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Group Portrait

What are you in the fourth grade? Well, what if I am, or at least like to return there periodically through a photograph I’ve kept, to the photograph itself and to what I might write about the children in it, though I can’t remember all their names. I’ve worked on this, waking and sleeping, but in the end there are three boys I seem never to have seen before, four other very familiar boys and two even more familiar girls whose names will not come back to me.

P.S. 89, Elmhurst, Queens, N.Y., 4th grade, May, 1949. This, in my mother’s Palmer method script on the back, along with the teacher’s signature, though Mary A. Rielly does not appear in the picture. The photographer has asked five of us to stand alongside the first row of desks or at the back, 13 boys, 17 girls, firmly fixed by now in our gender identities. Two boys are wearing suspenders, four long ties with wide pointed collars, long sleeves predominate; there are three striped polos, three plaid shirts, one cowboy. A starched dress with puffed sleeves, sash tied in a bow behind, some trim on it somewhere like lace or ric rac or smocking, a deep, gathered border at the bottom, plaid or with flowers. This popular dress has a high neck and a round collar. Oddities are a couple of jumpers, a velvet suit, and a forward looking white blouse and skirt.

Bookcases at the back, our papers and drawings pinned to bulletin boards, a globe: THE CLASSROOM plucked from time. And yet so 1949: cursive writing, which we learned last year, runs around the blackboard, our wooden desk-chairs are bolted to the floor and have dry inkwells from the olden days, so many details I can’t make out, so much has faded, turned brown, turned yellow. This is not candid camera. This is a sit up straight, look solemn, best behavior sort of picture and perhaps for that reason the more revealing.

Standing, a bit backed into the corner without touching the girl next to him is a boy with sloping shoulders, striped t-shirt, mouth open; his hair sticks up a little. I remember he had darker skin than the rest of us. Irmagard has a wide-open face, a fussy dress with ruffles down the front and above the elbows, big bows at the tops, I cannot see the ends, of her long braids. Her skirt puffs out around the waist, Heinz in his cowboy shirt, is a gnome, a dwarf beside her. Marcia Gertstenhaber, who has very black hair, glowers as though she disapproves of something. The important thing is not Marcia, but her father’s store on Roosevelt Avenue beneath the elevated subway train, close to 82nd St. where there are candy stores and dress shops, Woolworth’s, a movie theater. It’s dark and noisy under the train. Honking horns, a policeman’s whistle, traffic signals, neon lights, and GERSTENHABER’S window display of roller skates and ice skates, tricycles and two wheelers, wooden sleds you can steer on slick red runners. We bought my ice skates there, but not my bike which is second hand, narrow and high off the ground, instead of a fashionably squat Schwinn with fat tires.

An intense boy with sharp features begins the first row. He stares as though under interrogation. Diana Klages behind him is my friend. We walk home from school together, but only part way because I live in Jackson Heights while she lives in Elmhurst. She lives in a house with a yard, mine is an apartment house. Roosevelt Avenue must be the dividing line which means that none of the children I go to school with live on my block; my Catholic neighbors go to parochial school. Diana Klages sits out on a bench during dodge ball at recess because she has a heart murmur. I pity her for this, but we don’t talk about it. She’s pale with large lips and a big nose, a side part. She appears to curl her hair, unless it is naturally curly.

I want to set down everything I know about each of these children going row by row, but everything is too much. Too much already of these long ago half-forgotten children, some of whom have died by now, Diana among them, very likely.

I come to my boyfriend John Thoren in his Boy Scout uniform, dark blue, I remember, yellow neckerchief. A posted list, including plants, library, books, a couple of other jobs I can’t read attached to boy-girl pairs, says we are Board monitors. Our romance flourished amid chalk dust and during sidewalk chases. I had skinned knees to show and saved notes torn ragged from a dime store pad: October 19, 1949, John writes: I love you, I love you, followed by 24 xs, 24 os, hate, crossed out, love,underlined, a heart containing our initials with an arrow through it. Here’s one, apparently undelivered, I wrote on the same day: You are a dear boy with kisses and hugs. John sent me a postcard from summer camp in Honesdale, Pennsylvania, paid me a visit when I had a planter’s wart removed during the Christmas holidays. He’s blondish in the picture, a little woebegone, sorrowful even, but after school one day he took me into his house, he was a latchkey child, backed me against the door and kissed me on the mouth, whether you like it or not. Like Hildegard, the girl in the blouse and skirt with a smirk on her face, for a fourth grade boy he was very advanced.

Next a boy who wants to please, faintly European, I have an idea he is new. Betsy Sue Seitz, my rival in singing, pushy, my mother’s word, spits when she talks, Vernon Fowler, I’m pretty sure, Anna Schwab in the velvet suit wears socks inside her sandals, another girl in puffed sleeves with a side part, I know her, I know her, it pains me to leave her sweet face unnamed. Jeffrey, plaid shirt, about to speak, Elaine Zunick, pasty and blank I always thought, but the photo defines her; Vivian Brown is jovial, resembles her father who smokes cigars, behind her two of the boys I don’t recognize. Boys are negligible compared to girls. John Thoren is an exception. Because of John Thoren I can arrive fearless on Valentine’s Day. John Thoren has taught me how important it is to be picked, to be chosen, one in ten thousand, an idea I will never be rid of.

