Chapter 11. Mountaindale School District: Academic Education

I started my public education in a one room schoolhouse on Church Road about a mile and a half from our farm. The next year the town closed all the one-room schoolhouses and placed all of the students in one centralized school building.

When I arrived at the new school in 1935 there were 165 students registered; when I graduated in 1945 there were only 93 in attendance. Since I attended that one-room schoolhouse for only one year (from Sept 1934 to June 1935), the details I am about to tell you are based on the memories and selective reminiscences of a six-year-old boy from a distance of seventy years.

George Bernard Shaw once said, "If you can you do, and if you can't you teach". How wrong he was. Mrs. Engert was someone special. She had a room full of students from ages six through sixteen, and she taught them all.

First, let me give you a picture of what the school looked like. There was the schoolhouse itself, the wood shed, and the outhouses in the back. Someone was hired to get wood for the potbelly stove, which was in the center of the classroom. The school building had two parts: Just inside the back entrance was a room the width of the building, and the depth of a large corridor that was used for boots, coats and general storage.

In the mornings before school started the older boys would come to school and bring two pails of water from the well at the farmhouse on the corner of Church Road and New Road. One pail was for cleaning and the other was drinking water. Everyone drank from the same dipper. If there was snow the older boys dug a path from the road to the schoolhouse door and to the outhouse. Going to the outhouse during the winter was a challenge.

Mrs. Engert had the class organized so that she could teach the same lesson to several grades at the same time. At the end of that school year, the Mountaindale School District was centralized, the town closed the school, and all students went to the public school in the village. I started second grade at the Centralized School in Mountaindale, where I met my new teacher Miss Armstrong. I learned two things in that class besides the academics. One was to plague me every day of my life. The other seemed not important to me but was something to be remembered. Let's talk about the first thing first. On the first morning of the very first day, Miss Armstrong informed me that every student in this class writes with their right hand. This came as a shock to my young mind. I would need to relearn how to write. I never did quite get the hang of it. From that moment until this, my handwriting has been illegible.

Every teacher has some philosophy of education. Some teachers think in terms of the Montessori Method or some other humanistic child-centered philosophies, such as John Dewey's philosophy that a child can learn anything if allowed to learn in their own way. Miss Armstrong's thinking tended to lean the other way. Her philosophy of education can be described in the following anecdote: A child comes home from school after his first day of second grade. His mother asks him what he learned on that first day of the new school year. He replies that in Kindergarten we learned how to play with other kids. In first grade we learned how to read. And in the second grade, we are going to learn how to shut up. This may seem like a joke to adults. But for many children it destroys their confidence, their curiosity, and their creativity, and may ultimately affect their education.

The second thing I learned in that class didn't seem important to me but it didn't come up as an issue until my sophomore year in college. In my psychology textbook there was a series of round circles that the students were told to look at, and say what number they saw in each of the circles. Everybody in the class saw one number, but I saw a different one. I called the professor over and he told me I was colorblind. I told him "I knew I was colorblind." He asked me how did I know. I said, "In the second grade my teacher told me that I had done a great job on my work, so I should go ahead and draw a red star on it. I did just that, whereupon my teacher said, "That's a brown star, not a red star." And that's when I knew I could not tell the difference between brown and red. I have learned to compensate for my colorblindness by remembering that when you drive a car, the red light is always on top. If the red and green lights are side by side, I've learned that red is always on the right. And I'll bet you didn't know that!

The Centralized Mountaindale School was very different from the one room schoolhouse of my first year. It was a very large school compared with my former school. Each teacher in the elementary school had two grades in one room, so you would end up spending two years with the same teacher. Nothing memorable occurred in the elementary school. In High school however, there were extracurricular activities and a variety of courses. By the time I had reached high school there were only 97 students in all of Mountaindale in grades 1 through 12.

In 1935, when I started school, there were 64 high school students in Mountaindale (grades 9-12). By 1944 there were only 20 high school students in Mountaindale. I don't know the number or the variety of high school courses offered in 1935, but by the time I was in high School there were so few students left that only one was offered in some subjects each year. For example, there was only one science offered each year for grades ten through twelve. All three grades took that class together.

By the time I was a junior, I was the only student in the eleventh grade. Someone decided that I should graduate high school in three years rather than four. I had taken barely enough courses to graduate. The plan was that I would take the fourth year New York State regents exam for English, and whatever mark I got on that exam would be my final grade in English for the four years. I would need to take the math regents exam in August, and that would determine my fourth year math grade. I had a private tutor-a math teacher-during July and August of that year. In this way I was able to graduate in 1945 with the seniors.

There were a few non-Jewish students in the school. One told that she was the only non-Jew of the ten students in her class and was totally socially isolated outside of school. The Jewish students didn't ostracize her; they just ignored her outside of school. Russian Jewish immigrants had one priority that they brought from Europe. That priority was to preserve their religion. They moved to Mountaindale, an almost all Jewish community, and instilled in their children the idea that they could only play and socialize with Jewish children. I know of only one intermarriage in Mountaindale.

Extracurricular activities made high school more enjoyable, but were constrained because of the limited number of students. Let's take an example. There were only eleven boys in grades 9 through 12. When the third baseman on our softball team injured his knee, we shuffled the infield and I went from first base to shortstop, which was odd because lefties don't play shortstop. Except in our high school. By the way, of 347 shortstops in the history of major league baseball, only three have been left-handed. So I was in very elite company.

