Thursday, February 03, 2005

The Stuyvesant Story (2): I Get Up In The Morning and I Put On My Car


Moving from Manhattan to N.J. in the '70s for public schooling (among other things)

As for what happened in the ten years between College and the Sandbox, the abbreviated version is: computer programming (at a time when most people thought it had something to do with television programs); a year's "leave of absence" to cavort study math and computation in Paris; more computer programming in New York; more computer programming in England; John F. Kennedy gets assassinated and I get engaged.

For now, let's resume in the late 1960's. I am married, living with my husband, a toddler, and an infant, in a classic Upper West Side rent-controlled 2-bedroom-plus-maid's-room apartment with real parquet flooring and high ceilings, built in 1928 for occupants who actually had live-in maids. After a brief experiment with part-time contract programming work (on-site...we're talking Main Frame computers here, no PCs) following the arrival of our first child, I decided that juggling home and work demands was too much conflict for me: I became a Stay At Home Mom (SAHM). To the extent that it was preserved at all, my sanity was attributable to choral singing and communing with the other SAHMs in Riverside Park.
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We would meet at least once a day at the sandbox, where the topics du jour were much the same as mommy blogs today: Child-rearing Best Practices, local events of interest, gossip, pregnancies, twins, book and movie reviews. We founded a co-operative three-morning-a-week toddler day-care center. We founded a fresh fruit-and-vegetable co-op, supplied by weekly trips to the Bronx Terminal Market in Hunt's Point (in a borrowed station wagon).
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We founded a parental baby-sitting exchange. Our community was preoccupied with daily life, plodding dutifully toward the Kindergarten Milestone.

Our options were four: local public school, non-local public school, private school, or move (we never considered home schooling). We rejected the non-local public school option first, because it involved fabricating evidence of residence in the district of the school. Such fabrication would involve our children in deception of the school authorities. This did not model behavior we wanted them to learn from us.

The local public school I rejected outright. It was too scary. During the 1970's the Upper West Side was rife with drug addicts. Muggings and burglaries were part of daily local-event reports at the sandbox. Our neighborhood school was "a rough school," and kids regularly had their lunches stolen by bullies with weapons. It was on the other side of the Red Line, Broadway, in what we used to refer to as "the jungle," so even the short walk to and fro was unsavory at best, dangerous at worst. The fact that the school's academic ratings were mediocre was almost beside the point. Security was the primary issue.

As for private schools, even then there was competition and screening of parents and kids, not a pleasant ordeal. The variety available was more than one could wish for I could deal with: parochial, secular, open, closed, integrated, segregated, pre-preppy, pre-performing, French, big, small, Montessori, Dewey, Steiner, Summerhill, fancier parents (East Side), shorter trip (West Side), nouveau riche, old riche, not rich at all.

The decision about school turned out to be a decision about values and identity (surprise!) Both my husband and I were products of public schools in predominantly Jewish neighborhoods. Our parents had settled in places surrounding by newcomers like themselves, recovering from fear of pogroms and 20-year army conscription. Paying a large portion of our limited income for private school made both of us uncomfortable: it felt like we were trading in our social consciences and immigrant pride for social elitism. Even so, to avoid moving, we tried it for our older child.

We chose a small, unpretentious school close to home. After the first year, we were not impressed. Our daughter wasn't doing much more than she had done in nursery school, at more than twice the price plus van transportation. It didn't seem like we were getting good "value," and made us feel like either fools or hypocrites or both. Our six rooms were on a low floor, surrounded by other buildings; there was too little light. We could use the price of the double tuition bill to buy more light, trees, and a backyard.

For a brief, insane, period we considered buying a rundown brownstone in "the jungle" to renovate. That would have been a dandy investment, but it would not have solved our school problem, and I was certain our marriage wouldn't bear the stress. To this day I consider families who survived that ordeal true Superheroes. Instead, we decided to look for a house in the suburbs, choosing a location with public schools that matched our priorities: safety, as much racial and economic diversity as possible, and reasonable academic standards. Both my kids were already reading (I had read a book about putting big red signs on everything, and the kids were interested), so I had no doubts about their learning abilities.

I remember two tell-tale "must haves" on our home-buying list: sidewalks and a convenience store within walking distance. We were not ready for a sudden transition to a car-dependent lifestyle. We moved the week after Thanksgiving, and elsewhere took a big yellow school bus to her integrated first-grade. Prowesslessnesslessness celebrated his 3rd birthday in our new home while recovering from Moving Day Bronchitis, and then I joined my first car-pool transport him to nursery school. For most of the next 12 years, I would get up in the morning and put on my car.

**********End of Part 2**********

Four more episodes to come (I consolidated two)...

3. Divorce, and the Jewish education clause
4. Prowesslessnesslessness's Jr. High experiences and High School options
5. The Stuyvesant test and its aftermath
6. Ten years later: a surprising vindication


elswhere said...

This is totally fascinating!

But I was in kindergarten when we moved. Very nice class, I still rememmber the teachers coaxing me into the swing of things on my first day. And the bus stop on the corner.

Oh, I should probably write my own copycat post...

Udge said...

Elswhere: yes, you should. It would be interesting to compare the two.

It's a truism that siblings grow up in different houses. My favourite cousin and I talk often about the difference between the way he reported his parents' house and family life, and what my mother says about it. You'd think they grew up in different countries.

Third Street said...

Savta, You're my Blogtip of the day for my new blog. Udge, you're next (wanna get that fridge picture thing happening).
Can't wait for the next installment.

Savtadotty said...

Wow! Thank you so much. Knowing there are readers waiting out there is a big motivator. I'm too busy working on Stuyvesant episodes (3)-(6) to take a picture of my fridge! Or even to open it!

I put my reaction comments in both of your OnlytheBlogKnowsBrooklyn blogs, but I think maybe they should be switched. Oh well, life's too short.

The Lioness said...

Oh finally! I've been hungrily eying your series and now I can read it! But blogger wouldn't open any comment box till now.

S., this is fascinating! I'm having a brilliant time! It's like having history wink at us from across the room - thank you.

(If blogger doesn't save this there'll be aggravation.)

Savtadotty said...

Lioness: one of the many reasons I moved to Israel was to feel more connected to history. It's ironic that these particularly dramatic connections (the best one is in Part 6) are pretty much a NYC story! History is constantly winking (I love that image - thank you).