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Those Lessons They Never Taught Us in School -- Yonkers, N.Y.

Updated on December 7, 2017
William F. Torpey profile image

Graduated NYU in 1964. Worked in NYC for 2 years in public relations then as reporter and editor before retiring from The Hour newspaper.

Riverfest in Downtown Yonkers

Riverfest 2007 Downtown Yonkers by the Hudson River
Riverfest 2007 Downtown Yonkers by the Hudson River

Hudson River Museum, Yonkers

My late brother Don spent his formative years, as I did, on the streets of Yonkers, N.Y., during World War II and throughout the 1940s.

In those days, Yonkers -- known then as the City of Gracious Living -- was a relatively small municipality with few of the inner-city problems of its neighbor to the south, the Bronx.

It was just before the war, in the last days of the Great Depression, that the city began its downward slide. Throughout the war and for years afterward many of the old neighborhoods fell into decay; government-assisted housing projects were constructed in a number of neighborhoods, redevelopment took place on a huge scale, middle class areas suffered from "white flight," and many businesses closed.

Demise of the Trolley Cars

But, to me, the most traumatic change of all was the demise of the efficient, pleasant, comfortable, ubiquitous trolley cars (which were replaced by buses in 1952.)

The city had some exclusive neighborhoods, mostly in north Yonkers and often overlooking the Hudson River and the Palisades in New Jersey. But, being poor, we lived in rough-and-tumble neighborhoods where many barely made it through the Depression and, when work became available after Pearl Harbor, toiled long hours in the defense plants.

My brother, being three years older than I, was swept up in the lifestyle of the streets. It was not uncommon in our neighborhood not to finish school. When he reached 16, Don gave it up; he dropped out of school and went to work.

For a variety of reasons, I was luckier than my brother; I finished high school and, eventually, after three years with Uncle Sam's Army, got my sheepskin from New York University.

While my brother was neither educated, in the formal sense, nor polished, he was, in many ways, a lot smarter than his younger brother.

He taught me many things I never learned in high school and college. He didn't cite Jefferson, Plato, Freud or Emily Post, he just took advantage of the abundance of common sense he was blessed with.

Often when I made a mistake, which was not infrequent, my brother would ask, not artfully but sincerely, "Didn't they teach you that in school?"

Amazingly, my answer was almost always, "No."

His Questions Made Me Think

Over the years, his questions made me think. How is it that I spent all those years in school -- kindergarten, grammar school, high school, college -- and remain ignorant (no wisecracks, please) of so many different subjects. To be sure, there are a whole range of topics that I enjoy being ignorant about -- especially rock music, rock groups and psychedelic movies.

I missed a few days in school and showed up late even more often, and perhaps I was daydreaming on some occasions when knowledge was being offered, but there are many things I wish I knew more about.

You may have learned a lot more than I did in school -- my outside reading was limited to dime novels in those early days -- but I can list a wide variety of subjects I learned little or nothing about throughout my school years.

While I had little choice about what I learned in grammar school and high school, I must admit I learned a great deal at NYU (I hereby hold NYU harmless for any of my deficiencies.)

Believe it or not, I recall learning almost nothing about such simple things as table manners, etiquette, ethics (not the pedagogic kind, but the simple everyday kind.)

Learned Little of Trees, Flowers

What little I learned over the years about flowers (I only know the simple kind like roses, lilacs and mistletoe) and trees (I would know the difference between an oak and a eucalyptus if I knew what a eucalyptus tree looks like) did not come from the schoolhouse.

There are a whole lot of fruits and vegetables in the supermarket that I couldn't begin to identify and myriad things about the world map that I couldn't tell you anything about.

It so happens that I studied management and marketing, finance and accounting at NYU, but in earlier grades I was taught some, but not a great deal, about savings accounts, stocks, bonds, local businesses (or any others for that matter.)

Didn't Study Trigonometry

Through the years, I often wondered why we didn't study some of these, and other, topics. I recall, for instance, asking why we didn't learn about algebra and trigonometry; the answer was that these subjects would come later. Algebra did, trigonometry didn't.

After all these years of living in ignorance, I guess it's too late for an old geezer like me to worry about learning about the birds and flowers (I don't recall learning much about the birds and the bees, either) but for Don's sake, couldn't the nation's schools consider teaching kids some practical knowledge along with readin', 'riting and 'rithmetic?

This column was written as an "Editor's Notebook" for The Hour newspaper of Norwalk, Conn., on Dec. 19, 1992.

Is There Someone Special in Your Life Who Taught You More Than Any School Teacher?

