School Days

I have had playmates, I have had companions;
In my days of childhood, in my joyful school days;
All, all are gone, the old familiar faces.

Charles Lamb (1775 - 1834)
--from The Old Familiar Faces (1798)

Where are all my classmates? I search wistfully through my memories to find people long gone. They are shadows from my past. I remember their names; their faces. We played together, fought together, talked, laughed and cried together. I thought these many friendships would last forever. But, no, they remain just memories.

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If I tried to select a certain year, or a certain day from my elementary schools days, I would have to start with my very first day at school. I attended the Roman Catholic School on Washington Avenue between 184th and 183rd Streets from 1952 - 1960. I was five years old when my mother brought me to meet my first grade teacher Sister Florence. I was scared stiff. I had never been away from home before, so I wasn't at all prepared for such a sudden change in my routine. The morning went without incident. At lunchtime, however, the class broke for recess. Sister announced, "We're going to recess now," and we all lined up in the hallway. I hadn't a clue as to what recess was, so as we walked down the corridor I started to panic. Next thing I knew I had bolted down the stairs and ran home which was just one block around the corner.

My mother, shocked, cried, "What are you doing home?" I replied frantically, "I don't want to go to the hospital!"... yes, that's what the word recess meant to me. Perhaps it was having my tonsils removed some months before that kindled this fear of hospitals! Consequently my mother dragged me back to school where I still wasn't convinced it was a safe place to be.

Sister Florence took me in hand and tried her best to reassure me that everything was fine. Like everyone else, I eventually fell right into the daily routine. I received my dog tags and scapular. Uniforms were required in parochial schools. The boys wore a white shirt with navy pants and a maroon tie with the monogram SOS (School of Our Savior). We thought it meant Save Our Souls. The girls wore a white blouse, maroon vest with bow tie and a knee-length skirt of the same color. The younger grades wore maroon knee-high socks; the higher grades wore sheer stockings and loafers. The attire was very proper, very traditional.

Each morning before class began each grade would line up by size on the street outside the main building. Boys and girls in separate lines. Vinny T. was the shortest and naturally in front of the line. I was somewhere in between. Annette H. and Patricia L. brought up the rear on the girl's line. They were tall alright. This was a constant routine throughout my eight years there. Once inside, the day would begin with a prayer, the pledge of allegiance and the usual lessons would commence. Then suddenly, AIR RAID DRILL was sounded. The principal Sister Clotilde would summon all the classrooms for the kids to either duck under their desks or assemble in the hallway, kneeling with our heads covered. Anyone that dared move would get whacked by one of the nuns patrolling the corridor. This sort of civil defense exercise was thought to be life saving. We took it seriously back in the fifties.

After a few moments the drill was over and it was back to the books and that infernal yardstick. The days dragged on, the years flew past. I had a different nun for each year. I also had a lay teacher in the third grade, Mrs. Marsden. The art teacher was Mr. Carmine Pluccino; Mrs. Bergen was our musical appreciation instructor. The Dominicans ran the school. They were well trained and worked with a syllabus. The sisters prepared us for high school with stern discipline and rigorous study. There was Sister Immaculata, Sister Theresa, Sister Patricia-Rose, Sister Michelle, Sister Ann Regis and many others. Monsignor Moore was the prelate in charge, assisted by Father McKenna, Father Dorney and Fr. Genslenger. Father McKenna came to our classroom every Tuesday to ask catechism questions. And the Lord help us if we were called on and didn't give him the right answer. The good sister would administer the punishment after Father left the classroom. Tuesday was also a religious instruction day for Catholic kids that attended public school. The sessions would occur in the afternoon so my classmates and I got half-days.

It wasn't always 'nose to the grindstone.' There were lighter moments. Bazaars were held periodically in our church auditorium as fund raisers. One of my favorite games was Over and Under. In my sixth grade class, Sister Theresa would reward students who excelled in their studies by being allowed to sit in the far right row. This would demonstrate the pupil's achievement for that week. Usually there were six of us who made it to that honorable row. We shined with pride and felt very special. Of course there were the regulars who always seem to be sitting in that row of honor. I even made it there a couple of times. No one was left out!

Despite the sometimes-harsh discipline, the nuns were very dedicated and caring. Every student received special attention and all problems were addressed. I especially remember by eighth grade teacher Sister Michelle with great affection. She was the sweetest person I have ever met.

