Jewish Journal


August 22, 2002

Those Were the Days

Seniors and students reflect on the schools of yesterday and today.


Minnie Brandt was raised in the poor section of Cleveland in the 1920s. Her father, an immigrant from the Ukraine, supported his family by taking a horse and wagon to get rags, paper and cans for recycling. Her childhood was simple: At school she learned how to add, read, write, cook and sew. When school ended each day, she had plenty of time to play with her friends.

My grandmother, Rebecca Goldman, daughter of immigrants from Russia and Poland, attended public schools in Atlanta, Ga. She had minimum homework, not much busy work and ample time to participate in athletics and in Young Judea Club.

Unlike most Jewish American students today, Brandt's and Goldman's peers also had parents who were immigrants. Their parents belonged to one of the largest waves of Jewish immigration to the United States. Most came to America between 1880 and 1914 from Poland and Russia. They fled the pogroms, seeking better lives for their families. Their children were the first major generation of Jewish children introduced to the American education system.

As summer turns to fall, and children begin to anxiously prepare for the upcoming year of school, Brandt, Goldman and others of their generation find themselves reflecting on how different education and life was for children of their generation.

Irwin Brandt, Minnie's husband, who grew up in Chicago, often had to walk one mile through the snow to school. While reflecting back on his childhood, he said, "I never remember having lots of homework, and was never stressed about it either. My childhood was much more simple. We went to school, and then played with our friends. "

Goldman agreed that school was 10 times less stressful when she attended school. She always cringes as she sees little children coming home from school, with backpacks "larger than they are." Most students carry these heavy backpacks home, despite doctors' recommendations that a child's backpack should weigh no more than 5-10 percent of his or her body weight.

"When I went to school," Goldman remarked, "backpacks were unheard of. The girls just carried a pencil in their purses, and the boys carried their pencils in their pockets. There was just no reason to have backpacks -- we never had many books or homework to fill them. We had easier childhoods."

Yet, although they had less homework than the modern student, this generation had their own share of worries. They grew up during the Depression and World War II.

Irwin Brandt noted, "My friends and I could never ask our parents with help on homework. Our parents were immigrants and we taught them English. My father was more concerned with getting bread on the table."

However, he added, "Our parents were really the ones who worried about this. We were more carefree. This is all we had ever known, so we were used to it. I still believe that growing up and attending school today is much more difficult. "

Pauline Reich, who grew up in New York and later moved to Los Angeles, worked in the public school system for 20 years. She knows firsthand that it is more arduous growing up today. "First of all, this generation is more stressed because of one reason: The world is smaller," she explained. "Because of all the advances in technology such as e-mail, computers and television, we get instant information about things going on all over the world. Children were so much more naive back then!"

Also, schools have become much more competitive, with students across the globe striving to excel at standardized tests and be accepted to the most prestigious colleges.

Schools used to focus much more on teaching "practical subjects for the real world" such as sewing, cooking and shop. Now, students spend hours and hours memorizing information, such as the steps in mathematical formulas, which many tend to forget just days later.

The U.S. Department of Education suggests that daily homework assignments last up to 20 minutes for kindergartners to third-graders; 20-40 minutes for fourth- to sixth-graders; up to two hours for seventh- to ninth-graders; and up to 2.5 hours for 10th- to 12th-graders.

Helena Rosenthal, an incoming junior at Milken Community High School, laughed when hearing this recommendation. She said, "My peers and I normally spend at least 2.5 hours studying for one test alone. Students today begin to worry about college when they are only in sixth grade. We are told then that our grades will affect which high school we will be accepted to. And how we do in high school, will affect which college we are accepted to, which in return will determine which graduate school we will attend -- it never ends."

Jennifer Gottesfield, an honors student at Beverly Hills High School, remarked, "Because of the advancements in technology, there is so much more information that we now need to learn. In my grandparents' days, even though they strove to do well in school, it wasn't mandatory to go to college to succeed. Now, it has become increasingly difficult to get a job without having gone to college."

Melissa Hoffman, an incoming junior at Shalhevet High School, added, "The pressure on kids today to be in the hardest classes and to get excellent grades is unfair and unhealthy. We are missing out on our childhoods, because we literally have no time for recreation and we have so much less time to spend with our families. Kids today are no different from the kids growing up decades ago in our grandparents' generations. Our intelligence hasn't 'evolved.' And yet the standards we are expected to meet are so much greater."

Goldman mused, "I am really glad that I grew up when I did.... Honestly, I am not sure how I would cope in today's schools."

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