When Samuel Freedman was 45, the age of his mother when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, he visited Eleanor Freedman’s grave and realized that he’d never really known her. He was 19 when she died at age 50, in 1974 and, like many teenagers, he’d taken his mother for granted, rebuffing her attempts to get close. But after years of research, the noted journalist and nonfiction writer discovered that there were many reasons an impoverished childhood, a domineering mother, societal restrictions why Eleanor ended up a frustrated suburban housewife who’d given up her dream of becoming a bacteriologist. In Who She Was: My Search for My Mother’s Life (Simon & Schuster), however, Freedman makes clear that from 1938 to 1941, she shone as a star student in a Bronx public high school that offered the children of poor Jewish immigrants a chance to succeed.
Two weeks into February and the new semester, Elmer E. Bogart brought his craggy frame to the stage of the Morris High School auditorium to address a convocation of the elite, past and future. For 20 years the principal of Morris, Bogart was a New Englander who had graduated from Cornell in 1894 and grown into a scholar of Greek and Latin, a world traveler who once attended the installation of a pope. With his stiff, high-collared shirts and pince-nez spectacles, he exuded the aura of a former century. The immigrant parents of Morrisania applauded or even bowed as he strode into school each morning from his motorcar.
Into the curving rows of wooden seats before Bogart settled the object of those parents’ hopes and his own, the finest 150 students in a school of 3,000, Eleanor Hatkin among them. This select number had earned admission to the Goodwin School, the honors program named for Morris’ first principal. Virtually all of them, including Eleanor, had skipped one grade in elementary school and combined three years of junior high into two in the program known as Rapid Advance. The juniors and seniors in the auditorium already knew about Elmer Bogart and the Goodwin School. The incoming sophomores, brainy and naive all at once, were about to find out.
The Goodwin School required the study of two foreign languages and an accelerated course of mathematics and science. It mandated a semester of economics, a subject Eleanor and her classmates had barely heard of until this day. The course in “physical training” included a unit of fencing. A student in the Goodwin School could amass 15 or 20 college credits while at Morris. But academic excellence was not all the Goodwin School demanded. Each student in it received a kind of membership booklet, which listed the “ennobling principles” and “vital characteristics” of the program’s namesake, from “fair play” to “immaculate cleanliness.” “I pledge myself,” the Goodwin students stated, ”to sympathetic understanding, personal responsibility, courage, and truth.” And also punctuality: Mr. Bogart stood outside Morris’ front door each morning with his watch.
The ceremony this morning marked a transition that was more than simply generational. Like their principal, many of the Morris teachers were old-stock Americans, Protestants raised in North Dakota or Saint Louis, educated at Dartmouth or Columbia. They were, at the same time, a worldly sort, cosmopolitans who had ascended the Alps, explored the Andes on horseback, committed Paradise Lost to memory. And they held to their own ancestral notions of propriety. Morris maintained separate gyms and cafeterias for the genders. Only recently had the dean of girls, Charlotte Knox, ceased her morning ritual of monitoring skirt lengths and inspecting fingernails for offending polish.
The Goodwin pupils, even more than the student body as a whole, were Jews. Eleanor’s sophomore class was the roster of an Ellis Island manifest: Fleischman, Fisherson, Solomon, Gantz, Goodman, Sokolsky, Hirsch, Hirschman, Kraft, Kreisman, Koval, Kolander. Even the Negro boy in the program, a violin prodigy named Levi Bough, belonged to a congregation of Black Hebrews. Few had ever met a Presbyterian or Methodist; few had traveled much farther than the Grand Concourse. They experienced the wider world mostly through the distorting lens of the movies and the siren call of big-band radio shows, so they craved Clark Gable, Deanna Durbin, and the jitterbug, all of it vapidity to their elders.
What these students offered their teachers was the ferocious aspiration fed of penury. The Goodwin School promised the way out of walk-ups and sweatshops, out of watching your mother faint because she hadn’t eaten in two days and your father trudge home from the relief office with boots and a shovel for his job clearing snow. An 85 average essentially guaranteed a boy entrance to City College, “the poor man’s Harvard.” A girl could aim for Hunter College, lso a public institution free for the qualified, and train to become a teacher, the finest occupation available for a Jewish woman.
Eleanor felt such appetites; she bore them the way, in a different family, a firstborn son might. For all that her mother, Rose an immigrant from Poland didn’t understand or care to understand about America, she always had insisted that Eleanor take the academic track in school. Rose did not know that Morris consigned the girls in its commercial curriculum (typing, steno, bookkeeping) to a dingy annex until senior year. She did not know that other girls in the Goodwin School Ruth Liebowitz, Bea Fleischman had parents who told them, You’ll get a job and you’ll go to work.” Rose simply had absorbed in some blunt, visceral way the realization that her eldest child, who had entered kindergarten speaking only Yiddish, was brilliant. She had been hearing it from teachers at least as far back as Miss Clancy in 2nd grade. All those awards in the china chest proved it.
The more formal instruction at Goodwin was exhilarating. Helen Hunter Smith, one of the history teachers, posted a sign on her classroom wall with one passage from the Gospel of Saint John “What Is Truth?” and it was not hyperbolic to think of the curriculum as an elaboration on that theme. One of Eleanor’s first English teachers, Hedwig Hilker, belied her starchy, pinched appearance by having her students write about family members as if they were literary characters. Edward Kolevczon taught math not as rote memorization but as the quest for proofs, encouraging his students to discover them. Latin class with Edward Coyle began with translating the children’s book The Story of Ferdinand and culminated in reading Caesar’s The Gallic War and Plutarch’s Lives.
