There Used to Be a Schoolyard
Lessons & Memories of Old P.S. 44 (Part 2)
“Rockefeller had money like we never saw, but he never had the fun we had in ‘44”.
Privately etched into the treasured pages of my 8th grade autograph book by my chum, “Dolly” Annette Diresto, I have always thought this inscription worthy of its own plaque adorning the corner of Beach 94th Street & Rockaway Beach Boulevard, where Public School 44 once stood. Although the nondescript library that currently marks this spot bears no special traces, its subtlety belies its hallowed ground beneath, harboring the timeless reverie of a perfect school day. Whenever leaving the front porch with my chums every school morning during the 1940s to walk along Shore Front Parkway, there would always be an assuring air leading us towards the majestic safe harbor we referred to with deference as “Forty-Four.” During these blossoming years, the school became the vibrant social cornerstone of our universe, and no place more so symbolized this for us than its own backyard! Located in an enclave in the school’s rear, safely tucked within the surrounding neighborhood homes, P.S. 44’s schoolyard was a playground of inherent youth, as well as the scene for many a festive school gala from Columbus Day music marches to May Day Maypole dances. To neighbors, it was a lively jumbled assembly of boys and girls in Buster Browns, bobby sox & saddle shoes, gleefully romping about daily. To us, it was a town square rialto, where important matters of jumping rope and eating ice cream sandwiches took priority over books and blackboards. Because the cafeteria always had a funny smell, many of us would choose to spend our lunch recesses in this idyllic outdoor retreat. Relishing the ocean breeze from a block away, we’d frolic and fraternize in a melting pot of ethnicities with names like Jeannie Vega, Emma Dennis, Joan Wenke, Virginia Winkelmann, Helen Frain, Angelo Uberti, and Eddie Gallagher.
Safeguarded in the majesty of our school’s shadow, we’d forge lasting friendships with a simple formula of youth, fun, and laughter, whiling away the time without care until Mrs. Smith’s halting whistle would corral our revelry at hour’s end.
As we grew older, many a day, we would leave the school grounds, (with permission), grazing the boulevard mom-and-pop grocery to buy a “pickle-for-a-nickel” from its wooden pickle barrel. The off-campus excursions gave us opportunity to exercise our independence, and to see any teachers outside of the school on ‘our time’ seemed like an oddity. When we spotted our science teacher, Mr. Sullivan, eating lunch in Hymie’s Luncheonette one day, we expressed our bewilderment by curiously huddling all over each other in the eateries’ doorway just to catch a glimpse. An hour later, in science class, he wryly expressed his dismay, to no one in particular, admonishing “some in the class” for intrusion of his privacy. Along with adding the word “gaping” to our vocabulary, we more importantly learned that day that teachers actually eat!
When revealed that our 6th grade teacher, Mrs. Hemley, lived in affluent Belle Harbor, my yearbook pal, Dolly, and I, decided to see how “well-to-do” she was. For 50 cents, we rented bikes from the bicycle repair shop across the street next to the firehouse, adventuring three miles to marvel at the beautiful homes of the wealthy. To us, we were in another world! We rode past Mrs. Hemley’s modest house, which surprisingly, did not measure up to the bigger homes. Upon returning to class, we decided she wasn’t rich, which was ‘Ok’ with us!
Mrs. Smith’s authoritative whistle carried even more clout when we found her husband to be a detective nicknamed “Smitty”, whom we would sometimes see around the stationhouse during recess, clad in no-nonsense gangbusters fedora and black overcoat. (A sure reminder to return on time)!
Though these venturesome lunchtime outings personified the joie de vivre of our P.S. 44 salad days, it was within the classrooms where the fabric of our years was finely woven! In contrast to the pomp and decorum of the auditorium assemblies, the classroom was the intimate parlor where we could gather like bosom siblings after family dinners. Entwined with laughter & learning, these scholastic havens housed a treasure-trove setting of youthful pleasantries, placing fun and banter on equal par with good manners and penmanship! Devotedly supplying these daily essentials, our teachers seemed to take a doting pride in nurturing this zeal and spirit by crafting for us fruitful labors out of mundane tasks. Within this nourishing academia, washing blackboards and watering windowsill plants became as edifying as spelling and sewing, while rewarded titles of “Hall Monitor” and “Lieutenant of the Month”, heartened our responsibility and self-esteem. By allowing us to express our creative voices in the school’s newspaper, “The Pilgrim,” we were able to share its goings-on with our best society column impressions, contributing poesies, riddles, good tidings and wit to our touted “House of Fun & Happiness”.
This daily atmosphere of camaraderie and participation painted joyous hours and a fondness for our dear school, shaping our character, talents, and potential in a wellspring of fulfillment and discovery, where nary a moment ever felt like a chore.
As in all families, we too would occasionally take our lumps (and pinches) for chewing gum or dawdling, but under our fair tutors, redemption was always plentiful in supply at day’s end!
In an era when your school was no less than your second home, P.S. 44 staunchly embodied all the virtue and felicity of a childhood household. With bountiful trust, affection, good friendships & kind teachers, its riches lay within a moral compass filled with sunny promise, reflective of the time we lived and in which it stood.
No two cents of Rockefeller’s ever bought an afternoon’s delight in the 1940s, when my chums and I would idly depart the corner of Beach 94th Street for Greenberg’s candy store, free from want, savoring the fruits of perfect school days that in many ways epitomized all that was good with the world!