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The Magpie Sings the Great Depression:
Selections from DeWitt Clinton High School's Literary Magazine, 1929-1942

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Behold the Dreamer

By Aaron Chinitz, '33

The Magpie, December 1930, v. 32, n. 1, p. 47.

Joseph used to play in the streets near the Pennsylvania Station. The station porters noticed the precocious gravity and abstraction of this chubby five-year-old, and wondered why he was not out skinning his knees on the pavements, shouting lustily to playmates, and tying up his hair in knots of dirt like the other children of his age.

Joseph had no companions because he lived in the heart of the business section. Some children did live on Tenth Avenue, which was three blocks away, but these three blocks seemed an infinity. Besides, his mother had warned him against the "bad boys" of this district.

One afternoon, he was out walking alone, and for some hours he had contrived to amuse himself in the aimless manner of early childhood. He watched an ant crawl out of a crack in the sidewalk, pushed it back, let it climb out again, and so on, until, tiring of the sport, he stepped on it and walked away. Nearby was a clockshop, and in the window sat a man with a queer-looking glass screwed into his eye. He was mending a wrist-watch, and little Joseph, nose glued against the window pane, stood absorbed in this delightful spectacle, until at length the man arose, laid down his tools, and retired to the back of the shop. So he wandered on, surveying restaurant windows enviously, listening to the cabmen at the hackstand arguing, and finding a diversity of means of amusement.

He did not notice that he was nearing Tenth Avenue until it was almost evening and he had come to the last of the shops. He looked up. Here was something he had never seen before. On all sides of him stretched squalid brown houses with uneven stoops and dilapidated railings. In the filthy gutter a pack of noisy, unwashed youngsters were playing. He walked over and watched them. They were running around a circle traced in chalk, marked, "KIK ME HOD." Joseph, deciding that he would like to play too, put his foot into the circle.

Immediately he was beset by an inferno of yelling, kicking, punching boys. Dumb with amazement, he stood there while blow after blow descended upon him. He was hit in the eye, and for a moment everything went black before him. Then he ran, ran with all the speed of a child stricken with terror.

* * * *

The following year Joseph's mother took him to school. At first he thought it would be great fun. He was dressed up in his new sailor suit and given a large, red pencil which was unsharpened (an act of precaution on his mother's part.)

He was greatly disappointed when he found that the school was an insignificant red-brick structure squeezed in between two large office buildings. He entered the classroom, was sent to his seat, and was given to understand by an old lady whose face reminded him of a dried apricot that she accepted nothing but the best of conduct. Then his mother had to leave him.

Suddenly Joseph was seized with panic. He rose, though his knees were like jelly under him. He no longer thought of his fine new sailor suit and magnificent red pencil. All he knew was that he would be left alone with all these strange boys and girls and that stern-visaged old lady. What if she should lock him up in one of those closets at the back of the room or put him under a whipping machine! He was too terrified even to cry.

So deeply was he engaged in these imaginary horrors that he did not hear the teacher tell him to sit down. A hush stole over the classroom as she repeated the command. Joseph, hardly realizing what he did, murmured, "Lemme 'lone."

The old lady pursed her lips, and the lines in her face grew more severe than ever as she arose from her desk and advanced toward him. Now fully aware that he had done something wrong, he stood there while she delivered her lecture, stressing the awful fact that he would one day go to jail, wear a striped suit, and be fed bread and water. He was rapped lightly on the knuckles and then told to stand in the corner

He glanced at the other pupils. They were huddled together, whispering among themselves and pointing at him. The rap on the knuckles had not at all hurt, but Joseph was gifted with a lively imagination, and in a little while he had so worked upon his feelings that he burst out crying from sheer misery, and clung to the wall hiding his face, lest anyone see him and know what a bad boy he was.

* * * *

It was during his second or third year in school that Joseph discovered that it was possible to read for pleasure. One evening, after a week of delightful anticipation, his sister took him to the library. He entered a large, and what seemed to him endless hall, where rows and rows of multicolored volumes stared at him from the walls. So impressed was he by this awe-inspiring sight, that he scarcely uttered two words during his entire visit. He was shown large books with pictures of that delightful marionette, Pinnochio, and those interesting members of the Brownie family. His sister borrowed one for him, and who shall describe his joy, when, after a week of poring over the large print, he finished his first book?

