“We Are All Reformers” (Part 3)

So what do I remember of those years in the three Pittsburgh Public Schools I attended? Two non-spoiler alerts to readers about what I experienced in elementary and secondary schools.

The first alert is my fallible memory. Bits and pieces of being in school come back to me albeit in blurred, inexact ways. But those memories persist. Nonetheless, it is not a spoiler to alert readers to the inherent flaws of trying to remember what occurred decades ago. As the Italian writer Primo Levi put it:

Human memory is a marvelous but fallacious instrument. The memories which lie within us are not carved in stone; not only do they tend to become erased as the years go by, but often they change, or even increase by incorporating extraneous features.

The second alert is that going to school is only one part of a child’s life—albeit an important one. Multiply 180 days (average number of days the 50 states require school to be in session over past few decades) by the hours that most U.S. students spend in school  (6.5 hours), the total is nearly 1200 hours a year in school.

Consider further that in such a year the child and youth is awake nearly 6,000 hours (subtracting 8 hours of nightly sleep). In other words, in each year, about 80 percent of a student’s life is spent outside of school. This is a round-about way of saying that while tax-supported schooling in a market-driven democracy is essential if for no other reason than granting credentials that are required to complete high school, finish college and enter the workplace with proper pieces of parchment, it takes up about one-fifth of a five year old’s life or a senior’s last year prior to donning robes for graduation.

For readers, then, I note my flawed memory of the stint I spent in elementary and secondary schools and the huge chunk of time I spent in family, neighborhood, and religious institutions outside of school. With these two cautions in mind, I return to what I remember of those experiences between the ages of 5 to 16.

At age five, I was put into first grade. All of the other children who were a year older than me had been in kindergarten–a reform adopted and expanded by Progressive reformers–but I had not attended kindergarten. Somehow either my mother convinced the Minersville principal that I was ready for school or the principal unilaterally decided to assign me there. I was put into a first-grade classroom

I entered the first grade uninitiated in the school and classroom routines that most of my classmates had already absorbed a year earlier. They had been taught to listen to the teacher, obey directions, know when they could talk and when to be quiet. They knew when and how to ask permission of the teacher to go to the bathroom and sharpen their pencil. They had already picked up what schooling teaches the young—what academics call “socialization” or the “hidden curriculum”–that is not in teachers’ lesson plans. Moreover, my classmates already knew the colors of the spectrum, could count to ten, and some were actually reading. I was way behind my peers socially and academically.

While I graduated high school at the age of 16, many classmates and teachers thought I was really smart and had skipped grades. As my elementary and secondary school transcripts document, at best I was average, receiving a lot of  “satisfactory” and “C” grades on my report cards. I was a year or two younger than other students simply because my mother has gotten me into first grade at age five.

Some background on my family might make this precipitous entry into school understandable. My family of five moved from Passaic, N.J. in 1936 (of three sons, I was the youngest at 2, my middle brother was 11, and my eldest brother was 17). Jewish immigrants from Czarist Russia, my parents who spoke Russian, Yiddish, and English had a mom-and-pop grocery store that was boycotted by the German-American Bund—a group that had grown quickly in the wake of Adolph Hitler’s becoming Germany’s Chancellor in 1933.

Closed by the boycott, my mother and father moved to Pittsburgh where they had family. We arrived there in the midst of the Great Depression. We found housing in what then was called the Hill District largely inhabited by a mix of some Jewish immigrant and mostly black working and middle-class families. My father, like so many other unemployed, could not find any work until he landed a job with the federal Works Progress Administration. Eventually he found work with a food distributor selling meats, pickles, and diary products off of a rented truck to immigrant-run mom-and-pop stores in Pittsburgh and nearby towns. By this time, my two older brothers were teenagers attending junior and senior high schools in the Hill District and working at odd jobs after school contributing to the family finances.

Across the street from our rented apartment was Minersville Elementary School. Largely black in enrollment—I remember one other white girl in the school—racial encounters occurred outside of school, not inside, as I recall. The first-grade teacher’s major task was to get students to read through phonics. I finally learned to read with understanding by the second or third grade and grasped it like a life preserver growing up. As an elementary and secondary school student, the Carnegie Library in Oakland became my second home.

My memory fails me in recovering experiences from those early years in elementary school. This is not to say that I didn’t absorb parts of the Progressive curriculum. I slowly grasped reading and arithmetic basics.

