Once installed on Eldridge Street, the next decision was where to send me to school. I think that decision was made on the basis of the size of the building, biggest being best and most likely. The largest building in those days on the Lower East Side was Seward Park High School, a huge, yellow brick, square box of a building, deposited on the site of a former prison in which “Boss” Tweed had died. On Essex Street, between Ludlow and Grand Streets, it was within walking distance of our apartment. The admitting person at the school had a little wooden sign on her desk that said “Miss Rose Staloff, Assistant Principal”. She looked at me, had my mother and me complete an application form with her help, and based on my height at the time (although only 13, I was already 5’9’’) decided I belonged in the second half of the 9th Grade. I had no idea what the 9th Grade was, but it sounded better than going to the 7th Grade, where I would have been had I remained in Brussels. So I skipped a few grades.
Naturally, school in New York was different from school in Brussels. It was much more relaxed, with few of the rigidities of my old school. For one, we didn’t have to stand up whenever an adult entered the room. Discipline was much more relaxed. You studied in different rooms with different teachers during the course of the day, and of course, it was all done in English. Strangest of all, there were girls in the school. In Belgium I had only attended all boys’ schools, and this led to definite awkwardness just talking to girls.
Not long after the start of that first semester, but long enough to have picked up sufficient English to understand what was being said to me, a woman teacher, whose name I was to learn was Mrs. Rosenthal, who was in charge of the school orchestra, walked into my “official” class (now called the fuzzier “home room”), and asked us if anyone played an instrument. And here I made one of the capital mistakes of my life. I raised my hand. Instantly, Mrs. Rosenthal swooped down on me and had me out in the hall, asking me what instrument I had played, and I told her truthfully enough that I had played the recorder. Everyone from third grade on learned to play the recorder in Belgium. I did play the recorder, but I neglected to tell her that I was so terrible at it, even as a small child, that at public recitals, I had become the sole member of the percussion section, assigned to the triangle.
Mrs. Rosenthal immediately made me an oboe player. The fingering on recorders and oboes is the same, so why not? The canard about the oboe being an ill wind that no one blows well, is certainly not true. It is a lovely instrument and some blow it exceedingly well, but I didn’t. Mrs. Rosenthal was kind and always hoped for better outcomes, but no matter how both she and I tried, I remained an oboe disaster, so much so that she had to assign me to the locker room for solo practice. I’m sure she was disappointed in this outcome, but it is just possible that I was not cut out to be a musician.