for us. We belonged and still do to St. Bernard's parish and through the years it became even more important because by the time I was in late elementary or junior high, there was talk of actually building a Catholic school here in town. The religious education of the children of the parishioners at St. Bernard's had always taken place at Sunday school and the lay people had spent their time teaching us. But the prospect of having a Catholic school in town was very exciting for all the members of the church including the church in West Concord, Our Lady's. The issue then became how does Cardinal Cushing, who was the person who was instrumental in bringing that into town, have the wherewithal to actually build the building? And I remember discussions of his having negotiated, the Cardinal that is, with the woman, I think her name was Mrs. Moses, who lived in the house on the property on Main Street which subsequently housed the convent, and agreeing with her that she would be able to stay on that property for the rest of her life and there was an arrangement made whether she donated the land or sold it very inexpensively to the Cardinal. But it meant that money had to be raised, and I can remember my parents and my friends' parents helping to support the building of the school. The Cardinal would come to town and there would be $100-a-plate dinners for example at Monument Hall. There would be fairs and shows that would be put on to raise money, and somehow it all happened. The money was raised and the school was built, and I can remember being in the Concord Public Schools thinking wouldn't it be nice if I could go to this new school. It was because I had asked that by the time I got to high school age, I transferred from the public schools to grade 9 at Rose Hawthorne which was the name of the school, named after Hawthorne's daughter who had started a community of sisters to take care of the poor in New York. As I look back on it, it was interesting to me that I was really the one that was very excited about wanting to go to the school, and as a result of that my parents supported me and said great, we'd love to have you do that, and it wasn't out of any disappointment or dissatisfaction with the public schools but rather it seemed an exciting opportunity for me. Since I was always too old to enter the elementary school because they began with kindergarten and added a grade a year, I was always ahead of that curve. My first opportunity was grade 9, and so I entered that school. It was soon after that talk began of starting a school for boys because Rose Hawthorne was just for girls, and Xavier was then built again by the Cardinal. It was during the time that I was at Rose Hawthorne that the school was being built. It was after I had graduated that it was really in operation. I graduated in 1959 and went on to Regis College in Weston. I was in the third graduating class at Rose Hawthorne; there were 24 members of that class so we were a very small high school.

Today it almost seems amusing to me actually but I can remember growing up and being told that it was not right for us to associate with, us being the Catholics, Protestants, and one of the worst things we could ever do would be to attend any of their religious services or even step inside their churches. I don't know what in the world was supposed to happen to us, but I can remember very early on, this was when I was really small, hearing from one of the parish priests, no, we don't associate, we find Catholic friends. As I grew older, it seemed that that mindset was changing and we had I think in our parish an absolutely wonderful person, Monsignor York, who was very friendly with Reverend Greeley of the First Parish Church. I know that they established some very strong bonds and it was those kinds of links that really changed a lot of that old thinking. Very soon it wasn't the wrong thing to do and the whole tenor of the community changed I think because people were no longer worrying about what will happen to me if I do this. Even now being able to imagine what that would be, but it was interesting now that I think back on it. I can remember well, my mother even told me stories about her childhood and being told that she couldn't be a member of the Girl Scouts because that was a Protestant organization. When I was growing up, I don't know how much that had changed but I was a Girl Scout with my mother's blessing and assistance, so things were even changing then. When you stop and think about it, it really isn't that many years ago. I think we've come a long way in a very short time.

I don't know if it was dogma of the church but it was certainly coming from church leaders and the faithful listened to what they had to say. I think there were many who couldn't quite understand that point and I had many non-Catholic friends in school and I can remember going to their homes talking about their church and it didn't seem to be a huge problem and certainly my parents weren't thinking I was going to meet my demise if I had non-Catholic friends. But for some people I think it was a huge concern. Luckily as time went on, attitudes changed and I think people became a lot more realistic about what's appropriate.

My understanding concerning a rivalry between Irish and Italian were that rivalries existed in my father's childhood. In fact, in the neighborhood where he grew up, there was an Irish population and an Italian population and I guess at times, they even came to blows. The way they are described I think is a lot more dramatic than what actually happened and yet it might resemble what some might think of as gang fights, but it was never at that level so it's hard to characterize it. But some of the Irish guys I guess would be giving the Italian guys some trouble. I remember a story that my father told me about a cousin of his who had just arrived from Italy who I guess was pretty strong and didn't speak English very well and they used to say to him, go get them. He was just so imposing that he scared them. I don't think he ever physically did anything to anybody but they used to talk about almost like neighborhood turf kinds of things. By the time they had grown up and by the time I was growing up, that kind of thing had also vanished and people used to joke about it.

