The school was a large, L-shaped, two or three storied, red brick building. It occupied about one half of a full city block, the remainder being the playground. The floors and stairs were made of dark wood. The halls were brown.
As far I can remember, G. Sidney Leach was the principal and Mrs. McDonough was the vice-principal the entire eight years that I was there. We all loved Mr. Leach, whom we saw very rarely, and we were terrified of Mrs. McDonough, who patrolled the halls like an army sergeant. I can still hear her voice, telling us to walk straight, to be silent, to keep our hands out of our pockets and never to chew gum in school. One day, she asked me where I was going and I said, “To gym”. She said, “No, you are not going to gym!” I thought that I was in real trouble and that she was sending me to her office. “No,” she said, “It is not ‘gym’. It is the gymnasium! You are going to the gymnasium! Now, where are you going? And what is my name?” I saw the light. “I’m going to the gymnasium, Mrs. McDonough.” “That’s much better,” she said. I had escaped eternal punishment.
Many years later, I learned that we were very fortunate to have attended Bergen Street School, under G. Sidney Leach. He had attracted an excellent, dedicated teaching staff. Every one of my teachers was outstanding. Each took the word “Grammar” in the school’s name to heart. We learned grammar.
Once a month, we all went to the school auditorium for some special event. These were Depression days and many skilled people performed for very low wages. We saw the fastest typist in the world and dog acts. We saw silent movies, including the famous film “Nanook of the North”- about the life of an Eskimo. (Many years later, I realized that it was clear from the film, that Nanook had two wives, but this was never mentioned at Bergen Street School.) And we always sang the songs of Steven Foster and some sad World War I songs.
The school year ran on a half-year basis. In other word, in September there would be Grade 1A and Grade 1B, and in February, there would also be Grade 1A and Grade 1B. The classes ran from kindergarten through eighth grade. Strangely, the letters ran backward, 1B was the first term, 1A the second. There were usually two sections of each grade, with about 40 kids to each semester class. So that would make about 1,200-1,400 children.
The school was about ten blocks from either of the two homes I lived in while attending. Almost from the first day I entered kindergarten, I walked there with my friends. (I remember that when I was in one of the lower grades, on a very rainy day, my father came with an umbrella to take me home. I never saw him and he couldn’t pick me out. When he came home, much later than I did, he kept on saying “They all looked alike!”)
I received a daily allowance of one cent when I was in the lower grades. This was increased to two cents later on. The money was usually spent in a Mr. Melnikoff’s candy store which was about halfway between home and school. You could get three big red candy dollars or ten candy or licorice cigarettes for one cent. When my allowance with increased to two cents a day, my father told me that when he went to school, his allowance was five cents a week.
When I entered kindergarten in February, 1929, I could already read. Years later, my mother told me that she had been asked whether she would agree to my being immediately placed in the 1st grade. She did not agree, being concerned for social problems I might have, being with older children. As a result, I was the darling of the kindergarten teacher. I was used as the example of how do things correctly and how to behave. I assisted her with the other kids and enjoyed teaching. Kindergarten was a joy! It also had some personal learning moments- see Story #2.
My reign of being the special student continued in Grades 1B and 1A with wonderful Miss Wolfe. I was reading third grade books and I read to the class. (I remember coming up to the word “island”. pronouncing it correctly, and then wondering how I knew not to pronounce the “s”.) My mother had already read the children’s poems to me, so that I knew them by heart, which made me no friends. (See story 3). I was the hero in the class play about knights. I was the arithmetic champion, which ultimately led to a problem with Miss Wolfe. (See story 4).
Sadly, sometime after we left the first grade, we heard that Miss Wolfe had committed suicide, using the exhaust of her car in the closed garage. Of course, as children, we had no idea of her problems. However, I was deeply moved, since she was very special.
In the second grade with Miss Gallop. I decided that I would read, read, read. On the way home from Bergen Street Grammar School, there was a public library. I would stop off almost there every school day to take out books. I read systematically, going through each author’s total collection. In 2B, I set the school record for the most books ever read in one term. After that, I began to read longer, harder books for their content.
Despite the fact that I was clearly not going to be a good piano player, my father composed a piece for me, labeled “Lullaby”. At some point when I was fairly small, I played it before the entire school at an auditorium. I remember thinking that this was a simple piece and that I should be able to play something much more difficult. When I was finished, the students applauded and I literally shrunk, embarrassed, walking, bent over, back to my seat. I never performed at the piano in public again. However, many years later, using my computer, I wrote “Lullaby” again for my two grandchildren, Seth and Sasha Fera Schanes, and Seth performed it at a piano class recital. It was a good feeling.
