A fifties education – Part one

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P.S. 189, the school I attended from kindergarten through sixth grade, was a block and a half from my apartment in Brooklyn, two safe street crossings, to be exact. One of them was overseen by members of the School Safety Patrol, replete with silver badges and yellow straps slung rakishly across their bodies like Pancho Villa’s bandoleros. When the light showed red, the guards at each crossing linked hands to prevent their younger classmates from bolting across the street at a dangerous moment. In my seventh and final year at the school, I rose to the rank of Captain of the patrol and never have I felt prouder of any accomplishment. (Describing this rather quaint arrangement, it’s hard not to contrast it to the current situation in Chicago, where adults wearing vests marked Safe Passage are stationed on every corner to protect students from violence during their journeys to and from school.)

We were doing something important, socially useful, reinforcing the protective web that made our grid of adjoining streets feel like a community in which our school was the crown jewel. Not that we thought of ourselves and our community in such high-flown terms. We were after the badges, ranks and honors, but in the process, we were also inadvertently contributing to a community-building effort. Families lived cheek by jowl in that compact neighborhood and sent their kids to the school zoned for them by a distant downtown bureaucracy whom nobody in that quiescent in-turned community of first- and second-generation Jewish immigrants even dreamed of questioning.

P.S. 189 was a red brick five story structure capped by a roof playground resembling a pigeon coop from a distance. In an earlier era of school reform, these overhead spaces became standard features of New York City public schools and were considered a health necessity in the cramped urban landscape which deprived poor children of opportunities to exercise and breathe fresh air. Shielded as we were from life in other, richer communities, we were not aware of lacking anything: we were well-fed, safe and filled with hope for the future.

The school was only a five-minute walk from the four- family house where I lived from age six months till the year I left for graduate school at 21. Every day I strolled home at noon for a leisurely lunch which was seasonally adjusted: hot soup in the fall and winter, sour cream with fruit or a sandwich in the spring. At mid-day, the radio in the kitchen transported me and my mother to the soap opera worlds of Helen Trent, Our Gal Sunday and Ma Perkins, the main stays of my pre-TV years. In fact, these soap operas and their counterparts on WEVD, the Yiddish radio station of the time, conspired to keep me at home through a good stretch of my kindergarten year. After a first day exploratory dip, I determined that I had a better deal at home surrounded by sturdy cooking smells and the unfolding tragedies of my radio companions. A combination of lies (“They show movies every day” and taunts (“If you don’t go to school, you’ll grow up to be a mule”), the words of a popular song of the day which my sister directed at me with devastating effect, finally lured me back inside that red brick fortress, and I haven’t strayed very far from the schoolhouse in the seventy-five years since.

When the weather was threatening, my mother spared me even that short walk home for the mid-day break. She arrived at the school cafeteria, rain-soaked umbrella in one hand, supermarket paper sack in the other. There, a handful of unfortunates whose mothers worked were forced to accept whatever the Board of Education was ladling out that day.  From her bag my mother drew a glass jar of chicken soup, still hot after the short run from home, and served it into a soup dish she had brought from home. Years later, I watched her perform the same ritual for my father in the hospital room to which he had been confined after a painful prostate operation. In both cases the effect was to soften institutional harshness with a touch of home: no paid dietitian was going to challenge my mother’s dominion over her family’s food.

In truth, the schoolhouse needed little softening. It was a safe, secure place, anchoring an equally safe and supportive community whose mission in those optimistic years after World War Two was to lift us up beyond the social station to which circumstances had relegated our post-Depression, post-war, largely immigrant parents. The harmony between the school and my urban neighborhood didn’t differ greatly from that between the school and the rural New Hampshire town where I taught decades later. What appeared eternal and unchanging was, in fact, as ephemeral and shifting as the deceptively secure configuration of the continents.

The only threats to our untroubled world of playground punch ball, boys vs. girls spelling bees, and Thanksgiving pageants came from afar. In my earliest school years, the war entered our lives most directly when we delivered to the school building the materials we were told would help bring down Hitler and Hirohito – newspapers, fats (which were somehow destined to become explosives.) We saved our pennies to exchange for Victory Stamps. When the stamp books were full, we traded them in for war bonds.

