Fever thermometers and gravestones were manufactured near Junior High School 171, at the eastern edge of Brooklyn. Age eleven, I took the public bus along Jamaica Avenue, getting off just before the Queens border in front of a taxidermist’s shop. An open-mouthed bobcat roared silently in the window. The neighborhood thermometer makers didn’t display their products, but sample gravestones were lined up in yards I passed on my walk to school, and I glimpsed granite blocks being moved by pulleys and chutes. Nearby, vast cemeteries join Brooklyn and Queens, accounting for the gravestone makers, but I don’t know why thermometer factories clustered at that end of Brooklyn, up against the stone carvers as if to offer a last convenience to the moribund.
It was 1953 when I entered seventh grade, the year Senator Joseph McCarthy searched for Communists in the United States Army, the year Julius and Ethel Rosenberg—who supposedly told the Russians how to make bombs—died in the electric chair. In my family, silence prevailed about McCarthy and the Rosenbergs. Julius Rosenberg’s name was almost the same as that of my father, Julius Eisenberg, but I knew I shouldn’t say so; it was disconcerting even to have noticed. The summer before I started junior high, we’d spent a month in the Adirondacks, staying in a bungalow colony full of old thirties lefties—many, like my mother, New York City teachers. My parents attended a benefit concert for the Teachers’ Union at a nearby hotel: a performance by the folk singer Martha Schlamme, whose very name suggested exotic secrets. As children do, I thought I knew which topics belonged together, because the silence around them was similarly textured. A teacher from the bungalow colony lost his job and had to become a bra salesman, or so I seemed to overhear. My parents weren’t ashamed of him—I know they supported him. They had not been quite far left enough in the thirties to be under suspicion now themselves, but their sympathies were with the many teachers who were dismissed during McCarthy’s investigations. My mother went to one Communist Party meeting in her youth, but she disliked the authoritarian tone. She belonged not to the Teachers’ Union but to the slightly less radical United Federation of Teachers.
Yet they didn’t speak of all this, at least not to me. I didn’t know why Terry Rosenbaum (another name almost like Rosenberg) lost his teaching job, and sensed that I mustn’t ask, as if he had done something wrong. As an adult, researching a novel I wrote about this period, I finally looked for and found that name in old newspapers. Questioned by McCarthy himself, Terry Rosenbaum took the Fifth Amendment, saying, “I’d rather stand behind the Bill of Rights than bullies like you.”
Over my shoulder, as I walked half a mile to junior high, I carried a heavy leather bag containing my lunch. In my arms I held a crammed loose-leaf binder, its jaws permanently skewed from overcrowding, and a tall pile of textbooks. My parents repeatedly begged me to leave some of them at home, but I carried those books every day, all day, as my classmates and I scurried behind a monitor from subject to subject. We were in 7 SP, a class somehow designated as smart: twenty-one girls and nine boys who would skip eighth grade together. Not counting the SP students, the classes in seventh through ninth grade were numbered in order of supposed brainpower, but—as everyone knew—the numbers were reversed each year to conceal the tracking system, so 7-1 alternately meant the best students or the worst. We were self-conscious about the label that made no attempt to disguise us, and we didn’t make friends in other classes. We hardly saw those children.
The school was massive, built early in the twentieth century, a square brown brick structure that filled its site except for a concrete yard in back. Its teachers claimed our attention as urgently as the building in which they worked, with a fervor mostly disconnected from any acknowledged object. Many didn’t care about their subjects, but something mattered terribly, so everything felt significant. The girls’ gym teacher singled me out, calling me “Pixie” because I sometimes wore a brown cap with a fabric tail, held aloft like a ponytail. In our heavy woolen skirts, we stood in long rows in the girls’ basement, playing basketball by trying to throw the ball over the heads of the girls in the next row. Miss Hansen—a gaunt old woman with a bony smile—made me keep score, frequently finding reasons to shout “Pixie!” Her raucous attention made me uncomfortable. It wasn’t affectionate: she didn’t know my name.
The few girls who brought lunch ate in the girls’ basement as well, sitting on a bench just long enough for all of us, squeezed together so tightly we conversed facing forward. After lunch we went outside and played dodgeball on the sidewalk. In the schoolyard, the boys played a forbidden, dangerous game called Johnny on a Pony. One bold girl, Maria—whom we called Freezie—sneaked in and played with them.
