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  • Education on the Lower East Side in the Fiction of Myra Kelly: The Failure of the Public Schools in the Education of Jewish Immigrants
  • Jean Filetti (bio)

Henry James, having returned to New York in 1904 for a visit after living years abroad, writes in The American Scene that Central Park “showed the fruit of the foreign tree” (101). On encountering Italian laborers tending the grounds of the park, James remarks on the language barrier that exists between the encounterer (himself) and the encountered (the foreigner) and notes that “any impalpable exchange” is not only “absent” but also unthinkable (102). Regretting the inability to communicate with these immigrants in “the first grossness of their alienism,” James, however, sees promise in their children (102). Claiming that the schools will transform these strangers’ children, he asserts, “It is the younger generation who will fully profit, rise to the occasion and enter into privilege. . . . They are the stuff of whom brothers and sisters are made” (102–03). How, though, will this be accomplished? Will addressing just the language divide produce the desired brotherhood model James touts? Just how successful was the educational system at the turn of the century in transforming James’s vision into reality?

Examining the writings of Myra Kelly, an Irish immigrant, educated in the New York City schools, a graduate of Columbia’s Teacher’s College, and a teacher herself in the East-Side Public School 147 from 1899–1901, provides insight into the realities of James’s vision. Although little-known today, Kelly’s stories about her experiences teaching in the public schools were popular during her time, even receiving recognition from then-President Theodore Roosevelt, whose letter she proudly reprints in her Foreword to Wards of Liberty. In his letter, Roosevelt declares that he and his wife know Kelly’s “amusing and very pathetic accounts of East Side school-children almost by heart” (Wards of Liberty xii). Popular with both her readers and publishers, Kelly published frequently in widely-distributed magazines like McClure’s and Collier’s and received praise for “portraying the struggles of the alien child of the slums in trying to master the idioms of the English language” (“Myra Kelly, Writer of Child Life, Dead”). Her writings viewed today, however, are enlightening in other ways. Yes, the individual children who populate her stories are still endearing and their lives of poverty continue to remind us of the challenges faced by immigrants, but it is the system of acculturation and assimilation (gate-keeping [End Page 71] institutions such as New York’s Board of Health and Board of Education and the superintendents and teachers who cooperated with and enforced these institutions’ policies and programs) that demand our attention for their role in marginalizing the very immigrants they intended to help. In fact, Kelly’s accounts of the public school system in the early 1900s offer a telling indictment of the role of education in the assimilation process. Rather than focusing on language acquisition and to some extent acculturation, the schools perpetuated a hierarchical system that, in particular, marginalized Jewish immigrants.

The School System

The curriculum and system of oversight depicted in Kelly’s collection of stories Little Citizens and Wards of Liberty identify an educational system designed and regulated with one goal in mind—to eliminate anything foreign—with particular attention to hygiene. New York City, where Kelly taught, was obsessed with health issues, largely a response to the number of immigrants processed through New York’s ports. According to Howard Markel and Alexandra Minna Stern in their article “The Foreignness of Germs: The Persistent Association of Immigrants and Disease in American Society,” “Foreigners were consistently associated with germs and contagion . . . [and] stigmatized as the etiology of a wide variety of physical and societal ills” (757). In the years immediately preceding Kelly’s work as a public school teacher in New York’s Lower East Side, ships of Russian Jewish immigrants, arriving as one did in 1893 carrying epidemic typhus, led the city’s Department of Health to direct its attention to the potential threats posed by the increasing number of Eastern European immigrants (particularly Jewish immigrants) to the city’s health (Jones 18).1...


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pp. 71-81
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