By Jeff Hodges
When our daughter Rebecca was born in the 1980s, my wife Emily and I were living on Charles Street. The Village was still home to a generation of aging bohemians and vestigial Italians and Irish. There was no question but that our Becky was going to thrive, even if it meant growing up in a bedroom the size of a walk-in closet.
When Becky was four, we took the tour at PS3 for the pre-K program. The school was founded in the 1820s as the Charrette School but reborn in 1971 as a progressive, experimental institution often referred to as the “hippie school.” Near the end of the tour, one of the teachers told us he didn’t bother correcting all the questions on a math quiz as long as he felt the kid was getting the general idea. Horrified, we stalked out, vowing our Becky was never going to that school.
But at the end of the summer, Becky announced that she wasn’t going back to preschool because she was “too old.” We began re-exploring our options for pre-K which, at that point, appeared to be provided only by the Seventh Day Adventists or The Little Red Schoolhouse. Little Red agreed to take her on short notice at the cost of $14,000 a year, but that was beyond our means.
Emily went back to PS 3 to see if they’d let Becky in. She brought Becky along to show them what a bright, personable student they would be getting. Becky, fresh from her interview at Little Red, stalked through the doorway and announced, “I am not going here. This place looks like a garage!” The administration agreed, and told Emily that there was no way they were taking Becky just days before school started.
Emily returned the next day and sat by the front door, hoping the administrators would change their minds. John Melser, the legendary principal of PS3, wandered by. “Who is this woman sitting here and why is she crying?” he asked. “She wants us to take her kid without having registered!” he was told. John walked over to Becky and asked her to take a walk with him. When they returned, he said: “Make room for her in Gail’s class.”
Calvin Trillin, speaking at the 5th grade graduation ceremony, invoked his two daughters, both graduates of Ivy League colleges. He said: “If you shake either of them awake in the middle of the night and ask them where they went to school they’ll shout, “PS3’!”
Teachers were called by their first names. Classes were molded into bridge grades: pre-K/kindergarten, first grade/second grade, etc. The annual talent show had no winners, and went on until all hours. At Halloween, students and teachers in outrageous costumes paraded around the block to the enthusiastic cheers of parents and neighbors.
Becky’s 2nd grade teacher, Ruth, had a menagerie of small animals as teaching tools. We never had to tell Becky the facts of life—she learned them from the hamsters.
In 3rd grade, Themi had a collection of snails. Each student owned a gastropod and the word “estivate” was in constant use.
In 4th grade, Joan gave a lesson about Ellis Island. She shouted at her students in an unintelligible language and herded them roughly into groups around the classroom. They were confounded and traumatized. Such was the immigrant experience upon arrival in America.
In those days the 6th floor was empty, except for Killer Clown. No one would go up there. But Killer Clown made an appearance during the 5th grade graduation ceremony, when speech giver Lily told her fellow graduates it was time to leave Killer Clown behind and march boldly toward the new schools that awaited them.
That was PS3. A teacher may not have corrected every math problem, but the test scores were among the highest in the city. And you can shake any graduate of this inclusive, visionary institution awake in the middle of the night and they’ll shout, “PS3!”