For teachers and students alike, high culture represented a liberating force. To master great books or fine art was to prove that a scruffy Jewish kid from the tenements was worthy. Goodwin students plunged into King Lear, Ivanhoe, and George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss. Morris sent its chorus to perform on Walter Damrosch’s radio program; its orchestra entertained when Chiang Kai-shek appeared at the Hotel Astor to raise money for Chinese war relief. In May 1938, toward the end of Eleanor’s first semester, the school’s Shakespeare Fellowship presented Twelfth Night.
It was all part of Elmer Bogart’s scheme of enlightened social engineering, or what he called, in a favorite phrase, “achievement to capacity.”
As summer 1938 passed and fall returned, as winter arrived and with it 1939 and Eleanor’s junior year, she was palpably blossoming. She ran for and won a seat representing the junior class in the Morris Organization, the student government, and got her name in the Bronx Home News, the borough’s daily newspaper. She joined the Morris newspaper, the Piper, receiving a license for inquiry and a stickler’s instruction in grammar from Arthur Strom, a faculty adviser who enjoyed referring to the staff as “my slaves.” Despite his authority, the writers were always trying to slip in double-entendres just to show how sophisticated they were; one issue of the Piper mysteriously dropped the first letter of a comely girl’s name and identified her as “harlotte.”
Irreverence was part of confidence. Eleanor wore saddle shoes, making certain they were scuffed in keeping with the current vogue, and “sharpie socks” with horizontal stripes in bright colors. In economics class, she and her oldest friend, Marion Herzog, drove Mr. Kammiter half mad by jingling tiny bells they had lashed to their laces. They called him Dick Tracy behind his back because his nose was as sharp as the comic strip detective’s and lampooned Mr. Coyle, who had a speech defect, as “Mr. Curl.” Some afternoons, when the girls walked north toward home on Boston Road, Eleanor would just rear back her head and bray like a donkey.
She stuck out; there was no question. Her visibility was not just a matter of racking up A’s but also the effortless way she seemed to do it. The Goodwin School, after all, could be a fierce arena, where final grades were calibrated to the hundredth of a point to determine class rank, where Bernie Solomon and Mel Goodman once got into a fistfight arguing about Plato. Eleanor floated above the tumult, seemingly sweatless. Not even her sister Fannie, who shared the same room and daybed, ever saw Eleanor study very much. She relied on an eidetic memory, the file cabinet for all those equations and conjugations and formulas. She used Latin to unlock French. She learned to write by being a voracious reader. And like a star athlete who has experienced victory so often as to expect it in every contest, she admitted neither hesitation nor doubt.
But no one, perhaps, recognized the achievement that counted most to Eleanor. Back in late June 1938, the last day of her first term at Morris, she had been called in by her French teacher, Madame Celia L. K. Moers. The room was empty except for them. Improbable as it seemed, given her high marks all semester long, Eleanor steeled herself for a dressing-down and a C plus.
“Tell me what you eat,” Madame Moers commanded.
Eleanor only stared in return.
“You Americans,” the teacher sighed in derision.
“You are too fat. A pretty girl like you. Who can tell?”
Those words pierced the vulnerable underbelly, quite literally, of Eleanor’s academic prowess. She began to sob, and between spasms, she asked, “What can I do?”
At Madame Moers’ behest, she delineated her diet bread and cheese, peanut butter by the jar, milk from the icebox at home and in the school cafeteria for 2 cents a glass.
“Two quarts of milk a day?” Madame Moers said.
“Impossible. That would feed three French children for a week. Shame on your mother.”
Now here was the sort of criticism Eleanor could welcome, more evidence of Rose’s inadequacy. Here was someone, a petite, chic, and continental someone at that, who knew exactly why no boys were calling Kopelov’s candy store looking for Eleanor. Over the summer, she cut down to one glass of milk and took to the tennis courts of Crotona Park and shed all Rose’s fretting with feigned concern over the starving children in Europe. The pounds melted off, and with them the fear of size 18.
With two months’ worth of baby-sitting money, Eleanor ventured to Alexander’s to buy herself an outfit: pleated polka-dot dress, a pair of wedgies, stockings, two faux pearl bracelets. In the final days before classes resumed at Morris, she tried it all on and went to the tar roof of 1461 to pose for Fannie’s camera. Eleanor tried to affect a dreamy, middle-distance gaze, but her hands betrayed her insecurity. She was tugging at her own fingers as if trying to yank loose from a pair of Chinese handcuffs.
On opening day at Morris in September 1939, she was walking down the maelstrom of a hallway between periods, carrying her books across her chest, as usual, when she detected hands patting her. They started at her waist, newly trim, and worked their way up her back, toward her brassiere. By the time Eleanor turned, the groper was gone. Someone had just made a pass at her. A pass, right in the middle of school. And far from being offended, she felt triumphant. This crude compliment was harder-earned, and so more valuable, than all those columns of A’s on her report card.
Excerpted from Who She Was: My Search for My Mother’s Life, by Samuel G. Freedman. Copyright 2005. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster.
A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 2005 edition of Teacher as The Promise of Youth