As a teenager my social life was also geared around the Catholic youth organization with my friends at school and also family. We had a small group of young people at that time. We were probably in our late teens. There were only about 8 or 10 of us in the group and we used to meet at Monument Hall and in the bottom floor of Monument Hall are the Knights of Columbus quarters. They had a pool table at the time and we thought that was pretty special so we used to hold our meetings there so that we could play pool. And we would travel off to go to the movies which was a huge thing to think at our age, now this is our late teens, that we would actually get in a car together and drive out of town to the movies which is so taken for granted by kids today. Or drive off to someplace on Route 1 which seemed miles and hours away from home and it was probably only about 45 minutes at the time, to a drive-in restaurant because Arnie Ginsberg who happened to be a radio personality at the time was advertising that that's where we should go and get a hamburger or something and if you said the right thing, you would get a free meal and we thought that was great fun. That was our big night out to see if it actually worked, which it did by the way. But that was the kind of thing we did.

The movie theater was in Maynard. I remember we had a bowling alley but I remember being told that the Town of Concord did not want a movie theater. I do remember however when we were growing up about 51 Walden, which used to be called the Veterans Building when I was a kid. Every Saturday morning somebody had movies for the kids and we used to go there on Saturday morning and sit in these wooden folding chairs and watch the cartoons and maybe an Abbott & Costello movie and have candy that you could buy at the little counter. Those are the only movies that I think this town actually ever had. For entertainment even then we needed to leave Concord. In Maynard was the Fine Arts Theater and another one that is no longer there.

Before she had a family, my mother had worked for various families in Concord. She had lived with a number of families through her youth having been an orphan actually and a ward of the state from the time she was a very small child, and so her life was one of living with different families. When she became of high school age, she was living with a family in Lincoln and used to work for a family in Concord, actually the former chief of police's mother, Mrs. Ryan. I believe it was on the weekends that she would work there and then she would go back to the place where she was living in Lincoln during the week while she was at Concord High School. She also worked for David Little's parents. So she knew Mr. & Mrs. Harry Little and in fact it was they who actually gave her wedding reception when she was married so she worked there and I think was doing most of the cooking eventually. After she was married, she would go there to help with special parties that they would have. They had a special relationship and she had a very special regard for both Mr. & Mrs. Little. David Little was an usher at her wedding actually so she always talks of great fondness of that family.

My father as I said grew up in Concord and he apparently met Walter Shaw who at that time owned the Walter K. Shaw Cotton Company. He went to work for him and actually worked his way from a beginning level to Vice President of the company by the time he retired. He had worked there for I think it was over 50 years. But he learned the cotton business by beginning to work at the company because he hadn't gone to any cotton school. I don't know if there ever was such a thing. But he did become a recognized classer of cotton. There is a way you can pull cotton between your fingers and tell what the staple of the cotton is. I guess that's important in terms of what you would make with the cotton and how strong it would be for cloth. After having worked there for quite a while he actually was called in by the government to fly to Washington to settle disputes that plantation owners would have with the mills who were arguing whether they had gotten the right staple cotton. Toward the end of his career he actually ended up traveling with Gordon Shaw to Saudi Arabia because they had a huge cotton deal that they needed to attend to there. He did a lot of traveling and my mother went with him. This was when I was in late high school and college and they would find themselves traveling just about everywhere ¾ to England to English Sewing which was in Manchester having to meet with the owners and the head buyers there. They also had opportunities to travel in Europe with the cotton brokerage.

I had gone through college and had taught for three years in Uxbridge, Massachusetts and came back here as a French teacher in 1967. I so much enjoyed working with the faculty and the students here. In 1974 Superintendent of Schools Ralph Sloan asked me if I would be interested in leaving the classroom for one year and supervise the implementation of Chapter 766, which by now everybody recognizes as the big special education law in the state. I had been spending the past previous year, ‘73-'74 working with the Massachusetts Teachers Association in developing informational materials about the law, so I said sure, I would be interested in doing that, and I left the classroom in 1974 with the intention of returning in 1975. But actually I haven't been back on a full time basis since then. After a stint doing the Chapter 766 implementation, I was asked by Ralph again, would I please step in and replace the personnel director who had just resigned to take another job. I did that for a while with the promise that at the end of that particular assignment, I would be back in the classroom. It was near the end of that assignment that he approached me again and said, how about going to the high school as principal. So in January of 1978 I found myself here in these offices actually meeting with the two vice principals at the time, Frank Krypl and Hal Manley talking about what do I need to be aware of as I step into this position. As you see, I never left that position. Although a couple of times since then, I have had the opportunity to teach a French class so it hasn't totally been gone. Two years ago I taught a class for the full year and really enjoyed that.

