The Cherry Lawn reunion brought a lump to many throats. It was a lovely day and although all the buildings that I had once known so well were oddly missing, it was unmistakably Cherry lawn. I think. We sat in folding chairs on the same lawn where under a merciless sun we had sat for all those graduations. But as I gazed around at the many "baby boomers" in attendance -- boys and girls now men and women who had so lovingly planned the weekend and cheered it on -- I realized that some of them weren't even born when we trod that hallowed grass and sat in those folding chairs. What school were they celebrating?
Now let's get this straight: FDR is President, Joe Louis is the champ, and New York City had 8 daily newspapers. There is no television, no "Catcher in the Rye", no smiley face, and if you called someone an "African American" he'd belt you.
In Darien, Connecticut, a buttoned-up town celebrated in the film "Gentlemen's Agreement" as the poster child for suave anti-semitism, nestled an enclave of rambunctious Jews. Oh not every single person on campus was a Jew. But most of the students were, and most of them, well, maybe just many of them, were there because there was nowhere else for them to go, or because their parents couldn't cope with them, or because their parents weren't quite sure who the hell they were, or because if they had tried to enroll in a "prep school" the admission's dean would have rolled on the floor in stitches.
My classmate "A" (I'll try to write this little memoir without the names of any persons from whom I feel I should ask permission) told me that in the office of an upscale boarding school, as she sat for an interview in her nicest dress -- nice but not any nicer than a 13 year old ought to have -- the dean gazed benignly over the rim of her bifocals and asked her mother "and what church do you attend?" Mom-of-A said "we attend synagogue" and the interview was over. Oh A, how glad I am that you didn't make the grade! I loved seeing you at the Reunion!
In the decade after the War (that's THE war, not a police action or an intervention but "world" war) CLS was a wonderful mixture of people and notions and accidents all waiting to happen. The school had a number of students who mysteriously spoke English with a Spanish accent but had Polish surnames. Of course we didn't think that was mysterious, there were so many of them. But now, now that they have long disappeared from my life, I wish I would have asked Olga Radonski, Broni Zjaibert and so many others the simple question: " Who are you?" Someone, Dr. Stael?, made a point of what would now be called "multiculturalism." And she took it rather far. There was the blind boy, the deaf girl, J who clearly wasn't dealing with a full deck but you dasn't tell him that because J was enormously strong. There was the nervous boy who would not -- and said he would not -- stop smoking whenever he wanted to (and after a consultation with Dr. Stael was given permission to smoke whenever he wanted to.) There were Swedes (Dr. Stael was sort of a Swede herself, my pal R used to amuse us by chanting out all her names -- and she had a lot of them -- in an accent that was thick, almost as thick as hers.) I was in love with one of those Swedes, V, but then she admitted to me that she wasn't really a Swede at all (maybe there are no real Swedes?) but a Latvian. Dr. Stael's husband, Dr. Boris, made frequent appearances, and would inquire of you "what are the news?"
It was rumored that Dr. Boris had been a member of Kerensky's cabinet. If that is true, and why would such a fact be fabricated?, then he is surely one of the people I most regret not having asked "who are you?" Hell, I regret it anyway.
There was a remote and sturdy groundskeeper who raked leaves and cleared gutters. He said hello to me once and I asked him what his accent was. "Lithuanian," he said, "I am of Lithuania. I was engineer before war. The Nazis took everything and killed my family. The Russians took the rest." And then, seeing that my little face must have registered "what is an engineer doing raking leaves?" he said "I am okay to be alive. I cannot be engineer here. I am okay to have this." And he waved a hand at the campus.
That may have been the first time I really saw that campus. Huge trees stood guard over endless lawns. The campus was lovely at the Reunion, but so modest! When I went to CLS the grounds were huge! From Dr. Stael's stone house (gone now -- how does anyone knock down a stone house?) to Stein House you walked and walked and walked. And in those days when you opened the door of Stein and looked out across the athletic field you were looking across the world. I once kissed V while we were standing at the edge of that field and knew that no one could possibly see us.