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Yonkers Torpey Boys Live It Up in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, Florida

Brothers Bob, Bill and DonTorpey enjoy the waterfront at Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, Florida.
Brothers Bob, Bill and DonTorpey enjoy the waterfront at Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, Florida. | Source

A Yonkers Story by Chip Taylor with John Platania

Scenes of Yonkers, N.Y., From Another Era -- With Narrative

Downtown Yonkers: Changes Through the Years

World War II Nose Art & Aircraft Photos With Bing Crosby


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    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 5 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      Thanks, Glenn Stok. I'm glad you mention cooking; it's one of my abysmal failings that, of course, was hardly mentioned to boys in school. I loved growing up in Yonkers, but virtually all of my friends and relatives there left the city long ago (including my parents who took us to Connecticut in 1952. I was lucky regarding checkbooks and finances. I took a course in bookkeeping in Norwalk High School and studied accounting at NYU. Public schools today are facing even more challenges than they faced decades ago -- and the outcome is uncertain.

    • Glenn Stok profile image

      Glenn Stok 5 years ago from Long Island, NY

      I can relate to all this and I found your hub a delight to read. Both because I knew a lot about Yonkers since I grew up in nearby Queens, and also because I was always aware of the things I was missing from my school years. I agree with you that it's strange they never taught us StreetSmarts. Luckily for me I picked it up on my own, as you have done also.

      There are so many silly things that would've made life easier if we knew ahead of time. You made a very complete list.

      One additional item that came to mind is about cooking. I had to teach myself when I moved out and started on my own. And I know several friends who never cook for themselves and had to eat out all the time.

      How about those who never learned how to balance a checkbook. I don't know where I learned it, but I don't remember learning it in school. I must've just taught myself along the way.

      And I see so many people who don't even know how to handle their finances. That really should've been taught in school.

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 6 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      Thank you, Lynda. I continue to believe, however, that many parents -- who may be poor, even homeless or even the very wealthy -- shortchange their children for a variety of reasons (ignorance, arrogance, health, legal, et al.) The schools may be the solution of last resort. After all, I'd say the average child spends as much time in school as with one's parents.

    • lmmartin profile image

      lmmartin 6 years ago from Alberta and Florida

      I agree with you that the public school system must be strengthened so that all children have access to educational opportunities. That is not my argument at all. Of course students must be encouraged to seek knowledge on their own -- and should have such facilities and the time to do so available to them.

      However, if parents are not involved in the education of their children, are not in fact the driving force, it is unlikely that a public institution can provide the motivation. I worked in child protection for many years, and it is an unfortunate reality that attitudes to education, among many other things, tend to be home grown and rarely instilled otherwise. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule.

      But your article speaks of why you learned nothing of etiquette, ethics and table manners as examples. I doubt your school did not imbue you with a sense of right and wrong -- that is usually slipped in under the guise of required reading and such. However, those other matters are not the province of an educational system. Parents are not so harried they cannot teach their children to eat like human beings.

      Like many women, I was a single mother and despite the pressures of being the sole support to my family, I like to think my children learned such niceties from me, that I encouraged learning, that I shared my "life" lessons. It is too easy to say parents don't have the time or resources to be parents anymore. Because that is what is implied.

      Yes, yes to improving the nation's educational system. The current state of affairs should be a national disgrace.

      So we don't really disagree except in the question of what is and is not the responsibility of the school. Thanks for the interesting debate. Lynda

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 6 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      I completely agree, Lynda, that schools should teach children the basics. But, beyond that, our schools should point the way to further learning by the students themselves. Of course, parents and family should play an important role in the education process. However, the reality is that parents in today's society have all they can do to eke out a living and cope with all the demands of our economic and social system. Without guidance from our public schools the fact is that too many children will not be fortunate enough to receive the guidance they need. Our public schools must take on that burden -- and that's why we need to support and work to improve the public school system (not abandon it to privatized schools that leave too many youngsters out in the cold.) All this can best be achieved, in my opinion, by funding public schools through general government revenues, not by the outdated real estate taxes which results in depriving funds to the schools that most need them. Students must be encouraged to seek knowledge on their own on subjects that most interest them. This can only be achieved by less classroom time, not more. Some portion of time should be allotted to students to use library and other centers of information to follow their dreams.

    • lmmartin profile image

      lmmartin 6 years ago from Alberta and Florida

      Hi again, William. And perhaps those students should be given the freedom to learn those lessons in their natural environment. I become increasingly uneasy with the idea that schools should be the primary educator for our children to equip them for the world. School is meant to teach children the basics (or should be) and the rest is up to society. I think of all skills I've ever assimilated, learning to read was the first, foremost and most important. Once I could read, the rest was up to me. And yet, I meet high school graduates who cannot formulate a sentence and can barely make sense of any written document. Amazing! And yet they graduated, having amassed enough credits in subjects like "ready, set, cook" and other such ridiculous studies. I kid you not. The idea that the public education system is required to equip our children for life is beyond comprehension. They should be charged with giving our children the basics and the rest is up to us. Should we regiment our children? Of course not. But that springs from the idea that their total education is in the hands of the school system. Why do we, as parents, grandparents or interested others abdicate our responsibility in such a fashion? Why are we so desirous of placing that obligation on an educational system that can never fulfill such a charge?