To back up to Chapter 766, it was a law that had to be lobbied very strongly in the beginning. Back in the early ‘70s, people had clearly become aware of the fact that students who had learning disabilities and in particular students, young people, who were developmentally delayed or emotionally disturbed had really been put away in either institutions or if they were in schools, even students who were having difficulties reading, which later was diagnosed as having dyslexia for example, weren't being served well and were being served in less than adequate environment ¾ a closet in a school where somebody could tutor a student or in a hallway or maybe not at all. So the parents of these children and a particularly strong lobby from the parents of retarded children lobbied for Chapter 766 which was supposed to bring the children with disabilities and needs to a position of being able to receive a decent education. The law as it was constructed I think had the right intention and it was forward thinking. It was the first in the nation to be developed and Massachusetts really stood in the forefront. In fact the national legislation was based on Massachusetts. In the early years there were a lot of questions about what the law actually meant and they were questions in particular about private placements. A number of special education schools were in the process of being developed. Many of them were claiming that they could provide the education the public schools could not and since there was a law that stipulated that certain services had to be provided for students, they wanted the parents to know that they were ready to do it and the public schools really didn't know what they were doing.

It happened Concord had had special education services for years before the law ever was enacted. The teachers and the tutors had been working really hard with the students, they were aware of the impending legislation and they were developing educational plans when I entered that office in ‘74. We already had challenges from a number of parents who had students who were in private schools who wanted their children to remain in those private schools, and they were reluctant to bring them back to public school. I can on the one hand understand why that would be because the programs really weren't that well known to them. By the same token we wanted them back in the public schools because now we were responsible as a school system for paying the tuitions, we felt we could serve them. We spent the first few months actually not only being sure we were developing the right kinds of plans for the kids we had in the school, but working in a very adversarial manner in many cases, to bring students back to the school.

As that law had been implemented over the years, there have on occasion I think been abuses that have occurred because interpretations have been extended far beyond what the drafters of that legislation ever, ever intended. For example, I can remember in the first couple of years, people demanding that eye glasses be paid for by the school system for a student. It took a great deal of effort to be able to clarify that that was not the intent of the law. There are still issues that arise.

Massachusetts still has the most open and all encompassing special education law. In fact it goes beyond what the federal law does now and there are still questions about interpretation on some fronts, but I do strongly believe that across the board students with learning needs for any disabilities would have been well served. So, I would never want to say that we shouldn't have passed that legislation. What we need now are clearer definitions of exactly what the intent of the law is because it has become a very costly piece of legislation to implement, and in fact what some people predicted early on in terms of the funding having by law to go to special education eventually affecting regular education is coming to pass in a number of school systems. Certainly in our own school system we can see growing costs. We know we have to spend the money there and sometimes we end up shaving and cutting in regular education so we're sure we have the money there. But we need to find a way to be able to continue to implement that without pitting regular and special education against each other because we need to be doing right by all of our students.

Another good thing that has come out of it is that we actually work not only with special education students but all our regular education students in terms of what kinds of modifications or adaptations do we need to make and we've now come to the point of wanting to be able to determine what we can do in a regular education classroom to be able to serve student "x" so that that students doesn't have to become labeled as a special education student. Actually the people who designed the legislation from the beginning had always intended that students might get special services under Chapter 766 but the intent was to get out of that umbrella and back into the mainstream as much as possible without having to have this umbrella of special education. I think we're trying at least here, and I know a number of other school systems are, to take a look at the students on an individual basis in terms of their needs in the regular mainstream.

I can remember arriving here when I was about to become principal and having a whole different outlook. In ‘67 when I came as a teacher, my attention was really focused in the classroom and in the area that was known as foreign language department. So I really wasn't as aware of the entire school. During that period of time however, I obviously worked with other departments and was able through committees that I worked on to have some kind of feel for the rest of the school, but it was never the same as it would be first of all when I became president of the teachers association and was then responsible really to attend to the interests and the concerns of the entire faculty. Then as I had said in ‘78 when I came back as principal, I can remember the first few days when I returned speaking with the vice principals at the time and having them say to me well, this is what you need to be concerned about, those students you need to be concerned about and looking around at the school and what I felt was a lot of commotion and hustle and bustle in the hallways.

