I don’t know when relevance in education was invented, but it sure wasn’t around when I was in elementary school 50 or so years ago. And I say, “Thank goodness!”
When I walked to school in Maspeth, N.Y., every morning on the other side of the railroad tracks, I saw strings of grimy boxcars leaking dirty straw and a line of soot-blackened factories with a lot of punched-out windows. It was a time when a lot of people on my block, including my parents, talked about hoping to get a few hours of work here and there or maybe catching on with the WPA. So, the last thing I wanted when I got to school was a lesson on the crisis of world capitalism or the constitutionality of the National Recovery Act—even if I could have imagined these were what school was supposed to be about.
Public School 74 back then was a two-story wooden building next to a bakery whose chimneys steeped our classrooms in the comforting, nurturing smell of baking bread. I remember dreaming over my reader in the afternoon free-reading period, yielding to the lazy, soothing warmth of those lovely smells. It was just the right atmosphere for irrelevance.
While the dispossessed farmers were making their painful way across the pages of The Grapes of Wrath, my mind was on the road to Mandalay, particularly on the “Burma Girl,” and I wondered whether she could have looked as good as Henrietta Majeski, who sat across the row two seats away.
And who was this man that she was thinking of? Someone like me, I supposed—a devil-may-care soldier of fortune. And I had no trouble putting my formidable military skills at the service of the British Empire, particularly when it meant serving with Horatio Hornblower beating to quarters somewhere off Cape Trafalgar. I never really understood why he had it in for the French but knew I wanted to be on his side.
My teachers never worked at trying to develop my social conscience. They just gave me books. The things I read in public school broke down the Depression walls of my neighborhood and gave me a sense of a larger world. I can’t help but admire the daring of my teachers, who thought that they could draw a scruffy crew like us into the upper-crust circle of James Matthew Barrie’s ironic comedies. Maybe it was the only hook they had, a leftover from the 1920s, but I can still remember the poignant sense of the unfairness I felt when Admirable Crichton had to return downstairs to the butler’s pantry after all he did on the deserted island for Lord Loam and his family. And how could the paltry burden of my poverty compare with his noble sacrifice of giving up Lady Mary? I never gave a thought to the class system or whatever. It was just the way life was, not getting what you wanted or deserved, even in fairy tales.
All of us kids sensed that the school was trying to refine us, though we never felt patronized. No one was offended when our teachers looked at our nails or our ears to see if they were clean. We were anxious to measure up, to be uplifted.
Every Friday, we had music appreciation. I never knew what was pomp and what was circumstance or why someone who must have been very religious to be called Saint-Sans wrote music for skeletons to dance to. But I never doubted that it all had to do with what being a grownup was all about—some mysterious puzzle that I might unravel some day.
It all was a little taste of some larger feast, and it helped ease the fear that must have nagged at all of us: that our lives would never get beyond those dreary boxcars and punched-out factory windows. Elementary school told us that there was something else, after all.
A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 1992 edition of Teacher as The Sweet Mystery of Irrelevance