Before Entrepreneurship: 2
What Public Education Used to Be
I began working during the Mad Men era, and because I am still working, I’ve seen a lot of changes in America between the 1950s, the earliest time I really remember, and the present.
I’ve been up, and I’ve been down. I’ve been very close to bankrupt more than once. But I’ve always managed to catch myself. When my children were growing up, there was a toy called Weebles. I still remember the commercials: “Weebles wobble, but they don’t fall down.” When I am most in danger of sharing the fear, frustration, and anger of my neighbors, I remember I’m a Weeble. Weebles live in their own class. To be a Weeble is to be self-sustaining. More women should think of themselves as Weebles, and act accordingly.
The best thing that ever happened to me was my education, although it’s amazing how little of its details I can remember. I went to New York City public schools after World War II, when they were the guaranteed route for upward mobility, especially for the Jewish population that valued them.
My parents believed in my education, although they couldn’t really participate in it, because my educational world was very different from theirs.
My mother thought my education should be mostly about socialization. You went to school in the neighborhood so you could have friends like yourself. Thus, she made some critical decisions on my behalf with which I later disagreed. For example, she kept me in a neighborhood school rather than sending me to the experimental Hunter College Elementary School, a special school for which I qualified. She therefore guaranteed me neighborhood friends, at the cost of a perhaps better education.
She also nixed my father’s career-driven desire to move to Hollywood. Many of his clients made movies, and he wanted to be on the West Coast where the movie business was. But my mother didn’t want us to be brought up as spoiled rotten show business kids. I wonder how different my life would have been if she had not made either of those decisions on my behalf. I think I’m still mad at her for denying me the excitement of experimental elementary school and growing up in Hollywood during its finest hours.
I guess she was doing her best to make me normal. In retrospect, she must have had family values. She certainly told me that if I slept with a man before I got married, no man would ever want me. In fact, she made it sound as if lightning would come down and strike me if I lost my virginity before marriage. For me, that sucked.
But it also turned out to be wrong. Equally wrong was my father’s assumption that if I continued too far with my education I would never get married.
Spoiler: I was not a virgin when I got married. And five different men literally begged me to marry them. Of course, they, too were wrong. For a man, I’m like trying to catch lightning in a bottle. I’m just never all there. Too much else is going on. Not that I don’t like men — I love them. Almost all my friends are men, and certainly they’ve been my business mentors and companions. I just don’t like what happens to either one of us when I marry them.
My main memories of early childhood aren’t about my family. Significantly, they were about school. I have been able to write my own ticket through life because of my public education. For those of you reading this who are younger, including my own children (now in their early forties), this might be shocking. Public education now bears no relation to what I experienced as a child.
When I was a kid in New York, the majority of immigrants came from middle Europe and their parents didn’t speak English. Most of them never really learned. There were no English Language Learning classes. It was sink or swim, and the kids all swam while the parents often sank, just like today.. My own grandparents didn’t speak English, and as a result, I had no relationship with them, although we visited them every Sunday. They were foreign and mysterious, living in dark houses with drawn drapes that smelled of pot roast.
My father talked to his mother over the phone in Yiddish, a language I only slightly understood. It had no relevance to my American life. My father, who was born in New York, spoke unaccented (well, New York-accented) English. His oldest brother, born in Europe, spoke good English. Uncle Max, a building inspector in Long Beach, wasn’t an over-achiever like my dad, but used his experience in construction to land himself a job with the government. Speaking English was a critical differentiator. It was everyone’s goal.
My folks couldn’t helicopter in and make trouble for the school, because they had no clue what happened in the school. They didn’t put my drawings on the refrigerator, but in a scrapbook. They signed my report cards. They showed up (or at least my mother did, never my dad) at teacher conferences. They didn’t and couldn’t help me with my homework, although my mom sometimes went on trips with us to the museums and historic buildings New York City kids got to visit. We saw a lot of history: the Dyckman House, the Jumel Mansion, the Cloisters, the Museum of Natural History, and the Planetarium. I remember them all.
