SANTA ZANNI: Cynthia Prescott

Steven C. Levi
12 min readFeb 29, 2020

Cynthia Prescott

Cynthia Prescott looked exactly like what she was, the school marm. She was the longest serving teacher in Santa Zanni having started when the school was one room in City Hall. By 1916 it was a stand-alone structure with a half-dozen classes plus a boiler room and a front office. Prescott was close to 60 in 1916 but she was just as spry with her six decades as the five other marms, none of them older than half her age. She had been offered the job of principal many times but had preferred to stay in the classroom where, as she said, “the future of Santa Zanni was learning the basics of running the businesses of the city.” She may not have been the principal, Sam Shepherd was, but she ran the school. Sam was a figurehead, a chamber of commerce charmer who had failed at every enterprise he had entered. However, it should be said that Sam was the perfect choice for principal because he had the ability to pry donations for the school from every business in town. He was a fund raiser not an educator.

There was good reason for Prescott to be concerned about her students. She could read the tea leaves. Technology was speeding up the social processes while, at the same time, the old enemies of mankind were still alive, virulent and well. Cars were getting faster, planes were getting larger and trains were carrying more cargo. But across the Atlantic men were being shot by the millions over the squabbles of a few royal families. It would not be long before America got into the Great War and many of her 15-year-old boys were going to be uniform before they would get a diploma.

It wasn’t the killing and the dying she worried about. It was the living. America was going to be a very changed place after the war. Some of her boys would be killed but a lot more were going to stay in the larger cities, many of them on the East Coast. She was going to be the last chance most of those boys would have at an education. Every moment of mathematics, history, English and history were precious. What they left with was going to be all that they were ever going to get. It would have to last them a lifetime.

For the girls, there was another war. Month by month she read of the spread of women’s suffrage. The marches, the jailings and the hunger strikes. For half a century women had been a significant part of every social justice movement in America: abolition, free education, prohibition. Now it was their turn. Prescott knew what that meant for her girls. After graduation they were not going to be just wives and mothers. They were going to be accountants before they would become wives and mothers. Or lawyers then wives and mothers. If not them then surely their daughters. America was changing and the role of the woman was changing as well. Quickly. The 15-year-old girls in Prescott’s classes were not going from the classroom directly into the kitchen. There was going to be an intermediate destination, a stop along the way, like a new railway station along a trunk line. And who knew how many boys would not be coming back from that war in Europe?

It is important to state that the primary reason Prescott was so successful as a teacher was because she was not parochial. She knew there was a big wide world out there even though she, born and bred in Central California, had never been there. One did have to go to Paris to know that it existed. Prescott could not afford to go to Paris, not that she ever wanted to, but she did not bind her vision to the city limits of Santa Zanni. In this she was worldly. Even more important, she was an advocate of the teachings of the single most important man in education the decades: John Dewey.

John Dewey was the greatest innovation in education since the invention of the pencil in 1564. It was in 1916, mid-career for Cynthia Prescott, that Dewey’s seminal work — DEMOCRACY AND EDUCATION — was published. That book changed American education, American educators and progressive thinkers and added a new word to the American political lexicon: pragmatism. Education was not enough; it had to be both useful and usable. If it was not useful it was not usable. If it was not usable it was not useful. If not usable and useful, what were students doing in school?

John Dewey was no slouch when it came to understanding what education was and what it was not. What it was not was useful and usable. In 1916 it was rote memory and the dumping of a wagonload of facts into the cast iron skulls of students with the hope that something good would come of all that learnin’. It was not practical, innovative and civically uplifting. Dewey viewed the future of education as the future of democracy. It would do no good to extend voting to women, for instance, if the women did not have a good understanding of the government for which they were voting. Voters who were immigrants with no understanding of the American system, non-English speakers, Indians and illiterates posed the same problem. They needed to be educated and then they needed to vote. Democracy could not work in a vacuum. Schools had to be an integral part of democracy and democracy had to be an integral part of education. There could not be one without the other, like two sides of coin.

