Jacob A. Riis (1849–1914). The Battle with the Slum. 1902.XIII
Justice to the Boy
The barrel and the hog were never part of the curriculum in any American boy’s school, I suppose; they seem too freakish to be credited to any but the demoniac ingenuity of my home ogre. But they stood for a comprehension of the office of school and teacher which was not patented by any day or land. It is not so long since the notion yet prevailed that the schools were principally to lock children up in for the convenience of their parents, that we should have entirely forgotten it. Only the other day a clergyman from up the state came into my office to tell of a fine reform school they had in his town. They were very proud of it.
“And how about the schools for the good boys in your town?” I asked, when I had heard him out. “Are they anything to be proud of?”
He stared. He guessed they were all right, he said, after some hesitation. But it was clear that he did not know.
It is not necessary to go back forty years to find us in the metropolis upon the clergyman’s platform, if not upon Madame Bruin’s. A dozen or fifteen will do. They will bring us to the day when roof playgrounds were contemptuously left out of the estimates for an East Side school, as “frills” that had nothing to do with education; when the Board of Health found but a single public school in more, than sixscore that was so ventilated as to keep the children from being poisoned by foul air; when the authority of the Talmud had to be invoked by the Superintendent of School Buildings to convince the president of the Board of Education, who happened to be a Jew, that seventy-five or eighty pupils were far too many for one classroom; when a man who had been dead a year was appointed a school trustee of the Third Ward, under the mouldy old law surviving from the day when New York was a big village, and filled the office as well as if he had been alive, because there were no schools in his ward—it was the wholesale grocery district; when manual training and the kindergarten were yet the fads of yesterday, looked at askance; when fifty thousand children roamed the streets for whom there was no room in the schools, and the only defence of the School Commissioners was that they “didn’t know” there were so many; and when we mixed truants and thieves in a jail with entire unconcern. Indeed, the jail filled the title rôle in the educational cast of that day. Its inmates were well lodged and cared for, while the sanitary authorities twice condemned the Essex Market school across the way as wholly unfit for children to be in, but failed to catch the ear of the politician who ran things unhindered. When (in 1894) I denounced the “system” of enforcing—or not enforcing—the compulsory education law as a device to make thieves out of our children by turning over their training to the street, he protested angrily; but the experts of the Tenement House Commission found the charge fully borne out by the facts. They were certainly plain enough in the sight of us all, had we chosen to see.
When at last we saw, we gave the politician a vacation for a season. To say that he was to blame for all the mischief would not be fair. We were to blame for leaving him in possession. He was only a link in the chain which our indifference had forged; but he was always and everywhere an obstruction to betterment,—sometimes, illogically, in spite of himself. Successive Tammany mayors had taken a stand for the public schools when it was clear that reform could not be delayed much longer; but they were helpless against a system of selfishness and stupidity of which they were the creatures, though they posed as its masters. They had to go with it as unfit, and upon the wave that swept out the last of the rubbish came reform. The Committee of Seventy took hold, the Good Government Clubs, the Tenement House Commission, and the women of New York. Five years we strove with the powers of darkness, and look now at the change! The New York school system is not yet the ideal one,—it may never be; but the jail, at least, has been cast out of the firm. We have a compulsory education law under which it is possible to punish the parent for the boy’s truancy, as he ought to be if there was room in the school for the lad, and he let him drift. And the day cannot be delayed much longer now when every child shall find the latchstring out on the school door. We have had to put our hands deep into our pockets to get so far, and we shall have to put them in deeper yet a long way. But it is all right. We are beginning to see the true bearing of things. Last week the Board of Estimate and Apportionment appropriated six millions of dollars for new schools—exactly what the battleship Massachusetts cost all complete with guns and fittings, so they told me on board. Battleships are all right when we need them, but even then it is the man behind the gun who tells, and that means the schoolmaster. The Board of Education asked for sixteen millions. They will get the other ten when we have caught our breath. Since the beginning of 1895 we have built sixty-nine new public schools in Manhattan and the Bronx, at a cost of 12,038,764, exclusive of cost of sites, furnishings, heating, lighting, and ventilating the buildings, which would add two-thirds at least of that amount, making it a round twenty millions of dollars. And every one of the sixty-nine has its playground, which will by and by be free to all the neighborhood. The idea is at last working through that the schools belong to the people, and are primarily for the children and their parents; not mere vehicles of ward patronage, or for keeping an army of teachers in office and pay.
