Helen (Gerdes) Raschi (1933-2013) came to Perkins from Maine in 1945. At Perkins, she was a member of the Glee Club and performed in the production of “Patience” in 1949 along with others. She remembers the opportunities that were offered to her as a student, including a field trip to the U.S.S. Wasp. She also has fond memories of celebrating Anagnos Day and Christmas. After leaving Perkins in 1951, she worked at the Boston Nursery for Blind Babies on Huntington Avenue in Jamaica Plain. In 1952, she married fellow Perkins student Eugene Raschi. Two of their children later attended Perkins.
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This interview is a digitized copy of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Perkins School for the Blind. The interview was conducted on June 12, 2004, by Susan Summersby. The audio and transcript provided unedited.
This oral history transcript may be quoted if cited. A preferred citation is provided. The interview may not be published in full except with the permission of the Perkins School for the Blind. For permission please contact [email protected]
Raschi, Helen. “Helen Raschi oral history interview conducted by Susan Summersby,” 2004-06-12, Perkins Archives Oral History Project, AG195-2004-09, Perkins School for the Blind Archives.
Susan Summersby: This is Susan Summersby, and I’m here at Perkins on Alumni Weekend. It’s June 12th, 2004, and as part of the oral history project, I’m going to be interviewing Helen Raschi. Helen, if you could just start by giving us your full name and spelling your maiden and last name, please.
Helen Raschi: OK, my name is Helen. I’m sorry. My name is Helen Gerges Raschi. I was born July 2nd, 1933, in Portland, Maine.
Summersby: And your age.
Raschi: My age is now 70. I’m going to be 71 in July.
Summersby: And date of birth?
Raschi: And date of birth, July 2nd, 1933.
Summersby: And you were here at Perkins between 1941 and 1950?
Raschi: End of ’40 to 1950
Summersby: Well, I wanted to ask you about your experience and time here at Perkins, and perhaps you could tell us about, looking back, what do you value most about your education here at Perkins?
Raschi: Well, I really valuable in this country from my heart that I had the opportunity to come here because I lived in the state of Maine, and I didn’t have much to be offered to me being the child that I was and under the certain circumstances that I was. So coming to Perkins kind of ballooned my whole life up. Although when I first came, I was petrified because I never saw so many blind children in my life, so I was very, very shy and very, very quiet for the first six months. But I gradually got to know some of the students and then I went on from there.
Summersby: What classes did you take here?
Raschi: Well, I was down in lower school, so I took the normal classes, the, you know, the major classes, the history, English, and whatever, and took the gymnastics and sports and swimming and activities of really getting around to know the school. Speech lessons, which was fully required when you first came to Perkins. Also took braille classes, which was definitely required so that you would get to know not only what you used– like I used, at that time, large print but they wanted us to learn braille. And it was very interesting because we never had it before and you had to learn it. At the time of my age, it was very, very interesting, and I will never regret it now.
Summersby: And what was life like living in the cottages?
Raschi: It was different but kind of exciting because you never knew who you’re going to have one year to the next for a roommate. So you did get to know, sometimes, one or two a little more than others because one roommate, you might have one, one roommate, you might have two others, but it was interesting fun. You learned a lot from each other because we are from different areas of different states, you know?
Summersby: And during your free time, what did kids do? What did you do for–
Raschi: During our free time down in lower school, we had– we stayed on the grounds, but on weekends sometimes they used to take us out for small tours or for long walks. We would have a special teacher on duty that would do some activities with us. At nighttime, every single night from 6:30 until 9:00, staff would read different stories to us before we went to bed. They weren’t too much un-normal from what you would have in your own home.
Summersby: Were there clubs or hobbies or extracurricular things that you participated in while you were–
Raschi: At the time, we only had– let’s see, we had Girl Scouts. We had Girl Scouts and on the side we might have done some, through the gym we might have had some extra activities. Like we used to have what they called play day in May. And we used to do the totem pole.
Summersby: Oh, really?
Raschi: Yeah, dance around the pole.