Dewey was the right person in education at the right time in American education history but he was a failure because he was a theorist, not a nuts-and-bolts person. That was where the Cynthia Prescotts of America did him one better. They were not theorists. They were nuts-and-bolts people. They were in the educational trenches. Prescott was an exemplary school marm because she understood that she was educating her pupils for jobs. Real jobs, jobs they could find advertised in the newspaper. She was not teaching history and mathematics so students would learn the basics; she taught history and mathematics so students could use what they learned in class the instant they walked home from class. It was a revolutionary concept, teaching real life skills using academic tools.

As an example, she used the Santa Zanni Gazette as a text — which made her the editor’s best friend in town — and brought businessmen from as far as Salinas to talk to her young men and women. She wanted her students to know what they could expect working in the canning business, as an accountant or with the railroad. She wanted them to see that what they were learning in class was going to be useful and usable when they went to work. What she taught would last them a lifetime: visits by the businessmen proved it.

She also did John Dewey one better by actively bringing the community into her classroom. She demanded that the town’s labor leaders and chamber of commerce board meet with her together once a semester. Here were men who would rather eat raw catfish than acknowledge each other on the street much less in the same room. But they would come together and meet with Prescott because she had their interest at heart. She was educating their employees and members before those young people applied for a job or filed out a union application.

What Prescott wanted to know from both sides of the business table — and on an ongoing basis — was exactly what her students had to know that moment to be successful in business and labor jobs. What was new? What was on its way to obsolescence? Was there new equipment being tested? What markets were opening? What products were dying on general stores shelves? What languages should a student study if he or she wanted a long-term job?

Even more important, she collected every bit of paperwork she could from both business and labor. Whether it was instructions on how to operate a locomotive, a packing label for cargo, a labor organizing handbill, sales contract or a bill of lading, she wanted that paperwork for her classes. Reading the Santa Zanni Gazette was all fine and good for the city-wide, state-wide, national-wide and world-wide news but her students were going to have to make a living by using machines, joining unions, fixing cars, flying airplanes or balancing account books. Their best chance at being successful was to know well ahead of time what was going to be expected of them when they left school. She had boxes of paperwork in her classroom, every sheet current and offering a glimpse into the real world her students were going to be joining.

But she was more than an educator. She was also an inculcator. She did not just want her students to be knowledgeable when it came to facts and figures; she wanted them to be socially in tune with their society. She understood that being smart did not necessarily mean being successful. Being socially connected was a great start for any young man or woman but if you could not rise to the intellectual or social level of your peers, your career would go nowhere. Her graduates had to be prepared to move up the rungs of the ladder to success. Getting to the first rung meant being educated. Thereafter it was a matter of hard work and etiquette. The hard work had to come from within; etiquette could be taught.

It was the teaching of etiquette that made Cheryl Prescott the most valuable asset of every business in California. She did not just teach students; she was grooming them for the highest positions they wished to attain. She understood that education was the way up and out of Santa Zanni. It was not as though she felt that Santa Zanni was an evil or substandard place to live. To the contrary, it was a fine place to live and work. But it was Santa Zanni. It was not Salinas or San Francisco or New York. It was a fine place to start from and a great place in which to retire, but it was not a place with that many occupational ladders. That meant that every one of her students with brains and talent was going to be leaving Santa Zanni, some never to come back. Her job was to give those students the best possible footing for a career neither they nor she knew was in the student’s future.

Prescott set the tone of her training — and it was training — by not referring to it as etiquette. She was not teaching etiquette. Classical etiquette, from Prescott’s point of view, was hog wash. Most of the traditional lessons of etiquette were simply thinly veiled rules for being acceptable in your own class of people. Those rules you would learn at home from your parents or your godparents. Prescott did not have time for those rules. She wanted her students to leap class lines. To do so they had to be as polished as those on the upper side of that class line.

She practiced a three-pronged approach to the transformation of her small-town wards. First, there was basic, pragmatic education. The teaching of academic subjects was done in such a way that the knowledge gained was useful and usable. Second, her students had to be well-read in both the classics and the newspaper. In any conversation that had to have at least a passing knowledge of Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde as well as be able to participate in a discussion of the Boer War, Boxer Rebellion and what rates for East Coast goods on the West Coast were going to be because the Panama Canal is now open.