The silly old régime is dead. The ward trustee is gone with his friend the alderman, loudly proclaiming the collapse of our liberties in the day that saw the schools taken from “the people’s” control. They were “the people.” Experts manage our children’s education, which was supposed, in the old plan, to be the only thing that did not require any training. To superintend a brickyard demanded some knowledge, but anybody could run the public schools. It cost us an election to take that step. One of the Tammany district leaders, who knew what he was talking about, said to me after it was all over: “I knew we would win. Your bringing those foreigners here did the business. Our people believe in home rule. We kept account of the teachers you brought from out of town, and who spent the money they made here out of town, and it got to be the talk among the tenement people in my ward that their daughters would have no more show to get to be teachers. That did the business. We figured the school vote in the city at forty-two thousand, and I knew we could not lose.” The “foreigners” were teachers from Massachusetts and other states, who had achieved a national reputation at their work.
There lies upon my table a copy of the minutes of the Board of Education of January 9, 1895, in which is underscored a report on a primary school in the Bronx. “It is a wooden shanty,” is the inspector’s account, “heated by stoves, and is a regular tinder box; cellar wet, and under one classroom only. This building was erected in order, I believe, to determine whether or not there was a school population in the neighborhood to warrant the purchase of property to erect a school on.”
That was the way then of taking a school census, and the result was the utter failure of the compulsory education law to compel anything. Today we have a biennial census, ordained by law, which, when at last it gets into the hands of some one who can count, will tell us how many Jacob Beresheims are drifting upon the shoals of the street. And we have a truant school to keep them safe in. To it, says the law, no thief shall be committed. It is not yet five years since the burglar and the truant—which latter, having been refused admission to the school because there was not room for him, inconsequently was locked up for contracting idle ways—were herded in the Juvenile Asylum, and classified there in squads of those who were four feet, four feet seven, and over four feet seven! I am afraid I scandalized some good people during the fight for decency in this matter, by insisting that it ought to be considered a good mark for Jacob that he despised such schools as were provided for him. But it was true. Except for the risk of the burglar, the jail was preferable by far. The woman into whose hands the management of the truant school fell, made out, after little more than a year’s experience, that of twenty-five hundred so-called incorrigibles, the barest handful—scarce sixty—were rightly so named, and even these a little longer and tighter grip might probably win over. For such a farm school is yet to be provided. The rest responded promptly to an appeal to their pride. She “made it a personal matter” with each of them, and the truant vanished; the boy was restored. The burglar, too, made it a personal matter in the old contact, and the result was two burglars for one. I have yet to find any one who has paid attention to this matter and is not of the opinion that the truant school strikes at the root of the problem of juvenile crime. After thirty years of close acquaintance with the child population of London, Mr. Andrew Drew, chairman of the Industrial Committee of the School Board, declared his conviction that “truancy is to be credited with nearly the whole of our juvenile criminality.” But for years there seemed to be no way of convincing the New York School Board that the two had anything to do with one another. Even now it seems to be a case of one convinced against his will being “of the same opinion still,” for, though the Superintendent of Schools speaks of that bar to the jail as preposterously inadequate, nothing is done to strengthen it.
Nothing on that tack. But there is a long leg and a short leg on the course, and I fancy Superintendent Snyder does the tacking on the long leg. Mr. Snyder builds New York’s schools, and he does that which no other architect before his time ever did or tried; he “builds them beautiful.” In him New York has one of those rare men who open windows for the soul of their time. Literally, he found barracks where he is leaving palaces to the people. If any one thinks this is overmeasure of praise, let him look at the “Letter H” school, now become a type, and see what he thinks of it. The idea suggested itself to him as meeting the demands of a site in the middle of a block, while he was poking about old Paris on a much needed vacation, and now it stands embodied in a dozen beautiful schools on Manhattan Island, copies, every one, of the handsomest of French palaces, the Hôtel de Cluny. I cannot see how it is possible to come nearer perfection in the building of a public school. There is not a dark corner in the whole structure, from the splendid gymnasium under the red tiled roof to the indoor playground on the street floor, which, when thrown into one with the two yards that lie enclosed in the arms of the H, give the children nearly an acre of asphalted floor to romp on from street to street; for the building sets right through the block, with just such a front on the other street as it shows on this one. If there be those yet upon whom the notion grates that play and the looks of the school should be counted in as educational factors, why, let them hurry up and catch on. They are way behind. The play through which the child “first perceives moral relations” comes near being the biggest and strongest factor in it all today; and as for the five or ten thousand dollars put in for “the looks” of things where the slum had trodden every ideal and every atom of beauty into the dirt, I expect to live to see that prove the best investment a city ever made.
