A Sunnyside Story
by Marjorie (Godlin) Roemer
How to comb through all the disparate memories, the moments preserved as if in amber, and all the others lost forever? We lived across the street from P.S. 150 Queens. I could see it from my bedroom windows. I watched children going and coming. 43rd Avenue was a busy street, lots of movement.
When it was time for me to go to school, I remember being overwhelmed by its size. That first day in kindergarten, crowded, so many children crammed together in a room. Did it already smell of sour milk and urine, or is that just a later memory that I’ve attached to that first day? Finally, the teacher said we might draw. Newsprint and fat crayons were put on our tables. I leapt at the opportunity. Just as in my days at the Sunnyside Progressive School, I would create a design on paper. I began to draw on first one side of the paper and then the other. Then the teacher said: “We’ll draw the policeman on the corner. Here is a circle for his head; now you draw a circle for his head.” I was frantic. I had soiled the paper with my own drawing. A kind teacher’s aide gave me another piece of paper, and I dutifully drew the head the teacher required on my piece of paper, our composite, generic drawing of a policeman. I have always said (following Robert Fulghum) I learned everything I needed to know that first day of kindergarten.
But really, it wasn’t all that regimented. What I remember are the parents coming in to teach us folk dancing, to help us make hooked rugs and candles and soap so that we might have some sense of early American history . . . and that is still the only real sense I have of that history . . . the candles, the soap, the crocheted rugs.
Allen Rosenshine, Jay Krokow, Danny Wolfman, Alan Ehrlich, Tommy Finlay, Charles Dressler, Richard Efron, Steven Wolfe
Marjorie Godlin, Florence Goldberg, Alice Drucker, Sylvia Plimack, Joan Tenzel, Anluise Williams, Gertrude Blody, Josephine Heilbrun
Marilyn Labb, Rosalind Bernstein, Joan Dillon, Sheila Feldman, Mrs. Neary, Anne Murray, Carole Smith, Ann Adler
Eddie Koehler, David Horowitz, David Houlihan, Alan Fink
I remember classmates: Annluise Williams, Robert Sussman, David Horowitz, Carol Pasternak, Allen Rosenshine, Florence Goldberg, Sheila Feldman, and a host of others. I remember plays and newspapers, writing poetry to music, illustrating stories. When it was time to do math word problems, I’d say that my group needed to rehearse our play, and I’d usually get permission to take my cast out to another room. I did the same when it was time to learn geography . . . still real gaps in my education.
So, in the 1940’s and the early 50’s I remember what was best in progressive education in that neighborhood school (and maybe what was weakest in it too). I remember rivalry and competition, but all in a lively, fluid set of circumstances. In Mrs. Levine’s 4th grade class we were seated each week in order of our grades earned that week. If you had the highest grades that week, you got to pick your seat, and so the class was arranged by what was taken to be our achievement. A dreadful practice now in retrospect, but I don’t remember suffering from it, except for that one week when my grades slipped and I sat on the ‘wrong” side of the room.
In those days we began to pay attention to what was happening in the world. We were horrified by McCarthyism, by overt racism, always in other places . . . and yet, how little did I understand about my own privilege and what it meant to grow up there, protected from so much pain and struggle in the world . . . indulged . . . dancing the Misirlou . . . being celebrated for our words and our drawings . . . in an enclave where freedom seemed real for us and where we had little notion of how our world was circumscribed and hedged by race and class and the good fortune to have landed where so many good people shared a world-view that prompted a progressive education in the neighborhood public school right across the street from where I lived.
Marjorie Godlin Roemer is a retired English professor and director of writing programs at Rhode Island College. She currently teaches memoir writing to senior citizens at the Brandeis Osher Lifelong Learning program.