Summersby: Where was that held?
Raschi: That was down in the Lower School between May and Glover Cottage. And we used to have activities with rollerskating, so that we could go to a rollerskating rink once in a while. Activities with playing volleyball or kickball or whatever, you know?
Summersby: What would you say would have brought you your greatest joy while you were here? Was there a time or memory that–
Raschi: Well, I can honestly say, over and over, I was so fortunate to come here. I mean, I never knew of the school before. So I was very, very lucky to be had the opportunity. What I got out of Perkins was really an awful, awful lot.
I’ll never regret coming here, because I was also taught a lot, not only with the main school area, but by the time I did leave school, I was able to be able to know what it was to do home economics, to be able to care for myself, to be able to go places on my own, be able to help others. Because where I had a lot of sight at that time, I used to guide a lot of the blind girls, you know.
We weren’t confined that much. And we always had somebody taking us somewhere, you know. And I will never forget a lot of the opportunities that we did have, like we had a chance to go to the (USS) Wasp the great big boat, you know? We went there. And then we had the opportunity to go to the airport a couple of times as a Lower School group.
We also celebrated Anagnos Day, which really was exciting and thrilled, because it taught us how to know how Anagnos, their founder, was about. And we also had the opportunity not only to go on the Wasp, but like that, we had people come in from out of school, like Jimmy Durante and Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, and a few other stars to visit the school and have the opportunity to and hear them singing. All talked to us and everything, you know?
Summersby: I’m actually curious how you got here from Maine. How did you get placed here, or come to–
Raschi: Well, each New England state that worked with a social worker from each state to the social worker here at Perkins. And they contacted from Maine, so when I first came here, the social worker was going to bring me, but they had a close friend bring me and then the social worker met me here. And then I had some meetings with her in order to get introduced into the school, you know.
And she was from the state of Maine. And then she was the same social worker that I had when I left to be placed if I didn’t want to go back to Maine. So she helped me when I left school, and I didn’t want to go back to Maine, ’cause I had nobody to go to, because my family all disappeared to California and so forth. So I had nobody.
So she placed me a job between her and a friend in Belmont, and they let me go over working at the Boston Nursery for Blind Babies in Huntington Avenue in Jamaica Plain. So I had my opportunity of placing myself in there and having a room, a living quarters. And I worked every day from there for, I think I worked there for about six years.
Summersby: Were there teachers here at Perkins, or staff that were the greatest influence? Can you think of any particular teacher or staff person that made a big influence on your life while you were here?
Raschi: Well, there were several. The house mother down at Lower School, her name was Mrs. Slough. She was really a motherly type, the kind that not only was a mother herself with her own family, but she worked at the school every day with us. And she was the motherly type who would really be a close watch over us. We’d confide in her, she’d confide in us.
She always kept us up with our clean clothes and our looks and everything. You know, told us what to do and so forth. She was concerned if we were kind of like withdrawn from the others, which I was sometimes, because I used to sit by myself because I was somewhat shy and somewhat scared. But she helped me an awful lot. So she was one of my mentors down at Lower School.
And then I had Jane Smith, who I really looked up to. And there were one or two other teachers down at Lower School. And then I got to the Upper School and there were several up in the Upper School.
But you always found somebody who cared and that you could really talk to. You never had to withdrawn yourself away from anybody, because you could always find somebody who would talk to you and give you guidance. I would never, never fall back on Perkins in that way, because they always gave me the opportunity, and I thank God I was alive when I was to be able to go to school when I did, you know? And today I can only say that if there’s a lot of blind children that go here now, I always hope that they’ll get the opportunity that I had.
Summersby: What was the most significant historical event that occurred here during your time? Not here, just that happened during your time. Obviously, the war was going on while you were here.
Raschi: Yeah. I think by the time I got to the Upper School, I was amazed and so thrilled knowing that the Upper School gave live plays. You know, like Patience, Oklahoma, and a few others. And the teachers all worked together with music. And Mr. Jenkins, who wrote music himself, did some of the things.
