There Used to Be a Schoolyard: Lessons and Memories of Old P.S. 44
For three decades, from the 1960s through the 1980s, the abandoned schoolyard behind Peninsula Library on Beach 94th Street and Rockaway Beach Boulevard, curiously evinced a melancholy air of a manor-less estate, wistfully lording over cracked cement weeds, rusty hoops, and fences of another era. For nearly 70 years, Public School 44, dutifully stood guard over this site, stalwartly casting a sublime shadow over its genteel era from 1898-1964.
Dominating the entire block, its impressively ornate Victorian façade of stone and masonry gave it a Buckingham Palace-like air, while its judicial brown-brick annex, added in the 1920s, complemented its formidable presence. Flanked by dueling corners of a Police Station and Fire House, a courtly National Bank, and a World War I Soldier statue, its mere location lent an assuring sense of prominence to its aura.
Since the horse and buggy era, it had been a staple of Rockaway childhoods, providing idyllic refuge for those wonder years of 5-14, just like my very own from 1939-48. Hearkening to a time when teachers were benevolent parent figures to trusting children eager to discover the world, it possessed a singular quality that could often turn ordinary musings and lessons into poignant and lasting memories. One of my earliest remembrances of this feeling was watching my 2nd grade teacher, Miss Lengle, powdering her youthful face every day before lunch hour in the wall mirror alongside my desk. I was fascinated by her round orange cosmetic box labeled ‘Coty’ and soon became enamored with its fragrance. With no older siblings at home and Mama not a user of perfumes, I would look forward to returning from school lunch hour each day with anticipation to quietly delight in the sprinkled powdered dust on my desktop by dabbing it on my cheeks. Filled with enchantment as only a young child could be, I was convinced that my school harbored a novel magic all its own. With wide hallowed-like marble hallways, roaming them alone could seem daunting, especially to the tender-aged student assigned with the important task of “class messenger.” Being entrusted with the urgent delivery of confidential notes between teachers had all the palpable tension of a top-secret mission, but whenever chosen, I took the task seriously, treading carefully through the silent corridors.
The line of stout, long-windowed classroom doors always gave off a distinguished smell of aged wood as their egg-shaped brass doorknobs officially engraved; ‘Public School City of New York’, conveyed an absolute authority about them. Timidly knocking at my destination, all eyes would suddenly look up, and deafening silence would fill the class in session as I opened the door, entering with heart pounding to safely deliver the note in front of the classroom. Initially overwhelming, these errands would prove valuable in building confidence and a strong sense of duty.
Framed in traditional stage and standard piano setting, the auditorium of P.S. 44 was the navel and soul of its hull. As the ceremonial gathering place throughout the year, it was where all grades could festively welcome winter with Merry Christmas and “Old Jack Frost” jingles, while heralding Spring with Flag Day and “Old Glory” recitals.
Once a week, we would faithfully hold Thursday Assembly in the auditorium, complete with color guard, Star Spangled Banner, Psalms, and Hymns. In the years during World War II, this hall room became a stronghold of God, Flag, and Country, fostering as much patriotic morale as any festooned war bonds rally. With colorful song and costume, our educative and stirring student plays, celebrating Francis Scott Key and Americana songs of Stephen Foster gave us a chance to participate and feel united in national pride.
Presiding in his trademark gray tweed suit, our Principal, Mr. Ritter, would also organize student paper drive campaigns, where we would eagerly gather after school, collecting newspapers for the war effort with the same sense of duty and purpose we carried out as class messengers.
With its French mansard roof and smoking brick chimneys, P.S.44 stood out in the neighborhood as a rock-steady presence from where the town’s pulse and rhythm seemed to flow. And for the passersby, especially those of us budding in juvenescence, it evoked a comforting beauty and solidity. Whether in its lit silhouette glowing through dark gloom mornings, or in the majestic classroom windows of its peer edifice, reflecting the Atlantic Ocean on crisp sunny days, it resonated as a shining beacon by the sea that would resonate as a staunch guardian of youth for the whole of its lifetime, and most remarkably, throughout our ongoing school years. (Part 2, The Schoolyard Days, next week).