The librarian took an interest in me as well, drawing me aside to recommend a book called Jalna by Mazo de la Roche. We had library once a week, sitting at tables with chairs instead of school desks; the librarian would often say, “If you see anybody leaning back in a chair, tip ’em off, before I catch ’em!” and I wondered if the pun was intended. We spent the hour reading, then noted the page we reached on an index card. Jalna was a turgid family saga with something nasty in it I can’t quite remember, something that turned my stomach every few pages. When we got our report cards, my classmates had high marks in library, but I got a 65 because I’d read so little. I took Jalna home and with massive effort finished it, declining its many sequels. From then on I read the Sue Barton books about a girl who became a nurse, and got 95’s.
Science was taught by a typing teacher, who copied paragraphs from a reference book and had us copy them in turn into our notebooks. The music teacher, Mrs. Pokorney, taught typing. She toured the room as we typed, rhythmically banging a ruler on desks and walls, and on our wrists if they touched the machine. We typed and typed, but never learned numbers. I still have to look when I type numbers, but other than that I can touch-type, and always keep my wrists elevated. Mrs. Pokorney taught music in much the same thumpy way. She liked college songs, and from mimeographed sheets we sang “Far Above Cayuga’s Waters” and “The Whiffenpoof Song.”
Mrs. Bell, the art teacher, was a pale, obese woman with pink scalp showing through her hair. She’d plunge both hands into a vat of wet clay, then pull them out and coo in a little-girl voice, “Bracelet monitor!” One of the girls then had to go to the front of the room and unclasp several bracelets from Mrs. Bell’s wrists. Like many of the other teachers, Mrs. Bell couldn’t keep us straight. At the end of one quarter she decided to impose discipline on what she considered an unruly part of the room by failing everybody in the row nearest the windows. I, who never dared whisper in class, happened to sit there, and failing art was the worst disaster of my youth. My friend Lynda sat behind me, and we consoled ourselves by making up a song about killing Mrs. Bell.
Nobody took charge of us. Our homeroom teacher, who also taught math, was a timid, mindless lady who had us put together huge scrapbooks on banking, gluing deposit and withdrawal slips to construction paper. She taught us how to write checks, but I don’t think she knew much math, and though she warned us when the art teacher failed us, she was helpless. If something needed saying, nobody at school could hear it, and some things you didn’t talk about at home—like the fact that the Spanish teacher frequently held a girl named Janet on his lap while singing “Lady of Spain.” Once, he became so angry at an imagined infraction by two gentle, dignified boys that he put them in corners at the back of the room, striding there behind them. Looking over my shoulder, I saw him knock the head of one boy further into the corner, while the boy’s ears, exposed by his short fifties haircut, turned dark red.
While the boys took shop, the girls spent the fall term cooking, wearing caps and aprons. Divided into “families” including a “mother,” a “hostess,” a “waitress,” and a “housekeeper,” we took turns performing different tasks as we—usually—made cocoa and cinnamon toast. My notebook from homemaking has survived, so I know that the “waitress” lined the garbage pail, served the food, cleared the table, and washed the dishes. The oven had to be lit with a match, and my friend Gloria was afraid. The cooking teacher, young but mean, found out and screamed, “Gloria, light the match! Gloria, light the match!” Gloria once threw her chocolate pudding down the sink because in her anxiety she believed a girl who answered the question “What are we supposed to do with it now?” by saying, “Throw it down the sink.”
In the second half of the year, cooking gave way to “apartment.” The school had an unused, furnished apartment, cleaned by girls. In the bedroom we stripped the bed and remade it with hospital corners. On it sat a doll, and we happily undressed and dressed her. Groups took turns cleaning different rooms. Looking through the notebook I find a mimeographed page:
Weekly Care of Bathroom
- Collect all material for cleaning before starting. Then dust, and wash, if necessary, window frames and sills, medicine chest, stool, door and woodwork, lighting fixtures, mirrors.
- Wash the walls, using one pail of hot soapy water for washing, and one pail of hot clear water for rinsing.
- If radiator is hot, use a small mop or cloth on stick to clean behind it.
- Clean mirror over basin, using clear warm water and polish with crumpled newspaper.
- Wash basin and tub, using a small amount of scouring powder, plenty of soap and hot water. Rinse.
- Clean toilet with toilet brush and soapy water. Wash seat and bowl with soap and water, and rinse.
