Friday, September 15, 2017

Toting a Briefcase: School Days Sans Backpacks

You see them everywhere. Now that school has reconvened I am treated to the adorable vision of children walking city streets with a backpack chock full of books, pencils, erasers and other supplies strapped to their backs. The older they get the fuller and weightier the backpacks appear.

I didn’t have a backpack when I attended elementary school back in the 1950s. I lugged around a leather briefcase that weighed almost as much as I did (I kid you not. I was severely underweight as a youngster, so much so that my sister every day prepared a milk shake enhanced with a raw egg for me, alas to no avail. I remained a stick figure of bones barely covered by skin. My parents, especially my mother, threatened to send me to the polar opposite of a fat farm, a place where skinny kids were bulked up. Of course, my overly skinny childhood and teenage years paid off when I failed my military draft physical as a 21-year-old but that’s a story for another day—if you can’t wait for that day, here’s a link to a previous blog about my draft physical:

As a youngster toting a heavy briefcase my hands would develop blisters at the base of my fingers. The briefcase was golden brown in color and a size that would have made any first year law associate proud. That’s the closest I ever came to experiencing life as a lawyer. 

I leaned to the opposite side of the hand grasping the handle, the better to maintain balance. I could barely walk half a block before switching hands for relief. The only benefit from the heavy load was it anchored me to earth should a brisk wind threaten to lift my slight frame off the ground.

My elementary school didn’t have lockers to store books overnight. Neither did our desks have large storage wells. We had to schlep books to and from school each day. And since I attended a Jewish day school in Brooklyn (Yeshiva Rambam) we had more books than public school kids because of the extra courses in Hebrew and religious studies.

Now, you might be wondering why I am making such a big deal about lugging a heavy briefcase. Didn’t I ride a  school bus? Not after first grade. From second grade on I took two city buses, the B49 from Avenue W up Ocean Avenue to Kings Highway, then the B7 along Kings Highway to East 31st Street.

Ocean Avenue was a block and a half from our home on Avenue W. School started at 9 am. The trip to school, if the buses were on time, took 30 minutes. On many a morning my brother, sister and I would be challenged to arrive at the bus stop in time to catch the 8:30 bus. Often it was late.

There were no bus shelters, not along Ocean Avenue or at the transfer point at Kings Highway, no place to seek shelter from the weather. If it rained we got wet. If it snowed we got wet and froze. If it was just cold and windy, we froze. If it were hot and sticky, we sweated. 

Each month we’d get a different colored bus pass. Five dollars for unlimited travel. 

All in all, while going to and from school wasn’t as arduous as the process recounted by my father in his shtetl in Poland (“We had to walk miles in snow up to our knees”), my experience was not pleasant. 

As long as I’m recalling early school days, the recent hurricanes in Texas and Florida evoked an enduring memory. It was early in the school year. I was in either first, second or, most probably, third grade. I remember strong winds lashing leafy tree limbs across the windows of our classroom. Our teacher, probably Mrs. Schlesinger, tried to assure her 35 seven- and eight-year-old students there was nothing to fear, but as dismissal time approached, no one was eager to head home. Fortunately, at 4:30 the storm subsided and we hurried to our respective school or city buses for the ride home.

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