We are getting the interest now in the new pride of the boy in “his school,” and no wonder. When I think of the old Allen Street school, with its hard and ugly lines, where the gas had to be kept burning even on the brightest days, recitations suspended every half-hour, and the children made to practice calisthenics so that they should not catch cold while the windows were opened to let in fresh air; of the dark playground downstairs, with the rats keeping up such a racket that one could hardly hear himself speak at times; or of that other East Side “playground” where the boys “weren’t allowed to speak above a whisper,” so as not to disturb those studying overhead, I fancy that I can make out both the cause and the cure of the boy’s desperation. “We try to make our schools pleasant enough to hold the children,” wrote the Superintendent of Schools in Indianapolis to me once, and added that they had no truant problem worth bothering about. With the kindergarten and manual training firmly ingrafted upon the school course, as they are at last, and with it reaching out to enlist also the boy’s play through playground and vacation schools, I shall be willing to turn the boy who will not come in over to the reformatory. They will not need to build a new wing to the jail for his safekeeping.
All ways lead to Rome. The reform in school building dates back, as does every other reform in New York, to the Mulberry Bend. It began there. The first school that departed from the soulless old tradition, to set beautiful pictures before the child’s mind as well as dry figures on the slate, was built there. At the time I wanted it to stand in the park, hoping so to hasten the laying out of that; but although the Small Parks law expressly permitted the erection on park property of buildings for “the instruction of the people,” the officials upon whom I pressed my scheme could not be made to understand that as including schools. Perhaps they were right. I catechised thirty-one Fourth Ward girls in a sewing school, about that time, twenty-six of whom had attended the public schools of the district more than a year. One wore a badge earned for excellence in her studies. In those days every street corner was placarded with big posters of Napoleon on a white horse riding through fire and smoke. There was one right across the street. Yet only one of the thirty-one knew who Napoleon was. She “thought she had heard of the gentleman before.” It came out that the one impression she retained of what she had heard was that “the gentleman” had two wives, both at one time probably. They knew of Washington that he was the first President of the United States, and cut down a cherry tree. They were sitting and sewing at the time almost on the identical spot on Cherry Hill where he lived when he held the office. To the question who ruled before Washington the answer came promptly: no one; he was the first. They agreed reluctantly, upon further consideration, that there was probably “a king of America” before his day, and the Irish damsels turned up their noses at the idea. The people of Canada, they thought, were copper-colored. The same winter I was indignantly bidden to depart from a school in the Fourth Ward by a trustee who had heard that I had written a book about the slum and spoken of “his people” in it.
Those early steps in the reform path stumbled sadly over obstacles that showed what a hard pull we had ahead. I told in “The Making of an American” how I fared when I complained that the Allen Street school was overrun with rats, and how I went out to catch one of them to prove to the City Hall folk that I was not a liar, as they said. We won the fight for the medical inspection of the schools that has proved such a boon, against much opposition within the profession, from which we should have had only support. And this in face of evidence of a kind to convince anybody. I remember one of the exhibits. There had been a scarlet-fever epidemic on the lower West Side, which the health inspectors finally traced to the public school of the district. A boy with the disease had been turned loose before the “peeling” was over, and had achieved phenomenal popularity in the classroom by a trick he had of pulling the skin from his fingers as one would skin a cat. The pieces he distributed as souvenirs among his comrades, who carried them proudly home to show to their admiring playmates who were not so lucky as to sit on the bench with the clever lad. The epidemic followed as a matter of course. But though the Health Department put through that reform, when it came to inspecting the eyes of the children, we lost. The cry that it would “interfere with private practice” defeated us. The fact was easily demonstrated that not only was ophthalmia rampant in the schools with its contagion, but that the pupils were made both near-sighted and stupid by the want of proper arrangement of their seats and of themselves in their classrooms. But self-interest prevailed. However, nothing is ever settled till it is settled right. I have before me the results of an examination of thirty-six public schools containing 55,470 pupils. It was made by order of the Board of Health this month (August, 1902), and ought to settle that matter for good. Of the 55,470, not less than 6670 had contagious eye-disease; 2328 were cases of operative trachoma, 3243 simple trachoma, and 1099 conjunctivitis. In one school in the most crowded district of the East Side 22.2 per cent were so afflicted. No wonder the doctors “were horrified” at the showing. So was the President of the Board of Health, who told me to-day that he would leave no stone unturned until effective inspection of the school children by eye-specialists had been assured. So we go, step by step, ever forward.