- Wash all brushes and cloths used so far, and rinse. Hang to dry, in the sun if possible.
- Scrub the floor. First prepare one pail of hot soapy water and use the scrubbing brush with this pail. Also prepare one pail of hot clear water and use the floor cloth with it. Kneel on floor mat with two pails to your left. Scrub with brush and soapy water, a small section at a time, then rinse with floor cloth and clean water. Start to scrub in section of bathroom farthest from the door. Continue to work, scrubbing a small section at a time, out toward the door.
- When finished, clean all pails, brush and floor cloth in kitchen. Put pails in closet, and hang cloth to dry. Also leave brush in kitchen to dry.
A fragment of memory nags. Someone—Gloria? I myself?—once scrubbed the (immaculate) bathroom floor from the doorway in and was trapped, since walking on the wet floor was unthinkable.
I was fascinated by the bustle of junior high: all those subjects, and a different schedule every day. We saw most of our teachers once or twice a week, but spent two hours a day with a high-strung but friendly gray-haired woman called Miss Nugent, who taught English and social studies. She was not bizarre or nasty, and I liked her. Miss Nugent repeatedly interrupted her lackadaisical grammar classes, which never progressed very far, to tell us with zest that someone on television or radio was a Communist, and two boys, Jay and Eddie, knew what she was talking about and argued with her. Jay, who wore glasses, was plump and blond, and Eddie was short and redheaded, with a big nose. Miss Nugent argued back. I still didn’t quite know what a Communist was or why it mattered, despite the whispers of the previous summer about teachers losing their jobs, and I’d never heard of the commentators Miss Nugent talked about. One day my grandmother—a sewing machine operator who belonged to the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union—happened to say she enjoyed one of those commentators, and, recognizing the name, I told her he was a Communist. My parents were furious, but still didn’t explain—or I was unable to imagine that a nice teacher could be mistaken or misguided. After that, Miss Nugent was added to the long list of what I didn’t mention at home—even when she said a poem I wrote about the five boroughs of New York City must have been plagiarized because it was good, and I began to understand her limitations.
We did skip eighth grade. On the last day of our first year, the ninth-grade homeroom teacher walked briskly into our classroom. Mr. Vorbeck was a broad-shouldered, barrel-chested man with military posture. He told us that when we were his students, only three responses to a question would be acceptable: “Yes, sir,” “No, sir,” and “No excuse, sir.” We scattered for the summer, giggly with fear, boasting to our little brothers and sisters about the strict Mr. Vorbeck.
He also taught us English and social studies. Now someone did take charge. Mr. Vorbeck told us how to behave, what to read, what to think—or what to consider thinking. He was for the south in the Civil War. He said he wasn’t in favor of slavery, but states’ rights. I had never heard anything like these statements. I don’t think it had occurred to me before that opinions about American history were possible, that it was not just a recital of facts. His views were at least as far right as Miss Nugent’s, but somehow he made it clear that other views might exist.
It was 1954, and the Army-McCarthy hearings had been held the previous spring. We watched them on television at home and at last I caught on. Anyone could see that the sneering, sneaky Senator McCarthy was the bad guy, and it was not hard to admire Joseph Welch, the counsel for the Army, who famously said, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?” As McCarthy’s power waned and he was censured, his supporters at Junior High School 171 turned their attention from him to the Cold War itself. Mr. Vorbeck led the Civil Defense Club, which we all joined as a matter of course. He taught us to expect nuclear war at any moment. I argued vigorously when he said that in the event of a nuclear attack it would be necessary for civil defense officers to kill everybody’s pets. At home we had a Scotty dog.
In his classes, Mr. Vorbeck had us read A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Julius Caesar, memorizing passages. He told us about an anthology of poems, and I persuaded my parents to buy it for me. He directed us to the Rivers of America books, written by the WPA writer’s project during the depression (with a paragraph by my father in one of them), and to the real-life adventure stories of Richard Halliburton. I became fond of Mr. Vorbeck, and found calling him “sir” quaintly appealing. He had us write compositions every week but never returned them, so I assumed he didn’t read them. My writing became more spontaneous and honest. One day he called me to his desk to disagree, respectfully, with an opinion in one of my compositions, so I knew he did read them. By then, though, it was too late to hold back, too late to make myself afraid. Less than a year later, I decided I was a writer, and began keeping a daily journal and book of poems in the back of my homemaking notebook, which is why I still have it.
