I attended P.S. (Public School) 103 in Boro Park, Brooklyn from the first though the sixth grade.
Our class was half Italian Catholic and half Jewish. There was one skinny, pale Protestant girl. To make matters even worse for her, her parents were Estonian. She was the only Estonian in the school and maybe one of a handful in all of Brookyn.
There were probably many in my family’ s observant Jewish community who wondered why I, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, was in a public school and not a Jewish day school.
One would have had to ask my late father.
It may have had something to do with his ambition. His daughters were going to receive the best education America had to offer and he believed that it would be found in public school.
It may have been related to his childhood memories of religious school. He often told me that if a student did not know something, was unprepared or misbehaved, “Wap!” Down came hard ruler on the top of the dimpled hand.
I was so traumatized by my father’s stories, that when my mother first brought me to the local after school Talmud Torah and the registrar asked “Any questions?” my voice trembled as I responded “Do they hit you in this school?’
So there I was in, Public School 103 located on14th Avenue between 54th and 55th Streets lustily singing “There’s A Church In The Valley By The Wildwood” and “Flow Gently, Sweet Afton” (that one brought tears) and another that started “A mighty ship was the Gundremar, proudly sailing, proudly sailing.” I could go on. It’s about a shipwreck.
Every Wednesday, about 1:30, the Catholic children were dismissed for “Religious Instruction”. The Jews and the Protestant watched them walk out.
One time, I looked in my classmate’s religious book and saw a drawing of a white robed angel hovering over a group of people.
“How do they know what an angel looks like?” I asked.
“They know,” he mumbled.
“How does it keep its robes clean?”
I thought that it was a very reasonable question. My busy mother was always telling us to keep our clothes clean. She even starched and ironed our shorts and shirts.
“I don’t know,” he said, grabbing the book.
Through the years, the Catholics and the Jews tolerated each other and both groups tolerated the Protestant.
But Pasquale was different.
He spoke softy. He didn’t play ball with the other boys. The teachers (all maiden Irish Catholics) looked at him with adoration. He was tall for his age (11) and had a beatific countenance. He seemed to move down the street as if he were floating.
He was a solitary, reserved man/child.
“He’s going to be a priest,” someone whispered.
“Ohh,” I thought.
I had once seen a priest in Boro Park. He wore a white collar and a black suit. To us children, he was like a policeman or a soldier. We looked at him with respect and awe.
“Pasquale,” I once asked as we walked home from school (he lived across the street from us) ”do you really want to be a priest?”
A huge smile broke out on his handsome face.
“Yes,” he said.
“I got the calling.”
“You are called.”
“Who called you?”
“No one calls you. You just know.”
He said all this with the great certainty.
I could not understand how he could so sure of what he wanted to be. I changed my mind every week, depending on the book I read. A part of me, however, was envious of his conviction.
“How do you know?” I pressed.
“You just do.”
I knew that there would be no further inquiry on the subject and like all of us, including the Estonian girl, he was on a trajectory determined by other forces.