By Jean Caligiuri McKenna
To a young boy or girl coming of age, thoughts of graduation time are always met with a silent excitement for the future, and sometimes not without a melancholy tinge. Many of the fond and familiar faces that have been part of everyday life will never be seen again. Songs that are popular, along with fashions, fads, and dear names will indelibly etch a special stilled place, forever connecting graduation time to a heartfelt longing feeling that will be felt well into and beyond the mid-years of their lives.
On the morning of Thursday, June 24, 1948, my best chums, Jeannie Vega, Annette DiResto, and I departed my wooden front porch on Beach 84th Street, (as we had every school day for eight years) to begin a slow walk together along ‘the new road’ (Shore Front Parkway) towards P.S. 44 on Beach 94th Street. This day, however, instead of classes, it was the timeless “rite of passage” of Graduation Day that awaited us.
Years earlier on a rainy September morning in 1939, when Mama reluctantly gave me over to my first teacher Miss Shell, I began my first “rite of passage” with the beginning of independence. And from kindergarten to the 8th grade, the palace-like edifice on the boulevard valiantly served as a second home and life learning haven for me and my classmates.
Paralleling with the changing world throughout the 1940s, we forged our character, friendships, voices, and independence, within this safe refuge. Nurturing a love for God, country and community, we eagerly took part in war bonds, paper drives and Thursday assemblies, always led by a Psalm and the Pledge of Allegiance. Richly painting the years were carefree memories of schoolyard hijinks and ice cream sandwiches, ocean breezes, lunch hour deli visits for a nickel-for-a-pickle, and Indian Summer walks along the boardwalk after school.
All the while, the school and its caring teachers were always there, it seemed, waiting to receive us. Under their care, we met the world with imagination, patriotism, and respect for one another, learning to put our best foot forward in manner and dress as much as in ‘readin, riting, and rithmetic’. Bonding together daily and annually from September through June, Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 3p.m., our familiar faces and mannerisms woven together, became the daily fabric of our passing years.
Now at 14 years old, on a partially cloudy muggy day and without the luxury of an automobile ride, we ambled along Shore Front Pkwy. towards the school in our graduation dresses, hair frizzing from the humidity; our last walk together. Arriving in the corridor, there was a sweeping fragrance of bouquets and a glowing buzz of anxious excitement in the air. I looked around and saw my classmates in a different light; the girls in an array of white organdy dresses, carrying fragrant colorful bouquets, and the boys sporting carnations in their snazzy new jackets and ties. The flurry of anticipation left us less time for sentiment and no time to reflect that it was the last time we would all be together side by side.
As the doors opened, the auditorium seemed transformed into a celestial theatre with floral pieces adorning the stage, embellished through the windowed daylight gleam. There was a regal aura as we eagerly began our slow processional march to the hymn “Praise Ye the Father.” I remember Mama and Papa in the audience looking and smiling on as I carefully walked holding my bouquet (which Papa had paid for). The pomp and ceremony that followed would see various students taking the stage, confidently addressing the room with Salutatory and Valedictory speeches, emotional piano solos, inspiring choruses, and celebratory class ensemble dances ranging from waltzes to step dance jigs. The highlight of the program was an exhibition of the very dresses we were wearing, which we girls had handsewn under the tutelage of our homeroom teacher Miss Frankle. Throughout the ceremony however, my thoughts drifted to the day when Mama realized that for me to grow, she had to relinquish me as I was; wide eyed and willing, (along with my equally timid classmates) to be shaped at will at the entrusted hands of our teachers and faculty. Now, as I looked around at our final assembly, I saw all of these same faces together for one last time. The baby-faced students I once knew were now a sea of burgeoning young men and ladies brimming with optimism. And there were the comforting faces that had been the ever-present pillars in our lives; Principal Ritter in his trademark gray tweed jacket, Mrs. Hogan on the piano, firm-but-fair Mrs. Hemley, among our other teachers, all sitting side by side. Never did these faces seem so much to me than at that moment!
Receiving our diplomas to the stirring strains of the Star-Spangled Banner certified our rite of passage, but the real reward was in the pride and confidence we carried from the auditorium that summer day as Alumni of P.S. 44. We signed our books with the usual “Dated 4-ever,” remember when’s, and silly odes like “Yours ‘til the Board Walks & ‘Til Canada Dries.” And my pal Annette’s inscription; “Rockefeller had money like we never saw, but he never had the fun we had in ’44” took the cake! But with a fervent eagerness we were really itching to move on to the big world and exercise our independence with all we had learned together in our bountiful little one. As the world had changed during our P.S. 44 years, we also changed with it, emerging self-assured and less naïve, but still with an innocence that pervaded the time we lived in. The home we were now leaving had served as a faithful bastion of character and virtue, shaping us with a moral compass for who we were, who we had become and who we were yet to be. And as we all basked and beamed in the nearby ocean breeze, we realized it was now time for the school to relinquish us, its job completed!
How time goes by so fast! Things that seem so alive and prevalent at the time, like youth, eventually fade and yet forever linger in the archive of our memories. The scent of Miss Lengle’s perfume, the sound of Miss Smith’s recess whistle, and the bonding laughter of P.S. 44’s schoolyard may hold no meaning to another generation, but with their own cherished recollections, this wonderful time of life brings the same joyful and poignant moments that unite us all in a common bond, then as now. For it is these very wonder years that, for the rest of our lives, become like a comforting lifelong friend; distant in time but near in heart; vivid, timeless, and always accessible to lovingly bring a smile, or a tear, at any given time.