On trips to museums in Manhattan, Mr. Vorbeck refused to bring along any girl without a hat, and by hat he didn’t mean my pixie cap. On trips I wore a round felt hat with a little veil and a cluster of feathers above one ear. Boys wore ties, not just on trips but every day, all through the school. The sewing teacher kept a closet full of ties, and if a boy forgot his tie, he could ask for a pass to her room and borrow one. (Sewing replaced homemaking for girls that year, and we learned to use sewing machines and made skirts with tricky plackets.) One day, red-headed Eddie forgot his tie. Mr. Vorbeck wouldn’t give him a pass to the sewing room, but made him a big bow tie out of black crepe paper. Most boys would have felt shamed, but Eddie, who was cheerful and a little boisterous, didn’t let on if he minded. He and I were talking just before lunch, and I noticed what looked like blood on his mouth and shirt. He’d been chewing a corner of the crepe paper tie, and for some reason the dye ran red.
My friend Lynda and I belonged to a synagogue youth group, and when it planned a dance, Lynda proposed that we invite boys. To my surprise I found that if we were going to ask boys, I knew which one I wanted: short, red-headed Eddie, who had argued politics with Miss Nugent and didn’t mind wearing a crepe paper tie. For a moment I worried that Lynda also had her eye on Eddie, but she chose Jay, our other political classmate. Eddie accepted my invitation, then phoned me at home. His mother had decided we should learn to dance, and she hired a teenage girl from the block to teach us the lindy. Once a week for a month or so, my father drove me to Eddie’s house. The girl led us to an uncarpeted back hallway where a small phonograph sat on the washing machine, and Eddie and I danced to a song that went “Tweedly, tweedly, tweedly dee/ I’m as happy as can be.” Eddie phoned again to ask what color my dress would be, and my mother explained to me that he would bring a corsage. My dress was black-and-white checked taffeta with red trim, and sure enough, Eddie brought red roses. We danced all evening, discovering that our instructor had added an extra little step, so we could lindy only with each other. We were fast, though, and during the lindy contest we danced away from the judges so quickly that we were not tapped and eliminated for a long time, and came in second.
I admired Eddie’s indifference to authority. Often he talked in class when we were supposed to keep quiet. He regularly forgot his science homework, even though Mr. Feldman, the ninth-grade science teacher, could be counted on to belittle him. Mr. Feldman knew something and cared to teach it, circling the room intently, carrying a globe and a lamp, until we all understood the phases of the moon. Once I raised my hand to ask the difference between a plant and an animal, and he put a potted plant in front of me and asked if I’d ever seen a dog. He was caustic, but I didn’t mind his teasing much, and eventually he explained that even one-celled animals move, while even one-celled plants have cell walls. But he could be dangerous, and punished the whole class once when one person talked out of turn, making us write a sentence hundreds of times. He growled, “Stand up if you think that’s unfair,” and two of us did stand—Freezie, the wild girl who played with the boys in seventh grade, and I. Mr. Feldman liked me, so I was safe, and Freezie, who now had to do with boys in ways the rest of us only giggled about, was always in trouble and had nothing to lose. I don’t know why Eddie didn’t stand up; maybe he was the kid who had talked.
I liked Eddie. I remember no adolescent anxiety about him, beyond that first second when I realized I liked him and worried that Lynda might, too. I tried out my name with his last name added, noting what my new initials might be. We were children, but by now some girls in our class were full-breasted women bubbling with hormones, and some boys knew what to do about that. At parties we played Spin the Bottle and Post Office. In another game, when the lights went on Eddie and I could be discovered timidly kissing by any pair who interrupted their serious necking long enough to look at us. We were considered cute. At the end of the year, we all voted on Class Couple, and when Eddie and I got one vote, I knew he’d put down our names. I certainly hadn’t—I knew we didn’t really count.
Freezie and a few other girls wore nylons. I wore socks and saddle shoes, and I had a felt circle skirt—not with a poodle applique but, I think, a cat—and innumerable crinolines, which I fluffed on an open umbrella before parties. It was the fifties, after all; elsewhere, I found out later, were suburbs, split-level houses with lawns, processed cheese spread, martinis, and boredom. Some people assign everything a color, and Other People’s Fifties, in my mind, are grass green. Mine are the dark red of the ears of the boy the Spanish teacher knocked into the corner, and a sooty gray, the color of the pavement around the school, the pavement we’d drop to, our hands over the backs of our heads, when the bomb fell.
