No one was in the military when I was growing up. My uncle served for three years in the U.S. Marines, but he was done with that by the time I was four. However, I managed to go to more than my fair share of schools around the island of Manhattan; the pace slowed down, though, the higher the grade number. At least there’s that.
I went to nursery school (which these days would be called pre-K) because my grandmother worked full-time, and there was a good settlement house program in our neighborhood, and they had nursery school. I went to kindergarten at the same place. It was (and still is) called Hamilton-Madison House. Once upon a time there was a Hamilton Street, but it disappeared in the 1930s due to urban development, Depression style. Madison Street is still here.
For first grade, I went to P.S. 1, which I think is rather cool. My first grade teacher’s name was Mrs. Fraser. I remember a few things about first grade. One was that a girl I considered my best friend in the entire world, Donna, moved to Staten Island in the middle of the year. They let her come into the classroom to say goodbye to me. Then she left. I cried all day long. It can’t have been easy for Mrs. Fraser.
Another thing I remember is that lots of times Mrs. Fraser had me sit in her lap when she read to the class. I don’t recall any other kids sitting on Mrs. Fraser’s lap, but maybe that’s because I always felt very self-conscious when I was on her lap, and I think she smelled of moth balls or some other unpleasant thing (although maybe not); I just know that I felt obligated to be very good and not move or breathe too much while I sat on her lap during these reading sessions.
Mrs. Fraser came to our apartment one night, which REALLY was strange. Apparently I had homework. I don’t think I was aware of this as an actual thing, because I know that whenever my grandmother asked me if I had homework, I always said no, and as I recall I believed it. Since I went to an after-school program, it’s entirely possible that I completely forgot about it while I was busy doing after-school stuff. Anyway, Mrs. Fraser and my grandmother discussed with me the importance of Doing Homework, and my grandmother knew to check my book bag (which was sort of like a mini briefcase) so she’d know when I had homework and make sure that I did my homework. Welcome to grade school.
For second grade, I went to P.S. 126, and my teacher was Mrs. Pierce. I adored Mrs. Pierce. I had my first crush on Mrs. Pierce. It was a sad and lonely thing, having a crush on Mrs. Pierce. She was beautiful and aloof and quite a vigorous, rigorous sort of woman. When we visited a firehouse and got to climb all over a firetruck, I announced that I wanted to be a fireman someday. (The term firefighter had yet to be conceived; this was sometime between 1966 and 1967.) Mrs. Pierce told me that I couldn’t be a fireman. I did not understand this. Why couldn’t I be a fireman if I wanted to be a fireman? Mrs. Pierce was adamant that I could never be a fireman. I wasn’t thinking about gender at the time; I wanted to do what they did, ride around in a red truck and put out fires! I was so disappointed in Mrs. Pierce. Only in adulthood did I wonder whether her stance had more to do with the second part of the word, and it wasn’t her fault that there weren’t any firefighters back then, and it was beyond both of our imaginations to come up with an appropriate term. I still adored her, but my heart had been broken and things were never the same again.
We learned how to sing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” in Chinese (don’t know which dialect) and sang it in Assembly.
This girl named Terry from the projects said that I was okay but I wasn’t tough, so she would teach me how to be tough. I was so happy about this that I told my grandma about it that very night.
I was taking modern dance classes at another nearby settlement house (Henry Street Settlement House), and apparently a famous choreographer who was involved with the place stopped by and observed our class one day. My favorite part of class was “Improvisation” because the teacher put music on and I could just dance any way I wanted to. Anyway, this choreographer person told the teacher that I was a natural dancer, and that I ought to study ballet because it would help develop my dancing skills.
Terry Teaching Me to Be Tough vs. Ballet Training: Guess which way my grandma went? Yep. There was a school on East 54th Street called the National Academy of Ballet. I auditioned. I got accepted. The weird part: The school started with fourth grade, so I had to skip third grade to go there. So I skipped third grade. I also stopped going to Hamilton-Madison House’s after-school program because of both the location and hours of this new school and the fact that it was my grandmother’s firm belief that after the age of eight, the atmosphere of that program became wilder and more dangerous, and she didn’t want me around such sorts of stuff.