Speaking of that reminds me of a mishap I had in the Hester Street school,—the one with the “frills” which the Board of Education cut off. I happened to pass it after school hours, and went in to see what sort of a playground the roof would have made. I met no one on the way, and, finding the scuttle open, climbed out and up the slant of the roof to the peak, where I sat musing over our lost chance, when the janitor came to close up. He must have thought I was a crazy man, and my explanation did not make it any better. He haled me down, and but for the fortunate chance that the policeman on the beat knew me, I should have been taken to the lockup as a dangerous lunatic—all for dreaming of a playground on the roof of a school-house.
Janitor and Board of Commissioners to the contrary notwithstanding, the dream became real. There stands another school in Hester Street today within easy call, that has a roof playground where two thousand children dance under the harvest moon to the music of a brass band, as I shall tell you about hereafter—the joy of it to have that story to tell!—and all about are others like it, with more coming every year. To the indignant amazement of my captor, the janitor, his school has been thrown open to the children in the summer vacation, and in the winter they put a boys’ club in to worry him. What further indignities there are in store for him, in this day of “frills,” there is no telling. The Superintendent of Schools told me only yesterday that he was going to Boston to look into new sources of worriment they have invented there. The world does move in spite of janitors. In two short years our school authorities advanced from the cautious proposition that it “was the sense” of the Board of Superintendents that the schoolhouses might well be used in the cause of education as neighborhood centres, etc., (1897), to the flat declaration that “every rational system of education should make provisions for play” (1899). And to cut off all chance of relapse into the old doubt whether “such things are educational,” that laid so many of our hopes on the dusty shelf of the circumlocution office, the state legislature has expressly declared that the commonwealth will take the chance, which Boards of Education shunned, of a little amusement creeping in. The schools may be used for “purposes of recreation.” To the janitor it must seem that the end of all things is at hand.
So the schools and their playgrounds were thrown open to the children during the long vacation, with kindergarten teachers to amuse them, and vacation schools tempted the little ones from the street into the cool shade of the classrooms. They wrought in wood and iron, they sang and they played and studied nature,—out of a barrel, to be sure; that came twice a week from Long Island filled with “specimens”; but later on we took a hint from Chicago, and let the children gather their own specimens on excursions around the bay and suburbs of the city. That was a tremendous success. And there is better still coming, as I shall show presently. It sometimes seems to me as if we were here face to face with the very thing we are seeking and know not how to find. The mere hint that money might be lacking to pay for the excursions set the St. Andrew’s Brotherhood men on Long Island to devising schemes for inviting the school children out on trolley and shore trips. What if they all, the Christian Endeavor, the Epworth League, and the other expressions of the same human desire to find the lost brother, who are looking about for something to try their young strength and enthusiasm on—what if they were to hitch on here and help pull the load that may get mired else? They need men and women in that work. Mere paid teaching will never do it. If they can only get them, I think we may be standing upon the threshold of something which shall bring us nearer to a universal brotherhood than all the consecration and all the badges yet devised. I am thinking of the children and of the chance to take them at once out of the slum and into our hearts, while making of the public school the door to a house of citizenship in which we shall all dwell together in full understanding. Without out that door the house will never be what we planned. And there is the key, all ready-made, in the children.
The mere contact with nature, even out of a barrel, brought something to those starved child lives that struck a new note. Sometimes it rang with a sharp and jarring sound. The boys in the Hester Street school could not be made to take an interest in the lesson on wheat until the teacher came to the effect of drought and a bad year on the farmer’s pocket. Then they understood. They knew the process. Strikes cut into the earnings of Hester Street, small enough at the best of times, at frequent intervals, and the boys need not be told what a bad year means. No other kind ever occurs there. They learned the lesson on wheat in no time, after that. Oftener it was a gentler note that piped timidly in the strange place. A barrel of wild roses came one day, instead of the expected “specimens,” and these were given to the children. They took them greedily. “I wondered,” said the teacher, “if it was more love of the flower, or of getting something for nothing, no matter what.” But even if it were largely the latter, there was still the rose. Nothing like it had come that way before, and without a doubt it taught its own lesson. The Italian child might have jumped for it more eagerly, but its beauty was not wasted in Jew-town, either. The baby kissed it, and it lay upon more than one wan cheek, and whispered, who knows what thought of hope and courage that were nearly gone. Even in Hester Street the wild rose from the hedge was not wasted.
