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Berger’s Burg: The first crushes of pupils prove to be their teachers

Berger’s Burg: The first crushes of pupils prove to be their teachers
TimesLedger Newspapers columnist Alex Berger when he was 6 and in the first-grade.
By Alex Berger

School days, School days, dear old golden rule days,/Readin’ and writin’ and ’rithmetic,/Taught to the tune of a hickory stick.

A new school year has begun. Children are ready to absorb another year of learning, as other children in other eras have done since America was founded 234 years ago. Coinciding with the start of the new school year, I was thumbing through some of my family’s archives and came upon a tattered, fourth-grade notebook belonging to my great-great-great-great-grandfather Bucky “Ol’ Hickory” Berger (1810-70), who lived in the badlands of Queens.

A document enclosed was a “punishment list” dated November 1848, itemizing the pre-set number of lashings wayward schoolchildren would be subjected to for misdeeds. Is resorting to such extreme measures a more effective way for students to learn? “What were the penalties?” you ask. I will cite a few in this column, as well as a few school rules that are in vogue.

Which style produces the better-educated student? I report, you decide.

Boys and girls playing together — 4 lashes; Fighting and ‘Quareling’ in school” — 5; Playing cards or Gambling In school — 10.

How well I remember the school rules when I attended first-grade imposed by my teacher, Miss Braunstein. They did not bother me because I loved her and knew I was going to marry her. (“Raise your hand to speak to go to the bathroom.”)

Never climb a tree over three feet tall — 1; Telling ‘lyes’ and tales — 7; Giving each other ill names — 3; ‘Swaring’ — 8.

One small problem: I also knew Miss Braunstein had a husband, but that did not matter. I loved her and she loved me. She was kind and noble, never shouted or scolded and praised my every move — all the things a first-time sweetheart should be. Every day we pushed pegs back and forth across a table. She called it a counting exercise, but I knew it was more than that. (“Share toys and crayons.”)

Drinking spirituous liquor — 8; ‘Waring’ long finger nails — 2; Misbehaving to persons going home — 4.

I remember Miss Braunstein as tall and willowy — or perhaps she was short and dumpy, but it was many years ago when I was 3 feet high and, in my eyes, she was tall and willowy. She was pure and innocent as the fallen snow and never would have sex with anybody, particularly a husband. (“Don’t call out.”)

Boys going to girls play areas — 3; Girls going to boys play areas — 3; Calling each other liars — 4.

I was by no means the first student to fall in love with his teacher and I will not be the last. Millions of students have crushes on their own Miss Braunsteins and some offer up the proverbial apple to the newest woman in their lives. I offered an orange. (“Take turns playing with blocks” and “carry your chair carefully.”)

Coming to school with dirty faces and hands — 2; Weting each other washing at playtime — 2.

I did not know Miss Braunstein’s first name. First-grade teachers did not have first names back then. Nor did they have personal lives. To me she lived in that crowded, cluttered, bulletin-board decorated classroom. Maybe she slept under her desk. I never asked, but I would have been the one to have taken her away from all that. Who cared if there was a 30-year age difference? Why wouldn’t she want a younger, more romantic man, someone to look after her later in life? We were a perfect match. (“When you enter, go right to your cubby and put your outside clothes in it.”)

Wrestling and scuffling at school — 4; Playing about the mill — 6; Doing other mischievous deeds — 7.

Surprisingly, Miss Braunstein never wrote intimate notes to me, but expressed her love through messages on my report card. “Alex is friendly, and a delight to have in my classroom” — her exact words. Now if that was not a thinly veiled, “I am in love with Alex,” I don’t know what is. (“Line up properly and handkerchiefs are for sniffles.”)

But it was not meant to be. Miss Braunstein disappeared suddenly. She never wrote or called — not once! In retrospect, I understand it was her way of coping. What else could she do? I had already moved on to an older, more mature woman, Miss Maloney, who lived down the hall in a place called second-grade. (“Work quietly” and “Help your neighbor.”)

Readers, I am sure you decided that the rules today are more conducive to learning. I do, too. So, join me in petitioning Congress for the need to approve one day a year for a “Thank Miss Braunstein Day,” for the lady who rid our school system of the penalty list.

Contact Alex Berger at [email protected].

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