My first college teaching job, while I was still a graduate student, was at Le Moyne College, a Jesuit College in Syracuse, New York. The Jesuits used to claim that if you gave them a child until the age of five, they would have him the rest of his life. I think it can take a little longer than that, but I was definitely imprinted before the end of sixth grade. And here’s how I know it: I remember more about elementary school than about just about anything else in my childhood. And certainly more than I remember about high school and college, which went by in a blur of hormones and self-pity.
Listen. I can remember every teacher I had from Kindergarten to 6th grade.
In kindergarten, I had Mrs. Fuhrman, my very first teacher. I was disappointed that I didn’t have Miss O’Meara, who had white hair and taught the morning kindergarten, but I went to the afternoon. My parents didn’t get up early in the morning, and given a choice, chose afternoon for me. Another one of those choices I would never have made. Although I remember my mother walking to school on the first day, I remember more clearly walking with older children in my school every day after that. A group of us, all ages, from our apartment building walked around the corner from Broadway to Nagle Avenue to P.S. 152 in Manhattan.
Boy, were we proud of that school. I went and looked at it on a visit to New York recently, and it still looked warm and welcoming to me, although it would probably seem cold and severe to younger people. I had some very happy times there, including those when I found out I was smart, which was sold to me as even more important than being pretty.
P.S. 152 looks like a fortress. isn’t new, and it isn’t modern, and it wasn’t either of those even when I went there. But it’s solid. It had, and still has, a concrete schoolyard, in which we ran around around during recess. I loved it. It has not one blade of grass, and never did. But how could we have roller skated and played punch ball on grass? I was a great street skater.
Even back then, almost all the teachers were women. In fact, there were only three real careers for women: teaching, nursing, and secretarial. In Mrs. Fuhrman’s class we drew and wrote and marched around the room to the piano. Miss O’Meara played the piano for both classes, although she only taught in the morning. I loved her BECAUSE she played the piano, and we actually had an upright piano in our classroom. Miss O’Meara was also very motherly, which my own mother was not.
Mrs. Nachman , my first grade teacher. had salt and pepper hair, and was gentle. In her class we read, and had units on food, clothing ,and shelter, which we were told were the essentials in life. In those days, right after World War II, we also started to have shelter drills, in which we had to go under our desks and put our hands over our heads. Later, it got worse; we went into the windowless halls. But that didn’t come until the 50s, when I was in junior high. In first grade, it was almost a game, and we thought a lot about the starving children in Europe. In fact, that’s how I got overweight, because my mother made me finish all my meals in memory of the starving children in Europe. If I left anything over, it was somehow unjust to them. I never bothered to figure out what the connection was between food I didn’t eat and other kids starving. It’s not like we sent the food to Europe.
Mrs. Helfand was my first brush with “the system” and the beginning of my lifelong inabilities to cope with it. She was strict, built like a pit bull, and I had to figure out how to work her, because I had a big mouth and she didn’t tolerate that well. She gave a lot of bad marks in “works and plays with others” and “shows respect for the rights of others.” I got those.
But by Mrs.Helfand’s class, we were reading aloud to each other every day in class, and that forced everyone to concentrate: you had to know all the words in advance, so when it came to you, you didn’t stumble over a word. And the math: same thing. You never knew when you would be called on. It was embarrassing not to know, because so many others seemed as if they did. There were smart kids in my school. In fact, I don’t even remember any dumb kids, although it was just a neighborhood public school. Everyone really seemed prepared all the time.
Miss Sternberg. my third grade teacher, vanished for a while and re-appeared as Mrs. Rothenberg. We found that thrilling. She had jet black hair, up in a bun, and I thought she was beautiful. Somehow the highlight of third grade was rummaging in Mrs. Rothenberg’s purse while she was out of the room and finding a receipt for a bra. She wore a bra! A Maidenform! We felt like we had committed a sex crime.