The result of it all was wholesome and good, because it was common sense. The way to fight the slum in the children’s lives is with sunlight and flowers and play, which their child hearts crave, if their eyes have never seen them. The teachers reported that the boys were easier to manage, more quite, and played more fairly than before. The police reports showed that fewer were arrested or run over in the streets than in other years. A worse enemy was attacked than the trolley car or the truck. In the kindergarten at the Hull House in Chicago there hangs a picture of a harvest scene, with the man wiping his brow, and a woman resting at his feet. Miss Addams told me that a little girl with an old face picked it out among all the rest, and considered it long and gravely. “Well,” she said, when her inspection was finished, “he knocked her down, didn’t he?” A two hours’ argument for kindergartens or vacation schools could not have put it stronger or better.
It is five seasons since the Board of Education took over the work begun by the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor as an object lesson for us all, and I have before me the schedule for this summer’s work, just begun. It embraces seventeen vacation schools in which the boys are taught basketry, weaving, chair-caning, sloyd, fret-sawing, and how to work in leather and iron, while the girls learn sewing, millinery, embroidering, knitting, and the domestic arts, besides sharing in the boys’ work where they can. There are thirty-five school playgrounds with kindergarten and gymnasiums and games, and half a dozen of the play piers are used for the same purpose. In twelve open-air playgrounds and parks, teachers sent by the Board of Education lead the children’s play, and in as many more public baths teach boys and girls to swim on alternate days. In Crotona Park, up in the Bronx, under big spreading oaks and maples, athletic meets are held of boys from down-town and up-town schools in friendly rivalry, and the Frog Hollow Gang, that wrecked railroad trains there in my recollection, is a bad memory. Over at Hudsonbank on the site of the park that is coming there, teams hired by the Board of Education are ploughing up the site of Stryker’s Lane, and the young toughs of the West Side who held that the world owed them a living and collected it as they could, are turning truck farmers. They are planting potatoes, and gardening, and learning the secret of life that the living is his who can earn it. The world “do move.” No argument is needed now to persuade those who hold the purse strings that all this is “good business.” Instead, the mayor of the city is asking the Board of Education to tell him of more and better ways of putting the machinery to use. The city will foot the bill, if we will show them how. And we will show them how.
The last four years have set us fifty years ahead, and there is no doubling on that track now. Where we had one kindergarten when I was put out of the Fourth Ward school by a trustee for daring to intrude there to find out what they were teaching, we have a hundred and fifteen at this writing in Manhattan alone, and soon we shall have as many as five hundred that are part of the public school in the greater city. “The greatest blessing which the nineteenth century bequeathed to little children,” Superintendent Maxwell calls the kindergarten, and since the children are our own to-morrow, he might have said to all of us, to the state. The kindergarten touch is upon the whole system of teaching. Cooking, the only kind of temperance preaching that counts for anything in a school course, is taught in the girls’ classes. A minister of justice declared in the Belgian Chamber that the nation was reverting to a new form of barbarism, which he described by the term “alcoholic barbarism,” and pointed out as its first cause the “insufficiency of the food procurable by the working classes.” He referred to the quality, not the quantity. The United States experts, who lately made a study of the living habits of the poor in New York, spoke of it as a common observation that “a not inconsiderable amount of the prevalent intemperance can be traced to poor food and unattractive home tables.” The toasting-fork in Jacob’s sister’s hand beats preaching in the campaign against the saloon, just as the boys’ club beats the police club in fighting the gang.
The cram and the jam are being crowded out as common-sense teaching steps in and takes their place, and the “three H’s,” the head, the heart, and the hand,—a whole boy,—are taking the place too long monopolized by the “three R’s.” There was need of it. It had seemed sometimes as if, in our anxiety lest he should not get enough, we were in danger of stuffing the boy to the point of making a hopeless dunce of him. It is a higher function of the school to teach principles than to impart facts merely. Teaching the boy municipal politics and a thousand other things to make a good citizen of him, instead of so filling him with love of his country and pride in its traditions that he is bound to take the right stand when the time comes, is as though one were to attempt to put all the law of the state into its constitution to make it more binding. The result would be hopeless congestion and general uselessness.