We had open campus, we still do as a matter of fact, but it seemed that students were everywhere and for some reason they weren't all necessarily getting along with each other either. It just seemed that the discipline code was being implemented all the time. It was a very cumbersome and complicated discipline code. I couldn't understand how anybody kept track of it because it was the first time you do "x" you suffer this time, the second time it's this, the third time, it's that, and it seemed to me to be horrendous recordkeeping. At any rate, it seemed to me at the time that one of the first things that needed to be done was to put more structure within the school or at least have a sense that it wasn't always in commotion. And at the same time I knew that at that point the involvement of our parents was not as great. In fact, the teachers were very reluctant to meet with the parents feeling that they were really trying to criticize and find fault with what they were doing, and the parents were very concerned that the teachers weren't really doing their jobs the way they thought it should be done and there was miscommunication all over the place. My initial goals if you will really focused around the climate in the school and the relationship among parents and faculty and school personnel and really trying to open the school to the community. I really had the sense that it seemed to be closed. And also trying to engage students and to establish a different kind of way to operate in the school. If we took a day back then and compared it to a day now, I think it's pretty much changed. Of course, other things have changed as well. The state has passed a law that there shall be no smoking on school grounds. I can remember even back in 1967 or early ‘70s smoke all over the place, not in the building but outside and courtyards that were so messy with cigarette butts and there were times when we really wondered whether they were just cigarettes or not also marijuana. Today we have a school that still has a great deal of personal freedom in it where students are able to demonstrate their responsibility and move around the building when they need to, but doesn't have the sense of out of control that it seemed to have then. Faculty and parents are working hand-in-hand where the school is really open to community and we have people from the community here working with us. It's a whole different atmosphere. Not that we're perfect every single day but I think it's changed. Perhaps also mirrors have changed in just societal attitudes. Back then there was more of a feeling that I send my child to school, you're the teacher you take care of my kid and whatever you say is fine to I'd really like to be involved in my child's education and I really do believe that when you say I'm a partner with you in education that I am and I like that kind of approach a lot better too.

I keep telling people adolescence will be adolescence will be adolescence. But I really think that students are faced with many, many more pressures, many, many more temptations if I qualify them as that than certainly I was and certainly I believe than students were back 20, 30 years ago. There's almost an unwritten rule that everybody has to be number one, and everybody has to go to the best college in the United States, and everybody has to get an A and everybody has to wear the right thing and be the best. It's not just Concord-Carlisle High School, it's what we see all around us. That troubles me a lot because not to be able to fail and not to be able to have even one fault makes it very difficult for students. At the same time they see the media, the movies, everything around them says that experimentation in all kinds of things which are very risky for them whether it be alcohol or drugs or even sexual activity is okay. I think sometimes we have to stop and recognize that our young people are not small adults and that there is a level of responsibility that is appropriate for them, but we can't expect them to be the mothers and the fathers and the statesmen and the governors. They need time to grow up. Sometimes I think we allow too much to be placed them and we allow them to place too much stress on themselves, so we keep working to find ways around that.

It is not insignificant to say that I am a woman educator. That struck me when I was first appointed. I had never really to be very honest given that much thought at all. When I was teaching in the classroom, it never seemed strange to me that anybody would decide anything on a gender basis and I guess that was my own naiveté at the time. The administration in the Concord Public Schools had always included women. There have been women principals at the junior high then, we didn't have a school called middle school, certainly elementary schools had women principals. Central office had women assistant superintendents, the director of student support services was a woman, the director of personnel was a woman, so for the superintendent to suggest that maybe I would like to be high school principal never struck me as oh, my goodness I'm a woman and here I am being offered a principalship. It wasn't until about two weeks after I was here in this office that I was approached by the town paper, The Concord Journal, which was doing an article and they were the ones who said, "And how does it feel to be a woman principal?" I was really taken aback by that and I can remember saying something like, "I really haven't given that any thought and actually I would assume that I've been asked to do this job because the superintendent feels I have the qualifications to do the job."

From that point on I thought about all that. I eventually found out I guess I was the second one in the state to become a high school principal and the first here in Concord. It's never seemed however some kind of huge special thing. I still look at it as I really hope that I've demonstrated that I have the ability and the qualifications to do the job and that is really what the superintendent at the time was looking at. I think that this school system, this community, is special in that way because I have not recognized any kind of discrimination, women are less than men, or can't do the same kind of job. Never in my whole growing up in this community did I ever sense that as an attitude or a practice and I think that is something special for what I experienced that it would be a strange thing to me to be some huge achievement. In this position and having met with colleagues and traveling outside my little small cocoon of Concord, it becomes very clear that all places aren't like this community, never were, and the people that I've had the privilege of knowing and growing up with don't exist everywhere.

Norton Levy and Elaine DiCicco

Text mounted 9 Jan. 2008; revised with images and audio added 6 July 2013 -- rcwh.