Third grade was another big academic year, in which we not only read to each other and competed to demonstrate our math skills, but truly had to learn how to raise our hands in class and keep our mouths shut when we weren’t called on. By third grade, they had separated us out, and I was a proud member of the IG class: the intellectually gifted. Oh trust me, I knew what that meant. It meant I was smart. I took that as a huge responsibility. What if I ever fell short of being as smart as the IQ test said I should be? Third grade was the beginning of academic competitiveness among my classmates — and it would continue all the way through college. New York City Public Schools were pressure cooker. Or they seemed like it to me.
We made puppets in third grade, and learned how to work with clay. We went as a class to the Museum of Natural History and the Planetarium, and to the Cloisters. We didn’t have a bus; we took the subway and we walked. Our school district was not rich, but every child found the milk money and the lunch money and the subway money somewhere; I can’t remember anyone being unable to go. No one was rich and no one was poor.
I was in love with Richard Kinstler. He was blonde, and had a slight lisp, and in the middle of the year, his parents moved to Tom’s River, New Jersey, and it seemed to me like they moved to Mars. I never saw him again, although our family went to New Jersey for a month every summer. New Jersey was very big and we went to the Jersey shore.
What I remember about elementary school to this day were the enrichment activities, the music, art, and science, the trips to the museums and historical sites. Every year, school seemed to get more exciting. We got to learn and do more.
In fourth grade, Mrs. Robbins stressed math. I think we were already proficient readers. She had tightly coiffed black hair, and although she was nice, I wasn’t in love with her, and don’t remember as much about her. She didn’t ignite my enthusiasm the way many of the other teachers did.
In fifth, we learned music. Mrs. Lang loved it, so we loved it. And we sang James Weldon Johnson’s magnificent poem “The Creation” with a black school from Harlem at a city-wide chorale. We had to go downtown to a Harlem school to rehearse. Because I was brought up with a black nanny, and my father worked with black show business people, I was very comfortable going to Harlem as a kid. In fact, it was cool to go there for entertainment, and although I’m sure there was some sub-text to our performance with the black school, I never knew it nor cared.
This, by the way, was in the late forties, when the south was still segregated. New York was (technically) not, although everyone in our class was white except Leigh Edwards and Camillo Marquez, who took the subway from Harlem uptown to our school because we had classes for the intellectually gifted.
By fifth grade, we were also practicing for the citywide spelling bee, and I was becoming a spelling champion for my school. I would go on later to lose big in Washington. How big? Don’t remember. I repressed it. Got all the way to Washington and effed up. That’s all I remember. My mother, who went with me, was nice about it. I’m not sure she cared. It wasn’t like today. I don’t ever remember practicing words at home, even when we were heading to Washington.
Mrs. Karasik, my sixth grade teacher, was the highlight of elementary school. She loved art, and she not only taught us to paint, how to use actual oil paints and mix them, but how to model for each other, and how to compose still lives. We went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and hung out with the mummies. We went to the Museum of Natural History again, and then…in the second half of the year…we learned about the stars. For many of the kids, astronomy was the highlight of elementary school, although for me it was the art.
I’ve laboriously driven you through my elementary school years to make a point: these teachers were competent. They were more than competent. They were inspiring. They taught their passions. They had lifelong impacts on me. “Good conduct” was a given, and when I fell short on “Works and plays well with others,” which I often did, we had big discussions about it at home. But the subject matter of elementary school determined my tastes in art, music, and science for life. After sixth grade, school got much less memorable.
In those discussions about why I didn’t work and play well with others, my mother took the part of the teacher, begging me to be a good girl, and my father took the part of the innovator telling her I was destined for bigger things. While my mother was bent on making me fit in, telling me things like “if you can’t say anything nice don’t say anything,” my father constantly told me “you have to be a little different or you will never get noticed.” This tension in my family set me up for life. I loved my often absent father. I wanted to get noticed.
My mother dropped out of any real role in my education (my dad never really had one) when I made it into the Bronx High School of Science, a public competitive “magnet” school for kids who wanted to go to out of town colleges. I knew very early that I wanted to go to an Ivy League school, although I can’t remember how I even found out they existed. My parents certainly didn’t go to one, and my father thought the Ivies were glorified summer camps. Knowing me, I probably learned about them from a book.
