Tuesday, July 22, 2008

MEMOIR: Grammar school days

I recently received an e-mail message day from a stranger, who I will call Stanley P., asking whether I would be interested in attending a reunion of students who had ever attended P.S. 64, a Bronx, N.Y. grammar school. I attended this school from kindergarten through the 8th grade and graduated in January 1938.

Stanley had obtained my name and e-mail address from the younger sister of the only one of my boyhood friends with whom I am still in contact. Stanley was evidently a friend of hers, and she had identified me as a P.S. 64 alumnus.

The only school reunion that I have ever attended was in 1992 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of my DeWitt Clinton High School graduating class. The P.S. 64 reunion, Stanley explained, would be open to all former students whether they had graduated or not.

As I recall, only about 200 men and their spouses attended my high school class reunion. It was held in a Manhattan hotel ballroom. The turnout was exceedingly unimpressive, for there must have been at least 2,000 boys in the 1942 graduating class. (DeWitt Clinton High School, which was in the Bronx, was not coed, and it was considered to have the largest enrollment of any of the nation's high schools.)

But the idea of a grammar school reunion intrigued me, and I told Stanley that I would attend. He said that he and a group of other alumni plan to hold the reunion next winter in south Florida, where they felt many former P.S. 64 students would be located. I know of at least five of them myself living or wintering in Florida. As some one who graduated 70 years ago, I assume that I will be among the oldest attendees at the reunion.

P.S. 64 is located on a square block bounded by East 170th and 171st streets and Walton and Townsend Avenues. It is a densely populated neighborhood that was once predominantly Jewish and is now predominantly Hispanic. Long after my graduation, the school began to run only through the 6th grade.

My memory is slowly fading about many important matters. Strangely, however, I still remember that the school's principle was named Jacob J. Shifro and that my first-grade teacher was a Miss Bayer.

I entered kindergarten there on the same day as my cousin Herbert. One of us was so nervous on the first day of school that he threw up. For decades Herb and I argued whether he or I was the culprit. The argument was resolved three years ago at my 80th birthday party when Herb, who was the party's master of ceremonies, announced to the guests that we had both thrown up on our first day in school.

One of my most memorable experiences at P.S. 64 occurred in the second grade, when we learned how to write with the old-fashioned, sharp-pointed pens that had to be dipped into an ink well.

A fellow classmate and I decided to demonstrate that the pen could function as a dueling instrument as well as a writing instrument. I obviously had no talent as a fencer. In less than a minute, my opponent, whose name I still recall (Jerome Stahl), broke through my feeble defense and thrust the pen into the bridge of my nose, close to my right eye.

Red blood, blended with the blue ink from Jerome's pen point, began pouring down my face. The school nurse rushed into the classroom and immediately called for an ambulance. With its siren blaring and its emergency light flashing, the ambulance delivered me to the hospital in minutes.

I was quickly patched up and sent home, where my mother nearly collapsed from shock as she saw my heavily bandaged face. The wound healed rapidly. I remember that Jerome and I remained friends, but I never engaged him again as a dueling opponent.

About 35 years ago,when I was living in Parsippany, N.J., I drove my pre-teen age son and two of his friends to see a baseball game at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx.

The traffic was unusually light that day, and it became apparent that we would get to the ball park very early. I decided to take a detour to show my son and his friends my old neighborhood. Our first stop was the P.S. 64 school yard, which I had colorfully described as an athletic paradise during my boyhood.

We were shocked to find an empty school yard surrounded by a tall, barbed wire fence. The yard was littered with broken beer bottles. Several tough-looking teen-agers lounged outside the fence, closely inspecting us as if we might be members of a rival gang.

We quickly departed. For me, the experience had been exceedingly sad. What I had remembered as a boyhood paradise turned out to be like a depressing scene from "The Blackboard Jungle." To my son's two friends, however, my personal image was significantly enhanced by the experience.

To have played and survived as a boy in the P.S. 64 school yard, they figured, I must have been one tough kid.

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Blogger Sylvia K said...

I always enjoy your blogs, Mort, and this was such fun to read. It is amazing to go back to those places from our childhood and see how much they've changed. How could that have happened, you think, surely it wasn't that long ago. But sure enough, it was.
Thanks for the smile,

Wednesday, July 23, 2008 8:58:00 AM  
Blogger Peggy said...

You were probably a lot tougher than you gave yourself credit for.

It is sad when places remembered don't stay exactly the way we picture them in our rose-tinted memories. At least you got some street cred out of the detour. I hope the reunion isn't a letdown.

Thursday, July 24, 2008 12:24:00 AM  
Blogger Chancy said...

As I read this I thought back to my elementary school, Chase Street School, in Athens Georgia. I attended school there from kindergarten through the 6th grade.

Like you I have only attended one reunion. My 37th high school reunion of Athens High School. I remembered several out of the 50 or so who attended. I graduated in 1946 and shortly thereafter the old school was torn down and a new high school, Clarke Central, was built.
Thinking back to those long ago times is like wandering in a fog filled dream state.

Good luck at the runion.

Friday, July 25, 2008 4:20:00 PM  
Blogger Joared said...

Enjoyed your account of your trip back to your old school. Nice to look forward to a reunion in Fla.

I've never attended any school reunions as I always seemed to be at the opposite end of the country from where they were being held. Only know of one high school reunion (early '70s) that was ever held. Had little or no contact with classmates after I moved away.

The only other reunion was college when a new campus theatre was dedicated to a special college dept. head with whom I corresponded, but who died some years ago. Unfortunately, a cross country trip in those early days of my marriage wasn't in the budget. Now, only a couple college chums married to each other are still living, but they live half-way across the country. Too bad there weren't more classmate friends who had greater longevity. Guess I'm lucky to still be here, though I'm only 72.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008 1:40:00 AM  
Anonymous Diane said...

I could not believe my eyes that someone was writing about PS 64. I went there from about 1940 through 1944. My teachers included Miss Fink , Miss Macintosh, Mrs. Nieman, and the absolutely outrageous Vice-Principal, Miss Foster, of whom I was deathly afraid. I was always in trouble but I loved PS 64 with all my heart.

Do you remember saddle shoes, playing on the roof, the "open air" classes, the school nurse's office?

I had so many little friends, but unfortunately did not keep up with them.
If you decide to have a reunion in New York City, rather than Florida, count me in.

Saturday, November 29, 2008 11:54:00 AM  

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