But it gave us the opportunity to know what it was like to be on stage as well as, if you weren’t on the stage, like, one year when we gave Patience, some of us weren’t in it. It was mostly the higher classes and the high school and everything. And we had the opportunity, like when we were in junior high, to be able to wait on tables to know what it was to be a little cocktail waitress.
And I thought that was cool. I thought that was like, hey, we’re like somebody outside, doing something different, you know? But it was very interesting and it was alarming to the point where you had to be responsible. You know, holding money. You had a whole table to wait for. You know, they were, like, across the hall.
And they would give you a boy and a girl, a boy and a girl, to work at each table. So the boy would carry all the drinks and carry the harder stuff, where we would take the sandwiches and the chips and stuff like that, you know? It was very, very interesting.
Summersby: Do you have any particularly fond memories of special holidays here at Perkins, or how the holidays were celebrated?
Raschi: Oh, the Christmases were beautiful. The Christmases, they had everywhere in the whole grounds decorated, you know? And it was amazing how much activities went on through the whole December month. You know besides, the concerts, they would have entertainment in each cottage individually at Christmas.
Summersby: By the students or the staff? The entertainment was by–
Raschi: Well what it was, was each cottage would have an individual Christmas tree in each cottage, and then they would have, like, a home party. Like, in other words, that cottage would give a Christmas party so that you would have a Christmas party before you left, like a family Christmas party. So you were not only with the students that you lived with, you were with the staff that was in that cottage, you know?
Summersby: Very nice. How would you grade your overall experience at Perkins if you had to give it a grade?
Raschi: If I had to give it a grade, what, like one to 10?
Summersby: Yeah, or A, B, C, D.
Raschi: Well, if it was one to 10, 10 the highest, I’d give it– really, truly got a lot out of it. I mean, even in the winter months when it was real– we used to have blizzards and snowstorms and everything– even then they found a lot for us to do, or we found a lot for ourselves to do. Like, we used to go tobogganing behind Brooks Cottage. We used to have the pond that we used to go ice skating every day.
You know, we used to have the opportunity as kids, we used to love it when the snow came, because we used to roll in it and snowball fights, but we used to really get on top of the staff who would have the duty of plowing and we’d be in their way, you know? But it was a lot of fun. So they kept saying, if don’t move, then I’m gonna let the snow blow you, you know? And it was interesting learning how to remove yourself and find yourself around the tunnels, going from one area of the school to the other, you know, when we could get out of school because we had the tunnels.
Summersby: Oh, I see. So the tunnels were used. We don’t use the tunnels now, so–
Raschi: But we used to –
Summersby: –used them to actually– in bad weather, you’d travel through the tunnels.
Raschi: That’s right. Like, in other words, if we were in the Lower School and we had classes from there down to the Upper School, especially at Christmas time, the teachers would take us through. Like going to the concerts, we’d all have to go together and go through the tunnels so you wouldn’t have to go through the outside, you know?
Summersby: Oh, so you wouldn’t even need a coat.
Raschi: That’s right. So we’d go in the tunnel in our white dresses– because we used to wear white dresses– up on the balcony. And then when you get in the Upper School, you had to learn to go from each cottage over to the main building if it was hard walking, if it was hard getting up, but you still couldn’t miss school.
Summersby: No snow days.
Raschi: Of course, we went to school every Saturday morning, which was mighty different. But back then, I can honestly say again, I would never regret. Because we felt– in fact, my friend and I just had woken up from a little nap over there and we were talking about it. We were saying how amazing it was that we had to go to school from 8:30 in the morning right up until 4:30 in the afternoon.
Raschi: And then by the time we would go over to the house and wash yourself up for supper, it was 6 o’clock. We’d have supper at 6:00, and then before we knew it, it was 7:00, 7:30, and we’d have to go back to the school for study hall.
Summersby: Wow, long day.
Raschi: Yeah. So we had study hall, junior high, we’d have from 7:30 to 8:30 and the seniors would have from 7:00 to 9:00, you know?
