The Lower East Side of New York
Jewish Life in America

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From The New-York Tribune, September 16, 1906.

So vast has become the public school system of New York City that it surpasses the military establishments of great European states. With the opening of its classrooms last Monday, a host of children assembled that was nearly twice the size of the standing army of Austria-Hungary. They were marshaled by as many teachers as there are officers in command of all Great Britain's troops. And the money to be spent for these boys and girls in the present school year will almost equal the annual cost of the Italian navy.

Yet to understand best on what tremendous lines the free education of the youth of New York is conducted a person should visit one of the city's great schools. Some of them contain more pupils than the big universities. One should go from classroom to classroom, listen, even though for only a moment, to the recitation or lecture, and all the time watch the little faces for a clue of what is in their minds. In this way, also, you will come to understand how great is the problem which the pubic school is endeavoring to solve. You will see, side by side the children of the poor, the well-to-do, the ignorant, the enlightened, the criminal and the law-abiding classes. All are learning out of the same books. All are to be American citizens.

A sociologist who was writing a book on "New York in 1956" was asked if he had ever visited the public schools of the metropolis. "Oh, no," he answered, "I know all about them. I have spent my time at the Barge Office studying types of immigrants, at the Tombs investigating into the nationality of the prisoners and the character of their crimes, and at the police courts to learn all that I could of their home life. And, I tell you, it's my opinion that this city fifty years from now will be another Paris at the time of the French revolution."

At last the writer was persuaded to visit a school. Even though he might not find anything for his book, yet it would interest him, he was told. It was so different, all his friends said, from the little red schoolhouse in New England where he had obtained the foundations of the education of which he so often boasted. In company with a New York acquaintance, himself a graduate of a public school of this city, he boarded a rickety horsecar in Stanton street. He went down into the heart of that great modern Babel known as the East Side. And as the car bowled along the author pointed at street arabs fighting over the results of a crap game; at policemen hounding the pushcart peddlers, "for a few pennies of blackmail," he said; at pale, emaciated women pawing over old garbage cans for food, and at the windows of houses where men, women and children, all crowded together, were toiling in the stifling atmosphere of a sweatshop. "And what is to come out of this," he concluded, "but misery, desperation, crime and anarchy?"


When the car had almost reached the East River the two men left it and walked toward a huge, five storied, big windowed building which occupied a whole block in Houston street. It was Public School No. 188, which the New Yorker explained was the largest public school in the world. In the great play yard in the central court the children were romping about so noisily that the two men had to cease talking. They could not hear each other. Then, of a sudden a gong sounded, and the hubbub was hushed. The boys on one side of the yard, the girls on the other, fell into lines, each representing a class and slowly and noiselessly, save for the shuffling of feet, they marched away to their classrooms. "You won't believe it, perhaps, but that little army you have just seen contained five thousand children, or as many as attend all the schools in the entire State of Nevada. Under this roof there are a quarter of a thousand more pupils than in all Columbia University. Indeed, there are seats enough for the students of Yale, Brown, Amherst, and Bowdoin combined."

Following the boys upstairs, the two men met Mr. Mandel, the principal, whose face brightened as soon as he was asked if they might visit the classrooms. "I guess you won't have time to go into all of them," he said, as he led the way. "You see there are ninety-six altogether." Turning through a door the visitors found themselves con­fronted by forty lads poring over a history lesson. In the teacher's chair a boy had been left in charge. "A small-sized republic," remarked the principal. "You see how well they can govern themselves. They have elected this president to ad­minister affairs in the interim."

"They do maintain good decorum to be sure," said the writer, "although there must be some tough rowdies among them. They doubtless go to school because they have to, and so when they get through the slums will swallow them up again. I suppose there is hardly one of them who has in view any definite vocation."
"I'd be glad to take a census of the class to find out," said Mr. Mandel, and, turning to the teacher, who had just re­turned, he asked him to call the roll. Of the thirty-nine present, only one was undecided as to his life work. Eleven wanted to take up various business careers. Nine intended to be lawyers, six civil engineers, three dentists, three doctors, two teachers, and one each for the various callings of mechanic, engraver, designer of clothes, and electrical engineer. Of the thirty-nine, the majority were Jewish. On inquiry the teacher found that the reason why six had chosen civil engineering was because they had watched the construction of the Williamsburg Bridge. The engineers who directed the work, who "bossed the dagoes," as one Irish boy put it, had made many of the youth of the neighborhood ambitious to rise to a like position of wisdom and authority. The average age of the boys of this class was fourteen. They will be grad­uated next February.


