Tuesday, February 01, 2005

(Updated) The Stuyvesant Story (1): Public School Experience in the '40s and '50s

(The Update is at the very bottom of the post)

I am the youngest child of immigrant parents. My mother was about 7 when she arrived to join her widowed mother and 4 older siblings in Manhattan. She had been left in foster care in the port of Antwerp until her mother, teenage sisters and brothers were settled. (If you think you have child care problems, imagine trying to immigrate as a single mother with five children and severely limited assets!) Like a mother cat transporting her kittens, my young grandmother, who worked for a steamship line expressly for this purpose, took her two oldest across the Atlantic to the New World first, leaving the other three in a variety of foster homes, none of which would accept all three together. During her Antwerp months my mother was educated by Catholic nuns, but she requested public school when she arrived in the USA.

The legendary American melting pot was boiling at that time, that is to say about 100 years ago. My mother told me her teachers spent some part of each day teaching "hygiene" to the children, examining their ears and their handkerchiefs to be sure they were clean. Everyone she knew was a renter, and it was not uncommon for some children to drop out of school even before high school, to work to help their families survive. My mother, being the youngest, and mathematically and musically talented, was able to attend high school at the Institute of Musical Arts, founded by Dr. Frank Damrosch, the godson of Franz Liszt and the head of music education for New York City's public schools. It was on Claremont Avenue, and later merged with the Juilliard School of music at the same location.

We now fast-forward from my birth in the Bronx to the school years in a primarily Jewish "striver" neighborhood in Queens. There were a few three-generation families with non-English-speaking or heavily-accented grandparents. A mother who worked outside of home was exceptional. In my growing-up world, all mothers had a calling to be homemakers. From what I could see, they had plenty of "d" power: deciding d├ęcor, dress, diet, doctors, and dentists. The fathers were mostly salesmen, small business partners, or skilled craftsmen: they had jobs, not careers.

Public schools were taught by teachers happy to have secure jobs after the Great Depression. In elementary school, most principles were men, all teachers were women. WWII was in progress and no new schools were built; materials were reserved for "the war effort." To maximize use of crowded space, our school was divided into three overlapping sessions, starting at 8AM, 11AM, and 2PM. My first several years of school were in the afternoon sessions. We had air-raid drills and wore ID tags. Some of the teachers lived in our neighborhood, others commuted (by subway - gas was rationed).

My after-school activities were piano lessons (from Mom), dance lessons, street games, roller-skating , bike rides, Girl Scouts, and occasionally ice skating at the rink in the converted NY State building leftover from the 1939 World's Fair, near where Shea Stadium is now located. For three years my oldest brother was represented by a pin on a map on the dining room wall, a pin moving to update the Pacific Ocean location of his U.S. Navy ship according to the v-mail information that had got past the military censors.

In 6th grade we all took a Stanford-Binet Stanford-Binet IQ test to determine who would attend the Special Progress (SP) program the following year. The SP program compressed the 3 years of the Junior High School curriculum into 2 years, allowing gifted students to start the 10th grade at age 13, and finish high school by age 16. The program served the unabashed intensely ambitious goals of its constituents in the NYC public school system.

Sports and entertainment were luxurious pastimes for us high school kids in the '50s. On Saturday afternoons we went to the movies, but otherwise our preoccupation was education, education, and more education. It came as a relief that post-war prosperity funded summers at sleepaway camp.

Our local public high school was the best in Queens and did not require a selective entrance exam, unlike Bronx Science (where my as-yet-unknown future husband was studying), Peter Stuyvesant, and Brooklyn Tech. Also, unlike those high schools, our high school had three tracks: Academic (college-bound), Vocational, and General. On the vocational track, boys learned auto mechanics and carpentry, and girls learned secretarial subjects. I don't know what the General Track was for. As far as I knew from our combined gym classes, there was not one Jewish kid on the Vocational or the General track.

Throughout high school we were subjected to semi-annual standardized tests, to evaluate what we had learned in each academic subject: English, Science, Math, History, Social Studies, and Foreign Languages. I was surprised to discover that these State Regents exams are still given in New York. We were fortunate to have some really fine teachers, some of whom were men, and at least one of whom had a PhD, in biology. The language teachers were often native speakers of the European languages they taught, probably because of that moment in the immigration history of New York. Many English teachers were products of Catholic parochial education.

My favorite and best English teacher, Mr. Calitri, was of Italian-Jewish origin. Mr. Calitri assigned us the New York Times Book Review every Friday. He had us eagerly reading and writing book reports and essays. All the girls had crushes on him, because he was young, sensitive, and secure in his teaching skills. He was the only teacher I ever had who invited a group of us to his home for a evening of readings. We were dismayed to discover that he had a loving wife and a new baby to rival our bids for his attention. During our last high school summer, his first novel, Rickey, was published. The New York Times review was not a rave, but he continued writing. To supplement his modest salary, he moonlighted in the Bloomingdale's liquor store (just over the 59 Street Bridge!) and also taught a college course in creative writing.

Our high school graduating classes did well in state competitions for Regents scholarships to college, and usually produced finalists in the Westinghouse Science Competition, which is now known as the Siemens Westinghouse Competition in Math, Science & Technology .

I attended an Ivy League college, too young and socially immature, but well-prepared academically.

**********End of Part 1**********

Six more episodes to come...

2. Moving from Manhattan to N.J. in the '70s for public schooling (among other things)
3. Divorce, and the Jewish education clause
4. Prowesslessnesslessness's Jr. High experiences [SD: Combined with 5.]
5. Prowesslessnesslessness's High School options
6. The Stuyvesant test and its aftermath
7. Ten years later: a surprising vindication


My father immigrated twice: first from Eastern Europe to London's East End, as an infant together with his mother and stepfather, and second from London to New York, having deserted the British army, single, in his early 20's. He had barely arrived when the U.S. entered WWI, and he was immediately drafted into the U.S. Army, where he served in the Ordinance Corps at the Watervliet Arsenal. When WWI ended, he found work as a technician, and continued his education at night in the Engineering School of Cooper Union College.


Third Street said...

The story deserves the seriousness and planning that you are giving it. Thank you, Savatdotty for getting it down. It's very interesting. I look forward to the updates...

elswhere said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Savtadotty said...

elswhere: I removed your comment because you were giving away part of my surprise ending. Savlanut!

Udge said...

Fascinating, thanks for writing it. I think every North American (even ex-) should do this at some point, because every one of us is of immigrant stock (except the 0.3% First Nations population).

Does a list of titles count as foreshadowing? I'm really curious about "vindication".

Third Street said...

Udge, I encourage you to tell your immigrant family story...

Savta, we're waiting for the next installment of your story...

Savtadotty said...

Udge: yes. "Savlanut" is Hebrew for "Patience!"

Savtadotty said...

Only: I'm working on it: with luck it'll be posted tomorrow.

Udge and Only: It's really encouraging that you find this interesting.

James J. Na said...

Where in Queens?

I lived in Queens. Once this Midwesterner asked "You speak good English, but got a little accent... Where are you from, China or Japan?"

"No dimwit, I'm from Queens. And don't ask me whether I like the Yankees. The Yankees are for tourists. My team is the Mets."

Oh, darn. Now I am having a bit of craving for something from Continental Avenue.

Terri said...

Oh WOW....I'm so happy I found your blog.
Reading this is like reading a novel. I love hearing people's stories and yours is so interesting. I need to stop for dinner (darn it) but I'll be back shortly to continue reading here. I'm captivated!