He’s ‘Old School’ — and Has the Dunce Chair to Prove It
Posted May 20, 2018 8:05 p.m. EDT
NEW YORK — Maybe there is someone more crazy in love with New York City’s public schools than Martin Raskin, but who else would collect a panel of hundred-year-old brass steam heat switches from Brooklyn’s Manual Training High School that closed in 1959? Or load up his car trunk with a boiler gauge from P.S. 41 in Greenwich Village?
“I’m a little bit compulsive,” admitted Raskin, a 77-year-old retired teacher who taught at Canarsie High School in Brooklyn and the Queens School for Career Development and is aflame with ardor for all things Board of Education, which, he said, “paved the way I am today — I’m blessed.”
When last heard from (in a 2010 article in The New York Times), the salt-and-pepper-whiskered schmoozer who could talk the paint off a wall had turned his Upper East Side of Manhattan apartment into a shrine to P.S. 202 in East New York, Brooklyn, where he spent kindergarten through eighth grade, graduating in 1955, before going on to Franklin K. Lane High School.
His mock classroom showcased ink-stained attached desks, Regulator clocks, milky glass chandeliers, tall teacher’s reading chair, class photos, oval brass doorknobs, wardrobe hooks, window pole, yellow report cards, merit certificates, black and white composition notebooks, even the original enamel number plate from his homeroom, 516.
It’s all still there, along with Raskin’s prize piece, the chair splinter extracted from the rear of his principal, Charles G. Eichel, and preserved in an envelope with the (unlucky) date of the encounter, Friday, March 13, 1942. Raskin had scooped it up along with other discarded P.S. 202 material in the 1980s, a fateful discovery that set off his freely acknowledged obsession, since abetted by eBay, Etsy and other collectibles dealers.
But that, it turns out, was only the beginning. “I’m now amassing a shrine to the whole educational system,” Raskin said.
He recently paid $450 on eBay for an 1850s New England dunce chair, which stands amid a table of vintage readers, including the complete Eichel oeuvre, student magazines, multicolored high school beanies and buttons, class rings and pins, diplomas, teacher ledgers, autograph albums, lunchroom tickets, commencement programs, and oddities like the news photo of the “Black Hand Stampede,” a panic over rumors of Mafia presence that terrified students at P.S. 177 in Little Italy on June 17, 1926.
Some items seem particularly historic: an 1805 booklet from the Society for Establishing a Free School in the City of New York for the Education of Poor Children. The June 1942 issue of the Boys High School magazine “Recorder” with the harrowing 1938 diary of a Jewish student who lived through the Nazi annexation of Austria. The author, Harry Lustig, made a narrow escape and became a noted physics professor, provost and vice president at the City College of New York.
“I’ve spent a large amount of money — thousands,” Raskin said. “Don’t say thousands. OK, you can say it.”
He doesn’t begrudge it. “I feel — maybe this sounds crazy to you — I feel I’ve been chosen,” he said. He returns regularly to his elementary alma mater to award scholarships and meet with the children.
But now, he said, it was time to consider a better home for his ever-growing collection — a bow to the eye rolls from his long-resigned domestic partner and fellow teacher, Jerilyn Rubenstein.
“There’s a fire museum, a police museum, a food museum, even a sex museum,” Raskin said. “But there’s nothing to honor teachers and students.”
He recently met with representatives of the Museum of the City of New York about his material. A curator from the New-York Historical Society also visited, later sending a letter praising his “wonderful documents and three-dimensional objects” but saying they were unable to plan an exhibition.
He is not looking to sell the collection and says he does not need a tax deduction.
“I want this done before I’m 80,” he said. “The Martin Raskin Room of Education. It doesn’t need to have my name.”
The city’s Department of Education and the United Federation of Teachers have taken note. How often does an unabashed admirer like Raskin come along?
Alberto Arias, the head of alumni affairs in the office of the schools chancellor, Richard A. Carranza, recently made a short video about him to go on social media, and the UFT newspaper wrote about him in September.
“Marty is passionate about the promise of public schools,” Arias said. “He’s a rare bird,” agreed Tom Murphy, a former UFT political legislative director and leader of the Retired Teachers chapter who recently presented Raskin with a chinaware cup and saucer from Tottenville High School on Staten Island.
The UFT gave Raskin three tables to show off his collection at its Spring Education Conference at the New York Hilton on Saturday. He also exhibited at the teacher retirement conference in Florida in February.
Eager to spread his gospel of love for the city’s rich educational legacy, Raskin met Arias this month at the landmark Jamaica High School to look over its rich trove of memorabilia, including riflery and skiing trophies and a 1930 radiogram from Antarctica to the students from the explorer Admiral Richard E. Byrd.
Once the largest high school in the country, finished in 1927 and broken up as a failing school into four smaller components in 2014, the columned Greek Revival colossus (alma mater of Art Buchwald, Paul Bowles and Francis Ford Coppola) drew oohs and aahs from Raskin, starting with the weathervane-topped copper-clad cupola and copper-edged clock in the pediment. “Look at the brass doors!” Raskin marveled. “Look at the marble! Look at this brass banister!”
In the ornate lobby, he and Arias exclaimed over a sprawling 1931 mural, “A History of Colonial Long Island” by Suzanne Miller, a New Deal Federal Art Project artist. (The “charmingly naive” masterpiece is highlighted in the 2009 book “Public Art for Public Schools” by Michele Cohen.)
Raskin stood in awe of a wall of vintage staff mailboxes. “Alberto, this is what blew me away,” he said. Arias reached in and pulled out a piece of mail from 2013, untouched for five years. “And I have the dust to prove it,” he said.
For all his loquaciousness, Raskin turns uncharacteristically tongue-tied when asked to explain his passion for the public schools. “Growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950s, the school was central,” he finally begins. “It was the life. You came home, changed clothes and went to the schoolyard. Our whole life was centered around that and the candy store across the street.”