Squirreled away in a drawer, it was an artifact from another time, another place: a yellowed, neatly printed leaflet with the heading "Graduation Exercises, Prospect Junior High School, The Bronx, Thomas J. Donahue, Principal, Thursday Evening, February 2, 1933."
The back page lists the names of 414 boys and girls, all by now pushing 80parents, grandparents; scattered, many probably dead. And all surely light-years away from the largely demolished, burned-out, drug-ridden part of the Bronx where Prospect Junior High (P.S. 40) once stood.
How many, I wondered, still have the program of the graduation exercises held on that vanished Thursday evening in 1933? Or was this the only one left?
Then I remembered the autograph album. For over 60 years it had accompanied me on my urban migrations, stashed away with crumbling snapshots, Indian-head pennies, a Boy Scout Tenderfoot pinthe random oddments of my life. Rummaging around, I found it, the imitation red-leather cover faded, but the entries happily legible.
"In your golden chain of friendship regard me as a link.
Every mark does, Carl. But whether Iggy had his rightful share of $u¢¢e$$, or what became of Sam or Al or even mon ami Rabbi Irving of precious memory, I couldn't tell you.
According to the program the evening began with the graduates' march, trumpeted in by the school orchestra playingno doubt with Iggy Stiglitz's approval"Success." There was the salute to the flag and the singing of the "Star-Spangled Banner." Following this was the reading from the Scriptures, an event that, in our present state of inflexible neutrality toward God and all matters concerning Him, is rigorously forbidden at public school ceremonies.
The prelims over, we sang "There Is a Love," now vanished from my memory. We had practiced choral singing under Birnbaum, our kapell-meister. Tall, darkly handsome, with a warm smile, Birnbaum had that special rapport with students that differentiates the true teacher from the time-serving pedant. (In response, we dropped the Mr. when referring to him: as in, "Hey, Trachtenberg, Birnbaum wants you.") So when the pianist revved up the intro, and Birnbaum called out, "Now, together," together we would sing out, happy to accommodate him. Down the long passage of years, whenever I've heard children sing in chorus, surely one of the loveliest sounds under heaven, I've thought of Birnbaum. ("In your golden chain of friendship regard me as a link.")
Next, somebody delivered "Greetings," the glee club sang, and a covey of young thespians offered "Ramses' Dreams," a pantomimed desert extravaganza featuring ten principal roles and a small horde of dancers and soldiers. I recall none of it.
But the next event has left an enduring memory. The class sang the sextet from Lucia di Lammermoor. Exuding dark passions, the original lines, sung in simultaneous agitation by Lucia and her tormented cohorts, translates to, "Who restrains me at such a moment?/ I hoped my terror would cut short my life!" It is a six-part effusion of anguish and madness. But those weren't the words we sang. Our lines to Donizetti's sonorous music were an outpouring of praise for America, beginning, "Land of freedom, land of fortune/ Land by nature rich in blessing," then soaring to a heartening tribute of devotion to the USA.
February 1933 saw the nadir of the Great Depression. Fourteen million people were unemployed25 percent of the workforce. FDR and his social action programs didn't enter the White House until March. Hitler was in power, brandishing Mein Kampf in one hand, Horst Wessel's knife in the other. Stalin had liquidated millions of peasants who resisted collectivization. ("You have to break eggs to make an omelet," the terrible simplifiers explained.) People shuffled on breadlines; dust storms and foreclosing banks beset farmers; on Union Square and on some Bronx corners, exhortations for a revolution trembled in the air.
But we children of working-class parents, at a junior high graduation in the plebeian East Bronx, were singing a paean to America, our land of freedom, our land of fortune. We believed itas, I'm sure, did most of our parents. And I'll bet that those remaining from our class believe it still.
Today the world, in Sean O'Casey's memorable last line in Juno and the Paycock, is "in a terrible state o' chassis," haunted by wars, terrorism, narcotics, and more. Here at home a subway ride to my old Bronx neighborhood after 9PM is an exercise in survival. As for the public schools in the Bronx, indeed in much of the city, many of them have the ambiance of a fortress, not a house of learning. Yet though metal detectors installed in the schools screen out students carrying guns, knives, and box cutters, the assaults continue, and learning diminishes.
Looking at the mess that a once-great school system has become in a New York I grew up in and loved, I thank heaven I was lucky enough to attend Prospect Junior High in a less benighted timea time when discipline reigned in classrooms and schoolyards, when teachers were respected and held inviolate, when everyone understood that it was the province of schools to teach, not inflate self-esteem. Truly, looking back to 1933, I am grateful that I grew up in a civilized city, in a "Land by nature rich in blessing."
The evening ended with the presentation of medals, for what I don't remember. Best monitor? Attendance? Arithmetic? Athletic prowess? All I recall is that I didn't get any, since I was always the one being monitored, and while my attendance was okay, my arithmetic became tenable only with the advent of electronic calculators. And though I played games with gusto, I knew I'd never make it to the majors.
But I did join in with great sentiment when Birnbaum led us in our school song. I still whistle it at odd moments. Herewith, the final stanza:
Then up with the banner, our emblem display.
Clutching our diplomas, we filed out as the orchestra played "The Rookies." No kidding. "Beautiful," said my mother. "Now comes high school," said my father.
But that's another story. That and the marks in the snow, Carl.