by Steve Wolfe
I went to elementary school in Sunnyside, at P.S. 150, located between 43rd and Skillman Avenues from 40th to 41st Streets. It is still there so that my efforts to destroy it apparently failed. In about 1950, P.S. 11, an ancient and rickety wooden building in Woodside, burned down. Word of the fire spread quickly and we neighborhood kids all gathered to watch the school become cinder and ashes. None of my friends went to that school but the destruction of any school was just too delicious an event not to witness.
I started at P.S. 150 in kindergarten but quickly skipped a grade, immediately becoming the youngest kid in my class. When the other kids realized how young I was, they began tormenting me. This went on for about two weeks when I developed the perfect riposte to their teasing. I simply looked at my tormentors and said, “That means you will die first.” The teasing stopped.
My second grade teacher was Mrs. Lockwood. I have no recollection at all of her. I do, however, still have report cards issued by her. She must have been an insightful teacher since I received good to excellent grades in all subjects but the predictable “I” for Needs Improvement or even “U” for Unsatisfactory in the categories of “Works and Plays Well With Others” and “Self Control”. I like to think that in the intervening seventy years, I have made tremendous strides in both of these areas.
My third grade teacher was Miss Frankel. She was not merely pretty but beautiful. However, I could never overcome the slight age disparity that existed between us, to say nothing of the nature of the relationship which was, regrettably, only teacher and student. It was in the third grade, however, that I became really bored. To teach us multiplication, Miss Frankel held up cards with numbers on them such as 8 x 6 and we had to announce the answers. I had easily memorized the multiplication tables and found this exercise, which we were subjected to repeatedly, excruciatingly dull. I took to uttering smartass comments aloud, bringing a stream of lectures by Miss Frankel and perhaps a visit or two to the principal’s office, the ultimate punishment short of being ejected from school. On one occasion, Miss Frankel grabbed me by one ear and literally lifted me out of my seat, to punish me for some such transgression. Still, I relished the fact that at last we had made some physical contact.
In the third grade I did the first of my Very Bad Things. I pulled a false fire alarm. I was on my way to school, at the corner of 43rd Street and Skillman Avenue, when I met Richard Rosen, a boy who was older and taller than me. There was a fire alarm box on that corner. Somehow, we engaged in a conversation about height, and he told me he thought I could not reach the handle of the fire alarm box. I assured him that by jumping I could. He challenged me. I jumped up, pulled the alarm and pushed it back into place. We headed to school, separately. Just as I climbed the front entrance stairs, I spied a policeman standing there surveying the two of us as we entered. I knew he was looking for me. At once, I felt like both Jean Valjean being pursued by Inspector Javert and the protagonist in “Crime and Punishment”, whose conscience weighed heavily on him. I felt trapped. Later in the day, the policeman came into my classroom and a teacher identified me. I was taken to some office and harshly lectured on the dangers inherent in a false fire alarm. Somehow I learned that Richard Rosen had squealed on me, the rat. My parents were very angry and I could not explain why I did it. And they had to come to school and witness my being bawled out mercilessly, as if I had committed some capital offense.
The principal of the school was Miss Grace Spurgeon, an elderly woman right out of a Dickens’ novel. Her hair was all grey and she conveyed the image of the disciplinarian schoolteacher whose mantra was, “Spare the rod and spoil the child”, a phrase I seem to have heard often. Miss Spurgeon is remembered by me for only one thing. At an assembly (they were conducted every Wednesday and boys were supposed to wear neckties), she decided to teach us – the entire school – a song. That song was “Funiculi, Funicula”. I dutifully learned the words and learned them so well that I still recall them. At the time, I thought it a most peculiar song to teach schoolchildren. When I later learned that the song had been written in the late 19th century by an Italian to commemorate the opening of the first funicular railway on Mount Vesuvius in Italy, my doubt about the relevance and appropriateness of the song only increased. Still, it did not prevent me, decades later, from visiting Mount Vesuvius and the doomed city of Pompeii, though I spied no funicular railway on the volcano.