From that time on, he absorbed every bit of printed matter that came within his reach. Large words did not trouble him in the least, for he resorted to the wise expedient of skipping them. Although he read omnivorously, he preferred a certain series of books called "The Goops." The Goops were a family of very bad boys who did things that only bad boys do, and the object was to teach the young reader the impropriety of such behavior, but Joseph reveled in their antics and wished that he dared be like them. His taste in reading widened, and the thing that made school endurable was that he now had something to look forward to at the end of the day.

* * * *

When he was twelve, Joseph's family moved. His new surroundings were so different from the old that at first he had quite a hard time accustoming himself to them. The tall, gray buildings, the noise, the congestion--everything had vanished. Here were small two-story family houses and broad, almost empty, streets. That penury of space to which the metropolitan New York is so accustomed, was nowhere in existence.

That night he lay awake, thinking. A hush pervaded the street without, broken only by the far off tinkle of the trolley, three blocks away. Somehow this silence was oppressive. When the street-car passed, he found something to disturb him anew. Confound that clock! Why hadn't he noticed it before? It was impossible to sleep with that infernal tick-tock forever pounding on his nerves. He wondered what was happening now on Tenth Avenue. Queer, that he should think of that. This new neighborhood, didn't anything ever happen here--it was so quiet . . . again that monotonous, regulated chopping of the clock--why didn't it explode or something? . . .

By degrees he dropped off to a troubled sleep, broken by visions of ferocious old teachers for whom his long-forgotten fears recurred of facing corners for the least disturbance, and the Tenth Avenue boys pushing him off a tall, gray skyscraper. At last he awoke, trembling.

* * * *

He had long learned to accept school stoically. In his estimation it was an institution inflicted upon children because their parents had gone through with it. He took no heed of his teachers' constant reminder of his good fortune in getting free education, being sure that no one would pay for such negative entertainment.

But Mr. Samuels was not the kind to remind him. He was a young man recently out of college, who had his own ideas as to how a class should he managed. Joseph worshipped him, his jokes, at which the simple boy roared appreciatively, and his sunny, infectious grin which made him feel warm all over. Every day after sessions he waited outside in order to walk him part of the way home. He even made a futile attempt to like his mathematics, because he knew that Mr. Samuels would be pleased. When a boy has had no ideal to look up to for the first twelve years of his life, his adoration will be no half-way affair when he finds that ideal.

Joseph, for so long shut up within himself, poured all his inner self at the feet of this god, his ambitions, his hopes, his likes and dislikes. Mr. Samuels had not yet developed that habitual front towards his pupils which comes from passing familiarity with an endless succession of new faces and saw in this eager boy something which the others had been blind to. So he encouraged him, and Joseph began to lose that protective armor of dullness which he had assumed to clothe his sensitive feelings. His reading acquaintance was surprisingly wide for he had little else to do in his spare time. Thrown upon his own resources, he had developed a personal friendship for these printed pages which carried him away from his drab surroundings. In his imagination he built his own romances of these faraway times and places.

As he conquered his shyness, he began to like writing. It gave him a thrill of pleasure to think that he was being an author. At last his first story was finished. He beamed with the pride of a creator, and could hardly wait till school let out. When it did, he ran straight to Mr. Samuels' room, and flung himself, panting, into a seat.

Without a word he handed him his work. Mr. Samuels at first glanced over it casually, but suddenly he stopped, and began to read it carefully. When he finished, he sat silent for a moment, then looked at Joseph queerly, piercingly, as if to read the innermost secrets of his heart. Then all he said was, "Joseph, this is very good. I wonder if you would do some more like it."

This was music to his ears. He went home, in a daze. He could think of nothing else. These words of praise, scanty as they were, kept dinning in his ears. That night at supper he wore a pensive, detached look. He didn't hear his mother's adjuration, "Joe, you dope, look what you're doing." His mind was far away. Into his eyes had come a dreamy expression . . . of contentment . . . peace. And over his heart stole the stillness without, and a mighty stillness reigned within him . . . stillness . . . and peace.

The Magpie Sings the Great Depression

Archive:  Year   |   Author/Artist  |   Subject
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