My mom had graduated from a neighborhood high school and gone straight to work at the Du-Art Film Processing Lab as a secretary. Her mother died when she was 16, and her father re-married a “wicked stepmother,” whom I never met. I met my grandfather, but only briefly, because he died when I was young. My mother always gave me the impression that she was fortunate to finish high school, and she read like a fiend, mostly historical novels. From her, I learned how to read adult books. They were all around our house, from the biography of Louis Nizer to the fictionalized biographies of early British Royalty. At one time, my mother was responsible for making me an expert on the Tudors and the Plantagenets and the War of the Roses. At a very young age, I learned about the Book-of-the-Month Club, and my parents let me join it. One month I sent away for a series of twelve books on growing roses, however, and that was the end of my membership.
A stay-at-home housewife from the time she had her first child, my mother was bored as a mother. Or at least I believe she was. Her life was shopping, mah-jjong and Canasta. She had migraine headaches that kept her in bed and made her a Valium addict at one time in her life. But she was smart. An autodidact, she did the New York Times Crossword Puzzle every day until she got Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, that’s how we knew she had it; she stopped doing that puzzle. She was a JAP (Jewish-American Princess) before they were cool, and we had a “maid” as far back as I can remember. After all, that’s why my father worked so hard — to give his family everything he never had.
I can honestly say I never knew my mother. We just weren’t close. There was always something about me that didn’t please her. I much preferred my father’s love and understanding. He never asked me to be anyone I wasn’t.
My dad graduated from Textile High School, a vocational school in New York, went to part of college, and then read for the law. He never went to law school, but he clerked for a famous judge, Hyman Bushel, in New York City, and eventually passed the Bar exam. He was then admitted to the Bar without finishing school. Later I found out how famous Judge Bushel was, but when I was a kid, all I knew was that he was a family hero and my dad’s mentor. He gave my father his chance.
By that time, my mother had changed jobs and was working for my grandfather’s construction company — as a secretary. This was during the Depression. She met my father in 1933, through her job. She said she fell in love with him at first sight when he came to the office to see his father, but they couldn’t afford to get married until 1937, and then they put off having children (also because they couldn’t afford it), until 1941, when I was born .
By the time I was born, my father was on the way to a brilliant career that eventually landed him in the 90% tax bracket. Can you believe there was once a 90% tax bracket? And do you know how I knew that? He told me. He was actually proud of it. When I was growing up, he told me to pay taxes happily, and be proud of being successful enough to be in a high tax bracket. He also told me to avoid the “tax shelters” that were already coming to the market to protect high earners like himself. Because he died during the Lyndon Johnson era, he never got to formulate an opinion on Reaganomics, although my mother eventually broke my heart by voting for Reagan from her comfortable retirement perch in South Florida.
When I was born, it seemed like everyone around me was on the way up. No wonder. Around me everyone was lucky to be alive. In Washington Heights, the first neighborhood I remember (I was born on Central Park West, but in a studio apartment from which we soon moved), almost everyone was a Jewish first or second generation immigrant who had escaped the Holocaust.
The Holocaust was about to wipe out all the Jews in the 1940s, although I never even knew it as a baby. All I knew was that my parents sent money to the Radautz Romanian Benevolent Society on a regular basis. As a child, I had no clue what that was. All I remember is the envelopes with R.R.B.S. as the address, and the money in them. Radautz was the town in Romania from which my mother’s relatives emigrated.
We weren’t first generation immigrants. My grandparents had come over in the early 20th century, and both of my parents were born in America. My mother told me that her mother and father had eloped to America, because my grandmother Fanny was the younger daughter in her family, and she couldn’t marry my grandfather in Europe because her older sister Blemah was still single.
