Mendel Letters 26: PS 104 Bronx
In elementary school, I think most of our teachers hated us. After World War II, the Highbridge section of the Bronx underwent a demographic shift from German and Irish who left for new suburbs to overwhelmingly Eastern European Jews who were migrating uptown along the Lexington Avenue IRT 4 subway line from the Lower East Side to East Harlem and then into the West Bronx. When my parents married they had a one room walk up apartment on Shakespeare Avenue and EL Grant Highway. After my brother and I were born we moved into a two bedroom one block over on Jesup Avenue, but on the other side of EL Grant around the corner from my father’s luncheonette and candy store.
PS 104 was on Shakespeare and W. 172nd Street. Almost all of the kids were Jewish but the teachers were mainly Irish and German, all women, mostly older unmarried, and they hated us and our parents for displacing the world they had lived and worked in before we arrived. The teachers would line us up and inspect us daily to make sure our parents knew how to keep us clean and we had to show them our handkerchief or tissues. I kept an especially filthy handkerchief in my pocket to waive in the teacher’s face until she decided to leave me alone.
I was a fast reader with little patience and “zitsn nokh,” the inability to sit still. I would read the textbooks hiding them under the shelf of my desk and finished the year’s work by mid-October. With nothing left to do in class, I figured out an escape. I asked to go to the bathroom, took along a book to read, wandered around the hall for a while, and then sat down to read. My favorites were a biography series about the childhood of famous Americans that I checked out of the public library. This system worked for a while until the vindictive Miss Alexander wrote on my report card that I spent too much time in the bathroom. My terrified parents asked me what I was doing there. “Reading. She won’t let me read in class.”
My third grade teacher, Miss Fredericks, made me stand in the coat closet when I “misbehaved” and my fifth grade teacher, Miss Carney, was just nasty to all of us. My sixth grade teacher either felt sorry for me because my mother had died or gave up on the possibility of civilizing me, so she mostly left me alone.
My best teacher was my fourth grade teacher Mrs. Low who figured out how to deal with me without being punitive. She reduced my in class seat time by arranging for me to be a school crossing monitor so I was in the room late and out early, the building attendance monitor so I had authorization to walk the halls, and the district library assistant a couple of afternoons a week where my job was to read. It turns out my younger brother inherited all my jobs when I moved on to Junior High School.
Hard copies of these typed letters were discovered in an old camp trunk in the basement storage facility of one of the few buildings that remain standing in this Brooklyn neighborhood. The building is quite decrepit and is scheduled for demolition. The letters were found in November 2048 by a teenager who believes they were written by his great-grandfather. The letters are addressed to Mendel, the letter writer’s father, who appears to have been dead for at least six years when his son, whose name we are unsure of, started to write him. The son appears very agitated in some of the letters. With permission from the family, we are publishing them on the date they were written, only 28 years later.