At the National Academy of Ballet, students had both academic and dance training all in the same building. My uncle took me to school the first two days to make sure I knew how to get to and from the school. It was a very early in the morning trip up, and during winter I often got home after dark. And I was a scrawny eight-year-old kid. It was the Third Avenue bus up and the Lexington Avenue bus down. At least I’m pretty sure that’s what it was. I know it was that way for fifth grade, when the school had moved to East 86th Street, but I am getting ahead of myself. I was always to sit right up front near the bus driver. I made some grand friendships on the bus, especially in the morning, with grown-ups from my neighborhood going to work. I was quite the special pet, and it was probably the best thing about attending this particular school.
My ballet teacher, like a whole lot of other people, had a desire for my uncle. He did not return her desire. I don’t know whether that had anything to do with how much she yelled at me or not. I do know I believed that she hated me, and actually I still believe that. She was just awful. I think her name was Miss Shelley, but I’m not sure because she’s half blocked out, only ugly bits remaining. One day (it was a visiting day for parents etc.), we were being observed by what seemed like 100 people (it was probably more like 20). My shoe came untied, and she told me to sit down and tie my shoe. I was so humiliated, because I was clearly the only child in the whole school whose shoe would come untied. Now, I think we were trained to wait for her to tell us when to join the class again; if that wasn’t the case, then what happened was that my humiliation sent me escaping altogether into a fantasy land away from Miss Shelley and her meanness. All of a sudden I hear her yelling at me, something about why was I just sitting there? Get up and back to the barre! Now I was past humiliated, although I’m not sure what the word for that is; but it’s how I felt then. I hated Miss Shelley.
The other ballet teacher for the younger children was named Miss Dearborn, and she suited her name perfectly. She was a petite gossamer woman, sweet and tender. I was hoping to have her when I went on to fifth grade, but alas it was not to be. There I was, stuck with the Demon Teacher from Hell again.
Academic memory: Reading the word “colonel” phonetically, and being laughed at and ridiculed by the other kids in my class, one or two of them snapping “It’s KERNEL!” at me and making me feel very stupid and small.
The piano teacher was Russian, and he had wild hair and a great deal of sternness in his demeanor.
The first day of school, I met Ginger who, like me, had skipped third grade to come to this place. I thought we were going to be friends, but it seemed like by the second day of school she was being very mean to me. This continued and was really awful! In the dining room there was this easy chair at one end of one of the tables. The one and only time I ever got that chair, Ginger pulled it out from under me. It was a very high chair. I was badly bruised and had to be picked up early because I got sick. One Parents Night, my grandmother, who liked Ginger (which felt like a betrayal to me), had a talk with her about why she was so mean to me. Apparently, the reason was that I never fought back. My grandmother imparted this information to me. The next time Ginger was acting like a bully (which, let’s face it, she really was) I punched her in the stomach. After that we were friends. As in spending weekends at each other’s homes friends, even after we went to different schools (F train to/from East Broadway to Kew Gardens, don’t remember the name of the stop at the moment). In retrospect, the whole thing is weird.
My best memory is, sadly, when I returned to school after my mother died (January 2, 1968; fourth grade). All the teen-aged ballerinas made a huge fuss over me, hugging me and telling me how terribly sad they were for me. They were so sweet and caring and kind. And when the male dancers were practicing lifts, one of them lifted me up into the air, and it really felt like I was soaring! Of course, I hadn’t been trained in that aspect of ballet yet, but he allowed me to feel as though I were a star!
Fifth grade was better, except at some point in the first few months of the school year a boy in the seventh grade had a nervous breakdown. It was the beginning of the end of what was by now renamed the National Academy of Ballet and Theatre Arts and located on East 86th Street. My grandmother began looking for options, and investigated a school in Greenwich Village where her friend’s daughter had gone to school. It was called St. Luke’s. We went for an interview with the Principal, Mrs. Taylor. She was very intimidating in stature and the lines of her face, but there was a feeling that she really wanted what was best for a child. Her eyes were kind. It just so happened that there was an opening in the fourth grade, because a boy named Cornelius was moving to Washington, DC due to his father being transferred there. Since I was at the age where normal kids are in fourth grade, back to fourth grade I went. Very, very happily.
My years at St. Luke’s (half of fourth grade through eighth grade) were the happiest school years I ever had. The school was like a benevolent village, all the best parts without the insular meanness that sometimes arise in such places. Everyone knew everyone else’s name; who was whose sibling; whose mother taught French or volunteered in the library or put together the Christmas Fair. There was an annual Strawberry Festival, my favorite part of which was having real strawberry shortcake involving strawberries, biscuits and whipped cream. And everyone knew me. Oh, there were the inevitable Mean Girls in our grade, and there was the one kid no one wanted anything to do with, but I had a small group of friends in fifth grade (they valiantly rescued me from a friendship I didn’t want and only had by default due to being the new kid), although by sixth grade it was just two of us after the other two moved, one to a progressive school and the other to Connecticut. My best friend was Alison.