By the early fifties the Cold War had invaded our sanctuary in the form of drills which sent us into windowless hallways where, heads cradled between our knees, we could shield ourselves from the light of the nuclear sun and the  implosion of window glass that would follow. We were issued dog tags just like the ones we had seen in war movies, on which were inscribed our names, serial numbers and blood types, the latter presumably useful in the event we had avoided incineration. A terrifying backdrop against which our daily idyll was played. A frightened cousin of mine retreated to a closet in his house and refused to emerge, shouting that the bomb was about to drop, and the world would be destroyed. But most of us managed to contain our fears and get on with the business of pleasing our parents and obeying our teachers on the way to White Collar Heaven.

In those generally less self-conscious days, P.S. 189 was a shamelessly tracked school. At each grade level the classes were arranged numerically from 1 to 5 or 6. Everyone understood that 3-1 was the top third grade class, 5-3 was a middling fifth grade class. The assignments were made based on past performance and IQ scores. In an uncharacteristic act of boldness, I once sneaked a look to plumb the mystery of where I stood in this majestic hierarchy, carefully inscribed in the teacher’s daily grade book, as if she needed to refer to it to decide how to respond to me. (Decades later, Robert Rosenthal, my graduate advisor at Harvard, published a study called The Pygmalion Effect, which demonstrated that teachers given randomized information about their students’ intellectual abilities, then proceeded to treat them differently, based on that information; students performed in conformity with the expectations their teachers had.) We all knew that our IQ scores were the magic keys which could grant us access to future riches and success. Trailing the pack was the “mentally retarded” class, whose segregated and isolated existence I penetrated only by virtue of my job as audio-visual monitor assigned to wheel the 16mm projector into their room to pacify them with the same mind-numbing commercial films teachers enlisted to divert and pacify their higher-functioning  counterparts. One comedian of the time referred to the genre as “The Romance of the Tuna” films.

Parents did not clamor for reassignment of their children to the classrooms of more popular teachers. The authority and benevolence of the system was not questioned in a community like ours. Everyone’s place in the social order was based on an unquestioned meritocratic standard which did not lend itself to protest or rebellion. The numbers indicated the hand you had been dealt, and you lined up in the appointed queue uncomplainingly.

The tracked classes tended to hold steady through all the grade levels, which was good news and bad news. It was good news if you landed high up on the pecking order because the business of teaching and learning could move along at a fairly brisk pace, unimpeded by slow, reluctant learners. Conversely, if you were not among the blessed, you were as much of a permanent also-ran as a student trapped in the old class-bound British system. The premise on which this hierarchy was built maintained that ability was inborn and fixed, a marked contrast to the view espoused currently in most Asian countries that achievement is largely a function of hard work and effort.

Homogeneity was already the order of the day which was 95% Jewish. Leroy Brown was the only Black student in our entire school, among us only because his father was the janitor in one of the neighborhood’s rare apartment buildings. Leroy was a curiosity, not discriminated against so much as wondered at, an alien from outer space whose home planet remained a mystery to us.

A light sprinkling of Italian and Irish students lived in an area we disdainfully called Pig Town, an urban equivalent of an Appalachian hollow with unpaved streets and ramshackle houses. The boys were tough and the girls were surrounded by an aura of sexual allure which every culture assigns to the forbidden foreign woman. We were only peripherally aware of the Gentiles in our midst; our world was relentlessly Jewish, just as nature had dictated. If I came upon a school system today as tracked and as socially and ethnically segregated as mine was, I would work tirelessly to dismantle it , but truth to tell, if you could blind yourself to its many casualties, it served many of us well and provided a springboard for children of very limited means to vault into the middle and professional classes. We were at least a decade away from the kind of consciousness-raising on a broad array of issues like race, class, disability, sexuality and gender and were, in retrospect, shockingly oblivious to the enormous number of casualties this seemingly benign system inflicted.

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Marv Hoffman

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