Remembering Miller Street
Teaching is a sacred profession, every bit as essential as rabbis caring for the soul, or medical personnel caring for the body. The teachers we fondly remember nurtured us, shared with us, and, in a spirit of love and respect brought us the understanding we needed to grow and develop and become better people. I can only hope that I had a positive impact on those I taught at Miller Street School, a long long time ago.
The pounding of the children’s feet on the playground is a mere memory. The laughter, the familiar games, stick ball, dodgeball, double Dutch jump rope, all quiet, discordant, silent echoes. The voices of the children, welcomed for over 125 years, can no longer be heard. The fabric of the neighborhood has changed. Yet, many remember the vibrant, often successful, often completely failing, brick schoolhouse that was the backbone of Miller Street. There is no longer a Miller Street School in Newark. Built in 1881, the school served its community for well over a century, drawing students from Vanderpool Street and Sherman Avenue to Elizabeth Avenue and Frelinghuysen Avenue. Over the years the school transitioned from an affluent well-to-do population base to a downtrodden impoverished neighborhood. And now it has succumbed to its final blow; it has been replaced by a shelter for the homeless. Only the remembrances remain. I am but one of those many who remember.
I arrived at Newark’s Miller Street School in September, 1961, more than halfway into its life as a public elementary school. I was hired to teach third grade. Until that beautiful fall morning I had never been to Miller Street at all. There was no charming town center, no museum or library, and no interesting shops to tempt me, so I needed to look at a map to figure out how to find it. For me, a very recent Rutgers Newark graduate from a Jewish Weequahic home, this was a new challenge to immerse myself in. I grew up a Number 8 bus ride away but it might as well have been another century and another world. I was inexperienced, a mere two months of practice teaching on my curriculum vitae. I had scored well on the Newark Teachers’ Exam but there was a total disconnect between the exam and reality. This was life in a desperately poor neighborhood, the likes of which I had never known.
My first decision will sound trivial but it had to be made immediately and seriously. Where would I eat lunch?
There were two faculty lunchrooms and, whichever choice I made, had to be carefully considered because it was truly irrevocable. The two rooms were clearly defined and reflected the racial and religious backgrounds of the teachers who used them. I did not fit perfectly into either category.
Both seemed logical for me, each for different reasons. One consisted entirely of Jewish women, all women, who were in their 50’s and 60’s. I was turning 22.
The other consisted entirely of Black women, all women, who were in their 20’s.
I never felt that the makeup of these lunchrooms was segregation, although certainly race relations in Newark had a long climb ahead. They still do. Those were the days before the destructive riots of 1967. Those were the days when apartment rentals advertised in the Newark Evening News were classified as colored or white. But yet, I still had the choice of where to eat my lunch, which would really define me and my future friendships. Ultimately I sensed that the Jewish women and I would have little in common due to the vast age differences. And so, on day one, as if there wasn’t enough newness to challenge me, I made the call and proceeded to the younger women’s lunchroom. I never retreated and my colleagues became my friends.
Our school building, with various additions and improvements made through the years, had grown a bit haphazardly. Likewise, the student body had metamorphosed. The earliest students had been wealthy, often driven to school by horse and buggy. By the time I got to Miller Street, the neighborhood had deteriorated and become very poor and racially segregated. Classes were too large, averaging at least 38 students, compared to today’s ideal of 20. They also included some children with intellectual handicaps who were mainstreamed into the regular classes where they could not possibly thrive.
I was young and idealistic, determined to make it work and have a positive impact on these children’s lives. That was the opportunity and it was a big one. Today, all these years later, when the children I taught are themselves now old, I would like to ask them whether I made a difference, whether they were well served by me. This, I cannot do. Even with the help of Google I can’t even do superficial checks on most of my pupils. Most of their names were too generic, too American, too Jim Brown, Tom White, and not enough other, more Googleable ethnicities. I have, however, researched a few.