On one occasion the limited number of students in the school was an advantage. During World War II there was a scrap metal drive. Students, through their schools, were asked to collect and help locate scrap metal for the war effort. That was the last war we had where the government tried to have everyone involved in the effort to promote patriotism. Our students worked enthusiastically on the project. We didn't know that the way they decided (Who were they, anyway?) to rate the schools was by dividing the number of pounds of metal collected by the number of students. We came in third in New York State.

Another memory reminds me just how small our high school population was. It was one of those spring days that don't come too often. On this particular day, after morning classes, I walked to the grocery store for lunch. I sat on a bench and ate. When I returned to the school a few minutes before afternoon classes, the building was very quiet. There was only one student there. I asked her where were the other students? She said it was such a nice day that they had decided to take the afternoon off without permission. She went on to say that they had left about half an hour ago.

They had walked through the ball field and had gone across the Sand Bar Creek, which was beyond the field. As the girl was telling me this, I started to think that maybe I could catch up with the other kids, but then I realized that I would never be able to find them after so much time. I asked the girl why so many kids had left school without permission and she said that everybody except her had decided to go because they didn't think the principal would suspend all the high school students.

So I didn't go. When the whole incident was over the principal thought I had stayed back because I had wanted to do the right thing. The other students thought I had stayed back because I had chickened out. But I knew that I had stayed back because I had returned too late from lunch to skip school.

The last incident still rankles me to this day. In my last year at school someone had arranged for each of the four high schools in the district to perform a one-act play at our school. The teacher had selected the perfect play for us to perform. The play had suspense, a hot topic for our school population, and a surprise ending. The play was about a Jewish family that was scheduled to leave Germany for Sweden. They had their visas and tickets for the boat. About ten days before they were to leave their father was arrested and they were told that he was going to be interrogated, but that he would be released in time to go. The play revolves around the discussion of the wife, their children, and the husband's parents. They talk about leaving, the time they will spend in Sweden,then going to the United States afterward, where they have relatives. The discussion goes from optimism to pessimism and back. At the end of the play there is a knock on the door. A German soldier knocks and enters, and hands the wife a mysterious package. Then a few final lines of dialog are supposed to reveal everything.

The problem was the German uniform. Unfortunately we didn't have a German uniform. So we decided that the boy playing the officer would stand outside the door, out of sight of the audience, and say his lines loud enough so everyone could hear. When we practiced we had different people sitting in the audience. After each rehearsal the boy would say his lines, the curtain would come down, and everybody would applaud at the end.

The night of the play everything went perfectly, until the end. When the curtain came down there was complete silence. We couldn't understand what had happened. Afterward, when the audience was asked why they had been silent, they said they couldn't understand what the German officer had said. It turns out that during the performance, the boy had stood too far back from the door, so his voice was muffled.

Alas, a great dramatic moment was lost. Here's what the audience was supposed to hear: At the end the German officer hands a small box to the wife. The wife asks, "What is this?" The officer's polite reply? "It is the ashes of your husband."

And so my high school years went by. And yet, high school was not where I was learning my most important lessons. That was happening at home, thanks to my grandfather. But that is a story for the next chapter.

Postscript: Mountaindale high school was not a college prep school. I was totally unprepared for my freshman year at college. If I were to apply to an undergraduate college now with so little preparation, I would probably not be accepted. Fortunately for me, in 1945 most colleges were looking for students, because so many young men had disappeared into the military. So I was accepted into NYU, woefully underprepared. For example, most freshmen at NYU had three sciences: chemistry, biology and physics. I had only one. As for English, I had never read anything by Shakespeare, and the only novel I had ever read was Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott.

At home there were no books. From October 1 until June 1 I was at home with my grandparents, one of whom knew no English, and the other of whom could neither read nor write English. As far as vocabulary is concerned, I was never taught vocabulary in high school, and we used a limited vocabulary at home. I was culturally deprived. I had never seen an opera, been to a play on Broadway, heard a symphony orchestra, gone to a New York City museum and had hardly ever been to the movies. For example, in my sophomore year in college we took an examination and the question was: "Who of the following was a leptosome (a tall thin person)?" The names they gave were Alan Ladd, Spencer Tracy, Edward G Robinson and Jimmy Stewart. Unlike most Americans, I actually knew what a leptosome was, but had never heard of Jimmy Stewart. So I got that one wrong.

I was a rural country boy and the vast majority of the freshmen were city kids. There was a vast difference between us. They were better educated and more culturally aware of what was happening. For example, when they talked about taking ashes out of apartment houses through the basement, I had no idea what they were talking about. There were certain things that they knew that nobody else knew. For example, one day in math class we were doing sequences, and someone brought in the sequence: 14, 34, 42, and asked "what's the next number?" The New York City students got the answer right away. Try as I might, I couldn't get anywhere with it. (See the end of essay for the correct answer.)

I did not own a typewriter, nor did I have access to one, so I printed all my assignments in pen. My professors would have preferred that all my work be typed. I had a major problem with my English professor. I received a C+ on the first composition I handed in. After that no matter how well I wrote my composition, I always received a C+. Sometime around Thanksgiving I found that he was writing extensive comments on typed work, whereas he had been putting only perfunctory check marks on mine. I decided to see whether he was really reading my work. One of the assignments was to write a book review. As an experiment, I copied down, word for word, the review of this book in the New York Times Book Review. When I got back my graded paper, I learned that my professor had given the New York Times a grade of C+ for their work.

So I blundered through my freshman year undereducated, with a language and vocabulary deficit, and a time management problem. By the sophomore year I had become acclimated to city life and adjusted to the demands of the professors and the university. My grades started to improve.

By the way, the numbered sequence represents the express stops on the uptown Seventh Avenue subway line in Manhattan. In 1947 the next number would have been 72. Now it would be 59.