Newspapers also told stories about the heroism of Collinwood’s nine teachers, all women. In headlines, photographs, and drawings, they lived up to lofty expectations for duty and Most of my pupils are foreigners. They were too panic-stricken to mind me. . . . Seeing that I could not save any more, I jumped through the window.self-sacrifice, risking or losing their lives to shield children from onrushing flames. Grace Fiske, the second-grade teacher, made it out of the building alive but died from injuries inflicted during the fire. In The Cleveland Press, a caption beneath her photograph described her “wrapp[ing] her little charges in her skirts to protect them from the flames.” According to the Plain Dealer, Katherine Weiler, the only other teacher to die, had one foot on the fire escape and sure safety below. She then heard a cry for help from one of her third graders and returned to the blaze. These stories and others idealized the teachers as nurturers who, even at the cost of painful death, sacrificed themselves for the children.
But in longer stories beneath the headlines, complications broke into these portraits. Lulu Rowley, a third-grade teacher, helped several students out a window before climbing to safety herself. In a piece she wrote for The Cleveland Press, she felt the need to justify her survival: “Most of my pupils are foreigners,” she said of the immigrant children in her class. “They were too panic-stricken to mind me. . . . Seeing that I could not save any more, I jumped through the window.” Katherine Weiler, according to more than one witness, did not so much choose to die in service to the children as find herself caught in a stampede of students storming toward the clogged back door. At the end, rather than protecting students from the flames, she was more likely trampled to death by them. Miss Weiler, reported one paper, “was caught in the swaying mass and crushed to death.” The same mass of children pressed Grace Fiske brutally against the door jamb. Though rescued from the building, she died from her injuries.
Teachers in Collinwood did their best to evacuate the burning school. They and the newspapers could only imagine one reason—“panic”—that “foreign” students failed to hold tidy lines or divert to alternative escapes from the fire when urged to do so. But how well did many of these children understand English when their teachers called to them in the most dire and extreme circumstances? How fully did they trust the well-intentioned, almost uniformly protestant, young white women who taught them? How nurturing of “foreign” students were these teachers in vastly overcrowded classrooms during a period in which corporal discipline remained common? Such questions don’t have certain answers, but the surviving photographs from Collinwood of spartan, regimented classrooms packed with 40 elementary schoolers don’t suggest any educational intimacy. Terrorized by smoke and flames, the children might not have heard any voice in the world during a primal rush for safety. Or maybe their “panic”Cleveland Leader, March 5, 1908. was partly a product of having only those who thought of them as “foriegners” to guide them through the horror of the fire. Would they have heard their parents differently? Would they have heard calls made in their native tongue? The well-intentioned teachers in Collinwood suffered with their failure after the tragedy, always explaining it as the result of the children’s pure panic. The newspapers, meanwhile, shaped these young and well-intentioned women into heroic emblems of white Protestant femininity.