Over the years I made many friends. Some people stayed throughout my entire eight years, some moved and attended other schools. Newcomers replaced those that left. One newcomer was Clifford G. I met him as he was registering for the fifth grade. His family came from somewhere in the Deep South (possibly Georgia) and settled on 183rd between Bassford and Bathgate Avenues. We became very close friends. Clifford and I formed a Boy's Club with several other kids. No girls allowed! We met after school in the basement of the private home his parents were renting. This became our clubhouse where we spent hours, talking, playing games, planning activities, exploring the neighborhood together. Hung on one wall beside Old Glory was, of course a Confederate Battle Flag. This made Clifford feel right at home.

Each year brought new faces, new friends...Lenny, Marion, Johnny Boy, and Aida, to name just a few. When we weren't playing the usual street games like skullsies (our version of skully), stickball, ringoleavio,and a hundred other games, we went on hikes in the Botanical Gardens, had sham battles, played football at French Charlie's, a grassy field off Webster near 204th Street. We stretched the limits and guidelines set by our parents and teachers. One special day a group of us boys got dressed up in a tie and suit and we hopped the Third Ave El at 183rd Street and took a ride downtown to 149th transferring to the subway then on to 42nd street. We were all of twelve years old. We toured Times Square. Visited many attractions down there, including Ripley's Believe-it-or-Not. Ate at Horn & Hardarts on 42nd street. We spent the whole afternoon having fun and even taking in a movie. Then back to the Bronx.

Other activities filled our days. There was the Boy and Girl Scouts. We used to have our meetings in the church auditorium. There were dances, band concerts, retreats, trips to the Zoo and the Botanical Gardens. We put on plays and other entertainment. I was one of the Barbershop Quartet, with phony mutton-chop mustache, hair parted in the middle carrying a round beer tray and wearing a striped shirt with white apron. I was lead singer. We sang nostalgic songs like Down by the Old Mill Stream. Great fun.

There was no schoolyard for our school. The street was our playground. Usually we played on 184th Street, which happened to be the very block I lived on. Never a dull moment. The kids were constantly at play! I really enjoyed recess then!

Upon graduation we all received our Autograph Albums. These were leather bound books 6" x 4 1/2" with a zipper. Inside were a hundred pages of various color, some white. On the pages friends and relatives would write their best wishes for your future. Luckily my mother saved my album and gave it to me last year. Here are some of the corny sayings that my classmates, friends and relatives wrote. No doubt you are familiar with most of them:

Go little album far and near.
To all my friends I love so dear.
So each may write a page.
So I can read in my old age

When you get old and your wife has twins.
Don't come to me for safety pins.
- Tony Popeye

May you future be as bright
as Edison's electric light!
- Cousin Civita

Roses are red, violets are blue
I killed my dog 'cause he looked like you
- Your true friend Philip S.

One page was folded in half with...
"For Blind people Only"
Pull the flap up and it read...
"Take tea and see," with a drawing of a teapot.

Andy Pandy, Mother Goose,
I was born, what's your excuse.
- Love and kisses, Marie.

Then she wrote:.."Yours till Niagara Falls."

On this page of Holy White,
I write my name just for spite.

- Your friend Joey.

Goodbye said the fly with one eye
to the flea with the dislocated knee.
- Olga
(She drew musical notes, since it was a cute jingle.)

8 years gone. Maybe 8 more coming.
With all this learning
you'll probably wind up in plumbing.
Good luck, Elaine

Now I lay me down to slumber.
I pray the Lord I hit the number.
If I should die before I wake.
Put a dime on 408.
- Robert S.

Gregory had a car that was red,
and everywhere the car went
the cops picked up the dead.
- Kelly

There were dozens of other sayings, some silly, a lot just wishing me good luck. Some had fancy stencils penciled on the page. There was a section for photos and lists for names of teachers and classmates. It is a precious memento of my years at that school.

This autograph album is really the only physical link to the past with the exception of some faded and white photos. The memories of my school days began with a whisper, a subtle remembrance, then to a sudden rush, a burst of light. All the names and faces return ... Lenny, Dinky, Clifford, Annette, Claudia, Richie, and Vinny. It's the sound of the church bell ringing, of laughter and chatter suddenly going silent as we lined up and marched to our classrooms. It's the memories of those silly and pointless air raid drills and the unrelenting lessons drummed into our thick heads.

Where are all the familiar faces now? All are gone. Will I ever see them again? Perhaps Fate will be kind, but for now I must rely upon memories only. "How some they have died, and some they have left me, And some are taken from me; all are departed; All, all are gone, the old familiar faces."

Gregory J. Christiano

Comments or questions, share your own recollections?

©2002 and Gregory J. Christiano
Tuesday, May 21, 2002