A Fifties education: the junior high years


By the time I reached junior high, which covered grades 7-9 in New York in the 50s, my sister was in the homestretch of her high school years. Both of us had been placed in special classes in junior high, known in her day as RA (rapid advancement) and in mine as SP (special progress) which maintained and intensified the earlier ability grouping. These programs enabled us to skip our eighth-grade years, thereby hastening our journeys to the promised lands of high school and college. New academic worlds opened: intensive French classes, algebra, sentence diagramming, the science lab. It all felt very grown up. Bells rang, signaling moves to the next period’s class. We sat in alphabetical order by rows, separated by sex. Two years of that imposed order imprinted in my mind almost the entire class roster which I can still recite to this day – Ashare, Cohen, Decter, Feldstein…

I still walked to and from school, about six blocks this time, so going home for lunch was no longer practical. Thus began the era of paper bag lunches which lasted all the way through high school. When my daughters started school, we bought them attractive lunch boxes featuring popular cartoon characters; in really ambitious years we decorated plain black lunch boxes ourselves with colorful contact paper and ribbons. But for me it was just that classic brown bag. At least once a week the menu included sardine sandwiches which, in addition to being distinctly aromatic, were also very oily, so by the time I arrived in school in the morning, the bag was marked by a distinctive stain, a marker almost as embarrassing as a girl’s blood stain on her skirt or dress. No pants yet for either girls or women teachers.

Sex was already a presence in our lives at least as early as the fifth grade. During the fall a group of sixth graders went to the grassy playing field in our local park after school on mild fall afternoons to play “rough tackle” football. These co-ed games, so I was told, involved a lot of groping during the melee of bodies piling on and rolling in the grass. I was too “good” and too scared to participate, but I was racked with curiosity about what went on in those pileups.

In Junior High, Saturday afternoons at the local movie theater became a major laboratory for our roiling hormones. It was there that kids coupled for what we would think of now as bold as rounds of Spin the Bottle. There was only so far they could proceed under the stern eye of the theater matron who patrolled the aisles armed with a powerful flashlight. Oh, there were girls I dreamed of cozying up to, but they were already “taken” by the older tougher boys who commanded the first pick of available girls, so I always settled in to watch what was on offer which was usually a double feature, a newsreel, a cartoon and sometimes the latest episode in a series like King Arthur and his Knights.

Outside of school, nothing expanded our horizons more than the coming of TV. Before this, I had been a devoted radio kid – baseball games, soap operas, the audio equivalents of TV sitcoms and adventure shows – The Lone Ranger, The Green Hornet, Mother Knows Best, Life with Luigi, Amos and Andy, (I know) The Shadow, Jack Benny, Sky King and so many more. When I was first coming to consciousness in the final years of the World War II, there was so much time devoted to news about progress on the battlefronts that I asked my father if there would still be news after the war ended.

But beyond that we got our news not from the radio, but from the myriad newspapers that existed in New York through the Fifties – The Daily News, The Mirror, The Post, the Herald Tribune, the Journal-American, PM and, yes, the New York Times. On his daily commutes to the Garment Center, my father picked up whatever discarded papers passengers left behind, so there was no telling what was going to turn up. That made it difficult to follow my favorite comic strip characters like Dick Tracy, Li’l Abner, Joe Palooka or Terry and the Pirates because they arrived at our table inconsistently. The Post was especially known for the pinup pictures it ran on its inside pages which were considered risqué in those pre-Playboy days.

Television sets began to appear on my block around 1947. Only a few privileged families had them, some of whom were generous enough to invite people over to watch. I had a regular invitation from our upstairs neighbors to watch Howdy Doody, the Milton Berle Show, the Ed Sullivan Show and a wonderful artist named Jon Nagy who painted an entire picture during his half hour on the air. In 1948, my best friend invited me to watch Babe Ruth’s farewell speech at Yankee Stadium. He was a hated Yankee, but we understood that he was an immortal and was thereby granted safe passage to Brooklyn.

In 1953 my parents bought our first television set – a big bulky cabinet model that dominated one end of our living room; it forever changed the way we spent our evenings. We had hardly sat around immersed in conversation and story telling while the women crocheted  before it arrived, but with that hypnotic box at one end of the room and the mesmerized members of the family ensconced on the plastic-covered couch at the other, we were one step further along on the road to disconnection.

What is sometimes lost in the pop culture recapitulations of the period is the access tv gave us to worlds of culture and politics that had been out of reach previously. Network shows like Omnibus and Studio One brought us art, theater, literature and music that we hadn’t even known existed before. It’s true that these offerings took a back seat to I Love Lucy and What’s My Line in most living rooms, including ours, but half hidden behind the pap were glimmerings of a larger world that I had glimpsed in the books I checked out of the Brooklyn Public Library, but actually seeing it being enacted live made me hungry for more.

In the labeling game we play with the decades, the Fifties is branded as a period of quiescence, blandness, self-absorption. There is some truth to that. My older cousins returning home from serving in the Pacific and Europe with their traumatic memories of war wanted nothing so much as the chance to submerge themselves in the newly available suburban silence where they could run their dry-cleaning stores and their delicatessens undisturbed.  There was a palpable hunger for domesticity, predictability, freedom from surprise.

But the world did not always cooperate. It brought the Korean War and the hysteria of the Rosenberg trials. These were not TV events for me, as they would be today. The network news departments had not yet honed the skills to translate events like these into consumable morsels for home viewing. TV was still at the Talking Heads stage, best characterized by the early morning college credit courses on Sunrise Semester featuring professors lecturing directly to the camera from the studio equivalent of their college classrooms.

Nonetheless, a world of public events was suddenly available to us in our living rooms – the Senate hearings led by Senator Kefauver on organized crime or the Army-McCarthy hearings, which once and for all exposed Senator Joseph McCarthy’s empty accusations of communism directed at countless innocent victims. And there was Vice-President Nixon squirming out of a potentially career-ending accusation of corruption by appealing to our sympathy for his wife Pat and his poor dog Checkers. Despite its low-tech unsophisticated state TV news and information like Edward R. Murrow’s documentaries on the plight of migrant farm workers were providing us with the beginnings of a political education. We were – unawares – cramming for an exam that would be administered with a vengeance in the Sixties.

The fact that looking back at my Junior High years yielded fewer memories about school than about the events and forces at play in the hours outside of school is a bit troubling. Yes, there was Mrs. Richmond who imprinted on my brain forever the intricacies of sentence diagramming, and poor damaged Mr. Sharp whose science lab demonstrations were overshadowed by his odd behavior which we attributed to war-induced shell shock, that era’s PTSD. But for the most part Junior High was a waiting room before real life began. This truth was one I had to recognize during the years when I taught these same grades. My efforts and those of my colleagues to make the experience more memorable than mine were, I think, somewhat successful because large numbers of my students returned for the annual reunions we staged. It was unimaginable that I would ever want to return to Winthrop Junior High, P.S. 232. I was glad to be gone.

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Marv Hoffman
By Marv Hoffman

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