It comes down to the teacher in the end, and there are ten thousand of them in our big city. To them, too, a day of deliverance has come. Half the machine teaching, the wooden output of our public schools in the past, I believe was due to the practical isolation of the teachers between the tyranny of politics and the distrust of those who had good cause to fear the politician and his work. There was never a more saddening sight than that of the teachers standing together in an almost solid body to resist reform of the school system as an attack upon them. There was no pretence on their part that the schools did not need reform. They knew better. They fought for their places. Throughout the fight no word came from them of the children’s rights. They imagined that theirs were in danger, and they had no thought for anything else. We gathered then the ripe fruit of politics, and it will be a long while, I suppose, before we get the taste out of our mouths. But the grip of politics on our schools has been loosened, if not shaken off altogether, and the teacher’s slavery is at an end, if she herself so wills it. Once hardly thought worthy of a day laborer’s hire, she ranks to-day with a policeman in pay and privilege. The day that sees her welcomed as an honored guest in every home with a child in school will break the last of her bonds, and do more for the schools and for us than any one thing I can think of. Until that day comes the teachers, as a class apart, will have interests apart, or feel that they have, and will be bound to stand together to defend them; and they will work for pay. But for the real work of a teacher no one can ever pay her.
The day is coming. The windows of the schoolhouse have been thrown open, and life let in with the sunlight. The time may be not far distant when ours shall be schools “for discovering aptitude,” in Professor Felix Adler’s wise plan. The problem is a vast one, even in its bulk; every year seats must be found on the school benches for twenty thousand additional children. In spite of all we have done, there are to-day in the greater city nearly thirty thousand children in half-day or part-time classes, waiting their chance. But that it can and will be solved no one can doubt. We have just got to, that is all.
In the solution the women of New York will have had no mean share. In the struggle for school reform they struck the telling blows, and the credit of the victory was justly theirs. The Public Education Association, originally a woman’s auxiliary to Good Government Club E, has worked as energetically with the school authorities in the new plan as it fought to break down the old and secure decency. It has opened many windows for little souls by hanging schoolrooms with beautiful casts and pictures, and forged at the same time new and strong links in the chain that bound the boy all too feebly to the school. At a time when the demand of the boys of the East Side for club room, which was in itself one of the healthiest signs of the day, had reached an exceedingly dangerous pass, the Public Education Association broke ground that will yet prove the most fertile field of all. The Raines law saloon, quick to discern in the new demand the gap that would divorce it by and by from the man, attempted to bridge it by inviting the boy in under its roof. Occasionally the girl went along. A typical instance of how the scheme worked was brought to my attention at the time by the head worker of the college settlement. The back room of the saloon was given to the club free of charge, with the understanding that the boy members should “treat.” As a means of raising the needed funds, the club hit upon the plan of fining members ten cents when they “got funny.”
To defeat this device of the devil some way must be found; but club room was scarce among the tenements. The Good Government Clubs proposed to the Board of Education that it open the empty classrooms at night for the children’s use. It was my privilege to plead their cause before the School Board, and to obtain from it the necessary permission, after some hesitation and doubt as to whether “it was educational.” The Public Education Association assumed the responsibility for “the property,” and the Hester Street school was opened. The property was not molested; only one window was broken that winter by a stray ball, and that was promptly paid for by those who broke it. But the boys who met there under Miss Winifred Buck’s management learned many a lesson of self-control and practical wisdom that proved “educational” in the highest degree. Her plan is simplicity itself. Through their play,—the meeting usually begins with a romp,—in quarters where there is not too much elbow-room, the boys learn the first lesson of respecting one another’s rights. The subsequent business meeting puts them upon the fundamentals of civilized society, as it were. Out of the debate of the question, Do we want boys who swear, steal, gamble, and smoke cigarettes? grow convictions as to why these vices are wrong that put “the gang” in its proper light. Punishment comes to appear, when administered by the boys themselves, a natural consequence of law-breaking, in defence of society; and the boy is won. He can thenceforward be trusted to work out his own salvation. If he does it occasionally with excessive unction, remember how recent was his conversion. “Resolved, that wisdom is better than wealth,” was rejected as a topic for discussion by one of the clubs, because “everybody knows it is.” This was in the Tenth Ward. If temptation had come that way in the shape of a pushcart with pineapples—we are all human! Anyway, they had learned the right.