This story, told to me many years later when I was grown up, sounded like something out of “Fiddler on the Roof.” But my grandmother and grandfather DID have to go to America to get married in peace. And ironically, to survive, because the rest of my relatives in Romania didn’t fare so well under the Nazis.
My father’s family came over during the same period of time, but from Russia. (Lithuania) In retrospect, I realize both of my grandparents were construction workers, although my mother told me proudly that her dad was a “cabinetmaker,” as opposed to just owning a construction company, as my other grandfather did. Never mind; they both made a living until my parents were old enough to support them in their old ages.
In the early twentieth century one thought construction workers came to the United States to grab benefits, the way they now think Hispanics cross the border to do. In fact, there were no benefits. My Jewish grandparents were escaping various indignities and forms of discrimination that have been written about endlessly, as well as looking for better lives, but they took for granted the hard work they’d have to do here in America. If we bothered to understand our Hispanic immigrants. I’m sure we’d find the same kinds of stories.
In our perfectly comfortable apartment in Washington Heights (one bathroom, two bedrooms), my brother and I spent our early childhoods sharing both a bedroom and a bathroom. Nothing unusual about that, by the way, even though we weren’t the same sex. Only when I got to puberty did we move to an apartment in which I could have some privacy.
When was younger, my bratty brother and his friends were always in my life. On the other hand, I spent most of my younger childhood reading, which allowed me to turn off everything. To this day, I am a high screener, and I can multitask like a champion. This comes from a childhood of bringing a book to the dinner table, and simultaneously reading, eating, and conversing. Makes tweeting and texting through dinner seem perfectly natural to me.
We lived across the street from Ft. Tryon Park, to which the Metropolitan Museum of Art had transplanted the Cloisters, a medieval museum lovingly reconstructed from original sites. One of the great things about growing up in New York City was that these world treasures were all around me, and I just absorbed knowledge about them through osmosis. The Cloisters held the Unicorn Tapestries, and I learned about their importance as early as third or fourth grade.
But well before I discovered the Cloisters, I discovered the caves in the park, and that’s where I learned what boys looked like. From my earliest childhood, all my friends were boys. I was a tomboy, whatever that meant. Maybe it meant penis envy? Maybe I had a risk-taking mentality more characteristic of boys than girls? I’m still not certain, although I have begun to sort it out. Most interesting to me is that sixty years later, many of my friends are still men.
The same was true of the years in between, except I slept with more of the men during those intervening years. I have always had a unique closeness to men of all ages that I’ve never had with women. Women compete with other women in ways men do not. Hard to explain, but something separates me from the special bonds most women have with their girlfriends. And I think it’s my insight into and love for men. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have that.
Yes, there were caves in Ft. Tryon Park, and a few of the boys in my class and I exposed ourselves to each other in those caves, because no one else could spy on us there. The boys always wanted to see what the girls looked like. I was six, so I showed them. Who knew? It seemed perfectly logical to compare notes. Parents did not monitor their children the way they do now, so we were allowed to play in the park after school by ourselves. I remember the names of all three boys to this day, although I haven’t seen them in decades. You know who you are, guys.
Back to the more important part. My education. Like I’ve said, education has been the backbone of my life. It’s almost inconceivable today, but they taught art in my elementary school. Art was considered part of an education. So were music appreciation, cooking, sewing, and shop, puppetry and astronomy. I wish I knew how they found all the money to do those things then, and can’t seem to find it now.
My own children are not educated in the way I was, although they did grow up in my home and went to great universities. Their education just didn’t have the breadth of a New York childhood in the post World War II era. On the other hand, they got much more education from travel than I did.
Elementary school also taught history. We learned all about the Revolutionary War and the Civil War very early in elementary school — right after a unit on food, clothing and shelter in first grade, and one about the neighborhood in second grade. By third grade we were on to the wider world. History was all around us. We took field trips to famous Revolutionary War sites, and homes that had been built in the Colonial era.
By third grade I read really well. Not just “Fun With Dick and Jane,” but huge tomes that lived in our house and were off limits to me. By the time I was ten I had read “The Caine Mutiny.”