During the 1940s and early 1950s, when I was a pupil at P. S. 217, the school auditorium was given over to formal weekly "assemblies." Boys were required to wear white shirts and green ties (girls had a specified outfit as well, but in those days I was so unconscious of a) girls and b) their costumes that I'm darned if I can remember what was worn by the young ladies). Before entering the auditorium, classes lined up in "size places." P. S. 217 was particularly strong on "size places" -- a point of particular humiliation for me, because I was, as WS says about R of G, "so long a-growing, and so leisurely" that I was by far the smallest child in every class from first grade to eighth. After we found our assigned seats (boys in one row, girls in the next), our principal Miss Bildersee, a formidable and incredibly ancient woman with nostrils so huge and distended that an agile boy could go spelunking in them, would perform the mandatory reading from the Bible. Blessings on her fond old heart, Miss Bildersee regularly choose melodious passages from the book of Psalms. I was particularly struck by the eloquence of "Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful," with its abrupt counterbalancing antistrophe: "the ungodly are not so, but are like the chaff which the wind driveth away." After the Bible reading and some announcements, there was usually a performance of some sort. Choral readings, the oddest of art forms, were far too frequent. I remember that I was once a member of a sextet of quavering sopranos who memorized and recited the patriotic World War I poem "In Flanders Fields." What in the world was a second-grader supposed to make of "We are the Dead. Short days ago/ We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,/Loved and were loved, and now we lie/In Flanders fields./Take up our quarrel with the foe:/To you from failing hands we throw/The torch; be yours to hold it high./If ye break faith with us who die/ We shall not sleep, though poppies grow/ In Flanders fields." (Such poppycock was received as true literary greatness. It would have been beyond utopian imagination that our teachers would have known or introduced us to the distinguished WWI poetry of Wilfred Owen or Isaac Rosenberg or Siegfried Sassoon or Edward Thomas.) Then our music specialist Mrs. Georgia Keiselbach would sit down at the piano and teach us songs, some of them also left over from the first World War: "Keep the home-fires burning,/ While your hearts are yearning,/ Though your lads are far away/ They dream of home;/ There's a silver lining/Through the dark cloud shining,/Turn the dark cloud inside out,/Till the boys come home." And also: "Give me some men who are stout-hearted men/ Who will fight for the right they adore... Shoulder to shoulder, and bolder and bolder." And: "Tramp, tramp, tramp along the highway/Tramp, tramp, tramp, the road is free... We're planters and Canucks/ Virginians and Kentucks/Captain Dick's own Infantry/ Captain Dick's own Infantry," which I now know to have come from Victor Herbert's Naughty Marietta (1910) and which provoked a great deal of surreptitious tittering because it had the word "dick" in it. In those unenlightened days we sang very many overtly religious songs: "White Christmas" and "Silent Night" and "Easter Parade." I much admired the tune of "The First Noel" but I had no idea what was meant by "born is the king of Israel" -- the only Israel I knew of was a recently-founded democracy. I loved the Thanksgiving hymn "We gather together to ask the Lord's blessing;/ He chastens and hastens His will to make known;/ The wicked oppressing now cease from distressing,/ Sing praises to His name; He forgets not his own" and many more stanzas, none of which I could parse or understand (still can't, in fact!). Another Thanksgiving song: "Over the river and through the woods/ To grandmother's house we go/The horse knows the way/To carry the sleigh...," which I found to be curiously disorienting because my particular grandmother lived in a tiny third-floor walkup on noisy and sweaty Coney Island Avenue. We sang the immensely mysterious Lord's Prayer (in the Schubert setting, I later discovered). Why did we so? Were the heathens and Jews among us expected to convert on the spot? I much preferred the patriotic songs, although even they too were permeated with inexplicable theology. We were fervent jingos. Not one, but two full stanzas of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic": "In the beauty of the lilies, Christ was born across the sea,/With a glory in His bosom, that transfigures you and me/ As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,/ For God is marching on." And two stanzas also of "The Star-Spangled Banner": "Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand/ Between their loved home and the war's desolation!/ Blessed with victory and peace, may the heav'n rescued land/ Praise the Power that hath made and preserv'd us a nation./Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,/ And this be our motto: 'In God is our trust.'" I preferred the rousing "O Columbia! the gem of the ocean,/ The home of the brave and the free,/ The shrine of each patriot's devotion,/ A world offers homage to thee" and "God Bless America" as well as the jingoist exceptionalism and cluttered syntax of "Our father's God, to thee/ Author of liberty/ To thee we sing./ Long may our land be bright/ With freedom's holy light;/ Protect us by thy might/ Great God our King."
Here's a song we were distinctly not taught and did not sing: "This land is your land, this land is my land/ From California, to the New York Island./ From the redwood forest, to the Gulf Stream waters/ This land was made for you and me." We especially did not sing: "In the squares of the city -- in the shadow of the steeple/ Near the relief office -- I see my people/ And some are grumblin' and some are wonderin' /If this land's still made for you and me."
December 17. I now remember that we sang musical settings to two familiar poems. The first, Emma Lazarus's inscription on the Statue of Liberty: "Give me your tired, your poor/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free/ The wretched refuse of your teeming shore." Hey, that's my grandparents you're calling "wretched refuse." The second, Joyce Kilmer's horrid "Trees": "I think that I shall never see/ A poem lovely as a tree... A tree who's hungry mouth is pressed/ Against the earth's sweet-flowing breast" etc. This song was only palatable because it allowed us to say the word "breast" out loud.
(Thanks to Steve and to Barry, graduates of P. S. 217, for jogging my memory; thanks also to David [P. S. 102].
Graduates of P. S. 217 who happen to stumble onto this site: feel free to add comments or to forward this post to classmates with whom you might be in touch.)