Brighteyes

Thoughts of mortality inevitably lead to thoughts of downsizing. The eye falls on those banker’s boxes stacked in the store cupboard, numbered and catalogued, never opened. One’s children, when one is dead, will scarcely be interested in drafts of stillborn books, old cheque stubs, ancient correspondences turgid with self-importance, fusty memorabilia. So, discovering that the Brooklyn Public Library collects high school yearbooks, I saw a chance to lighten these impedimenta by so much and feel public-spirited besides, and wrote asking if they wanted them. The wonderful Joy Holland, Chief of the Brooklyn Collection at the library, responded in person to say that while they already had a complete run of the Manual Training High School Prospect, they would be happy to have my 1952 Montauk Junior High School Wigwam.

I was at Montauk for only that one year. How that came to be and what it meant to me is a story that seems worth recounting.

From P.S. 94 I graduated to Dewey Junior High School, both neighbourhood schools in Sunset Park, which was in those pre-Puerto Rican and pre-Chinatown days, a Norwegian archipelago set in an Irish Catholic sea. At Dewey (named neither for the philosopher nor the admiral nor the governor) I learned to set cold type on a composing stick from a California job case in Mr. Holbert’s print shop. I also somehow came to the attention of the Board of Education, who sent someone down to administer a battery of tests and recommended I transfer at the end of the year to a school with a rapid progress stream. Someone came and spoke to my parents. Torn between deference to authority and an ingrained conviction that putting oneself forward could lead to no good, in the end they agreed but with no great enthusiasm.

Montauk was at Sixteenth Avenue and 42nd Street, in the heart of Borough Park, and we lived near Fourth Avenue on 53rd Street. It was possible to go part of the way by bus, but mostly I walked, or ran, a different way each time, having worked out all the permutations of this grid, eleven blocks on the short sides, twelve on the long, familiar enough territory this side of Eighth Avenue, the boundary of our Norwegian world, but beyond that an amazing, different, Jewish world.

In Sunset Park our local pharmacist was Jewish, as was our dentist, and a haberdasher on Fifth Avenue for whom I ran errands and stocked shelves. But at Montauk Jewishness was the normal. On Jewish religious days only five or six of us would show up for classes. The boys had to shave and the girls had breasts. There was a knowingness in the air, a consciousness of the legitimacy of ambition, an understanding of the way the world really worked, a sense of the distinctions to be made between tactics and strategies, especially in regard to the school itself, to our studies, to our situation, which was understood to be provisional, temporary. I had never encountered this mentality before. Far from fretting that overreaching, or even ambition itself, might be unseemly, or damaging to one’s soul, my classmates’ parents wanted to know why ninety-seven percent on a score was not a hundred percent. And nor were their parents middle-class; most were shopkeepers, trades-people, city workers.

I struggled a bit that year. I was thrown into a group that had already been together for a year and were halfway through an accelerated two-year middle-school programme, while I had only had the first year of a three-year programme. I had to make up a lost first year of Spanish lessons, for example. And I was young for ninth grade, only twelve when I arrived, immature and undisciplined. Nevertheless, I got on well with my classmates. I am sure I remember each of them more vividly than any of them would remember me. They were already mentally at the high school of their choice, the college or university, the profession. I imagine they think of Montauk, if at all, as a minor link in a chain. I bet none of them owns a copy of The Wigwam. We were not destined to be friends. I never saw any of them afterwards.

I am reminded, however, in leafing through our yearbook, of a touching token of recognition, of solidarity, I had forgotten.

Our English class teacher was named Walsh or Welch. A fat, nasty woman who talked incessantly about her operations, her bad feet, her excursions to Broadway musicals. My classmates had the sense to play her like a harp, which was not difficult, but I took to daydreaming during these monologues, which Walsh, or Welch, took as a personal offence, and she was not long in spinning her revenge. She called me Brighteyes, after a Viking tale of H. Rider Haggard. It was her conceit that I was Swedish, and therefore thick, and it amused her to address me in a macaronic Scandinavian sing-song.

In the caption after my name, below the group picture of our class, I am called, affectionately, “Brighteyes.”

I shall probably send my copy of the 1952 Wigwam to Ms. Holland, but it will not be easy, and its loss will not make a dent in the pile in the cupboard.