Sixty years ago today, I graduated from elementary school, sixth grade – Grade 6 in Canadian.
I recall more about my time at P.S. 184 in Queens than all the years at all the schools that followed.
I can picture the gym, where we started the day saying the Pledge of Allegiance, which added the words “under God” when I was in third grade in 1954, and where we were among the first to get the new polio vaccine the next year.
I can see the auditorium – the framed reproduction of Gainsborough’s The Blue Boy on one side and a Goya portrait of a child in red on the other.
And the assemblies there, presided over by the principal, Mrs. Lloyd, a fiery redhead who’s favored admonition was “woe betide,” as in, Woe betide the student who misbehaves in my school.
Some famous people addressed us in the auditorium. One, actor Jimmy Stewart, wearing his uniform as a colonel in the air force, took the stage and talked about the importance of service to the country.
I remember having a crush on my fourth grade teacher, Miss Gratz, who got married during the school year and became Mrs. Rosenthal.
And my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Beamish, who adored President Eisenhower – had his framed photo in our classroom – and imparted a passion for civics, history and geography.
Sixth grade was the best. We were the oldest. Masters of our universe. Titans of the schoolyard.
In the classroom, our teacher, Mrs. Schenker, instilled an appreciation for English, for writing well and speaking grammatically.
Like all students in New York City public schools, we took IQ tests to determine who qualified for SP – Special Progress – and go on to skip a year of junior high. I, and all my best pals, made the grade.
In the following excerpt from my memoir, The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism, I look back on my school days, starting in 1951, after my family left the Bronx, where I was born:
We moved to Clearview Gardens, a large labyrinth of two-story redbrick apartments, one family of post-war up-and-comers atop another, in Bayside, Queens.
The greatest academic and social achievements of my youth were earned in elementary school, at P.S. 184. In class, I gained a grasp of all I thought I would ever need to know – basic arithmetic, how to read and write, all the important dates in American history: 1492, July 4, 1776, December 7, 1941. I could find every state and most countries on a map.
My report cards were uniformly outstanding and, in sixth grade, I was elected school president and “king” of the school – my picture in the Long Island Press, alongside the queen, Roberta Kirsch, wearing our capes and crowns.
But then I went to junior high, skipped a grade, moved to Plainview, a sterile suburb for the aspiring nouveau riche on Long Island, and sleepwalked through high school …
In the fall of 1963, I went off to college at the University of Toledo, in Ohio. I never attended classes, woke up around noon, went to Franklin’s, a nearby coffee shop. This is where I was having a breakfast BLT when a girl came in shrieking, “President Kennedy’s been shot.”
I passed most days either drinking beer bought with a counterfeit ID – I was only sixteen – or alone in my dorm room, listening to a tape of Carl Reiner interviewing Mel Brooks, the 2,000 Year Old Man.
I did come to the attention of the university’s administration a couple of times. Once, when I was placed on academic probation for scoring across-the-board incompletes the first term. And a second time when two FBI agents questioned me in the dean’s office about a purloined calling-card number I used to phone my girlfriend, the voluptuous Laura, in Brooklyn. The G-men were not impressed with my you-can’t-pin-that-rap-on-me-copper routine. I fessed up and paid the tab.
Anyway, I flunked out, or dropped out – How do you grade a student who never goes to class? – and went home to Plainview.
* * *
My adult education commenced a few years later when I began reading everything I could get my hands on, as well as on the job as a reporter.
And, throughout my forty-plus years in journalism, I was guided by a lesson I learned at P.S. 184, from the librarian who told us: “We never guess, we look it up.”