There was Jan. He was the source of my biggest and most comprehensive effort. Jan was not going to be able to proceed to fourth grade without intervention. He was obviously very bright, with a sparkling impish personality and an adorable broad gap-toothed smile. But he could neither read nor write nor do math nor sit still. Ever. Today he would have had a label of attention deficit disorder which perhaps might have invited closer scrutiny and gained him the guidance and help he needed. In 1962 he was essentially ignored by the administration. There were far too many problems for them to handle so they handled far too few.
I had an idea. Living a short bus ride from Jan via that same Number 8, I would invite him to our home for private tutoring every day during the summer. It took a while to get his parental permission but I was persistent and finally his father appeared in my classroom and agreed to let Jan participate in my plan.
And so it was. Each and every day for the entire summer, before 9 a.m, there was Jan trudging over from the bus stop for a full day of private schooling. He learned very quickly and by the end of the summer I felt that I had saved one life, which, according to Jewish belief, was as if I had saved the entire world.
On the first day of the new term, as I organized my classroom for the incoming class, two detectives entered the room. There was a certain sense I had that these men were police even before they showed me their badges. I shall never forget their first words, “Mrs. Skopp, we understand you had a special relationship with Jan…..” And I replied, “Oh no! What did he do?”
He had burned down a gas station, causing damage of over $1,000,000. in 1962 dollars. He was 9 years old!
I was devastated. My idealism was broken. I never forgot him but I never saw Jan again.
A few years ago, when Google was already entrenched in my life, I searched and found him. All of the parameters were met. It was certainly Jan. And perhaps he had benefited from our summer together after all. He was married, with children, and a graduate of a community college, leading what appeared to be a respectable middle-class existence. Of course I cannot say that I influenced the trajectory of his life. But I like to think that I did.
Other children provided other hopes and needs and doctrines.
Something as simple as milk money was unaffordable to many of my pupils. So as not to stigmatize any child I merely supplied the milk and graham crackers to all of them instead of collecting money weekly. It was very inexpensive and at the very least I knew that they were getting some nutrition in the form of milk. Some of their other physical needs were not within my purview, and maybe it didn’t even matter in the end.
I compare two boys in my class. One was Ronald S. whose mother was in jail for murdering his father, leaving the family of six children in the care of a senile grandmother who could be seen sitting by her tenement apartment’s front window all day and into the night. No surprise then that Ronald came to class dirty and looking poverty stricken. He had one unlined light cotton jacket that he wore in the winter freeze. He never owned a single pair of socks. And, oh yes, he never had a single bout of any illness. No colds or flu at all. Remarkable!
Then there was Daryl. Daryl’s mother would be called a helicopter mom in today’s parlance. She was perhaps a tad too conscientious. Reliably, if there was a change in the weather from morning until lunch, when the kids would walk home, eat, and return, there she would be with the appropriately needed, at least according to her, change of gear. Boots. Raincoat. Umbrella. Sweater. Daryl, unlike Ronald, was always sick with whatever was circulating. Cold. Flu. Stomach bug. Daryl got them all.
This is not an endorsement for child neglect. It’s merely the facts. A couple of years later when our first child was born, our doctor was the popular Newark pediatrician Clement Schotland. Dr. Schotland was well known for his absolute insistence that no infant in his care ever wear a hat. Ever. I was afraid not to comply with the good doctor’s orders so our new little baby was hatless during the most horrendous winter weather. It didn’t hurt her. And Ronald, with his many other issues, was clearly not hurt by not owning a pair of socks or a warm coat!
LaNora was another easy to Google member of my third grade class. Immaculately groomed, always with her hair descending in a long tidy braid that indicated to me that one of her parents, probably her mother, was taking very good care of her. She had a pleasant demeanor, always eagerly participating, raising her hand enthusiastically, always well behaved. I gave her all A’s on her report card and she had earned each and every one of them. She was a wonderful child who grew up to be a teacher in Washington D.C. and a source of pride to Miller Street School.
As I re-read my own words I see that I have learned as much from my students as they have learned from me. They became parts of my life and, to this day, memories of our time together are with me. I only hope that they were similarly blessed by their time with me, and that I never betrayed their sacred trust.