By Amy Phillips Penn

“The only, and I repeat, only “A” in this class goes to a new girl who came from a school where they didn’t even speak English,” bellowed a white-bunned, aristocratic looking woman from behind a desk in the eighth grade homeroom at the Hewitt School.

Everyone turned around to look at me, the scarlet “A” invisibly stitched on my navy blue blazer. “A” for “absolutely not cool.” The opposite of what I yearned for during my first week at a new school.

New Yorkers are a smorgasbord of a soupcon of all that is New York: The neighborhoods we grew up in, our friends, where we summered, our lineage or lack there-of, and of course, our schools.

I am a multiplex of New York academia. “K” though fourth grade was chosen by my parents: Town School, a small co-educational school in the East seventies. When it was time to decide what the next stop would be, my parents were scouting East side girls’ schools. A non-conformist even then, I asked to look at the Lycée Francais de New York.

My French vocabulary comprised maybe twenty words, which I had learned at the tutelage of the Town School French teacher, Mrs. Resnick, a platinum blonde from Brooklyn who insisted we call her Madame Resnique. My parents were open-minded, though, so a year later I entered the Lycée as a student in “Speciale Un,” a class for Americans who needed to learn French fast.

I squeaked by the first year, but math in another language (not to mention the metric system) was “une grande folie.”

By seventh grade, I was near drowning as we were learning everything in French, even Latin. Had I managed to survive another year, I would have had to choose another language to study in French—something easy, like Greek.

Au revoir, Lycee Francais, but where to go from here? My grades were not stellar.

My mother, who was brilliant in times like this, found a trustee or two who were willing to at least meet me.

One arrived unannounced, while I was crying uncontrollably over the loss of Ringo, my canary. My mother tried to get me to act semi-normal, as a trustee in hand was worth, in her mind, significantly more than a dead Ringo in the bush. Fortunately, the woman was an animal lover, and Hewitt’s it was for me.

Initially, some of the Hewitt girls just wanted to copy my homework because they assumed that I was smart. Others were smarter.

Gradually, I made friends. And because riding counted as credit toward our athletic requirement, I got to go to school dressed in britches and riding boots at least once a week. That made my year. I am not the “sock the old volleyball in the sweet spot” type.

We ridiculed the rules that seemed antiquated even then: pink lipstick and half inch heels for seniors only, on Fridays; gold stud earrings for Juniors and Seniors; no smoking in uniform; skirts to the middle of our knee in the midst of mini-madness, and no announcing your engagement while still at school. As if…

Overall, Hewitt’s was glamorous, flirty, and fun. We didn’t take ourselves too seriously. The ultimate debutantes of all times had studied, or semi-studied there: Brenda Frazier and Cobina Wright; actresses Lee Remick and Julie Harris were Hewitt grads, too. Hewitt ladies were dazzling in Town & Country and modeled for fashion magazines, when school rules were forgiving or principals simply wore blinders.

I loved Hewitt. Many of my classmates who had transferred from other schools embraced it as well. It was a safe haven for those of us who had been out of synch elsewhere.

It was there that I developed my love of writing, under the auspices of my eighth grade teacher, Mrs. Delman, who did the best possible job a teacher can do. She believed in me, and I took it from there.

A masterful mentor is a forever force. Thanks, Mrs. D.

 

Featured image courtesy of Forbes

2 Responses to Vintage Gossip: New York School Daze

  1. Love this and the memories it conjures up…Thanks, Amy!

  2. Perry says:

    Mrs. Delman was the kind of teacher whose tutelage in the finer points of language and learning made an indelible impression on the minds of her many young charges. All I ever needed to know about life and love, I learned from her, with a little help from Edith Hamilton and Guy de Maupassant. Thanks for this warm remembrance of her, Amy, and for the affectionately comic recollections of your school days at Hewitt, a solid institution that’s still going strong even without the great Mrs. D.

Leave a Reply