Number 5 School

April 3, 2011 at 5:00 am (Uncategorized)

Doesn’t everyone remember his first school, usually in great detail? Mine was P.S. Number 5 in Cedarhurst, NY. I started kindergarten there during September of 1948 when I was five years old. The school was an imposing (to a five year old) brick building occupying a small plaza about four blocks from my house on Summit Avenue. There was a black-topped playground behind the structure, and the entire property was surrounded by a black wrought-iron fence of spear-shaped pickets.

The principal was Mr. Nicholas Farina, a balding, bear of a man who had been my father’s high school football coach. According to Dad, Mr. Farina had a bit of a temper. Whenever something went wrong, he would kick a wastebasket and bellow “Confound it!” To tell the truth, I was terrified of him, and throughout my elementary school years I did my best to keep from being sent to his office, not entirely successfully. Many years later, when we were in Kiwanis together, I would occasionally call him “Nick”, but I was never comfortable doing that. He still bore, in my mind at least, the mantle of authority that discouraged familiarity. Now that I look back, Nick Farina was, in effect, my first drill sergeant.

The school secretary was Mrs. Evelyn Burke, a tall, blonde, somewhat aloof woman who lived two doors away from us on Summit Avenue. There was also a school nurse in the office whose name I couldn’t recall at first. But cousin Mike Mollo came through and reminded me that it was Mrs. Abrams. Thankfully someone’s memory is still working properly.

I don’t remember that much about kindergarten. Back then we had those old fashioned wooden desks with inkwells in them. I don’t know who the little girl sitting in front of me was, but she had long pigtails, and I got into trouble once for dipping them into the inkwell. Perhaps surprisingly (because of my angelic face?), that didn’t earn me a trip to Mr. Farina’s office, but it may have been my first official act of mischief at Number 5. All in all, I didn’t have that many.

The world was a different place in those days, so even at an early age I was allowed to walk to school alone. From my house, I would go up to the corner, turn left, and walk three blocks to 5th Avenue. Jim the cop was usually at the intersection during school hours to cross the kids. I’m not certain, but I think his last name was O’Malley. Weren’t all cops named O’Malley back then?

Anyway, from there the school was one block to the right. I remember coming out the wrong door at 3 o’clock one day and finding myself in unfamiliar territory. I had no idea where I was and started crying. Luckily, Mrs. Burke happened along and asked what was wrong. When I told her I was lost, she walked me around to the side of the building that I was familiar with, much to my relief.

While I was at Number 5, I almost always went home for lunch. Some of the kids would go to “Charlie’s” grocery store on Washington Avenue for a hot dog, or to “Sam’s” luncheonette on the corner of Fifth Avenue. Others who lived too far away or whose parents weren’t home during the day would bring lunch to school and eat in the “Long Room”, so-called because of its lengthy, narrow configuration. The Long Room was a multi-purpose facility that also served as meeting room, and occasionally a gym. After eating, students could watch movies in the auditorium until it was time to go back to class. I rarely stayed around to do that, preferring to walk home where Mom would have tuna or egg salad sandwiches and a bowl of tomato soup waiting for me.

Teachers were a different breed then. For instance, in first grade I had Miss Grace Upstyle. Talk about the stereotypical school marm. Miss Upstyle was probably in her fifties when I was in her class, although we kids always thought of her as really ancient. She had gray hair pulled back into a bun, and wore wire-rimmed eyeglasses. Her shoes were the high-topped black leather ones like I was used to seeing on my great-grandmother. But she was an outstanding instructor, and probably could have served as a model teacher – for the year 1880! Anyway, I can thank Miss Upstyle for bestowing rudimentary reading and writing skills upon me and starting me on the way to becoming an essayist of somewhat ill repute.

In fourth grade I met my first true love – Miss Lois Dzuris (pronounced Juris). Miss Dzuris was a tall, young Dixie belle with a southern accent. What made her especially unique was the fact that she was the only female teacher in the school under age fifty. I simply adored her. One time she brought us some “shoo-fly” pie that she had baked using an old recipe from back home. I didn’t particularly like it, but I asked if I could bring some home to my Mom. Miss Dzuris made sure that I left at lunchtime with a large slice of pie wrapped in wax paper. I can’t recall what became of her. I think she may have gotten married later and left the school, but I probably blocked that out of my mind due to a severe case of puerile jealousy. I really wish I could remember something more.

