Everything looks smaller when you return to the past. Wednesday night, The Neighborhood School celebrated its 20th anniversary and the corridors, classrooms and playgrounds I remembered as a child in the first graduating class of the alternative school seemed to have shrunk. Yet the impact of these echoing spaces has been magnified.
Diverse and daring, The Neighborhood School occupied a floor in the P.S. 63 building on 3rd Street between First Avenue and Avenue A. The founding families were an eclectic group of artists and families seeking a new model of education in the rough Lower East Side of the early ’90s. For me, the school was a peaceful center in a turbulent time. The Lower East Side I remember was full of junkies and prostitutes, many of whom became the neighborhood fixtures I would wave to on my way to first grade.
The school was a comfortable, wildly creative place that exposed parents and children to extraordinary ways of learning. As a way to raise money for books and school supplies, us kids were extras in big budget Hollywood movies like Bed of Roses, Ransom and Money Train. Escaping math class to wake up at 6 in the morning and be transported on plush private buses to film sets with Christian Slater, Mel Gibson and Renee Russo was dazzling and opened up my downtown world in a profound way. Through this lens, I saw my city as a place where anything was possible.
Time is magic. It changes the shape and size of us all. At last night’s festivities, I saw teachers who had forever formed my young mind as they truly were: people. Some retiring, married, now with their own kids and problems, strengths and hopes. Yet, the courage and caring was still there. Fresh faces, new to the neighborhood, filled the playgrounds. Students, parents and teachers danced to music and ate a delicious buffet, served community-style, of course.
And in these hopeful kids, I saw myself and my friends as we had been, exploring a world of open fire hydrants and sneakers dangling from street lights, where bass-heavy rap music blasting from passing cars was poetry; where a parachute in gym class, held up by your friend’s small hands, became a palace, and homework was tempered by picnics and pizza. This was where I once called a classmate a “paramecium” — the vilest word my six year-old brain could conjure up.
As the Lower East Side has changed, so has The Neighborhood School. Condos have replaced burnt-out tenements and Whole Foods has replaced abandoned vacant lots. I cannot help but foolishly be nostalgic for a grittier time, when learning was perhaps more about street smarts, had something rough and wild to it. Yet, those memories will always be there and seeing ecstatic new children and old parents who struggled so hard to make the neighborhood what it is reminded me that community is a central and lasting force, one time cannot touch. The staff’s dedication to making the world an astonishing place for children, one which they can understand safely and with wonder, is truly boundless. What the innovative educator Caroline Pratt said so well in 1948 is still their underlying belief today:
“I had dreamed of a child world in which railroads and city streets, farms and factories, the stuff of which the real world is made could be brought down to children’s scale so that they might grasp it.”
Royal Young is a New York-based writer who contributes literary coverage to Interview Magazine and the new web site Holy Diver. Young recently completed “Fame Shark,” his memoir. After six years living in exile (in Brooklyn), this Lower East Side native is back in his natural habitat, rediscovering the old neighborhood.