With the beginning of school in most communities I started reminiscing about my early education years at Yeshiva Rambam in Brooklyn.
I started first grade in September 1954 when I was five years old. As my birthday is in March I should have been enrolled in kindergarten, but my mother pressured the school to accept me into first grade or she would take my brother and sister out of the school.
Before I started school I would watch from our dinette window as my siblings boarded the yellow school bus each morning. Now it was my turn. I don’t recall anything from the initial bus ride but the return trip is imprinted in my memory.
First grade ended at 3 pm, 90 minutes before dismissal for my brother and sister’s classes. I would ride the bus home by myself. I stepped onto the bus and walked halfway down the aisle before sliding into a row on the right side. The ride home would take about 30 minutes.
The next thing I recall is waking up back at school. I had slept through the drop off in front of our house. The bus driver apparently thought I had made other arrangements to get home. As my mother worked full time she was not aware of my troubled ride home. Our housekeeper, meanwhile, did not realize I was lying across a bench invisible to the bus driver and her.
I’d like to say I handled the situation as any five-year-old would. Indeed, I did. I started crying. Only upon seeing my brother and sister did I stop.
That was the only time I recall ever sleeping through my stop, even as an adult commuting home for more than 30 years on Metro North.
My first grade teacher was Mrs Malka. She was a cheerful woman. She must have been in her mid 20s. Some 50 years later I recognized her sitting next to her brother in the pew ahead of me in our White Plains synagogue on the eve of Rosh Hashanah. For the next decade I looked forward to seeing her every year.
I would not have looked forward to seeing my second grade teacher. Mrs. Mare seemed to enjoy dispensing corporal punishment. Her two favorite cruelties were pinching one’s nostrils and grabbing a student by the upper arms, pulling them back and sticking her knee into the small of the back.
Naturally, my classmates and I complained of mistreatment but my parents, like all the others, reasoned that we must have done something wrong to warrant such discipline.
In third grade we had separate Hebrew and English teachers. Mr. Ben-Shemer was a jovial, Eastern European Holocaust survivor who wore garters to keep his shirtsleeves up. He played the concertina and would admonish us not to put our feet on the frame of the chair in front of us by saying, “When the feet go up, the brains go down.”
Mrs. Schlesinger taught English. She was a tall, prim woman with a less physical style of punishment. She would banish an offender to a wardrobe closet for an indefinite stand in darkness. She was reprimanded one day for leaving a student in the closet when the dismissal bell rang.