By David Meyer, Special to Chicago Jewish News
I read the other day that the Alexander von Humboldt elementary school in Chicago has closed its doors for the last time, part of Mayor Emanuel’s plan to reform and rebuild the city’s public school system. Von Humboldt, together with about 50 other grammar schools, will not reopen in September, and its 300 plus pupils will be assigned to schools in surrounding neighborhoods. The rationale for this move, among others, is the fact that the school is underused. With room for over 900 pupils, its enrollment was only 352 this past school year.
I was a pupil in Von Humboldt from kindergarten until I graduated in 1952. Living up the block, at the corner of Rockwell and Le Moyne streets, I had only a short walk to school; I didn’t even have to cross a street. Von Humboldt – the building, the schoolyard, the teachers – was the focus of my life and, as I read the article, my mind drifted back to those crucial formative years.
Our neighborhood was the Northwest Side, or East Humboldt Park. The school, at the corner of Rockwell and Hirsch streets, was exactly in the middle of a half-mile square bounded by North, Western, and California Avenues and Division Street, and the make-up of our class reflected accurately the demographic mosaic of the neighborhood. We were lower middle-class, blue collar families, first and second generation Americans. My seventy or so classmates, divided into two home-room sections, were Italians, Poles, Ukrainians, Slavs, Germans – a virtual European Union. We were twelve Jewish kids in the class, and there were two black girls and one boy of Japanese descent. For the most part our relations were harmonious. Any fights – and there were a few – were personal, not on religious or ethnic grounds. The Jewish kids took off for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (some for the “lesser” holidays as well), and the Catholics were excused early on Wednesdays to attend Catechism classes in church. A satisfied G-d was in His Heaven and all was well in the classroom.
I actually looked forward to attending school every day. Long before the advent of technical teaching aids, computers, and such, there we were, the teacher, the pupils and the material to be learned. Each class, each teacher, was unique. Classes numbered 30 or more students at different levels of aptitude and ability to learn. There were cases where someone had to repeat a grade but, on the whole, “no child was left behind.” This was policy, long before it became a slogan.
The teachers I remember best were those who knew how to relate to every child. Their teaching methods reflected their personalities. Mrs. Ballou, warm, loving, just the right temperament for the second graders in her charge, yet uncompromisingly firm when teaching us to take responsibility for our actions. Mrs. Stewart, the math teacher for seventh and eighth grades, a buxom Irish woman with immaculately coiffed hair, set up a table with dozens of books – sports, detective stories, classic literature. When a student finished the class assignment, he or she could select a book and read quietly, while Mrs. Stewart could give individual attention to the slower students. (I finished all the John R. Tunis books about Roy Tucker, Raz Nugent, and the rest of the fictional Brooklyn team.)
Mr. Rosenthal’s assignments were geared to impress upon us the minutiae of American history, from which we developed an understanding of the major issues of the periods covered. By analyzing the various events in context of their times we learned about such concepts as Manifest Destiny, states’ rights, and checks and balances. History came alive as we were introduced to Jefferson, Madison, Jackson, Lincoln, Calhoun, et al, and the constitutional and political stands they represented.
One of my favorites was my sixth –grade teacher, Mr. Drew, a World War II veteran with a metal plate in his head from a war injury. He would walk up and down the aisles with a ruler in his hand, prodding us to work harder and to produce up to our capabilities. He was also one of the most sensitive teachers in the school, and he taught me how to deal with disappointment.
I remember them all: The gym teacher who, it was rumored, was seeing the music teacher after hours; my first and third grade teachers, spinsters both, who dressed as if we lived in the late 19th century; the principal, Dr. Wilson, whose sense of irony – or was it something else – prompted him to send me and my friend, Jerry Shapiro, to buy the Christmas tree for the school. Some teachers were feared; others were loved. All were respected.
Von Humboldt was not only where we spent our weekdays. It was the focal point of the neighborhood and of the community. Three days a week, after school hours, several classrooms were occupied by new immigrants, studying for their citizenship exams. Into this “Life With Luigi” setting came the Italians, Poles, etc., straight from their – mostly manual – jobs, to struggle with the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, American history and the complexities of the English language The children and grandchildren of these huddled masses are today’s doctors, business leaders, scientists and lawmakers. I wonder if they appreciate the efforts their parents made to become true Americans and the role that this now dilapidated and abandoned school played in enabling them to do so.
It was at night and on Sundays in the summer months that the schoolyard came alive for the whole neighborhood. There would be a softball game almost every night. Teams made up of twenty-something year olds played 16 inch softball, peculiar to Chicago and almost non-existent anywhere else. Neighborhood families crowded the schoolyard fence, fathers holding the hands of their children, to watch the game, while the Good Humor truck did a thriving business at the curb. The local favorite was “Highpockets” – I never knew his name – a former soldier who played his third-base position with the grace of a ballet dancer and always wore the pants of his army fatigues.
Sunday was the turn of the older guys, men in their 40’s and 50’s. Starting at about 9:00 in the morning they would choose up sides and play a double header. It was fun to watch them lumbering along, playing with a ferocity as if money was riding on the outcome. (Which it was; at the end of each game cash changed hands as both the players and many of the spectators had placed bets.) Arguments were rife, but no violence. The umpire’s decisions were final and respected, although some of the arguments may have lasted until long after the game was over.
I parted from my classmates after graduation. Most of the class went on to Tuley High School, some to Roosevelt High, others to trade schools. I broke ranks and attended the Jewish Academy, a parochial high school which changed the course of my life eventually leading me to Israel, where I reside today. Nevertheless, I hold dear the experiences and lessons from my grammar school days. Today, more than sixty years later and from halfway around the world, I celebrate the years I spent at Von Humboldt, and mourn its demise.