Wednesday, October 29, 2008

School Black and Blue Days

Photos from the Internet or RBF's personal collection

People wonder why someone will take a particular stance or action. They will say to themselves, “What happened to that person that made them turn out that way?” For me, I thank the Brooklyn public school system. It is perhaps the most dysfunctional family to which I’ve ever been associated.

They didn’t have pre-school back then, not in Bensonhurst, anyway. My first class was kindergarten at PS 128, which I was anxious to attend. I was looking forward to learning. While I was the smallest kid in class, sans one girl named Patty, I felt confident that I would do well. The two women who ran the class were wonderful, and took me as the smallest boy under their wing, protecting me. I became sort of teacher’s pet, though I wasn’t really aware of it at the time. It was all just having fun and prepping me to learn.

Each grade was broken into two classes, the “1” classes (1-1, 2-1, etc.) which was more academically advanced, and the “2” classes (1-2, 2-2, etc.), which were the ones who struggled some and needed more help (i.e., geared more toward trade jobs than anything academically challenging, in the school system’s playbook).

RBF, First Grade
I entered the first grade at 1-1 with a strong desire and determination. Then I met the teacher. She liked little girls, and was not fond of little boys, especially those who were the teacher’s pets of the kindergarten class. She set her sights on me, and never let up. After class, we all lined up in the street, and our mothers came to pick us up (it was rare to find a mother that worked back then). One day she made an announcement, “I just want everyone here to know that Robert is a thief. He stole a box of crayons.” The mothers pulled their kids away from me. When we got home, my mother asked what happened with the crayons. I told her that the shelf I was supposed to return them to was too high for me to reach, and I put the box on a lower shelf. My mother went over the next day to see the teacher, and sure enough, there were the crayons right where I said they were. She refused to make a correcting announcement, and for years, there were certain kids I was not allowed to play with because I was a “thief.”

But she had not even begun. The highlight was one day when she decided to punish me (though I cannot remember the cause). She took the green metal garbage can that was under her desk, and dumped it on the floor. She then made me sit in it with my arms and legs hanging out, and my butt hanging in. With her foot, she pushed the can I was in under her desk, and then had the entire class line up and kick the can. One kid kicked it low, causing the can to fall over. She yelled at me for it, and I had to straighten it out, put myself back in, and then the line continued until everyone was done. I was so mortified by the incident, that I didn’t tell anyone – including my parents – until years later, after she had already left the school. At some point, I read that the exact same thing happened to Bruce Springsteen. I wonder if it was either a taught training method both teachers had followed, it was the same teacher, or just coincidence. Whichever way, it was not fun.

Second Grade
Her strongest act against me, though, was that for the next year, she put me in “2” class. I started acting out. Now they would probably say I had ADD, but the teacher was helpless and could not control me. She tried to punish me by making me sit in a chair under a bookshelf that was very low, so I had to crane my neck just to sit there. Repeatedly, she called down my brother from a higher grade, and he would try to calm me down. I was a wreck, and no clue how to learn. All they wanted me to do was sit quiet. For the next year, she put me in 3-2.

Third Grade
That year I had the same problem. Could not sit still, and was uncontrollable. My brother’s teacher would not let him out of the class to handle me, because she understood that he had to learn, too, not just discipline me. One day I came home with a handprint across my face, where my third grade teacher had slapped me. My mother went there the next day, all literally 5-foot of her, and she told the teacher that if she ever touched me again, she would beat the crap out of her. The end result was that the teacher had me sent to a psychiatrist. Dr. Hand saw me for one session, and his conclusion was that I was too smart for the “2” class and was acting out because I was bored. He recommended either bumping me up to the “1” class, or give me more work. The teacher felt that since I was in her class, I should do her curriculum. Needless to say, I just got worse.

Before a Fourth Grade class show: Julie, RBF, Elise, Patty
The 4-2 class, due to reasons beyond our control, had a string of four teachers, none staying long enough to be effective. I don’t remember any of them. I was still out of my mind. While I don't remember it, I heard years later that I had stabbed one of the students in the hand with a pencil during an argument. Every day felt like a struggle. I read a lot on my own, including books older than my reading level, like the Dr. Dolittle series, and my absolute favorites were the Happy Hollister family of detectives series (much more so than the Hardy Boys). My parents were also willing to spend a bit more on books. Seems like I either was trying to distract from my life, or almost trying to learn by myself.