There is also Michel, a French boy who fell from grace in the first grade when for a time he occupied first row front seat, first in everything, brains, deportment, bodily functions, attendance, perfect until the day he wasn’t. Perhaps he didn’t pass nail inspection, I don’t remember or never knew, but for three years now I have felt protective of him for his humiliation was extreme as he was made to take the last seat on the far side of the room. Humiliation of children was common at P.S. 89. It occurs to me on my way upstairs after a field trip that our teachers, though not exactly enemies, are not really on our side. I can stand beside my desk or in front of the room without flinching until asked to sit down because I do not know the answer, have not prepared my speech on COMMERCE.

I have a crush on Susan Bernstein, who can play the Blue Danube on the piano and has recently made her First Holy Communion two or three years later than is usual among the Catholic children on my block. When I told my mother, she remarked that this was something Susan’s mother must have wanted for a long time. Susan and Linda Ludwig take acrobatics, have performed in my living room, impressed my father, making me wildly jealous. But I don’t ask to switch out of tap dancing to join them. This is wise for I will never be free enough to walk on my hands or turn a cartwheel.

Susan, Judy Kurens behind her, Linda Ludwig across the aisle, and I (conveniently in the same row back then) spent last year reading the Bobbsey Twins a chapter at a time, passing book after book to the girl behind, and in this way we holidayed at the seashore, in a snow lodge, lived on a houseboat, solved a mystery at Pilgrim Rock with Nan and Bert and their younger siblings, Flossie and Freddie. We ignored passages in our social studies book, Other Times and Other Places, blue cover, black lettering. We read to ourselves in the middle of arithmetic while our teacher in a red and white striped seersucker suit and a hairnet polished her nails at her desk. Perhaps Mrs. Rielly is on to us. Or trading cards have taken over. Or the Bobbsey Twins no longer interest me, since, skipping over Nancy Drew, I have fallen under the spell of Beverly Gray, college girl, detective, romantic heroine, newspaper reporter, world traveler, playwright. Twenty- three books in the series, a dollar each.

I like the word formation and wish we used it as the French do to mean everything that forms us, that contributes to BEING as opposed to NOTHINGNESS. We are layered compositions, works of art, formed as I was in part by my interactions in the fourth grade with David Somebody (bowtie, the only one in our class who wears glasses), always smiling Gracie Brennan, three girls in a row with bangs like the serious one who hunches forward, expectant and exasperated. With Eleanor Keulemans, alert and curious, who has pushed up her sleeves and is just beginning to be my friend. With Rhonda Schultz smiling to herself, class President Rob in suspenders with a box on his desk, last of all Billy Worshauer, a little behind as usual, his chin obscured by my head.

My seat is next to last. I have long wavy, very blond hair (I am the fairest of us all), my Brownie uniform is crisp and short, beanie set well back, pin just visible hanging from the tip of the collar. If there is a Great Big Brownie Smile in my pocket, I have not taken it out. I could be about to smile, but mostly I look a little anxious, a little on edge. As though aware already of things I cannot know: That in less than a year I will be gone from this place. I will lose all my friends, the only selves I know, American, New Yorker, Protestant (Methodist) chorister, Girl Scout, my sense of local neighborhoods, ghettos Catholic, Jewish, Puerto Rican, Colored. That my father at forty-six will leave his salaried job and pension to traffic in bills of lading, ships’ manifests, and import duties, in commerce on commission in the Caribbean.

I hope you can see us, not as clearly as I can of course with the photograph worth a thousand words in my hand, but see us, present, on a dateless day in May, 1949, World War II in the shadows, the Korean War about to begin. I hope we come through, rigid and rebellious, dressed as most of us probably have been by our mothers, instructed by our teacher to clear our desks, to fold our hands, arranged by the photographer, affected as we are by the angle from which he views us, by the quality of his camera flash as well as the spring sunshine, whether morning or afternoon, coming in from the unseen segmented panes of glass which occupy most of the wall on my side of the room, leaching me out of the picture.


Shakespeare was on my mind, in particular his depictions of friendship in pairings like Hamlet and Horatio, Rosalind and Celia, the way he condemns Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to death for their many crimes, perhaps chief among them betrayal of childhood friendship: of so young days together. What Claudius believes will allow R. and G. to penetrate the mystery of Hamlet’s “madness” is precisely what undoes them.

I I don’t need to find the children in the picture on Facebook and have only the mildest curiosity as to whether Judy Kurens went to Hunter College, John Thoren became a sexual predator, Marcia Gerstenhaber lost her father’s business to the Internet, or Diana Klages was saved by a heart transplant. Rich or poor? Married or single? With or without children? Who came out gay or transgender? Who survives the scourges of our generation: polio, Vietnam, cancer, AIDS? Who has Alzheimer’s? Who voted for Trump? Who remembers me? It was not my idea to take a census, but to describe what I see in the photograph, to acknowledge those I ignored in the past, scorned, to whom, like Betsy Sue Seitz, I was unkind, or forgot altogether.

Jackson Heights (in particular an LGBTQ bar, formerly frequented by my father, at the very intersection I crossed with the help of a kind policeman, 88th street and Roosevelt Avenue, on my way to and from school) has lately been the subject of Talk of the Town in the New Yorker as well as a documentary by Frederick Wiseman, who highlights its myriad immigrant populations conversing in myriad languages. I stare and stare at my class picture, trying to decide whether these changes should surprise me or not.

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