The Fieldston Years

EthicalCultureLet me tell you about the advantages of a good high school education and the importance of one’s experiences during those formative years. I was a 1930’s kid. I entered The Ethical Culture Fieldston School in September 1941 as a Third Former, a high school freshman. Fieldston is an educational arm of the New York Society for Ethical Culture. It is the granddaddy of the humanistic movement. It was founded by Felix Adler in the 1880s.

Three months later, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, we were into World War II. The war ended in August four years later, shortly after our Class of ’45 graduated. Of the seventy-six students in the class, fifty were girls. Many, if not most, had been together since kindergarten, either at Downtown Ethical or at Fieldston Lower and Middle School. I was the only Queens kid.

My previous school experience was in traditional Queens public schools — PS 48, 23, 21 and 20. In fact, I was accepted by Fieldston directly from 8A. Consequently, I never finished the eighth grade and never graduated from elementary school.

We lived in Flushing, a mile away from the end of the No. 7 IRT subway. It took you to Times Square. From there you picked up the Broadway Subway and traveled to the end of the line at 242nd Street and hiked up the hill to Fieldson. To avoid the long, daily two-way commute during the week I boarded with three local families over the next four years. Being away from home during the week helped me learn how to take care of myself.

Victor D'Amico
Victor D’Amico, a pioneer in art education and the director of the education department at the Museum of Modern Art.

My four years at Fieldston were a life-changing experience, one I thoroughly enjoyed. Fieldston provided me with a high-quality education, one that taught me the value of meeting high academic standards. It also introduced me to new areas of study and new ideas. Importantly, it allowed me to work closely with many fine teachers. I became close to a few of them — like Jay, a.k.a. Harold M. Jayson; Phil Kotlar; and Victor D’Amico. I focused on the Sciences and Math along with English, History and German. In addition to the academic courses there was shop, art, music, theater and gym.

Jay was my geometry teacher and soccer coach. He turned me on to math, the relationship between visual images and the analytics behind them, and the concept of proof. Being better off the soccer field than on, I became the team manager. When I got to college what I learned in Mr. Kottler’s biology course made it possible for me to get permission to jump from Botany to Genetics without having to take two prerequisite courses in Zoology. To fulfill my language requirements for my doctorate, I was to able use German and Mathematics credits. Mr. D’Amico was Head of the Art Department and the Educational Director at the Museum of Modern Art. He put me to work on a project. I designed a multistoried apartment building that occupied an entire block at 236th St. in Riverdale. Each apartment had a south facing deck. The deck roof was specifically designed to allow the sun to enter the apartment in the winter, and to shade it from the sun in the summer. It also served as the floor for the deck above. Mr D’Amico arranged for me to make a model of it at the MoMa workshop on Fifth Avenue just around the corner from the Museum. Eventually, my model was sent to England as part of an exhibit showcasing the work of high school art students. My personal relations with Jay and Mr. D’Amico continued beyond high school.

There was something else that my four years there provided — the once a week course on Ethics. It opened my eyes to the importance of a strong set of personal and social values. It taught me to have respect for each individual and their culture, even though they were different from what I had experienced.

The words over the podium in the Society’s Meeting House at 64th and Central Park West were like an aura. “Wherever man NYSocEthicalCultureWicksstands is holy ground.” They resonated with me and had a profound affect on me. Remember at the time “man” was not gender specific. It was used to refer to every human being. That was before the contribution women could make was fully recognized or appreciated. It has since been modified to reflect the changes brought about by the economic, feminist, cultural, and civil rights movements. It now reads “The Place Where People Meet to Seek the Highest is Holy Ground”.  During the 1940’s I was actively involved with an interracial housing group at Downtown Ethical.

Weekdays during the school year were spent in traditional fashion, classes and extracurricular activities during the day, and homework at night. During the occasional air raid drills, I remember my school mates and I clustering together in the dark, windowless halls, barricaded on each side by the steel coat lockers. I spent some weekends with my friends, but I spent a lot of time immersed in my studies. Up until I turned 15, the Boy Scouts were an important part of my weekends and summer activities.

My experience at Fieldston taught me to accept, adapt to and learn how to be accepted by others, even when initially I felt like an outsider. Importantly, it also showed me that I could use my skills and experience in order to make a contribution. By the time our senior year rolled around, my classmates elected me to represent them on the Student Council.

My Fieldson experience also facilitated and embellished my professional career as an economist and teacher. I was better

Bernie and his good friend, Mr. Guy H. Benjamin (Benji), who he met while living in the USVI.

able to change, grow and adapt in new situations and cultures. I have traveled and lived in many places in my life, including our move to wonderful Western North Carolina (WWNC) as a teenager. I lived and worked in various locations in the States during my teaching career, as well as on St. John in the US Virgin Islands later in life.

Everything was accomplished without computers, cell phones or iPads. Needless to say they were not available at the time! Nor was the atomic and hydrogen bomb or AK-47s. Television had only recently been introduced and TV was not a household word. We didn’t know about DNA or RNA. Penicillin had just become available and was the only antibiotic at the time. Most things were made from natural and not synthetic materials. Nylons had just come into vogue. Silk stockings were no longer fashionable. Plastics and all the things made from them were not around, like shopping bags, bottles and jars, PVC pipes and eyeglass frames. To put it mildly school shootings were a rarity. Today all those things are taken for granted.

For me Fieldston was a very important and enjoyable learning experience. It provided me with an understanding and respect for academics and ethical values. Moreover, my early experience in manufacturing gave me a profound understanding of the process of production — of what it takes to combine materials and come up with the finished product. That understanding carried into my work in economics.

The Fieldston experience, along with the many others that I have had along the way, have brought me here. At 87, seventy years later, I would like to share some of the things I have learned with you. My experience at Fieldston taught me the value of respecting others, and have created the ethical and moral foundation for how I have lived my life. I could be retired by now, sitting in front of the TV or playing golf, which is fine for some people—but not for me. I enjoy continuing to make a contribution. If you’re interested in what an old Fieldston alum is doing with his time, check out my recently published book entitled, “The MiniBook: A Guide to Self Care, Volume I” that I have co-authored with Erin Coyle. I provided the sayings, and she created the images to go along with them.

Check out our website, www.MiniBookLove.org. We hope you find the book helpful and enjoyable. If you like what you see and have family and friends who might be interested, pass the word along. Peace and Love. 

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One thought on “The Fieldston Years

  1. Loved the post. Thanks for sending it. Want to hear more about it the next time we get together.

    I have a contract for the sale of my house. Closing date is May 1. Found a lovely tiny one-bedroom apartment with a sunroom. Lease to start April 24. Haven’t gotten final paperwork from them yet but think that will all work out okay.

    I’ll be in St. Louis April 22-25 so will have to hustle when I get back. Friends are coming to help me start packing this weekend.

    It’s been a stressful week, lots of decisions, but it seems like everything is coming together.

    Marilyn

    Sent from my iPad

    >

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