Fifth Grade
When I got to 5-2, we had our first male teacher. I figured, okay, I could associate with another male, so maybe it will be better and I’ll buckle down. After a few months, he disappeared. Off the face of the earth. One day he was here, next day, gone. I learned much later that was being intimate with one of the girls in my fifth grade class, who happened to be the daughter of a high-level gangster. At the time, they were filling in a local bay, which would later be known as Ceasar’s Bay [sic], to build a department store called EJ Korvettes. My guess is that is where the teacher was squirreled away.

We burned through 5 teachers in fifth grade. Only one other was memorable. She had one of those gynormous hearing aides, the kind that fit in the ear, and a wire led to the receiver that was in her shirt pocket. The class was not fond of her, as she was kind of cold and unfriendly. Myself, and my pals Dominic and Joel (who usually did not get along), conspired to get the class to mutiny. We would do things like organize everyone to gradually talk lower and lower, so the teacher would raise the volume of her aide up higher and higher. Then on cue, the whole class would scream, scaring her. Or we would talk in fake broken words, so it sort of sounded like a cell phone breaking up now, and she would be either banging on or shaking the aide receiver. She left after about 4 to 6 weeks.

Sixth Grade
In 6-2, we had either 4 or 5 teachers, I can’t remember now. Again, most were forgettable. The one I do remember was the very last, Mrs. Lowenberger. She was strict but fair. We were all a little scared of her, but in a good way, and I think I learned more from her than anyone in the previous 3 years or more. If she had been our teacher for the whole time, our lives would have been vastly improved. I remember she was totally into the Opera (which none of us were), and on a class field trip, she brought us to Lincoln Center (my mom was one of the class monitors for this one). Because she had such an in with the place, we got a personalized backstage tour of the huge hall. It was amazing.

On the next to last day of class, Mrs. Lowenberger announced that she wasn’t feeling well, and she expected each and every one of us to come to her house to pick up our report cards. It was mandatory, and she gave each of us two bus tokens, for each way. We rode as a group, and when we got there, she was fine; she had a planned surprise barbeque. Her husband took the day off and cooked for us all. Because she was not into popular music, the only record we wanted to hear that she had available was “Penny Lane” 45 (which belonged to her daughter).

Looking back, there was an inherent level of racism that ran though that school. Our area of Bensonhurst was almost exclusively white, at about 40% Jewish, 50% Italian, 9% Irish, and 1% the rest. There were two Chinese families (one that owned the local Chinese restaurant), and an elderly African-American alcoholic man who we knew as Rochester (I’ve never found out if that was his real name). He lived by himself and we, as little kids who didn’t know better because we weren’t taught better, would demand he dance for us, which he would oblige in a tapping, stumbling way. There was another African-American family with an uncle looking after his nephew and niece. The niece, Vivian, was in my class, and we were friends. I’d been to her house a few times, and even gave her my roller skates (which annoyed my brother, because he wanted them). In total, my class was all white, with the exception of three girls of color: Vivian, and two bused in from Coney Island. Some teachers would ask (i.e., demand) that Vivian stand in the front of the class and sing, “He Got the Whole World.” Looking back, I cringe at incidents like this, and how we behaved to Rochester.

When I started JHS 281, or Bensonhurst Junior High School (later renamed Cavallaro JHS), I was glad to be out of grade school and heading into a new one. The first day of class, I ran into Dominic. I hadn’t seen him all summer. During the school year, we would hang out together after class and play “Lost in Space.” He was just an average ordinary kid. I said, “Hey! Dominic! How ya doin’?” He said, “Oh, hey. I spent the whole fuckin’ summer at the fuckin’ beach getting’ fuckin’ wasted and fuckin' hangin' out with chicks. It was fuckin’ great!” I thought, whoa, what alien kidnapped my pal and turned in into that guy? Later I ran into Vivian, who was walking with two of her friends. She was wearing a dashiki and wore wooden beads and a huge afro. I said, “Hey, Vivian, how ya doin’?” She responded, “Who you talkin’ to you white motherfucker?! Get the fuck away from me!” I thought, as she and her soul sisters stormed by, with a bit of a sob, “…But I gave you my skates….” It was a summer of revolution, 1967, and I was left behind.