What I can recall most vividly is my fear and anxiety over not knowing all of the informal rules that my peers practiced without thinking. How to walk single-file in hallways, Lining up at the classroom door to go to the bathroom. Sitting with hands folded at the desk until the teacher told us what to do. Carefully scrawling the shape of individual letters pictured above the black slate boards as an introduction to cursive writing and then more sitting at a desk until the teacher directed us to the next activity. It was a world apart from living with my parents and brothers and roaming the neighborhood. I was scared by all of it.

So I do remember looking around constantly to make sure that I was doing what other six year-olds were doing. Was I anxious? Must have been since even writing down these fragments of memory dredge up feelings of unease, of worrying over being out of sync with others. I quickly picked up the alphabet and putting words together and adding numbers—never learned, however, to tie my shoe laces into bows–but the informal social rules of the classroom and fear of the teacher got to me from time to time. Once I was sent home for soiling my pants. Other times, classmates broke into laughter when I misunderstood the teacher’s request. This is what I remember.  

Outside of school, on upper Center Avenue where black middle-class families had moved out of the lower Hill District, I recall vividly being bitten on the thigh by the German Shepherd of our neighbor—a minister in a nearby black church. I also recall being hit by a Kaufman’s department store truck making a delivery while playing next to the curb and my mother taking me to the nearby hospital. 

At age 7, after the U.S. entered World War II—I remember that Sunday in December and the hushed conversations in our second floor apartment—when the President announced on the radio that Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor. The next year, we moved to Greenfield, a largely Italian and Irish Catholic neighborhood. There were few Jewish families in the neighborhood. The U.S. Army and Navy had drafted my brothers; they served until the end of the war. I entered the second grade at Roosevelt Elementary School and was there for four years. Whether it was because I was new to the school, Jewish, or some other reason, I heard lots of nasty epithets going to school, during recess, and while sprinting home two blocks once the last bell had rung. When there were fights, I was usually on the losing end.

Whether Roosevelt teachers taught in Progressive ways–encouraging play, curiosity, exploring science, math, and other academic and non-academic subjects–I neither remember nor could put into words those few vague wisps of memory. I do remember an art teacher who encouraged my drawing sufficiently for me to enter radio-sponsored art contests for young children. Didn’t win. I also recall that I knew all of the informal rules of how to behave in the classroom, during recess, and on the playground.While there are adults who look back fondly at their early years in school calling up the very names of their teachers, as much as I ransacked my mind, I cannot call up any names or classroom instances that are memorable.

What I do recall are events that occurred outside of Roosevelt. Since I went to school during World War II, rationing coupons, neighborhood fights and frequent anti-Semitic taunts and epithets come back to me. What eventually saved me was getting polio.

I remember well war-time rationing. Sacrificing for the war effort were lessons I learned in and out of school. Priority goods went to soldiers and sailors—like my brothers–serving in Europe and the Pacific. My parents received monthly ration coupons for meat, sugar, canned items, gasoline, tires, and other items. When our monthly coupons ran out, that was it. I do remember my parents speaking in Russian and Yiddish worrying about what they could and could not get in the remaining days of each month.

Patriotism in supporting the war effort became part of the school curriculum. Students, teachers and parents collected tinfoil from discarded gum and cigarette wrappers and rolled them into balls that we turned in to collection centers. I collected chicken fat from my mother’s kitchen and neighbors as well. My parents gave me a dime weekly to buy saving stamps and later defense bonds at school.

Then in the summer of 1944, a polio epidemic swept the nation and  I got it. But I was lucky. While other children were put into “iron lungs” to stay alive or youngsters had to wear leg braces—as President Roosevelt did–all that I contracted was a damaged left leg where my calf muscle atrophied. I have walked with a limp ever since.

Because polio was a scourge that devastated the young and no one knew how children contracted it, fear of getting it–like a latter-day fear of AIDs in the early 1980s–was omnipresent on Loretta St. When I returned from the hospital. No one came near me. I was in sixth grade preparing to enter a nearby junior-senior high school. I had missed a month of school–and I could barely stand when I returned home in early June. That is what I remember from those years at Roosevelt Elementary School.

During the War, my father had bought his own paneled truck to sell delicatessen products to family owned grocery stores in the city and elsewhere earned enough to fulfill my mother’s dream of moving into a Jewish neighborhood called Squirrel Hill. I was hardly ready to enter the seventh grade at Taylor Allderdice.

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