That was the beginning of a work of which we shall, I hope, hear a good deal more hereafter. It is all in its infancy yet, this attempt on the part of the municipality to get the boys off the street and out of the reach of the saloon. A number of schools were thrown open, where the crowds were greatest, for evening play and for clubs, and sometimes they laid hold of the youngster and sometimes not. It was a question again of the man or the woman who was at the helm. One school I found that surged with a happy crowd. It was over at Rivington and Suffolk streets, No. 160. Oh, how I wish they would soon stop this hopeless numbering of our schools, and call them after our great and good men, as Superintendent Maxwell pleads, so that “the name of every school may in itself be made a lesson in patriotism and good citizenship to its pupils.” There they would be in their right place. One alderman got the idea during the Strong reform administration, but they hitched the names to the new parks instead of the schools, and that turned out wrong. So they have the Ham Fish Park for Hamilton Fish, the “Sewer” Park for William H. Seward, the Thomas Jefferson Park uptown which no one will ever call anything but the Little Italy Park, and the good name of De Witt Clinton put to the bad use of spoiling beautiful “Hudsonbank.” Only, the effort will be wasted. The old name will stick. How different if the new schools had been called after these statesmen! And what a chance to get their pupils interested! In the “Alexander Hamilton School,” for instance, where “the Grange” and his thirteen trees abide yet.
But that is another story. I was thinking of the Jackson Pleasure Club of boys from eleven to thirteen which I found in session in No. 160, and of its very instructive constitution. I am going to print it here entire for the instruction of some good people who don’t understand. The boys got it all up themselves with the help of a copy of the United States Constitution and the famous “Stamp Act.”
EVENING RECREATION CENTRE P. S. NO. 160, NEW YORK CITY
We the boys of the J. P. C. in order to form a perfect club, we establish justice insure domestic tranquillity provide for the common defence. We promote the general welfare and secure the blessing of liberty to ourselves and our descendants to establish the Constitution for the J. P. C.
No boys can be members who are less than thirteen years and must be from the 7th Grammar on.
No member can be President or Vice President unless 6 months in club.
All officers will keep their term six months.
The officers can not commit a law until it is passed by the members. If it is an important one it will be passed by votes. By this I mean that if 5/8; of the members pass it is passed if 1/2 is passed it is not passed.
Several committees are appointed to look over these rules which seldom happen on the streets.
If any member or officer is seen gambling, smoking or fighting a fine of 0.02 will be asked and must be paid the next meeting.
Special meetings will be held each month. Meetings will be held at 8 o’clock
No secrets or slang language or nicknames allowed or a fine of $.03 is asked.
If any body receites a recitation and makes a mistake he is not to be laughed at or a fine of $.02 must be paid.
If any member takes the laws into his own hands and interferes with the president or any other officers or walks up and down the meeting room or draws pictures on the boards a fine of $.02 will be paid.
Any one who is spoken to 3 times about order will be put out for that meeting.
Amendment 1. No member will be allowed to go on a stranger’s roof, or a fine of $.03 will be asked.
But to return to what I was speaking about: with the women to lead, the school has even turned the tables on the jail and invaded it bodily. For now nearly five years the Public Education Association has kept school in the Tombs, for the boys locked up their awaiting trial. Of thirty-one pupils on this school register, when I examined it one day, twelve were charged with burglary, four with highway robbery, and three with murder. That was the gang run to earth at last. Better late than never. The windows of their prison overlooked the spot where the gallows used to stand that cut short many a career such as they pursued. They were soberly attentive to their studies, which were of a severely practical turn. Their teacher, Mr. David Willard, who was a resident of the university settlement in its old Delancey Street home has his own sound view of how to head off the hangman. Daily and nightly he gathers about him, in the house on Chrystie Street where he makes his home, half the boys and girls of the neighborhood, whom he meets as their friend, on equal terms. Mr. Willard, though a young man, is one of the most unique personages in the city. He is now one of the probation officers, under the new law which seeks to save the young offender rather than to wreak vengeance upon him, and his influence for good is great. The house in Chrystie Street is known far and wide as “the Children’s House.” They have their clubs there, and their games, of which Willard is the heart and soul. “I never saw anything remarkable in him,” said one of his old college professors to me; “if anything, he was rather a dull student.” It seems, then, that even colleges are not always institutions for “discovering aptitude.” It was reserved for Chrystie Street in Willard’s case.
