Observations From Prospect

I was in Prospect, CT last night at their annual D.A.R.E. graduation. I’ve been to 13 now. It’s my tradition as well as theirs.

I enjoy going because I like Prospect. It really does have a neat, small town feel. Going to Community School has got to be a different experience than going to P.S. 163&#185 in Flushing, Queens.

Some small things have changed. All the kids’ speeches are written and printed on computer. When I first came, they were hand written. The slide show at the end is now a PowerPoint presentation.

I made a point last night to observe the kids closely. It’s been a while since Steffie was 11, so there are things I’ve forgotten. Even then I couldn’t really be a dispassionate observer.

Being 11 is definitely being in transition. You are obviously still a kid in every way, but you’re getting set to begin fending for yourself and actually making some decisions on your own.

It is a physically awkward time. When the kids came up on stage to receive their certificates shake some hands, many didn’t know which hand to use. The vast majority, though not all, avoided eye contact – not just to me, but to all the adults on the stage.

I found that odd.

I have a terrible habit when I look at someone younger than me. I tend to mentally age them. So, now I know what all these kids will look like in their fifties and sixties. Some will be pleased. Many will not.

I know – it’s weird. I do it to nearly everyone young, wherever I am.

Some of the kids won an essay contest and read theirs aloud. How tough is that when you’re 11? I was a few feet behind them and could see nearly every one quivering. Though a few inches from the microphone, most were still too quiet to be heard.

I would guess the anticipation of this public performance must be nerve wracking when you’re 11. I’m sure I couldn’t have done it.

In a few years their writing will mature. Right now, most of it is reading back what others have said. I don’t know when individual creativity kicks in, but by-and-large it’s not in 5th grade.

I believe I was a real piece of work in the 5th grade, back in Mrs. McEnroe’s class at P.S. 163. I too would have squirmed while in the presence of non-family adults.

Our school never did anything to bring the parents and kids together at school, as this night in Prospect did. Looking back, that’s my loss.

&#185 – I was surprised to find this page, which rates my old elementary school, and rates it highly. Is there anything still the same since I left in the early 60s?

If I read correctly, it’s now 66% Asian. When I went, the school was totally white, except for two black brothers, Hubert and Herbert. There were no Hispanic or Asian students.

It was a school with a library the size of a Manhattan kitchen and a multipurpose ‘gym’ which never saw a sport or game played.

Connecticut Association of Schools Dinner

For the past 11 years I’ve been the emcee for the Connecticut Association of Schools Elementary Program Recognition Banquet. That’s a mouthful. Eleven years and I still can’t fully remember it without looking at a piece of paper.

It takes place at the Aquaturf in Southington where teachers, principals and other educators feast on prime rib. Year after year they continue to serve the largest portion of prime rib I’ve ever seen.

I’m impressed by these teachers, because they’re down there in the trenches. What they do does make a difference, though often they’re only recognized when a parent disapproves of what they’ve done to his child.

Usually I get to do the weather from the banquet hall. We actually pause the program and I leave the podium to do the weather… and pick one teacher to embarrass.

I was called on often enough by teachers when I wasn’t prepared. Turnabout is fair play!

On the way back to work I started to think about my grade school experience. I went to kindergarten and first grade at PS 201. I remember nearly nothing of that experience, except my parents were proud because in first grade I wrote a ‘book’. Sure all my ‘b’s were ‘d’s and vice versa… and it was only a few pages… but it was a book.

I remember a whole lot more about PS 163. It was housed in an old brick building in a quiet neighborhood. The chimney was wrapped with some sort of straps to keep it from disintegrating. To get there, I had to walk two blocks, cross the Long Island Expressway via an overpass and then walk a few more blocks.

I looked upon PS 163 as some sort of prison. It was a very very unpleasant time for me. I’m not sure it wasn’t also an unpleasant time for my teachers, whose lives I probably made a living hell.

Here are some brief bullet points of things I remember.

  • A boy, whose name I still remember and whom I won’t embarrass 40+ years later, somehow came to be shunned by the class. He was an overweight kid, which made his life difficult enough already. There was a rumor he had body odor, or something similar. After he drank at one of the twin water fountains, a student put up a note and we all drank from the other fountain. We were jerks. Can I apologize now?
  • In the fifth grade… maybe the fourth… my mother was called into the school. As I sat on the hard wooden bench outside the office, the principal (an old biddy who even then seemed like a throwback to the prior century) told my mother I had been telling dirty jokes. Mom later laughed it off. Thanks Mom.
  • I once won a spelling bee, possibly my only academic achievement, when I correctly spelled “government.” That it had already been misspelled by a few others made victory that much sweeter.
  • Someone from World Book Encyclopedia came to the school. Today I would look upon this as an unwarranted sales call on little kids. Back then it was OK. She said, “We never guess, we look it up.” I can’t get that phrase out of my mind to this day. I have used it as if it were part of the common lexicon. It isn’t, unless you were in PS163 with me.
  • We never had recess – not once – not ever
  • I never remember seeing a teacher leaving the classroom while it was in session. How did they go to the bathroom?
  • At one short point we played basketball outside. Most of the limited gym classes we had in the school were spent square dancing. “Heel and toe and one, two, three.” The school owned a Caliphone; a phonograph with variable speed capabilities that allowed the teachers to slow it down so even we could attempt to square dance.
  • There were only two male teachers in the entire school. They only taught the dumb kids.
  • There were only two black students: Hubert and Herbert. This was very odd as I lived directly across the street from a fully integrated city housing project. Years later, my mom said the school was purposely segregated. I didn’t know that at the time. It makes me uneasy even now.
  • The library was the size of a closet. In fact, at one time it probably was a closet.
  • We had huge classes with over 40 kids. Teachers were still able to maintain discipline and teach. I am always wary when I hear claims about class size being a paramount contributor to the quality of education.
  • When one girl in the fifth grade developed noticeable breasts, it became a big deal among the male students. It might have become a big deal with the girls too, but I had nearly zero contact with them. I definitely had zero contact with the girl with the breasts.
  • A local public library began having chaperoned afternoon dances. Our principal tried to have them stopped. I’m not sure if she was successful.
  • A dentist came and spoke at an assembly. He said the secret to good teeth was to brush and use some elbow grease. Again, I remember the name of the girl who raised her hand to ask where you could buy elbow grease. I’ll keep it my secret.
  • As far as I could tell, there had been no one in the United States prior to 1900, because everyone’s parents or grandparents or even my fellow students came from the old country… not the U.S.
  • The school had a master clock system. The minute hands moved once every minute, not gradually each fraction of a second. As we approached 3:00 PM, I would watch those clocks and they seemed to slow down.
  • During the spring and fall, ferocious thunderstorms would rattle the school. I have never heard thunder as loud, nor have I been as scared of the weather, as I was then.
  • The art teacher drove a white Cadillac
  • It was rumored the male fifth grade teacher had thrown a ring of keys at a recalcitrant student.
  • The school had tracking – grouping the kids by their academic abilities. I was with virtually the same kids from second through sixth grades. This method has lost favor over the years, but I think it worked in our school.
  • Of all the kids I went to grade school with, in the past year I have been in contact with just two of them.
  • I’m pretty sure I never did homework, nor did I ever study. I am not proud of this.