In my last column I wrote about what it was like to attend elementary
public school in New York City in the early 1930s, when the 3Rs were
still being taught in the traditional way and patriotism was instilled
by our teachers. Times were tough, but we still considered the U.S. to
be the greatest country on earth. Food was cheap and people were able to
buy what they needed. There were no great shopping malls or supermarkets
in those days and there were no credit cards. My family was at the lower
end of the economic scale, and so my parents were frugal and conscious
of every penny that was spent.
In New York the dynamics of capitalism were to be seen everywhere. The
Empire State Building was being erected. Rockefeller Center, with its
great Radio City Music Hall, was being built. Great movie theaters like
the Roxy and Paramount did a brisk business offering both movies and
live shows. Broadway hummed with the music of George Gershwin, Jerome
Kern, and Cole Porter. Meanwhile in Europe nothing was being done to
stop the Germans from preparing to launch the next world war.
It was in 1937 or ’38 that I entered Knowlton Junior High School in the
Bronx. It was within walking distance from my home. The thought of
wasting millions of dollars on school busing was unthinkable. Every
neighborhood in New York had its local elementary and middle schools. If
you didn’t live near a high school, you got there by public
transportation. The fare was 5 cents.
In junior high school I learned French and fell in love with its
mellifluous sounds. At home my parents spoke Yiddish, a German dialect
spoken by Eastern European Jews. If my history is correct, sometime
during the Middle Ages, the Jews were expelled from Germany and migrated
eastward, taking with them the German language which then developed into
Yiddish, written with Hebrew alphabet letters.
My parents had come to America from Poland in the 1920s and settled in
New York with its very large Jewish population. There were several
Yiddish daily newspapers at the time, and my father became a loyal
reader of one of them, The Morning Journal, the most conservative of the
dailies. My parents loved America and were happy to send their children
to the public schools to become Americans. In those days there was no
such thing as multiculturalism.
Also in junior high, I learned the most practical thing any young person
could learn: touch typing. I can’t think of anything more useful than
touch typing in this world of typewriters and word processors. Everyone
now uses a computer keyboard, but in today’s schools not everyone is
taught touch typing.
It was in junior high that I encountered my first negative experience in
school. It so happened that in New York middle schools, one corner room
in the building was designated an Open-Air Classroom, not to be confused
with today’s concept of the outdoor classroom. The room in this
six-story building was easily visible from the street, because its
windows were opened not in the ordinary way but in such a way as to get
the maximum amount of air into the room.
The theory behind the Open-Air Classroom was that certain children would
benefit from being in a room swirling with fresh air. Some school
authority told my mother that I was underweight and should be put into
that special classroom. Apparently they were having a problem filling
the room with children theoretically in need of fresh air. As an
unschooled immigrant, my mother accepted what she was told and agreed to
have me put in that classroom.
It turned out to be the most miserable time in my entire school life. My
classmates were either mentally backward or simply unruly. In addition,
the teacher, Mrs. Stantial, took an immediate dislike of me. And so, for
the first and last time in my life I played hooky. I simply refused to
be in that classroom. I was caught, and then put into a regular class.
In other words, even then the public schools were experimenting with
numbskull ideas on how to make schooling as miserable as possible for
some children. And things have only gotten worse. Nevertheless, I had
some good teachers. My French teacher was a lovely lady who knew how to
awaken interest in French culture. My science teacher, a gentle fellow,
had been gassed in World War One. And it was my English teacher who
convinced me to get into Stuyvesant High School, one of the elite New
York high schools located in Manhattan. So I took the test and passed.
Graduation from Knowlton Junior High was a great occasion for me and my
family. It was a milestone on the way to becoming a literate, educated
American in love with his country. So despite the Open-Air Classroom, I
remember those days with great fondness.
Education expert Sam Blumenfeld’s Alpha-Phonics reading program is
available on www.samblumenfeld.net. His latest book, The
Marlowe-Shakespeare Connection, is about the Shakespeare authorship
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