She referred to her brand of etiquette as “social currency.” She knew that it was that first impression that was, well, a first impression in all of its societal meanings. And that first impression was particularly powerful in a city other than Santa Zanni when the people on whom you were calling did not now know you from a hole in the wall. So she spent a great deal of effort on calling cards because they, the cards, were your entre’ when you were not there.

There was an even more important reason to know the rules of calling cards. In addition to the fact that no one in Santa Zanni had calling cards much less knew how to leave them, every one of her students were going to want to impress someone and those someones were going to expect calling cards. America was at the tail end of the Gilded Age and the protocol for leaving cards was on a silver tray held by a servant. Everyone answered their own door in Santa Zanni; no one of merit in a large city did. So your first impression was going to be that calling card on that silver tray held by the servant.

Generally, as Prescott drilled into her student’s heads, you should never expect to see the person you wanted to see on your first visit. That would just not be proper. So you called when it was convenient for you and left a calling card. If you received an envelope with their calling card in it, that was your invitation to call again and this time you would be received. If you got your calling card back in that envelope, you were being given the brush off.

Calling cards were about the size of playing card and only had a name printed on it in a fancy font. No address, no business affiliation and certainly no design or Latin phrase. No titles were allowed — this was not surprising to the young men and women of Santa Zanni — and men’s cards were smaller than women’s. Smallest of all was a single man’s card. Messages could be left with card either by turning down a corner of card or writing an abbreviation. The rules for turning down the corners were quite strict:

1. A visit in person (as opposed to being sent by a servant): the right-hand upper corner

2. A congratulatory visit: the left-hand upper corner

3. A condolence visit: the left-hand lower corner

4. Taking leave (if you were going on a long trip): right hand lower corner

The rules for abbreviation were quite strict as well. All abbreviation were for French terms:

  1. p. f. — congratulations (pour féliciter)
  2. p. r. — expressing one’s thanks (pour remercier)
  3. p. c. — mourning expression (pour condoléance)
  4. p. f. N. A. — Happy New Year (pour feliciter Nouvel An)
  5. p. p. c. — meaning to take leave (pour prendre congé)
  6. p. p. — if you want to be introduced to anybody, send your visiting card (pour présenter)

Cards were also sent for congratulations. After the birth of a child, for instance, a card was sent rather than a personal visit. Waiting a month before an actual appearance was most proper. If a wedding was involved and the man only included his family and close friends, he would send his old card — the small one that indicated he was single — to those whom he wished to remain friends. If you received such a card, a visit after about 10 days was proper.

The rules of social currency went on and on. Entire books were written on the intricacies of social intercourse. But those books were available in libraries and bookstores. No student had to memorize arcane rules to make a first impression. The only thing the student had to do was keep in mind the basic thought that he or she was involved with social currency. Prescott drilled this into her students. It was social currency because you were collecting things that were as good as money. Good will was just like a bank draft. If someone liked you, you could do business with them. That, as businesspeople say, is the bottom line. It’s where the profit is. Social currency is of no value whatsoever if there is not something for you in the exchange. Do not waste your time, your social currency, on people who will not reciprocate. When you received your card back in an envelope, consider it a victory, Prescott taught. Now you knew at least one person who is not worth your time. If you ever get a card from them at a later time, watch out. They wanted something.

Like all great teachers, Cynthia Prescott never knew if she had made an iota of difference in any city other than Santa Zanni. She continued teaching through the Great War and died of the Spanish Flu in 1919. By then the school had a dozen rooms and the county was building a trade school midway between Salinas and Santa Zanni. Now students could learn to be mechanics, telegraph operators, pharmacists and even nurses. You still had to go to San Francisco to be a lawyer, accountant, doctor or veterinarian but Santa Zanni was growing with the new decade. It was going to be roar the Santa Zanni Gazette editorialized. An age where everything was going to roar!

Cynthia Prescott died in her small room in the back of the YWCA. It may have been threadbare to the naked eye but to her it was loaded with memories, letters from her former students from across the nation and around the world. Every one of them said thanks.

[This short story is from Steven Levi’s SANTA ZANNI available on Kindle. His mystery novels are at]