    • vocalcoach profile image

      Audrey Hunt 6 years ago from Idyllwild Ca.

      OK, William - I clicked on your link, listened very carefully. are quite correct. Bing Crosby IS the better singer. A more perfect voice does not exist!

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 6 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      Thanks for your interesting comment, Lynda. I think the School of Hard Knocks is one of the best. I am greatly concerned about present efforts to dismantle public schools by privatizing them and extending school hours -- not only through longer days, but also by trimming or abandoning summer vacations. It would be a great mistake to regiment our children in such a way. I am an advocate of fewer structured classes and of giving pupils more guidance to learn what they are most interested in and of making the path to education more easily available. Rather than merely giving students the facts, they should be shown (perhaps through proctors) how to find the facts through their own research.

    • lmmartin profile image

      lmmartin 6 years ago from Alberta and Florida

      There's much to be said for a PHD from the streets. In fact, those sheltered in an institute of academic learning who do not graduate from that other, harder school, often come out naïve and "ignorant." We've all met highly-educated idiots and all known those wise in the ways of the world. You ask why we don't learn some of these lessons in a school setting. My answer would be, that's not the school's function, but the function of our families, our friends and the streets. In my own case, I think the most useful of my skills is that of being street-smart, though I did, like you, attend a good college. Thanks for an interesting read. Lynda

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 7 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      You are very kind, vocalcoach. I've known a number of people who never finished school. They nearly always felt they weren't as smart as others because of that -- although it wasn't true. Even very successful, intelligent people fall victim to thinking that way.

      I like Sinatra, too, vocalcoach, but I challenge you (or anyone else) to listen to Der Bingle for a while and tell me he's not the greatest ever! Listen here:

    • vocalcoach profile image

      Audrey Hunt 7 years ago from Idyllwild Ca.

      This is one of your best, my friend! As i read through this, I found my eyes tearing up. The experiences you have shared, found a soft place in my heart. I did not do well in school - not because I wasn't as amart as the other kids, but because I was afraid. Fear surrounded me both at school and at home. What I needed most from my classes, I was never taught. Everything I have learned or mastered has been because of my passion for knowledge.

      This is one of the reasons I have remained here on hubpages. I have learned volumes from writers like yourself and am both grateful and very blessed. You are a unique and beautiful person (even 'tho you prefer Crosby to Sinatra) ` :). vocalcoach

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 7 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      You and I are definitely on the same page, Fiddleman. I've known any number of people of considerable intelligence and wisdom who had very little formal education -- including my father, who left school in the 5th grade. Education is certainly valuable and provides a sense of confidence and self assurance, but intelligence and wisdom exists with or without it.

    • profile image

      Fiddleman 7 years ago

      William my dad had only a 4th grade education but was one of the wisest men I ever knew. Some of the most successful men I have known never finished high school but had an uncanny ability to manage and a work ethic to be envied. Education is great but all the education in the world cannot replace the genius of a mindset to overcome hardship.

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 7 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      My father was born on Moquette Row around 1914, Katy. He worked as a weaver for the Alexander Smith Carpet factory for a number of years. He only went to the fifth grade, I believe. He played, and studied, piano all his life.

    • profile image

      katy cummings 7 years ago

      I just returned from a visit to NY, my father grew up on Moquette Row during the 20's & 30's, he had an 8th grade education but was the wisest man I have known.

    • Neil Ashworth profile image

      George Poe 8 years ago from United Kingdom

      That's really interesting, thanks for sharing.

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 8 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      Thanks, Neil. I'm glad you like it. I still love Yonkers.

    • Neil Ashworth profile image

      George Poe 8 years ago from United Kingdom

      That's really good info, thanks for sharing.

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 9 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      Despite growing up in Yonkers in the waning days of the Great Depression and during the stressful days of WW II, Teresa, I loved growing up there. But, by the time I was 16, my family moved us to Connecticut. Virtually all my friends and relatives joined us in fleeing the city. I think fondly of it now; it had its pros and cons.

    • Teresa McGurk profile image

      Sheila 9 years ago from The Other Bangor

      thoughtful hub. New York sounds like a helluva place to grow up.

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 9 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      I'll take a degree from the School of Hard Knocks any day, Mighty Mom. Thanks for your perceptive and kind comments. Your father was only down the street from where I grew up -- in Yonkers. I'm sure our upbringing was very similar. I lived in Connecticut for many years, but there's no place like New York.

