I'm hungry for knowledge. The whole thing is to learn every day, to get brighter and brighter.
-Shawn Corey Carter aka Jay-Z
It's the beginning of the school year and e-Bay is selling off collectible metal lunchboxes to nostalgic adults eager to wallow in their childhood obsessions. I was tempted to bid for my favorite but figured it was probably rusted, and which one was my favorite anyway? I can't remember. It probably changed every year depending on my television or book serial heroes and heroines of the moment. I never liked cartoons; the characters I preferred were all live action. Lassie maybe? Nancy Drew?
We went to Woolworth's on Broadway between 102nd and 103rd Street, on the East Side of the Street to load up on school supplies. That Woolworth is long gone, but my memory is vivid. Oh, how I loved that store. Spalding balls, jump ropes, jacks, Crayola crayons, the store was a treasure trove for any kid—with money. Rich, poor, I never knew the difference. What I wanted and needed was there and I could have it.
I couldn't wait to see my neighborhood friends back from holidays at summer houses and camps, and learn something new at school. Like all affluent kids in my Upper West Side neighborhood, the premise and promise of education was a constant; it was never questioned. Towards Labor Day our parents herded us to clothing stores and shoe stores to buy new outfits. We'd grown and we were learning fast that we were privileged, that the school we went to was okay, or more than okay; it was mostly White, and the teachers were too. The demographic we lived in signaled privilege and safety. There was no busing, not yet anyway, the public schools in Manhattan were de facto segregated as were our neighborhoods and, to a large extent, they still are. Black and Brown kids lived somewhere else, up above the invisible interface, which in my hood was 110th Street. My friend Rochelle lived there, but I never went to her house. The memory of this childhood friend comes back to me often. Her mother was a nurse, my mother was a doctor, and they were friends. They both worked at the Margaret Sanger clinic downtown and every morning, once I was allowed to walk on my own to PS 75 on 96th Street and West End Avenue, Rochelle and I walked to school together. She came to my house for lunch and sometimes after school also. Now that I think of it—where was my new lunchbox? My mother must have packed it for me in the morning before I left for school and she left for work on the subway with Rochelle's mom. My lunchbox was there, waiting on the counter, next to Rochelle's lunchbox. We must have insisted on owning a lunchbox even though we ate lunch at my home and Rochelle brought hers to "live" with mine every school day. We asked our moms if we could live together. They laughed and said it wasn't possible.
At lunchtime, a maid was waiting for us. She was often a Black maid; there were many over the years. I heard my parents talking about this maid and that one. I would try to befriend them when my parents weren't home. I can't remember any of them.
Rochelle was the only Black girl in my class and possibly in the school. Both of us lived out of the catchment area and we should have attended a school on 105th and Amsterdam near the projects. The school and the neighborhood had a bad reputation. I had always assumed that my parents and/or Rochelle's parents strenuously advocated and received "waivers" for both of us to go to PS 75. Years later I learned that my parents had lied about our address, that they'd used a colleague's address, and that Rochelle's parents had done the same, so desperate were they for their children to have the best education in our red-lined neighborhood. It seems unlikely their deception was ever uncovered. Or, maybe by the time it was, the teachers didn't want us to leave. Rochelle was smart, I was smart, we could spell and read and talk with a clarity any teacher would appreciate, if the teacher was well trained and kind. One or two of them were not. They needed to go back to school as much as we did, or more than we did. Would you believe me Reader if I told you that in Miss Brill's Second Grade classroom at PS 75 there was a "dunce corner" and that a whole generation later, when my daughter went to a public school kindergarten on the East Side of Manhattan, there was a "time out" corner in a still nearly all-White kindergarten class. All the Black kids were on the top floor of that East Side school in a persistent and pernicious de facto bused-in segregation. And the teacher of my daughter's kindergarten class targeted the boys in her class for humiliation as she ordered them to face the corner, albeit they were all White boys. God help us, and them, if she'd had Black kids in the class; she was vicious. And the parents could not stop her, or change her, that was obvious at meeting after meeting. I sometimes stood outside the door at pick-up time and watched this teacher abuse the boys verbally. I glared. I wanted her to know she was on notice. The principal had put her on notice, but it was too late for me, and many other parents. We'd had enough, we took flight, leaving the poor White kids behind on the bottom floor of that de facto segregated neighborhood school.
This was all long before lockdown drills and pandemics though the catchment areas and neighborhoods in the city are seemingly unchanged since I was a child, calcified in their callous disregard of fairness and opportunity. Separate and unequal. Separate but unequal.
I called PS 75 to check on current admissions policy. The guy who answered the phone was friendly. "895 West End Avenue," I told him, " between 103rd and 104th." I was put on hold as Nat King Cole sang "life is still worthwhile." The guy came back and confirmed that PS 75, Emily Dickinson Elementary School, was in District 3, but that my kids would have to go to PS 145 up near the projects.
"Oh, nothing has changed in New York City," I said.
"I'm sorry you're disappointed," he said, but he misunderstood, He thought I was a parent with a school age child. I hadn't said otherwise, and I didn't disabuse him. I was just asking questions without identifying myself as a journalist. I wanted to know, I was curious.
"I like the Nat King Cole," I said.
He laughed, "Oh, you like that?"
"Yes," I said.
"Don't be disappointed. Depending on enrollment, you might be able to get a waiver."