At Bergen Street School, for reasons of class size, I think, every now and then there would be a combined B and A class. Most of the children would be in their regular rotation, but some bright children would be “skipping”, completing the entire school year in one term. In 1932, when I was eight, I went into Grade 3 AB.
Going into third grade, I was prepared to awe the next teacher, but she saw me coming. Her name was Miss Carolyn Steiner (later Mrs. Carolyn Hahn) and that first day, she hit us with a spelling test- twenty words I had never seen. I got my first F! She spoke rapidly and precisely. You had to pay attention, there was no time for fooling around. I was stunned, the impossible had taken place- I was not in control, the children were older, and I was nowhere! I came home in a state of shock.
I don’t think I ever worked harder than in that term under Miss Steiner. She was a hard task master and I loved it. She challenged me daily. There was so much to learn and for the first time, I had to work at learning. That half year, and especially that first day, stands out in my mind. The only specific that I now remember was learning Mythology and stories from Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.
The fourth grade with Miss Syn was an entirely different adventure, We did not get along. She constantly reminded me that I was not living up to my potential- and, in fact, at the end of the year, she announced that one student was receiving an equal number of 5A’s and 5C’s, and no B’s, because he didn’t try to do anything that was hard for him. As she spoke, she handed me my report card. I actually think she was particularly kind in giving me a C marks for my penmanship and my Art work.
One day, Miss Syn drew a big circle on the blackboard and drew lines through it, dividing it into several unequal slices. She then asked what those were. I raised my hand and said “Fractions”. She said, “No, they are just slices”- and then went on to draw another circle, with even segments. “These are fractions,” she said. Having learned from my experience with Miss Wolfe, years before (Story 4), I said nothing.
Despite my lack of success with Miss Syn, I was promoted to another mixed class, 5A/B, skipping another half year. I wish that I could remember the teacher’s name, for she was fun all the time. She and I did get into some wonderful arguments She did not believe in the existence of pores- “Imagine, holes all over your face!”, while I could not accept the concept of microbes being so small that I could not crush them with my thumb “Look, I’m crushing a million of them!!!!” A best selling book about pioneers in microbiology, “The Microbe Hunters”, had just been published and all of us were first learning about germs. We sang Christmas carols, visited the Borden’s milk plant, and even went on a long hike through the South Orange Mountains.
Our teacher in the year of grades 6B and 6A was Rose Celiano. I had now skipped a full year of school, and I was the smallest kid in class. She kept us working and laughing. One of her pet lines was to speak about some lady’s skirt being slit halfway up, “accidentally on purpose”. I had a tenor voice and joined the Boys Glee Club and also worked on The Bergen Tribune, our school magazine which came out monthly.
There were two sections of each grade. While nothing was ever said, it was clear that the brighter students were in one group. The forty of us knew that we were in the “upper” section and at times we would show it.
Our 7B teacher was Anna Celiano, Rose’s sister. She was motherly and kept a very loose leash on us. Her first words to us were, “Before you know it, you’ll be graduating. The next two years will go in a snap.” We all laughed- and two years later, we agreed that she was right.
The 7A teacher was Mrs. Teitlebaum- tough. Her first words to us were “I’ve heard all about this class. You think that you can get away with anything because you’re so smart. Well, not with me!” It was a tough term.
Each year, the staff of the Bergen Street Tribune would elect the various officers of the magazine. There were always two nominees, who then left the room while the remaining staff voted. In the election during my last year, I was nominated for Editor-In-Chief and lost, nominated for News Editor and lost, nominated for Features Editor and lost, and nominated for Business Manager and finally won. The Business Manager’s job was to go out and get students to subscribe to the Bergen Street Tribune so that we could purchase the needed supplies for publication. I walked from classroom to classroom, trying to get some small amount from some of the school children. Somehow, the publication survived.
The 8B teacher was R. E. Allen, who had a flat, quiet voice and loved history. I think that she opened my eyes to the excitement of reading about history. I was specially interested in the U.S. Civil War and in the growth of the British Empire. Keep in mind that at that time, England owned more land than the area of any country. The motto was “The Sun never sets on the British Empire.”
