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