Across the hall the visitors found a class hard at work at English composition. It was made up of pupils who contrasted strongly with those they had just left. They were four or five years younger and showed more clearly the influence of their home life. Their faces were dirtier, their hair more snarled, and their clothes more ragged.

"We haven't had as much opportunity to bring out what is best in these little fellows," Mr. Mandel explained.
The subject of the essays was, "My Vacation." And when they were handed in they showed that nearly all of the class had spent the summer in East Side streets. One spoke of an "outing" in Central Park, and another had gone "camping" in the Bronx. A third devoted his whole composition to a baseball game. It, to him, was the most important happening in the last two months. The teacher read it aloud as follows.

"During vacation our team and another team arranged a game of baseball. It was to be played at 6th Street dock for $2. The game started, and it was the ending of the fifth inning. The score was in favor of the other side, 7 to 0 when the pitcher went to pieces, and we hit him for ten runs and won out by 10 to 7."

A hand was waving wildly in the rear of the room, and as soon as its possessor was recognized by the teacher a voice resounded shrilly,

"I tell youse about dat game. I wuz on the side dat lost. Each side put up a dollar. We wuz beat cuz dey bribed our pitcher."

The writer of the composition hotly denounced this as a falsehood, and words would have led to blows had not the teacher interposed. Meanwhile the sociologist nodded his head thoughtfully and to his friend muttered, "No wonder our politics and commercial methods are corrupt. Ah, ha, I'll put this in my book."

On the way down the corridor the author remarked that the little schoolhouse where he we, when a boy still accommodated all the children of the neighborhood. "My home town is not overrun with immigrants," he added, with emphasis.

"Conditions there are certainly different from those in New York," said his companion. "The first schoolhouse here cost $13,000. This one we ate in cost $1,000,000. At present the city has 565, valued at as much as the whole of Jersey City - almost $100,000,000."

"There is certainly a chance for these foreigners in New York to learn, if they want to," said the author.

"Then you haven't read the daily papers closely, I'm afraid," responded the New Yorker. "Even with 565 buildings there are enough; half-time pupils to constitute a city as big as Springfield, Mass. There are 75,000 children at present that can attend only half a day."

"I don't know what New York spends for public schools," interrupted the sociologist, "but I suppose in a pupil it is much less than Boston's appropriation. I used to live in Boston, you know."

"Then I see you have never compared the two cities," was the reply. "Boston, with 91,401 pupils, expends $39.75 on each of them. On the other hand, every one of New York's 555,342 school children costs its taxpayers $41.40. The bill for running our schools last year amounted to more than the total annual revenues of the kingdom of Greece, or what the American navy cost this government in the year 1890. To be exact, the appropriation was $23,358,188. Why, my dear sir, with that amount of money you could pay all the expenses of Boston, Buffalo and Seattle. And, mind you, that doesn't include the cost of new school buildings. Last year this item came to $9,000,000, or almost as much as the total government of St. Louis costs a year."


"How you like to boast!" said the sociologist. "All New Yorkers, I believe, have the brag habit."

"Coming from a Bostonian," was the reply, "the criticism, of course, carries particular weight, but I do not regard these comparisons as boasts. They are mere facts, mere statistics."

"I would like to introduce you to all the teachers of No. 188," said Mr. Mandel, turning into another hallway, "but there won't be time, I fear. There are 115 teachers, all told." Here the principal stooped down to pick up a book, pencil and pad which some careless pupil had dropped. It caught the attention of the New York visitor and, with a twinkle of the eye, he exclaimed:

"That's right. be economical. The city needs every pencil. Its school children last year used up only two million of them, and books, too. Last year's bill for textbooks, the biggest item of all in its educational ledger, amounted to $717,000.

"There were enough textbooks given to New York children last year to half fill the largest library in the world, the Bibliothèque nationale of Paris, which contains 2,600,000 volumes."

"But , of course, New York doesn't spend as much money for schools as London," said the writer.