It was in R. E. Allen’s class that the issue of singing Christmas carols came up. Ezra Lang refused to sing the carols. He said that his father was a rabbi and that he could not participate in Christian ceremonies. Until then, I had sung any and all carols and it just did not occur to me that these were ceremonial. I just thought that they were lovely songs, sung to honor the birth of Jesus Christ, without involving myself in Christian faith. I discussed this with my mother, since I wanted to continue to sing carols, and she saw no problem in my doing so. She also saw no reason why Ezra should have to sing carols if it was against his faith. As I continued to sing, I thought that Ezra was pretty brave and a little odd. Still, it was an eye-opening experience.
Six of us got together and put out a monthly class newspaper. Another group did the same thing and we developed a strong rivalry. Our group consisted of Clarence Griffith- who was the handsomest and most popular guy in the class (and also the best boxer), his “girl friend” Ruthie Burke, the prettiest girl in the class, David Robert Lyons, Ruth Cassell, Jeanette Klafter and me. Somehow, we raised enough money to buy a copying liquid, which you heated, poured into a flat pan and then let cool into a hard gel. You then wrote or typed using a special ink, placed the sheet of paper on the gel and rubbed for several minutes, pulled the sheet off, and, if you were lucky, the gel now had the written material. Now placing a clean sheet on the gel and rubbing, you could get a copy of the original. We did this over and over again to produce our newspaper. I think the process was called “hectograph”.
Davy Lyons and I both had a crush on Jeanette. Nothing came of either crush. However, Jeanette did marry another one of our classmates. Davy went on to become a medical doctor in Newark. After we were graduated from Bergen Street School, I never saw Clarence again and lost all contact with him. Ruth Cassell came to Montclair State Teachers College when I was there, but we did not have much contact. I did not see Ruthie Burke again until 1951 when she was married to my friend Joseph Haas- which is a separate story indeed. Suffice to say here that we have remained very close friends over all these years.
Our 8B teacher was Miss Ingraham, the “terror” of all teachers- strict, demanding, and rewarding, she knew exactly how to bring out the best in us. She led the Boys Glee Club, so I had known her for three years. She did her best to get us ready for high school.
The last part of the term involved getting ready for our class trip to the Statue of Liberty and our graduation. She reminded us over and over again that the ferry that went to the Statue of Liberty also stopped at another island on the way and that we should not get off there. Of course, someone did, which caused all sorts of confusion.
For our graduation, we put on a play for the student auditorium. I was the property manager- which meant that I had to locate various props and make sure that the stage was set properly.
Singing in the Boys Glee Club was one of my great enjoyments. We had two-part and three-part harmonies and we performed for all of the classes. One of the songs we sang was “Aura Lee” (“Maid of golden hair”), which Elvis Pressley later made famous as “Love Me Tender”.
Bergen Street Grammar School was just about half-way between two high schools, South Side High and Weequahic High. Upon being graduated, those of our class who lived south of the grammar school were automatically going to South Side High. However, Weequahic High, which was a very new school, was already overcrowded, and an alternative program, called Madison Junior High, was made available at another grammar school. Those of us who lived north of Bergen Street, were to take an exam in order to be accepted at Weequahic, if we also willing to go to school in the “Second Session”, running from noon to 5PM. Anything was better than the dreaded Madison Junior High, so we all took the exam. It turned out to be an IQ test, and in announcing the names of those who qualified for Weequahic High, the teacher said that two students had IQs of over 140. Davy Lyons, who knew how to get around (His father had connections.), told me that we were those two students. I remember being more impressed with his getting this information than the information itself.
We had our pictures taken for graduation, and we received sheets of small photos of the class, our teachers and Mr. Leach and Mrs. McDonough. These, we cut apart, and inserted in small photo albums, which had pages for our comments to each other. Two incidents stand out in my mind. Our gymnasium (note!) teacher wrote in my book “Small of statute, big of mind.” My parents and I thought that this was not only very funny, but that it also was a fair indication of his intelligence. More importantly, Mr. Leach decided that he did not like his photo and he collected all that he could from us, promising to send us a better one- which he never did. However, some years later, this gave me a chance to do something nice- see Story ___.
Graduation took place in February, 1937. I had just turned thirteen years of age and I was the smallest student in the class, although Sherman Henning and another boy named Isidore Weiss contested me for that honor. I was about four feet, ten inches, while two of the boys were over six feet tall, and Clarence, who was of course always the class president, was five feet eleven inches. I admired him greatly for his calm, quiet leadership and I am sorry that I never saw him again.
A number of the boys in my class died in World War II. I especially remember Henry (“Hotchy”) Marantz, a friendly, smiling boy, who was the best athlete in the class.
© Steven E. Schanes 2002