Anna Levine, my teacher in fourth grade was a middle-aged, heavy set woman with a wonderful temperament. She had the jolliness often attributed to slightly overweight people. She treated me wonderfully, encouraging whatever I was doing, and she taught very well. She was loved by all of her students and I thrived in her class. There were no Very Bad Things that year. This was the class in which I was thrown together with the girl for whom I would carry a torch for the next three years, Sheila Feldman. She was constantly on my mind and finally, in the 6th grade, she became the first girl I ever dated. I took her to the movies at the Bliss Theater where we saw some musical. No romance ever developed and I was forced to carry on in fantasy only. If she liked me at all, she had the wonderful faculty of concealing it. Two years later, in the 6th grade, Sheila was playing in the lower school yard with some other kids one day. P.S. 150 had two schoolyards, an upper one and a lower one. The lower one was bigger and was where the bigger kids played their games. A classmate of mine, Larry Fiedler was swinging a baseball bat when he accidentally hit Sheila, breaking her nose. I was angered and felt almost personally violated, but could do nothing about it. When they repaired her broken nose, they took out some minor imperfections and she looked even better than before.
In the 5th grade my teacher was Mrs. Russek. The other class of bright students were taught by Mrs. Malden who looked like one of the wizened little creatures one would see in a Star Wars sequel. Manhattan had a department store, Russeks, and I always wondered whether my Mrs. Russek was related to the owners. I seem to recall that my mother was acquainted with her and that they met on the street occasionally or even at social events. Possibly because I feared that Mrs. Russek could report directly to my mother, during fifth grade, I did only one Very Bad Thing. I was in the bathroom when I decided, as a silly prank, to unravel the toilet paper and pulled it off the spool all the way into the hallway. Unfortunately, Mr. Bowen the vice-principal, was right there and caught me in the act. I was busted. He started to bawl me out, citing the waste of a valuable school resource. Fortunately, I had no change with me for if I had, I would have given him a dime and advised him that I had made full restitution. I was intrigued by the fact that he chose to lecture me on the waste and not the inanity of my conduct. My parents had to come to school for this one as well. This was the last of the very Bad Things I had done – well, the last for which I was caught, or should I say apprehended.
My sixth grade teacher was Mrs. Neary. She was stern but fair. She taught well and maintained control of the class. I recall a class trip to a museum, probably the Museum of Natural History. In a burst of enthusiasm for no apparent reason, Alice Drucker did a little pirouette causing her skirt to fly up revealing nothing more than her bare legs. Still, Mrs. Neary came over to chide me at looking at her legs. Of course, I did. I was eleven years old. Big deal. I was branded as a “bad boy” for non-incidents of this sort.
At the beginning of the sixth grade, the school got a new principal, Hyman Birnbaum, a stark departure from his prim predecessor. He was to do an enormous favor for me. In March of that year, my family decided to drive down to Miami Beach and take a month-long vacation over Easter and Passover. This was not an everyday occasion in my life. I think my father must have earned a large fee and decided to make this trip because we never did anything like this, before or again. It was a dream vacation for me. However, there was a problem: the test to get into the SPs was being given during my absence. The test was nothing more than an IQ test and we had all taken several of them before sixth grade. My mother spoke to Mr. Birnbaum who reviewed my prior test scores and told her, ”Don’t worry, he’s in”. And so I was put into the SP classes without having to take the test in the 6th grade.
Years later, I learned my IQ, but that proved more of a curse than a blessing since my parents always expected perfection from me. Time and time again, I was called upon to be the realization of my father’s unfulfilled dreams and his ambitions as the son of immigrant parents who did not even speak English, all because of a test result that disclosed that I had wonderful potential. Teachers too expected me to be an unalloyed genius and well behaved. All that had to come later on.
Steve Wolfe is a partner with the law firm Eaton and Van Winkle. His interests include amateur photography, philately, tennis, card playing, reading history especially about World War II and the Holocaust, and world travel which has taken him to four continents.