Alison really was my best friend. We shared a love of the Marx Brothers, Leslie Howard, all sorts of old movies (1930s and 1940s; they were a very big thing in the early 1970s; there were loads of books called The Films of …) and her family’s country house in Carmel. We drifted apart after we left St. Luke’s, but she still attended my high school graduation ceremony and joined my family at Fraunces Tavern, where she and I did poses as “Washington’s Farewell to His Troops” upstairs in the museum part. We wrote some letters during college. Hers were always adorned with drawings in the margins (she was a fantastic artist); mine were just letters. We always signed our letters “Chauvelin” (Alison) and “Sir Percy” (me) because one of our all-time favorite movies was The Scarlet Pimpernel. (Somewhere I still have a signed photo of Raymond Massey.) I met up with her once after college … and we lost each other. I was spiraling downward and she was biding time before she went to graduate school in England. I am sure she is living a happy, independent, very private life somewhere in New England these days.
In eighth grade, alas, came the gruesome reality of applying to high schools. I (Grandma) applied to three: the United Nations International School (because Alison was applying there); St. Ann’s School in Brooklyn (a foreign land); and Trinity School (because my grandmother had a thing for Trinity School, it being very old, very Episcopalian, and very top notch academically. We toured all of the schools, of course, and I wrote essays and took tests. UNIS was brilliant; it was practically in the East River and had loads of windows; some classes we passed had kids sitting on the floor, which looked really cool; and, well, Alison was probably going to go there. St. Ann’s was sort of dark and scary, I think; I don’t really have much memory of it. Trinity was incredibly intimidating. The high school was in a new building that had no windows at all on the first floor. I remember sitting in some classroom or other sort of room (with a lot of full bookshelves) writing yet another essay. My grandmother was outside talking to the admissions woman, who was the wife of the Headmaster. A Person of Importance with a III or something after his name came into the room after my essay had been taken away and I was left sitting there. He said that my story was remarkable, and that I must be a very special person to have come through everything so well. I had no idea what he was talking about, but in retrospect I imagine my grandmother pulling out all the stops on how sad my lot in life was; orphaned, being raised by a guardian (her), having no family but my uncle and my grandmother. I imagine, also in retrospect, that this technique might also have been used at St. Luke’s. In any case, I was accepted to St. Ann’s and Trinity, but waiting listed for UNIS. Oh how I prayed for that waiting list to move up; and finally, the day came when I had moved to the top and was fully accepted!
My grandmother, of course, wouldn’t hear of it. I had been accepted to her personal Mecca, Trinity School, and that was where I would go.
Four years of academic hell. Flunking and having to retake Algebra 1 and Biology. Taunted and disdained by the majority of my fellow students. I wasn’t rich or socially acceptable. I did develop a few very good friendships. My grandmother and uncle tried to instill in me the belief that it was better to have two or three truly good friends than a bunch of people most of whom weren’t the real sorts of friends on whom one could count. It was nice and all, but they didn’t know how small and inferior I felt every day I went to school. Most of the teachers were very lovely, though. Even though I didn’t take classical languages, the head of that department was my homeroom teacher in ninth grade. His name was Mr. Smith, and he was British by birth. For all four of my years in that school, he always called me “Miss Sights,” and always in a friendly kind way that picked up my spirits. In senior year, he and M. Bolduc (head of the modern languages department and Mr. Smith’s … umm … housemate) invited a few of us students over for tea. It was them, Ms. Pappas (classical, Greek), Jordan (good friend), me, and I’m not sure who else. They lived in a little mews in the West 90s (the name is eluding me just now; when it comes back or I wander around and find it) and they were extremely gracious hosts. There was also Mr. Lombardo, who was fantastic at making me feel better about myself, even getting me to speak up in English class. He took me for a ride on his motorcyle once when he had to go to the library at Columbia University (he was a Ph.D. candidate there). He let me cry out all my pain on his shoulders. None of that was in any way inappropriate; he was simply a good man who saw a girl in pain. He went on to become a psychiatrist sometime after I’d escaped from Trinity School.
College is an entity unto itself, and where a whole new chapter starts, so we’ll leave this educational havoc and mayhem behind, shall we, for another day?