On that field we played every sport there was, none of them well enough to beat the pants off the schools with which we were in competition. I won't say we never won a game, but part of the education at CLS in those days was acceptance of defeat. It brought us closer together as a family. Those schools were "them." We were "us."
I recognized this sense of "us" -- maybe better than most -- because I was a day student. I went home in the afternoon, away from Cherry Lawn until tomorrow. My neighborhood friends in the next town west, Stamford, went to all kinds of local schools, and after supper we played touch football until it was too dark to see the ball. They had their school friends too, but they never talked about them as if they were brothers and sisters. We did.
We were also brought closer by success, particularly success in arcane achievements that could not even be explained to the competition. While my Stamford friends were working their way through "Tom Sawyer" we CLS 8th graders were memorizing reams of T.S. Eliot for a "masque" as compiled by Bazz Burwell. We presented it to the school and the applause was so satisfying that we were toured to a few other venues. I was a member of the "Hollow Men" chorus. So was A. At the Reunion I didn't ask her if she remembered her lines, but I bet she does. You don't forget those things. To this day if anyone were unwise enough to recite "Casey at the Bat" in my presence I would laugh with all the others and then rise slowly, hold him with a certain steely glare that Bazz rehearsed us on, and give him "Let us go then you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky like a patient etherized upon a table." That'll fix him.
Bazz was remarkable, and I was glad to see that he received his kudos. But Cherry Lawn was full of remarkable teachers. Remarkable in the sense that you marked and re-marked them. Teachers in the sense that they really taught. We have all been to schools since and had teachers to whom we paid no attention and whom we have forgotten. Not at CLS.
There was the Spanish teacher from Puerto Rico who became quite flustered when asked once by a wholly innocent young thing just what "color" people from Puerto Rico were -- since Miss K was clearly not totally white and yet not black either. In those days it was a dichotomy: you were white or not white. And I guess the word "latino" was not yet in general use; and maybe "Hispanic" was forbidden. It's hard to keep up with these things. Anyway, Miss K was said to be "seeing" the boys' coach, Mr. G, so we were in some awe of her. And him. There was the geometry teacher who didn't really understand geometry (and he didn't like it that a few of us knew that).
There was Mr. Lally (did no one mention Mr. Lally in the Reunion speeches?) who made it clear that we could either read "Macbeth" or stumble miserably through life like unwashed swine. There was Miss U -- a beautiful slim young woman with pale skin and blond hair who taught dance; she once insisted that we lie down and close our eyes and "imagine how you'd move to this" -- and she put on the Paul Whiteman recording of "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue." Why, fifty years later, do I remember that afternoon as having influenced my life.?
Where in the Reunion speeches was an appreciation of Dr. Bulova and of Buck's Rock Camp? Many Cherry Lawners went to that camp and probably weren't quite sure where Dr. Bulova ended and the faculty of CLS began.
Would the alumni who arranged the Reunion recognize that school? Can they believe that we had classes outdoors, even on winter days? And when it was simply too cold for that, or was pelting down sleet, we moved into classrooms that were heated by narrow coal stoves? I noticed that on the Reunion mugs is a picture of the assembly porch, faced by a small roofed structure. Is that where the speaker stands? A structure?. When you're reading aloud from "John Brown's Body" ("the snow that falls here is different snow...") you can afford to be no more comfortable than John Brown. Anyone could have told you that.
Girls wore ballet slippers in deepest winter because that's what girls wore. M wore just a T shirt over skin turning blue and when I asked him if he wasn't cold -- I was in four layers -- he said, "no." Clearly a boy whose parents told him what to wear when he was home! And N, a rough-looking kid who was, in fact, a rough kid who had been lured to the school to play sports so that we wouldn't lose every game -- he wore what were called "engineer boots." I thought N was an idiot but I liked those boots, and I got some.
Well, thank you, kids from 1966, 1970 and so forth! I am raising my glass to toast your school. Our class might have liked that school. I am positive you would have liked ours!
Stephan Chodorov, CLS'1952