As scary as elementary school had been, junior high was way amped up, adding a racial tension within the school. There were problems between the Italian kids and those of color. Us Jewish kids were just trying not to get caught in the crossfire.

While teachers tended to be a bit better, there were some definite winners in the abusive column. For example, while math has never been my forte, I still tried. In Seventh grade, I took my first advanced math class, and was lost and befuddled. At one point the teacher said, "Come to the board and do this problem." I responded, "Well, I don't know how to do it." Her answer was, "Do it, make the error, and we can figure out how to do it correctly." That made sense, so I went up, did what I could, and made the error. She then started berratting me in front of the class about a solution I already told her I didn't know. After a few minutes of constant demeaning by her, I just walked out of the class, hiding in the staircase because I did not have a hall pass.

My mom brought home a (manual) typewriter when I was a little kid. I sat down at it and within a year I was typing at quite a clip. Again, in seventh grade, typing class was manditory. By that time, I was typing at 55 words per minute. The teacher gave me a grade of C. Confronting her, I asked, "WTF?" (but not in those words). Her illogical reasoning was I didn't show improvement. I said (and this I did verbalize), "Improvment? I'm a 13 year old kid on a manual typewriter doing 55 words a minute.  How much more of an improvement could I made when the keys on these machines lock up if you try to type faster. They can't GO faster than than 55 words per minute." She replied that it was not her problem. I asked her, "If this was a bowling class and I started bowling 300 at the beginning of the term and finished with a 300, you would give me a C?" Her response was to the affirmative. She refused to change it, and somewhere in her response she claimed that her job was to teach us, and I did not learn. It didn't matter that she could not teach me more than I knew. She was punishing me for something I already knew. It was all her ego.

By the time I got to Lafayette High School, it had gotten even worse. Race became an even stronger dynamic. One had to know the right bathrooms to go to, which part of the schoolyard to avoid, and to not cross the line into the Marboro Projects across the street to the north (similarly, the kids of color did not stray a block to the south of the school). It all came to a head one afternoon. I was sitting in class on the fourth, top floor, and heard a loud noise outside. The whole class went to the steel grated window. We saw two masses approaching each other in the cement yard, one being the Italian kids, and the other being the black and Latino students. They were all ready to fight to make the school their own turf. It was just getting to the pushing stage, when a line of huge black Lincoln Town Cars pulled up to the curb. Out them stepped groups of wiseguys. Suddenly, all the kids started running, because the black and Latino kids didn’t want to be seen beating up the Italian kids, and the Italians didn’t want their parents to know they were causing trouble. So one minute they are literally ready to beat each other to a pulp, and the next, they are helping each other over the link fence. The end result is that the intent was clear that they didn’t like each other, so that did not change, but no more riots broke out while I was there.

While that situation was totally out of my control, there was a time when I took some back. While in Junior High, most of the Jewish kids took Spanish or French, but I figured since I lived among Italians, it would make sense to learn that language. Plus, I've always liked the way Italian sounded, being so melodic (still do). I was the only Jewish kid in the class, and most people there took it as an easy mark, because they already spoke some degree of it. My first year, I did okay. The second year was tougher. The teacher, Mrs. Alleva, lived around the corner from me, and was very nice. When I went to High School, I had to take a third year of lanuage to get an academic degree. It was obviously taught by a different teacher. He was interested in control of the students. Somewhere in the middle of the year, I made an error in translating, and he said something insulting at me in colloquial Italian that I didn't understand, but the whole class laughed. I responded by saying, "Gai kaken oifen yam." He flinched and said, "What was that?" "Yiddish," I replied (the translation is "Go shit in the ocean"). He squinched his face and spat out, "Oh, you're a Jew?" Needless to say, he made the rest of the year hell. He kept cursing me out in Italian, and I would make up curses in Yiddish back (as I only knew two). I just barely passed the Regents, so on the last day of class, he said to me with a smirk, "Because you did not do well enough on the Regents to guarantee a passing grade, I'm giving you a 64 in this class." A classic spite mark, since 65 is passing. "Fine," I relied calmly turning my back on him walking out of the classroom, "You're the only one who teaches this class and I need it to graduate. We get to do this again next year." When my report card came, he had given me a 65.

