The story of my introduction to school, retold often by my mother in a jocular way as part of our family lore, went something like this: My older brother David had attended the Sunnyside Progressive School on 47th Street where he learned to battle it out with his arch nemesis Tommy Finlay from day one. It must have been part of the progressive school thinking to let kids work out their problems without too much intercession by adults. When my mother tried to enroll me three years later, I stood at the playroom door, took one look around, and raised a vigorous objection to what I saw as noisy chaos. The Park School on 48th Street, where everything was routine and peaceful, where we were taken to the Sunnyside Park every day after which we napped was, on the other hand, just the ticket for me.
Because both my parents were Jewish secular Communists living in an Irish/Italian Catholic neighborhood, and even though they had a group of close friends and I was given a pretty typical middle-class upbringing with all that implies, my childhood was beset by myriad problems. I was particularly sensitive by nature to begin with and external circumstances only made matters worse.
PS 150 loomed large in an L-shape with a courtyard often shaded by the height of its four storeys. The floors were wooden. So was the classroom wardrobe in which we hung our “outer wraps”. All the desks were wooden too, and bolted to the floors - the hinged desktop opened to house your school books, the hinged seat rose to let you slide in, then dropped down as you sat. Desks were coupled in double rows, with aisles on either side, so you always sat close by someone else. Large roundish white lights on heavy chains hung from high ceilings, and tall windows, opened from the top with the aid of long hooked poles, gave us light. There were two blackboards, and you liked being board monitor, to wipe down the teacher’s chalk writing with a damp sponge at the end of the day.
Fire drills were highly organized. Everyone had a buddy. We got our “outer wraps” from the wardrobe and lined up in size place. I never really knew the tall girls in my class, only the shortest ones who stood in line up front with me, sometimes Joanna Mehrer, sometimes, Cynthia Loewy. It was the only time in the school day that everyone became completely quiet; we knew this practice was serious business. Our teacher led us down the stairwell and out into the courtyard where we lined up class by class. One memorable fire drill, quite of a sudden out of nowhere from way up high, we heard a lot of stern yelling coming a fourth floor window. We all looked up to see Miss Hearne shouting instructions to take some poor kid out of line because he was talking. I was stunned; this really was serious business.
Every Friday, the boys, dressed in white shirts and tie and dark pants, the girls, in white middy blouses with red ties and dark skirts, filed into the auditorium for an assembly. Hand over heart, we pledged allegiance to the flag, and sang the national anthem. The Vice Principal read a passage from the Bible and we all recited the Lord’s Prayer – that is how I know the Lord’s Prayer. We might have sung a hymn, America the Beautiful or God Bless America, and if we were lucky, an outside visitor came in to give a little talk. Once, we were very lucky to have John Payne, the cowboy actor, come to visit.
In fifth grade, my teacher Miss Hearne used to come to school in one outfit and change into a housedress inside her little wardrobe; this really impressed me. But I was otherwise miserable in her class. In 1952, my little world was crashing down on me. My grandfather wasted away and died in our house from lung cancer. My father, who was being investigated by the NYC Board of Education, was fired. And the woman who lived with us and took care of me, had to be let go because my parents could no longer afford to pay her salary. To make matters worse, I was an extremely sensitive soul when it came to how people treated one another. So landing in Miss Hearne’s class was really the pits. Should a student be chatting when she wanted his attention, she would scold him with a Rosemary Clooney fake Italian accent “Wassa matta, you dona speaka de English?” I hated how she dressed down kids in front of everybody, and could not bear feeling helpless to call her out on her prejudice. I simply hated going to school. The straw that broke my back, however, was her insistence that I did not pay my 25 cents in G.O. dues when I had. I was the kind of child who strove to please adults – I’d never default on my GO dues, and I’d never lie, so the accusation completely devastated me. When I left school in mid-day and ran home, that was a sign that my mother took seriously; she went to see the Principal to request my transfer out of Miss Hearne’s class. Mr. Birnbaum, very reluctantly, relented in the end, with the final grim admonishment to me that this would be “the last time.” I didn’t know what to make of that remark but it scared me.
I think Mr. Birnbaum might have been referring to the one time I came to school late – no doubt, this same very troubled year. Each morning, I had been picking up my friend Emily on 45th street, both of us coming from families with teacher parents who l left the house much earlier than we did. I might have been the most obsessive, timid kid on the block, but Emily was my opposite, scattered and gutsy. I was terribly anxious about getting into trouble; she didn’t seem to care so much. One day, she was running very late, scrambling for clothes, braiding her hair, packing her schoolbag, and even though we raced to get to school on time, we found ourselves in a lineup of other late-comers in the auditorium, with Mr. Birnbaum scolding us roundly. It must have been the day after Halloween because I clearly remember him calling children going out on Halloween “little Hitlers” in their trick or treat quests for candy. I was never late again.
By the height of the Cold War, we children were issued bona fide dog tags, like the ones soldiers wore, which we had to wear in school to identify us just in case we were unrecognizable after a nuclear attack by the Russians. Every so often, there would be a Civil Defense air raid drill during which we had to dive underneath our desks and huddle for the duration.
I had some pretty wonderful teachers at PS 150: lovely Miss Rubin in 1st Grade, followed by Miss Verne, Mrs. Jaffe and Mrs. Feldman, all of whom I liked well enough, but it was Mrs. Kampf and Mrs. Neary who won my trust and made me feel at home. Mrs. Kampf welcomed me into her fifth grade class mid-year. Her handsome face and warm smile gave me reason to hope for better days, and it was soon clear that she enjoyed being with her students. We had rote lessons in arithmetic, penmanship, spelling, and the like, and free-wheeling ones, like mural painting. I was able to relax a little and make new friends.
The following year, Mrs. Neary, always elegantly dressed in tailored suits and spike high heels, ruddy-complexioned with eloquent eyes that grew really large when she was angry, relied on a bit of old-fashioned intimidation to keep her students in toe. Stern of voice, her whole demeanour let you know she was in control. But twice, she inadvertently made me cry, and twice, she consoled me, once by sitting me on her lap and singing some popular song of the day about smiling. Both these women, each in her unique style, created a space for me. Fifth and sixth grade lulled me into a relatively happy period - that is, until I arrived in those dark halls of junior high school the following year.
There is a PS to this story. Years later, perhaps when I was already in high school, my mother and I were on the Main Street Flushing train heading home from a downtown shopping trip, when a woman smiled and struck up a friendly conversation with us. She looked familiar but I couldn’t place her. Coming down the Bliss Street stairway to Queens Boulevard, I asked my mom who the woman was; her answer surprised me, it was Miss Hearne. My mom’s take on Miss Hearne: she never meant any harm; she was just a very limited person. In this remark, which didn’t always work for me as a child, my mother’s deepest philosophy lay - always try to understand people; do not judge and dismiss them - a way of being which has stood me in good stead all my life.
Ruth Horowitz lives in the backwoods of Nova Scotia where she has been homesteading with her husband for the past 40 years.
Misadventures in 5th Grade
by Ruth Horowitz
On the steps of PS 150 graduation day June 1953
Melvin's working on something the corner, Helen's pointing something out to Joan, and Elsa and Ruth are painting trees, as Mary and Joel look on.