Teachers in my school, and the other adults I knew, were not bored, materialistic, or conventional. The ninth-grade guidance teacher—who made us rate ourselves morally on a scale of zero to one hundred, with five points for each of twenty supposedly desirable traits such as “courage,” “candor,” and “tact”—was known to drop heavy boxes on the floor, just to make a point. Once I was sent to her room with a message from another teacher, and written on her blackboard saw something inexplicable that I pretended not to notice: my name, first and last. Like the guidance teacher, the others did whatever they did with a distorted intensity that perhaps had begun as sexual desire but had spiraled into something else—pleasure in petty power or even just in oddity, pleasure in the irrational that claims to be rational. Trivial acts—the guidance teacher dropping the box—had not just intensity but a tinge of disgust and exhilaration that, in retrospect, makes them all but kinky. The building was filled with obsession, as if everyone had a fever after all. The thermometers made in the neighborhood could have been used on us, as we groped toward adolescence, or on our teachers.
In the spring of ninth grade, some of us were inducted into Junior Arista, the honor society, and received small oval pins. Before the whole school, Arista put on a play, entitled Papa Pepper’s Bombshell. I auditioned successfully by screaming, and played a Girl Scout, wearing my own uniform. Eddie played my brother, and at the start of the play, I practiced tying bandages on him. “Tie a knot at the point of the bandage, about six inches from the point”—my line—was the opening line of the play. Two tall students, Jane and Sol, played our parents. I think Sol read a newspaper as the play began, while Jane ironed.
Suddenly the lights went out and I had my chance to scream. When they went on again, I’d been taken hostage by a Russian spy, played with an all-purpose accent by Jay, who held a gun to my head. Eddie had disappeared. Jay demanded our father’s briefcase, but Sol, as Papa Pepper, refused to turn over the bombshell, remaining patriotic—the opposite of Julius Rosenberg—despite Jane’s fearful pleas. What was in the briefcase, she wanted to know.
“Important plans!” said Sol. “Government plans!” The teacher in charge was Miss Nugent, from seventh grade, and she tried to teach Sol to emphasize “plans” in the first phrase—to say “Important plans. Government plans.” He couldn’t.
Plans for what? Did I not understand that the plans were for the bomb? I think I didn’t. It was fun to tie up Eddie and scream: I let loose in that play. In its satisfying conclusion, Eddie rose stealthily from behind a big chair just as Jay was about to shoot me. Eddie wore a bandage around his head—Spirit of ’76 style—and held another stretched between his hands. He tied up Jay, America won the Cold War, and I was saved.
In June, 1955, Mrs. Pokorney taught us a patriotic cantata—a long, slow, and tuneless outline of early American history—to sing at our graduation. The only part I liked even a little was about Paul Revere. “Up! Up!” it went. “The British are coming! The British are coming! Rise and your country defend!” During rehearsals on warm mornings, girl after girl fainted, sinking into skirts and crinolines. We loved fainting; it was the triumph of nature over a ridiculous form of art. At graduation, the audience kept thinking we’d come to the end of the cantata, and interrupted over and over with premature, relieved applause.
Undisturbed by contradiction, Mrs. Pokorney had also taught us all the British imperialist words of “Pomp and Circumstance,” to sing as we marched into the auditorium. “Wider still and wider, may thy bounds be set,” we sang enthusiastically, with no more political awareness than we’d displayed for the whole two years. “God who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet.” Emerging on either side of the stage, the ninth-grade girls marched singing all the way up one outside aisle while the boys marched up the other. We met in the back of the auditorium, and walked down the center aisle in couples, led by the shortest boy and the shortest girl. Eddie and I, marching together, were the second shortest. We were going to different high schools, but we continued to know each other. Neither of us could ever dance the lindy with anybody else, and eventually I married him. We still talk about Mr. Vorbeck, that ardent reactionary who paid attention to children’s thoughts; on occasion we declaim, “Important plans! Government plans!”
Alice Mattison’s seventh novel, Conscience (Pegasus, 2018), is now available in paperback. She is also the author of four story collections, a book on the craft of fiction, and a poetry collection. Her stories, essays, and poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, AGNI, The Threepenny Review, The Paris Review, The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, The Best American Short Stories, and elsewhere. (12/2019)