"No city in the world spends as much as New York for education. Even London takes second rank," was the response. "With 2,000,000 more inhabitants London appropriates several million dollars less a year for schools than we do. In 1900 that city spent for 500,000 pupils $16,988,000, or a little more than two-thirds New York's appropriation for an enrollment of 555,000."

Mr. Mandel brought the conversation to a close by leading the visitors into another classroom. "This is the foreign class of boys," he explained. "Here we take them almost out of the steamships. When we have sifted this class thoroughly, we will leave not one who can speak the English language."

As it happened, the teacher had just asked all those who could speak English to stand up. Only two rose to their feet. One, a bright-eyed, black-haired lad of fourteen, said he had just arrived from Jerusalem; but that he had studied English there in an institution called the Zionist Normal Polytechnic Kindergarten College. He said he could also speak German, Hebrew, Spanish, and Arabic.

"I'm willing to bet that your Massachusetts school never enrolled such a linguist," whispered the New Yorker to his companion. The second pupil said he had picked up enough English to understand most Americans, because of having lived two months in London. He was a Jew[ish] boy also, and was born in Russia. 'Nothing the matter with him, either," said the sociologist's friend so loud that the boy himself heard and bowed his head modestly.

The two lads were told that they would be assigned to other classes, and then the lesson proceeded. The teacher was endeavoring to make her pupils understand the words "open" and "shut." She would go to the door and, swinging it back, say, "I open the door." Closing it she would say, "I shut the door." Then, retreating to her chair, she would point to some pupil and give the command, "You, open the door." This done, she would address another boy with, "You, shut the door."

After the class had apparently caught the meaning of the new words, the teacher put it to another test. Nodding to a little Hungarian and closing the door at the same time, she asked, "Now what do I do?" In his reply the lad showed that he had already imbibed a little English from his East Side playmates, for he shouted at the top of his voice, "You shut up. You shut up."


So interested had the Massachusetts man become in spite of himself in this phase of the school's work that, on learning that there was another foreign class on the girls' side of the building, he asked to see it also. Mr. Mandel accordingly turned the visitors over to his assistant, Mr. Radik, as guide, who, as he led the way, chanced to say:

"I suppose you have inspected our carpenter shop. We are quite proud of it."

"No, we haven't seen that," replied the author. "Who works in it, the janitor?"

Mr. Radik was so taken back by this utterance that he grasped the first door knob he came to as if for support. Then he explained that the carpenter shop was a regular classroom, where all the students had instruction the last two years of their course. Opening the door, he disclosed to view a score of boys each at a bench and at work making tabourets. "The finished product will adorn many an East Side parlor," said Mr. Radik. "Some of them show an unusually high degree of skill. Each student works from an original de­sign. There is no opportunity for one to copy from another."

"I wish I had this training in school," remarked the New Yorker as he turned to go. "My wife is always asking me to do repairs around the house, but I can't even drive a nail without mashing my thumb."

The foreign class of girls was hard at work learning such words as "head," "hand," and "foot" meant when the visitors arrived. After this drill the teacher took a crayon and, holding it up, said slowly, "I have a piece of chalk." Pupil after pupil took the chalk and repeated the same words.


"Now," said the teacher, "I am going back to our old lesson," and patting the head of a little girl she asked her what part of the body it was. With a serious, almost sad look, the child faced the class and tapping her curly locks she said, "Dis ist my piece of head." But her But her classmates never showed the slightest trace of a smile. Even if any of them noticed the mistake, the language was all too foreign and too strange to contain any humor.

All of the thirty-three girls were Hebrews. Twenty were born in Russia, seven in Hungary, and six in Austria. Half had arrived in New York in the last six months and had fled from Russia to escape the torch and the saber. Several of the girls were thirteen or fourteen years old, and, according to their teachers, they were proficient in arithmetic and Russian literature. "But do they appreciate the opportunities of this country?" asked the author. "Ask that little one whom you call Rosie how she regards America." In Yiddish the teacher asked the question, and Rosie's answer, translated, was:

 "I love sweet America. They are kind to me here, so many kind people, like the teacher and the two nice-looking gentlemen."

"Put that in your book, too," said the New Yorker, as he nudged his companion.

An hour later the two men were seated in an uptown hotel.

"You'll go to the theatre with me this evening, I know," said the New York man. "A comic opera for relaxation. After your school work of today it will do you good."

"Thanks, thanks," replied the author, "but I fear I won't have time. I've got to rewrite my book."







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