Summersby: Now, where was the study hall? Was it in all together in one place, or individual classrooms?
Raschi: Well we used to do it in our classrooms at the beginning. In different classrooms, which they would call our homerooms, at first, and then they gradually made the two study halls, which now are now study halls. That they used to have two study halls, one for the boys and one for the girls. And then gradually they went into something else, you know? After we had open house for the public and everything, you know?
But it was very, very interesting and very different, you know? And I truthfully, almost excitingly, looked forward for the fall to come. And I think not I, but a lot of other students who will tell the same thing if there were other– that didn’t really have family that understood, or didn’t have family at all, who had to be with different people every time they went home, you know?
So it was an amazing, exciting experience, to which one I’ll never forget. And that’s why I enjoy coming back to Alumni Association every year to see real old friends and to reunite with even staff and [INAUDIBLE] looking back, you know?
Summersby: Now, do you stay in touch with those folks throughout the year or just do you only get to see them on a weekend?
Raschi: No, I’m still in touch with a lot of them that didn’t even come today, like I have some from Florida, from Texas and some from Mexico. And different ones that I correspond with, and I hear from them. And if there’s an opportunity that they have, can come back. I’ll be sure to be back here at Alumni to see them, you know?
Summersby: Well, the last question is some parting advice for this year’s graduating class, if you could give them some advice from your experiences being out in the world after you left.
Raschi: Well, as they say in any public schools if you listen to some of the ceremonies, in the year now, and I doubt going to the white world of yonder. And I would only wish them the best of luck and realize the opportunities that they did have while they were here, and remember how the experience that they had to go through, and what they were taught, and how they were taught it. I mean, each generation was taught a little different than they were today, because back when we were, it was much, much stricter.
And we were taught how to do an awful lot of– I mean, we used to have to clean the houses, wash the windows, a lot more than they do today. We did dishes, wherefore they have dishwasher today, you know? So we were taught back then. And I think with some of that– a new cooking book, just to give [INAUDIBLE], you’re having a cooking book come out. And I think through that cooking book will be taught a lesson of a lot of the experiences of a lot of people who now do their own cooking.
Now, I raised seven children, and if it wasn’t for Perkins and having home economics classes like I did, and having the great teacher, Mrs. Cumberland, that I did, I would’ve never had the opportunity of having been able to cook for a totally blind man as well as seven children on my own. You know? So I raised them all myself with no help, and I’m very proud to say that I know down deep in my heart I did the very best I could.
And I thank Perkins for an awful lot. I thank certain people, such as Mr. Hemphill, who was an old teacher, who was the bursar’s office. And Dr. Waterhouse, who was a fantastic not only director, but he was a teacher that we all loved. Miss Bigelow and Miss Pinkham, who were gymnastic teachers that we had in gymnastic and all the meets that we gave, you know? I mean, there were so many, just so many people that I could never forget. I mean, I’m just grateful to have known them, you know?
Summersby: Well, thank you, Helen, for all that you offered and shared today for this project. We really appreciate it and so does the school.
Raschi: It’s so nice meeting you, Susan. I thank you for the–
Summersby: Very nice to meet you.
Raschi: –opportunity to do this.
Summersby: I’ve totally enjoyed it, so thank you very much for sharing. And is there any last thing that I haven’t asked that you would like to share about your experience here at Perkins?
Raschi: No. I know I had two children that ended up going here in a generation after me, and it was completely different from our generation. And we were shown that, because when they told me they didn’t have to do this or do that, I said, uh-uh. You’re still going to do this and that that I was taught, you know? But it was an experience to know that they were taught a little different than I was, you know. But whoever leaves the school today, tomorrow, or here on, I just hope that they’ll always remember how grateful and the opportunities that they had from Perkins, you know?
Summersby: That’s very nice. Very nice.
Raschi: And thank you for the interview, and I hope that you enjoyed just getting to know all the–
Summersby: I certainly did, very much so. Thank you, Helen.
Raschi: OK, hon.