    • Mighty Mom profile image

      Susan Reid 9 years ago from Where Left is Right, CA

      So glad I stumbled onto this hub! Must agree, things I learned in school prepared me, for an imaginary life not a practical life (writing hubs, doing crossword puzzles and playing along with Jeopardy). There is something to be said for the School of Hard Knocks and common sense.

      William, I loved the gentle way you wrote about your brother and your 'hood. My dad grew up in the Bronx. He has great stories from the streets. His stories from school are usually life lessons, not academic lessons.

      BTW, I see you are now from Rockville Centre. I hail from Manhasset originally. NY rules!

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 9 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      I appreciate your comment, Dottie. If your daughter had not gone to college she would have gone through life thinking all education is like it was for her in high school. College certainly is far different from high school in many ways. As we accumulate knowledge through grammar school, high school and college, most of learn that the knowledge we don't have far outnumbers the knowledge we do have.

    • Dottie1 profile image

      Dottie1 9 years ago from MA, USA

      William,  my daughter just graduated from High School in May and was also inducted into the National Honor Society.  She did not learn some of the simple and practical things about everyday living.  We live in a district which is one of the best around supposedly in MA and she doesn't feel smart, just feels book crammed and over drilled.  Tracey was home for her first visit this weekend from College and said it is Heaven on Earth, nothing compared to high school. I was glad to hear that.  Loved your hub...thanks for sharing.




    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 9 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      Thanks, Misha. I often wish that somebody (private "think tanks" or government agencies) would take the time and effort to try to anticipate problems -- such as school curriculum -- instead of waiting until the problem becomes a crisis. In fact I wrote a column on the subject titled "Let's Press for a Public Commission."

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 9 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      Thanks, gwendymom. We were taught arithmetic, algebra and geometry in school, but, as you say, nothing about finances. I had a course in bookkeeping in high school and studied accounting in college, but somewhere along the line it would have been nice to learn something about the practical aspects of shopping, prices, paying bills, credit and investing. Years ago, manners were considered important. I hope the pendulum will swing back some day soon.

    • Misha profile image

      Misha 9 years ago from DC Area

      I too keep asking myself the same question William. I don't know the answer, really. Great hub!

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 9 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      As we have learned, Trish, there's a huge difference between "education" and intelligence and wisdom. Like your mom, my brother had great wisdom -- and a kind heart. Thanks for your kind comments.

    • gwendymom profile image

      gwendymom 9 years ago from Oklahoma

      I love this Hub! There is so much information that is not taught in school. Financial things for one wasn't something I was familiar with when me and my husband first started out. I mean I knew I had bills that came in every month and had to pay them what I didn't know about was credit, how it worked, how to get it, and how to improve my credit score. This is something that needs to be taught. It can be so damaging to people for a long time if they do not know what they are doing. It's seems that today the credit card offers are given to anyone and especially college students who can't afford to pay their bills and the credit card companies know that the parents will have to pay the bill. Manners are another thing that need to be taught. It drives me crazy that kids don't seem to have good manners anymore. Thanks for writing this hub, it was great!

    • trish1048 profile image

      trish1048 9 years ago

      Hi William,

      My mom quit school in 10th grade, due to being teased unmercifully about her speech defect.  She was a straight A student.  She took a job in a 5 & 10.  One day her teacher found her there and told her to get back to school.  She didn't.

      She supported herself, and later our family, (along with my dad of course) by waitressing, then when that became too much she switched to bartending.  She did that for over 40 years.  She taught me more about life than I could ever learn in a book.  My mom was all about children.  Everyone loved her.  She taught me never to judge a book by its cover, how to make stuffed cabbage, to always be kind to people, to care about animals and the underdog.  I could go on and on.  My mom was one helluva a lady.  Despite her hardships, she inbued in me a sense of humor and the belief that life can be good.  For these and a million other things I will always be grateful.  BTW, she went back to school at age 53 and got her high school diploma :)

      Thanks for sharing your story.

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 9 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      Thanks for commenting, corrisa. When my brother asked that question, my answer was always, "No." My brother, like your mother, didn't need to go to high school to know how the world goes 'round. They had good, common sense.

    • crisstar profile image

      crisstar 9 years ago from California

      I can relate to "didn't they teach you that in school?". My mother only went up to second grade, but I graduated high school. When she ask me questions that I didn't know the answer to or if I cam across a surname I couldn't pronounce, she would utter that phrase.

      Good hub William.


    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 10 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      Thanks, Peter, for your much-appreciated comment.

    • Peter M. Lopez profile image

      Peter M. Lopez 10 years ago from Sweetwater, TX

      This is a nice hub, Torpley. You should be proud of it.


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