I mentioned making a quick trip to New York earlier this month. It was a last minute decision to attend a school reunion. The fact that is was an elementary school reunion seems to be of much amusement to my friends from recent years. It wasn’t until I noticed their amused or bewildered reaction that I realized, or rather remembered, just how unusual, and privileged, my early schooling was — privileged for two reasons, neither of which being that it was a private school. The first reason is the school’s philosophy, described today on their website as follows:
“Education at the School is experience-based, interdisciplinary, and collaborative. The emphasis is on educating the whole child — the entire emotional, social, physical, and intellectual being — while at the same time, the child’s integrity as learner, teacher, and classmate is valued and reinforced.”
The School for Children is a demonstration school for what is now known as the Bank Street College of Education. When it began in 1916 is was the Bureau of Educational Experiments, a research group founded by Lucy Sprague Mitchell. The group decided that they could best study child development, with the fewest restrictions, if they had their own school, so they started with a nursery school in 1918. Mitchell was not the only one with progressive ideas, a Dewey-esque learning by doing approach; her two colleagues, Caroline Pratt and Elisabeth Irwin also founded schools in Greenwich Village, City and Country School and Little Red Schoolhouse, respectively. And when BEE’s kids “graduated,” most continued their education at one of those schools.
In 1930 the school acquired and converted the old Fleishman’s yeast factory at 69 Bank Street, that was the building where we attended school, but it was not until the late 50s that they decided to start adding classes so that the oldest students could stay on…and so that they could continue to study us and train teachers in our classrooms. When we graduated from 8th grade we were only the third class to do so. We were 69 Bank Street’s Class of 69. We were a special group; I thought that then, and I still do.
The second privilege, likely a result of the first, is that my little class (class size was always small, about 18) was more like a family than a class, and that closeness became evident once again when we began to reconnect. Half of our class attended school together, grew up together, for nine, ten, and eleven years. Although most of us had not been in contact since our only prior reunion in 1994, and some had been out of touch since graduation, it was as if the intervening years melted away – the fondness of one another, the school, and I suppose our lost youth, coupled with curiosity, eroded any obstacles. Of course we are each closer to some than to others (as it was then, so it is still today), but if old sibling-like rivalries existed in the past, they are no longer evident and the strong bond forged in the 1960s remains today.
Soon after we graduated the school moved uptown, grew in size, and its attitudes changed with the times. Their focus shifted to their immediate operations and they lost track of and interest in their graduates. They even lost our records. We found that out when we organized our own reunion twelve years ago. Of course their interest peeked when someone told them of our 25th-year reunion and gave them addresses – suddenly they were interested…in our checkbooks.
Most of our teachers are gone now, a few retired or moved on to other careers, but many have died. They were the ones who, with guidance from the educators at the college, saw us through. We are happy to have also reconnected with Pearl Zeitz, our 7s teacher (we didn’t have “grades”), and Peter Sauer, our science teacher who came on board during our last two or three years because parents began to get nervous about how we would fare in “the real world.” And of those no longer with us there are a few who we miss and remember fondly: Hannah McElheny (6s), David Wickens (8s), Betty Crowell (9s), Muriel Morgan (10s and 13s), and Hugh McElheny (music). The educators who studied us are long gone, replaced by administrators and fundraisers. I’d like to think that Lucy Sprague Mitchell, Barbara Biber, Edna Shapiro, John Neimeyer, and others at the College, along with our teachers, would have wanted to know how we, their experiments, turned out. I think they’d all be pleased.