But I had enough by this time. I started cutting school. It wasn’t a thoughtful, “Okay I’m going to hang out with my friends, I don’t like school, I’d rather take drugs,” kind of thing, but rather it was where I would just hide in my room, or go to Korvettes and spend the day there, or go into Manhattan to play skee-ball on 43rd Street. It was more like mini-anxiety attacks, where I just could not face going. I was truant, showing up 39 days that whole year. My mother had started her job at Metropolitan Life Insurance as a keypunch operator, so I was home by myself when the mail came. I ripped up the cards that said I missed school. They didn’t call, because Lafayette had such a high truancy rate, they couldn’t keep up.

At the end of the semester, my parents found out. I can’t remember if they finally called, sent a letter that I missed, or it was just the report card. What I do have a memory of is that my dad was furious. He went to the school to meet with someone in authority, and at the time I had a fever. When he got home, my fever was pretty high, so my mother made him wait so I could get better before he could get his hands on me. Luckily, by that time, he had sort of calmed down (he was often angry anyway, back then). The solution was that I would go to a psychiatrist to figure out what my problem was. Naturally, my parents picked Dr. Hand, who I had seen in third grade.

I sat in his office in a huge leather chair, he sat in another one directly across from me, and on the other side of the room sat my mother. Dr. Hand asked me questions like, “Do you masturbate?” I looked at him the equivalent of “Are you insane? I don’t know if I would answer you if we were alone, but do you really think I’m going to say anything with my mother sitting RIGHT THERE?” So I stared at him, and wouldn’t answer any of his questions. He started asking my mother about me, as if I wasn’t there. She mentioned that I had a temper. He quickly turned to me and said, “Oh, you have a temper, do you? Seems like a stupid thing to do.” Immediately, I knew he wanted to make me angry to see what it was like, so I very calmly answered, “I guess.” And the more he baited me, the calmer I got, and the redder in the face he got. When the session was over, he was breathing hard and his face was beet red. My mother paid the receptionist for the session, and we put on our coats. I said, “Mom, do I really have to come back here?” She said, “If you’re smart enough to out-think a psychiatrist, I don’t believe he’s going to do you any good.” Instead, I went to summer school.

Needless to say, I was left back that year, which in the long run worked out well for me because it was there that I met Bernie Kugel. He was a year advanced and I was a year behind. It turned out to be one of the key turning points in my life, and he remains one of my best friends.

As I was starting my Junior year, I went to my advisor, who was a miserable person. The line to her office was always twice as long as anyone else’s; she did not really help anyone because she just didn’t care about anyone. I asked her if I had enough credits to graduate to Senior level, and she said yes, without even looking at my file. I asked if she was sure, and she said yes, as she was looking at something else.

Summer after High School
Sure enough, I was one credit short to get out of my Junior year, so I had to take my Senior classes while still being considered a Junior. That is how I graduated, as a Junior. I did not get my photo in the yearbook, did not get to go to my prom (not sure I would have gone anyway), and did not get to go to my own graduation.

So, from first grade on, my life was tossed and turned by most of my teachers who had their own agendas, and who did not see me as an autonomous person but as someone who sat in their class, demanding we learn how to be still with our fingers folded rather than giving us ideas, of possibilities. I don’t know what would have happened if I ended up in 2-1 rather than 2-2, but I would like to think that it would have been more nurturing.

It’s with no small wonder that when I first walked into CBGBs and saw the Ramones, it would have such an impact on me, feeding my resentment with volume, non-complex but out-there, reactionary lyrics, and blazing rock’n’roll. I gave myself into it, because it was how I felt.

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