Despite having attended UCLA during the Great Depression, Norma Reid Hildebrandt (BA ’41) looks back on her college years as among the happiest of her life. Having grown up in Huntington Beach when the city’s population totaled 3,000, she enrolled at UCLA in the fall of 1937, attracted by the low tuition, the presence of her elder sister, Jean Reid, who was studying to become a librarian, and the beauty of its campus. She still remembers the bus ride she took with her sister up Hilgard Avenue for her first tour of campus. In the late 1930s, she recalls, campus was accessible from the south via Hilgard Avenue or “the path,” today’s Westwood Plaza, which was then just a dirt path that led from Le Conte Street through the alfalfa fields to the gymnasiums and athletic fields.
Throughout her four years at UCLA, Norma lived in Rudy Hall at 1017 Tiverton Avenue, an apartment building that opened onto a lush courtyard. Of her two roommates, one was a good friend from elementary school in Huntington Beach. The three lived in the front apartment that consisted of a kitchen, common space, where one girl would sleep on the sofa and two on Murphy Beds, which swung out from the closets and could be stored away to provide space. In spite of the extensive list of house rules that dictated quiet hours and how and when they might receive guests, Norma and her roommates succeeded in having a great deal of fun. Sometimes when arriving home from dates after curfew, the girls would climb over the gate and in through the house windows.
On weekends, Norma worked at Sears in the yard goods department, making 40 cents per hour and eventually 45 cents. She also worked for the school system, correcting tests and papers of junior high students. In those days, she says, Westwood Village was newly established with department stores such as Bullock’s, Sears, J.C. Penny and Desmonds. “On Saturday nights it turned into a ghost town,” as students left campus for dates and parties in Hollywood or elsewhere. Norma often spent her free time sunbathing in the Rudy Hall courtyard or at the beach, going on dates to formals or to the movies with boyfriends from UCLA and USC, attending football games at the Coliseum, and on one occasion taking the night train to UC Berkeley to cheer on UCLA. “There was also an ice skating rink in town,” she recalls, which was a favorite venue for dates.
Having played the violin thoughout high school, as a freshman Norma joined the UCLA Symphony Orchestra, which was led by the band instructor Dr. Leroy W. Allen of the Music Department. Norma enjoyed music and chose it as her minor. Being the last chair of the second violins, she played more for fun than for serious study.
Norma chose to major in elementary education, where she studied under Corinne Seeds, whom she found to be “tough and demanding of her students.” Ms. Seeds was famous for her emphasis on dramatic play as a critical component of the curriculum, Norma recalls, and taught elementary education students to structure their teaching around themes for each grade level. When Norma was a student, the theme assigned to first grade student teachers was “the farm;” for second grade teachers, “the railroad;” for third grade, “California Indians;” and for fourth grade, “California History.” The Education students would have to create a series of lesson plans and other classroom artifacts structured around this theme to include in his or her “Seeds Box,” which would be graded at the end of the semester.
“We built trains out of cheese boxes and sets that students could play in. One that I remember in particular was an Egyptian set with actual sand pasted to its walls. They were quite elaborate.”
Another important figure at UCLA for Norma was Dr. Fernald of the Psychology Department, from whom Norma took a class in child psychology. Working with students of normal intelligence who displayed various learning abilities and methods but were all unable to read, Dr. Fernald developed an innovative method of teaching spelling that could be applied to each child’s preferred method of learning. Norma learned the method in one of Corinne Seeds’ classes, and the method was used broadly by the education department at the time.
The method can be described as follows: first, a word would be written on the board and pronouhced by the teacher, who would then explain its meaning. Second, the word was written again with dashes inserted to identify the syllable breaks, and the teacher would discuss unique parts of the word such as silent letters. The child would then pronounce the word three times. Next, the teacher would rewrite the word without syllable breaks and the child would close his or her eyes, picture the word, and say it three times. The child could also use a finger to write the word on the top of his or her desk to allow for the child’s processing of the physical shape of the word. Finally, the child would write the word on paper and pronounce it. Norma found this method very effective as a teacher and used it throughout her career.
In her senior year, Norma conducted her student teaching in Mrs. Herzgberg’s second grade classroom at Sawtelle Elementary. She remembers being struck by the socio-economic contrast between the poorer students at Sawtelle and the children of celebrities and UCLA faculty members that frequently attended UES. When Norma was in the Education program, for example, the niece of Luella Parsons, a famous gossip columnist for the LA Times, attend UES. At Sawtelle, Norma gained a richer perspective on the ranked positions of LA City Schools.
Teaching jobs were scarce after Norma’s graduation from UCLA due to the Depression. Her first job was in the Montebello School district, teaching first through fifth grade.
“I didn’t want to get in a rut,” she says, “So I taught a different grade each year, with my favorite being fourth grade. I liked teaching California history.“
After a few years’ hiatus from teaching, when she worked as a stewardess for American Airlines, flying DC3s back and forth from Fort Worth to Mexico City, Norma returned to education as a substitute and later full-time teacher in the LA City School system, where she taught first through fourth grade for 23 years. Looking back over her career, Norma says, “There is never a dull moment when it comes to teaching… and UCLA prepared us well.”