Once a week another teacher comes to the Tombs school, and tells the boys of our city’s history, its famous buildings and great men, trying so to arouse their interest as a first step toward a citizen’s pride. This one also is sent by a club of women, the City History Club, which in five years has done strange things among the children. It sprang from the proposition of Mrs. Robert Abbe that the man and the citizen has his birth in the boy, and that to love a thing one must know it first. The half-dozen classes that were started for the study of our city’s history have swelled into many scores of times that number, with a small army of pupils. The pregnant fact was noted early by the teachers, that the immigrant boy easily outstrips in interest for his adopted home the native, who perchance turns up his nose at him, and later very likely complains of the “unscrupulousness” of the Jew, who forged ahead of him in business as well.
The classes meet in settlement, school, or church to hear about the deeds of the fathers, and, when they have listened and read, go with their teachers and see for themselves the church where Washington worshipped, the graves where the great dead lie, the fields where they fought and bled. And when the little Italian asks, with shining eyes, “Which side were we on?” who can doubt that the lesson has sunk into a heart that will thenceforward beat more loyally for the city of his home? We have not any too much pride in our city, the best of us, and that is why we let it be run by every scalawag boss who comes along to rob us. In all the land there is no more historic building than Fraunces’ Tavern, where Washington bade good-by to his officers; but though the very Chamber of Commerce was organized there, the appeal of patriotic women has not availed to save it to the people as a great relic of the past. The last time I was in it a waiter, busy with a lot of ’longshoremen who were eating their lunch and drinking their beer in the “Long Room,” had hung his dirty apron on a plaster bust of the Father of his Country that stood upon the counter about where he probably sat at the historic feast. My angry remonstrance brought only an uncomprehending stare for reply.
But in spite of the dullards, the new life I spoke of, the new sense of responsibility of our citizenship, is stirring. The People’s Institute draws nightly audiences to the great hall of the Cooper Institute for the discussion of present problems and social topics—audiences largely made up of workingmen more or less connected with the labor movement. The “People’s Club,” an outgrowth of the Institute, offers a home for the lonely wage-earner, man or woman, and more accept its offer every year. It has now nearly four hundred members, one fourth of them women. Every night its rooms at 241 East Fourteenth Street are filled. Classes for study and recreation are organized right along. The People’s University Extension Society invades the home, the nursery, the kindergarten, the club, wherever it can, with help and counsel to mothers with little children, to young men and to old. In a hundred ways those who but yesterday neither knew nor cared how the other half lived are reaching out and touching the people’s life. The social settlements labor unceasingly, and where there was one a dozen years ago there are forty. Down on the lower East Side, the Educational Alliance conducts from the Hebrew Institute an energetic campaign among the Jewish immigrants that reaches many thousands of souls, two-thirds of them children, every day in the week. More than threescore clubs hold meetings in the building on Saturday and Sunday. Under the same roof the Baron Hirsch Fund teaches the children of refugee Jews the first elements of American citizenship, love for our language and our flag, and passes them on to the public schools within six months of their landing, the best material they receive from anywhere.
So the boy is being got ready for dealing, in the years that are to come, with the other but not more difficult problems of setting his house to rights, and ridding it of the political gang which now misrepresents him and us. And justice to Jacob is being evolved. Not yet without obstruction and dragging of feet. The excellent home library plan that proved so wholesome in the poor quarters of Boston has only lately caught on in New York, because of difficulty in securing the visitors upon whom the plan depends for its success. The same want has kept the boys’ club from reaching the development that would apply the real test to it as a barrier against the slum. There are fifteen clubs for every Winifred Buck that is in sight. From the City History Club, the Charity Organization Society, from everywhere, comes the same complaint. The hardest thing in the world to give is still one’s self. But it is all the time getting to be easier. There are daily more women and men who, thinking of the boy, can say, and do, with my friend of the college settlement, when an opportunity to enter a larger field was offered her, “No, I am content to stay here, to be ready for Johnnie when he wants me.”
Justice for the boy, and for his father. An itinerant Jewish glazier, crying his wares, was beckoned into a stable by the foreman, and bidden to replace a lot of broken panes, enough nearly to exhaust his stock. When, after working half the day, he asked for his pay, he was driven from the place with jeers and vile words. Raging and impotent, he went back to his poor tenement, cursing a world in which there was no justice for a poor man. If he had next been found ranting with anarchists against the social order, would you have blamed him? He found instead, in the Legal Aid Society, a champion that pleaded his cause and compelled the stableman to pay him his wages. For a hundred thousand such—more shame to us—this society has meant all that freedom promised: justice to the poor man. It too has earned a place among the forces that are working out through the new education the brighter day, for it has taught the lesson which all the citizens of a free state need most to learn—respect for law.