PS 91 in Crown Heights, at the corner of Albany and East New York Avenues. It was the tallest building in the neighborhood ( this was the 1950's), more than five stories high, built of red and white brick, with huge windows on all floors. It was like a castle in our working class neighborhood, which was filled with Jews and Italians,with a handful of Irish and African American families, and it had a powerful effect on our collective imagination. It was where children like us would find their access to the American dream, through the classes held there, through the rough ball games played in the gym and schoolyard, through the plays that were put on at the school. We walked into the school with a kind of awe, lined up in size order, sitting in rows, frightened of our teachers, strong women who carried themselves with conspicuous dignity, at least until we knew them better. We were drilled in class, but also encouraged to dream, taught about history and geography, exposed to science through hands on experiments, taken to museums and zoos where we might see things our families might not be able or wiling to expose us to. We were also given responsibilities, became class monitors, crossing guards, showed films to our students. Was there bullying? Yes. Were there fights?. Yes. Were there gender separations that defied common sense?. Sure, But compared to what we encountered in our immigrant families, where English was not always the first language, where ancient fears and deeply rooted wounds often haunted us, PS 91 symbolized hope and possibility, space and freedom, a chance to release energy and find new talents.
I find it sad indeed, to discover how many Americans see schools like this as a symbol of American failures rather than an embodiment of American possibilities