Last week I traveled from Manhattan to Newkirk and Coney Island Avenues – a taxi ride of perhaps 15 miles and a time travel of 78 years – to arrive at PS 217. I graduated from this grade school in 1938, and today I was to be the speaker at the graduation of 200 fifth-graders.
Things are always changing in New York; buildings get torn down, the skyline gets dotted with slim, 90 story buildings and Brooklyn becomes the new in-place for a flood of bright, younger citizens.
New York has also always been a gateway to this country for so many immigrants. The Dutch started it. The English followed. Jews expelled from Spain, Huguenots from religious discrimination in France, Irish from the famine – on it went – on it goes.
When I lived at 778 E. 9th St., between Foster and Avenue H, the neighborhood was half- Italian-half-Jewish from Eastern Europe. Though we shared the classrooms, there was almost no social contact between those two groups. Our half of East 9th, the Jewish part, had four-story brick apartments on one side, modest two-story houses on the other. The Italian part had homes shaded by large trees and backyards with small vineyards. the Jews had created an upscale shtetl – the Italians, an evocation of their villages.
Today I was going to be facing a student body that was more than 50% Bangladeshi or Pakistani.
Here I was, age 91, presuming to speak to these children who had parachuted in from distant planets; children who were born here of parents who arrived in this place far removed, geographically and culturally, from their home lands.
Challenge number one: Why should these young people want to listen to me?
Challenge two: Most of the parents would have no idea of my experience dealing with children on TV. What could I say to them?
Challenge three: I would have fifteen minutes to connect and communicate.
When my photographer, Steve Friedman,
and I arrived at nine AM,
Anna Beth Rousakis, the Chair of the Board
of Directors of Friends of PS 217,
quickly fell to hauling Steve’s equipment
around as she assumed the role of
aide – de – camp.
While meandering before the ceremony
began,I happened on the smallest member
of the audience who looked at me with interest.
I could put a cartoon bubble over that child's head and it would read, "So are you what an American looks like?"
Finally the ceremony began. The Principle
Mrs. Conti and I led the procession of two hundred
graduating students and their teachers down the isle to the stage, where I sat next to her.
After they were all seated the color guard - eight students, each carrying an American flag - marched to the stage from where they led their classmates in the pledge of allegiance. This was not muttered or spoken by the students - it was proclaimed! I had not heard the pledge so assertively delivered in a long time. These new members of our community were pledging their allegiance to their new country in a manner that spoke not of obligation, but to conviction. They followed with a robustly sung national anthem.
There followed the business of the day.
Awards were given to the students - a large number of students - for their academic and social achievements. Each got his or her moment of recognition.
Their parents were doing what every parent does in moments like these, they were qvelling. Now clearly most of these Asian adults had no knowledge of that Yiddish word, which had arrived with my parents and others from Eastern Europe, but parental "qvelling" is international and these parents were decidedly qvelling!
Finally it was my turn to speak. I started sharing my story.
When I attended PS 217, I told them, I too was a child of an immigrant mother who arrived from Austria - Hungary in 1909 when she was 10. My dad's family, which lived in a village near Kiev for generations, had been exiled by the Czar to Siberia, where they escaped to arrive here by 1895. Then I described how our family was part of creating the new face of America.
My son married a beautiful Filipina - American woman, and I have two Filipina - American grandchildren. My beloved Cely, whose family arrived in this land in the 1700s, has a nephew who married a woman from India - both are doctors and they have two Indian - American sons. Cely's niece married a Pakistani Muslim. They are raising their children in the Muslim religion.
Their father, is the professor and chief of the Division of Cardiovascular Medicine and co - director of the Sulpizio Cardiovascular Center in San Diego.
"So", I pointed out, "Our families are already changing the face of America. You are continuing that."
"Now" , I announced to the students, "I am coming down to you."
That brought applause. As with my American audiences of the years I hosted children's TV shows, these children were open to anything, hands were raised, in answer to my questions. They were quick to respond to my invitation to tell a joke. I did choose one young, eager student and, inadvertently set off a mild panic on the part of the principle and some of the teachers that knew him. It appears that, in their description, "he is not known for always appropriate language." The joke, mildly amusing was G - rated. The staff relaxed.
As I continued, one young student announced he was a ventriloquist. I quickly signed on to be his "dummy". He quietly told me what he was going to say. I gave him the mike - he spoke the words - I moved my lips.
We were a hit - I turned out to be a very good dummy.
Then I straightened up and spoke to the parents. I thanked them for making the long, and sometimes difficult, journey to bring their children here so they might have a better life.
Finally I made a prediction. “You will now go on to middle school, high school, college and on to your career I guarantee you will never forget your time at PS 217. The proof is, here I am almost 80 years after I graduated from this very auditorium.
"Then I ended my 15 minute part of the proceedings.
Some awards were given to adults who, having put their kids through the school, or having taught there, still come back as volunteers to help in many different, but important ways. The vast majority of the money raised by the friends of PS 217 goes to the support of many enrichment programs both in-school and after. The friends of PS 217 are past and present parents of students, friends and others who, together donate $50,000 per year for instruments, field trips and other in-school and outside activities.
There was the lady, next to whom I sat,
Vinnie Guidarelli, who makes all the costumes for theschool playsand has been doing so for more than20 years.
At one point during the proceedings, Mrs. Conti the principle, murmered softly to me,
"They are so special".
And they are. And so are their dedicated teachers. And the volunteers. And the community.
I left feeling elated at watching how effective our schools, and our country, can be at acculturation.
These students have learned our language. I hope they do not forget their own.
These students have learned our customs, hopefully without forgetting their culture.
These students will learn our stories but can still remember those of their parents. If so, they will enrich our country while becoming Americans.
As I was leaving I met some of the children and families, I felt in some ways we