I Remember

by Charles Troob

I remember that I went to the Flushing Progressive School  until I was in second grade and was driven there in a station wagon with half a dozen other kids by Mrs. Conway, whose husband was a fireman. I remember that we visited his firehouse on Horace Harding Boulevard (before it became the Long Island Expressway) and I remember the pole that went up to the second floor so that the firemen could come down in a hurry— but I don’t remember Mr. Conway or the other firemen. I remember that one winter in the station wagon we all sang “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and at the end of the song—“You’ll go down in history” –I asked, “What is history?” and someone answered, “I think it’s some kind of a book” and I was puzzled because I didn’t know what it meant to go down in a book.

I remember that the Flushing Progressive School was in a house on Franklin Avenue and the littlest kids were on the ground floor while the first and second graders were on the second floor. Every day at lunchtime they came down the stairs to get their trays—colorful plastic ones, with beaded edges—and then go back upstairs to eat their lunch. I remember watching them and wondering how they managed to carry their trays upstairs without spilling stuff and being afraid that I’d never be able to do that and how grown up first graders must be. I remember that we had the same lunch each Monday, Tuesday, etc. and my mother was annoyed that on Mondays we usually had baked potato and creamed corn and why were there two starches and I remember wondering why she cared and thinking that Monday lunch was OK with me, though not as tasty as creamed chicken and noodles on Tuesday or macaroni with ground beef on Wednesday.

I remember that when I moved upstairs the first graders were on one side of the room and the second graders on the other side and we all faced front and Mrs. Caven, who was very sweet, would give lessons either to one group or to all of us. I remember that I didn’t want to interrupt her to ask to be excused and I messed my pants a few times and had to be taken to the toilet and cleaned up. I remember that I was unable to insist on what I really needed for myself until I was an adult.

I remember that we were given a reading primer and I didn’t know what “primer” meant but I read through it right away and on the back page was a numbered list called “Vocabulary.” I didn’t know that word either. After each number on the list there were a few words. I looked at this list again and again and finally figured out (eureka!) that the numbers referred to pages in the primer and each word was listed according to the page on which it first appeared. I was very pleased to make this discovery, but I still didn’t know what “vocabulary” meant or why the list was there.

I remember that I was upset when my mother wouldn’t let me go to school on Rosh Hashanah and we had an argument about it at the lunch counter at the Girard Pharmacy on Queens Boulevard. I didn’t want to miss anything at school and I knew that at home on Rosh Hashanah I would sit around and be bored.

I remember that in second grade I was excused from reading lessons and sat in another room with a girl named Barbara who also could read. I remember that we had second and third grade readers—Friends and Neighbors and Streets and Roads—to read on our own.

I remember that there was a piano and during the lunch break we sang “Santa Lucia” and “Funiculi, Funicula” and afterwards one of the teachers read Mary Poppins to us, a chapter at a time.

I remember that the second graders were once given a special privilege. We went to the third floor where Mrs. Tucker the principal lived and there was a small television and we watched the coronation of Queen Elizabeth. I remember wondering what this ceremony was about—if her name was Queen Elizabeth, didn’t she already have a crown like every other king and queen?

I remember that the Flushing Progressive School was planning to offer a third grade, but my parents told me that I was going to attend PS 196,  a beautiful new school about to open in Forest Hills. I would be very sorry not to see what happened to the scarlet runner beans I’d planted in June in the school garden, but I was glad that I would finally be going to school with children from my neighborhood. I remember thinking that PS 196 was huge and impressive, particularly the auditorium and gym, and that I liked it very much, except that the teachers were always yelling at us to get in line and keep quiet. At our age! Even kindergartners could—and did—get in line quietly. These ladies were a little nutty and mean compared to the pleasant teachers at my old school, but they taught us a lot and they were nice enough to me, so I really didn’t mind.

I remember that in my freshman year at Harvard, a Cliffie in my English class asked me if I’d gone to the Flushing Progressive School. It would be an understatement to say that I was stunned by the question. Mr. Blyth called her Miss Hutter, but I knew that her first name was Barbara—and so she had to be the Barbara I used to read with. “How on earth did you recognize me?” I asked. “Oh,” she replied, “over Thanksgiving at home I was looking at pictures of my second grade birthday party and there you were.” I remember being quite abashed that I had changed so little since second grade, and also that I had no memory of the birthday party or of ever being at Barbara’s house. I remember that despite this amazing link between us, Barbara Hutter and I had no further conversations about our childhood or anything else. I remember that Harvard was not a friendly place.


This was written for David Grogan’s Guided Autobiography study group.  David’s writing prompt was based on the work of Joe Brainard, an artist and writer associated with the New York School.  Brainard’s I Remember, a book-length collection of sentences and short paragraphs all beginning with these two words, is considered a contemporary classic.