Sunday, August 29, 2004

Postcards from Pleasant Street

As long as we're on the subject of school, here's another old piece I found on my hard drive this week.  This one is about an incident at Pleasant Street Elementary School, many years ago.

Manlius High School, several decades before it became Pleasant Street Elementary School. I don't remember that cupola at all.

In the late 1960s, I was among the very last students to attend Pleasant Street School, an elderly building (formerly Manlius High School) that housed the fourth through six grades of Manlius, NY baby boomers.  Another school was under construction and the auditorium balcony had already been condemned, but we kids probably didn't quite realize that the school's days were numbered.

Pleasant Street itself was a quiet, tree-lined village street that led past the local Catholic church and on toward the road to Fayetteville-Manlius High School.  In the afternoons the school buses would pull up on another street by the school's side entrance.  Across that side street lived an elderly man who used to put up painted wooden signs on a tree in his yard for the kids' amusement: "Velcome backta school" in September, "Happy Halloween" in October.  Sometimes we would see him winking and making faces at us as we waited for our buses.  We didn't know his name, but he seemed harmless enough. I liked him.

One day when I was in fifth grade, the old man crossed the street while half (or was it a quarter?) of the school was at recess, and gave away at least a hundred picture postcards, one to each child.  There were landscapes, and religious scenes, works of art and pictures of famous people.  We eagerly took them, looked at them, and traded them among ourselves.  There was nothing written on them as I recall.  They were beautiful, the highlight of our week if not our semester.

After lunch, Miss Long, our principal, asked that everyone from my recess period come to the school office.  Like a fool I went, postcard in hand, and the postcard was confiscated.  The reason given was that it "wasn't fair to the other students" from the other recess periods.  I've always thought that on the contrary, it was unfair to us.  We had been given a small but wonderful present by an eccentric and kindly old man, and the school had taken it away. (My friend Joel Rubinstein didn't show up to turn in his postcard.)

We saw the old man a few times after that, but it wasn't the same. Our innocence had been spoiled, and doubt had entered our minds.  Was there something wrong about an old man giving a picture postcard to a child?  All these years later, I still wonder.  In this world of Megan's Law and children on milk bottles, the weirdness of Michael Jackson and a case in which child care workers were jailed on their charges' wild accusations about abducting them to the moon, are we too quick to see wickedness in any relationship between an adult and someone else's child?

August 2001.

A few more things about Pleasant Street, while I'm thinking about the place:

* Two school assemblies I remember: a memorial to President Eisenhower, and a visit from E. R. Braithwaite, the teacher who wrote To Sir, With Love, who was by then Guyana's United Nations ambassador.  I wish I could say I asked him an intelligent question during the Q&A, but no: I asked him a question about tropical fish, following up on an anecdote he'd told about reaching one student through his interest in his pet fish.

* The winter I was in fourth grade, it got down to 23 degrees below zero one day. That may have been with the wind-chill factor rather than raw degrees, but in my memory it was the actual temperature.  There was no school that day, but the next day we were back in class.  It wasn't all that much warmer, but Miss Long declared an "outside noon hour" anyway, probably for the convenience of the teachers.  Little girls were not allowed to wear pants to school in 1967, so we huddled together under trees, trying to hide from the biting wind, or participated in kickball games organized by Miss Ramsey, the same woman who once grinned when I told her of ten kids surrounding me to put ice down my back, and said, "makes you strong!"  (Don't ever try to tell me about the innocence of children.)  Later that day, I spent at least an hour drawing protest signs in case we were forced outside the next day.  We weren't.  I should add that I quite liked Miss Long despite these few lapses.  I was quite sorry when she died of cancer in 1974.

* Pleasant Street School was about half a block from St. Ann's Church, although technically St. Ann's was on nearby Academy Street.  In the mid-1960s, the parish tore down a hexagonal or octagonal building near the old, rather small church, and built a larger, more modern church building.  But before that, we Catholic kids got to walk to "church school" in that building once a week--on Mondays I think.  We actually got an hour of two off from public school to go to Religious Ed. It seems odd to me now that the school allowed that, with no legal challenges that I ever heard about.  Similarly, the new choir teacher at Fayetteville-Manlius High School my senior year, Bruce Campbell (no, not that Bruce Campbell) gave us nothing but sacred music to sing, on the grounds that that was the only serious (classical) music worth teaching.  I doubt that would wash now at a public school.  I could be wrong, though. I checked the F-M web site last night, and Mr. Campbell is still teaching choir there.  All my other teachers of thirty years ago are gone.



alphawoman1 said...

Oh, what a wonderful and thought provoking entry!  That poor old man, just lonely.  I had a school that was torn down in 1965 for the new modern school built behind it.  That three room school (two rooms when I started) was the best education anyone could ever have!  Three grades in one room...I learned so much in first grade listening to the lessons of the other grades.  I have many many stories too...hmmmmmmmm.  Thank you for a wonderful trip down memory lane.

ryanagi said...

Isn't that funny! They converted my former elementary school into condos not long after we left. I drove by there years later...comical to think of someone living in the old cafeteria or that the principals office might be someone's bathroom now.

As for the old man and the postcards...the first thing that occurred to me was that these postcards were probably part of a lifetime of collecting and he had no one to leave them to when he was gone (sadly). If I were in his place, I would have taken great enjoyment at seeing the joy on kids faces as I gave away my collection. So sad that the school had to take that joy away from not only you kids, but also the old man (if he ever knew).

jabarett said...

You'll be pleased to hear that they STILL do sing sacred music in the public schools - at least in choir.  The cynic in me says that part of the reason is copyright - or lack thereof - but I really tend to agree with your choir teacher. It's worth teaching.  Most of the music that choirs sing in competitions is sacred, and I was surprised to find out how much of it is in a language other than English. Natrually, there are many songs in  Latin, but my own kid has also been learning music in German and Hebrew, and his new voice teacher will be teaching songs in Italian. This is all in public school, mind you.  (I'm always happy to find something good going on in public schools!)