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Middle School During the Great Depression

By Sam Blumenfeld
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #91, 2009.

Going to junior high in the Bronx during the 1920s

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Sam Blumenfeld

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 mystery.

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