In eighth grade I encountered my first and only male elementary school teacher – William Davis. Mr. Davis had just recently graduated from college, and this was his first assignment. We kids knew that, and sometimes took advantage of his inexperience to make his life miserable. We weren’t exactly hellions, you understand. Students simply didn’t behave like that in those days. But we were just rambunctious enough to plant a gray hair or two in his head.

One time my friend, Leslie Krause, who was the class clown and sat in front of me, turned around and said something that started us both laughing. Mr. Davis caught us and sent Leslie to the office for disrupting class. As he left the room, I got up and followed him. Mr. Davis eyed me with a puzzled look on his face. “Where are you going?” he demanded.

“I was talking too,” I stammered, and continued out the door, even though my knees were knocking at the prospect of appearing before the principal. Mr. Davis was so astonished that he never said a word. I guess my idealistic nature took root at an early age.

At Thanksgiving time he asked us all how big our family turkeys were. I think I reported that ours was twenty-five pounds, and the smallest I recall weighed in at a svelte eighteen. Mr. Davis drew a big laugh when he stated that he and his wife shared a two pound bird! Many years later, my wife worked for Dr. Lester Ploss in Freeport, NY, who had Bill Davis as a patient. I was pleasantly surprised when he told Maureen that he remembered me very distinctly. I guess you never forget your first class or your first batch of trouble-makers.

Mr. Stanley Weingold was the school’s physical education teacher. He was always after me to become a more aggressive athlete. Unfortunately, I was rather shy throughout most of my time at Number 5 School, even though I was a fairly good ball player. It wasn’t until my final year there that I began to gain some confidence in my ability, partly due to the efforts of Mr. Weingold. I played one season on the Number 5 softball team, competing against other elementary schools in the district. I remember one game in particular against a bunch of tough kids from Inwood. They not only trounced us on the field, but beat us up afterward as well. To tell the truth, I don’t recall winning a single game that year, no doubt much to Mr. Weingold’s everlasting chagrin.

My friend Jody Lowens and I were assigned to supervise the Audio/Visual room at the beginning of eighth grade. That was exactly what we two lascivious thirteen-year-olds had been praying for. Jody and I knew that there was a film strip there entitled “Reproduction among Mammals”. We both envisioned it as a hot sex education film. Therefore, we wasted no time dashing down to the A/V room after 3 o’clock the first day to find it. When we finally located the small metal canister labeled with that title, we practically fought each other in our haste to get it out of the can and into a projector.

Surprise, surprise! What we saw on the screen was “Volcanic Activity in Mexico”. How the devil was that possible? Well, it seemed that the two students who had run the A/V room the previous year, and who had since gone on to high school, had perpetrated a cruel joke on us. Every filmstrip in the inventory, and there were hundreds of them, had been switched into different canisters! We had to shelve our lewd thoughts until we managed to get all the filmstrips back into their proper containers.

Several days later, Jody opened a canister, and there it was: “Reproduction among Mammals”! Oh, thank you, God! We almost wept with joy as we slapped it into a projector. What a disappointment! The subject of the film was a pig! We groaned through some sketches of a female swine’s sex organs, and the next frame began, “After the male and female have mated…” Following a year of hopeful expectations, that’s what we got. Oh well, I guess we deserved such a letdown for our less than immaculate thoughts. But I don’t suppose we differed much from most young teenage boys of that era who struggled to control their raging hormones.

In June of 1957, my class graduated from Number 5 School. I remember that it was stifling in the auditorium where we held the commencement ceremony, even though a few old-fashioned ceiling fans labored to generate a cooling breeze. I recall watching from the stage as my friend, Richard Muller, marched down the aisle while “Pomp and Circumstance” played. Little did either of us suspect that in just a few short years we would both be at war in Vietnam. It was also one of the few times in my early life that I had worn a suit. After nine years in that magnificent building, we would all be moving on to Lawrence High School in the fall. In many respects it was almost like leaving the security of the womb. With diplomas now in hand, our first feeble steps into the early stages of adulthood lay just ahead. It would prove to be an interesting journey.

Several years ago I had occasion to drive past Number 5 School. I couldn’t believe how much smaller it now seemed. Very little had changed. The black wrought iron fence still surrounded it, and children were innocently scooting about on the playground as I had once done so long ago. I lingered for a moment remembering one detail or another about my early days there. Then the traffic light changed. Stepping on the gas, I glanced wistfully in my rear-view mirror and watched as Number Five School quickly disappeared from sight, leaving me again with just many wonderful memories of my youth.


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