Attorneys who appear before me often say with surprise that when they approach the bench, they can read my trial notes upside down. In law school when we worked in study groups, my handwritten outlines stood out for their clear, concise print. “Guess I didn’t go to Catholic school” is the rueful refrain I often hear when an attorney’s scrawl is indecipherable.
Penmanship was prized when I attended St. Brigid School on the Lower East Side, where the Sisters of Charity taught us. After lunch and robust play in the schoolyard, we practiced the art of beautiful writing while listening to classical music. The small hands that grasped pencils to trace the alphabet eventually held ballpoints, quill pens and fountain pens to practice cursive writing and calligraphy. Our educational foundation was outstanding. I still use fountain pens—and diagram sentences in my head—when I write.
Art was also an important part of our curriculum. When we visited the Met and other museums with Mom, my younger sister Betty and I marveled at how large the masterpieces were in comparison to the replicas we pasted into notebooks at school. The simple essays we wrote next to each picture card helped us understand color, perspective, symmetry, symbolism and context. When Betty became a public school principal in the South Bronx, she made sure that an arts curriculum was available for her students, too.
Our school reflected the diversity so typical of the Lower East Side: We were Italian, Irish, Puerto Rican, African-American, Polish, German, Portuguese and more. One of my classmates was Buddhist, traveling from Chinatown each day. Mom walked us to and from Lillian Wald Houses, the public housing project on Avenue D where we lived. Our little sister Josie eventually joined us in her stroller and became an artist when she grew up. Back then, the Lower East Side was anachronistic: Avenue C was a marvelous hodgepodge of family-owned small shops and outdoor stands. There were even two horses that pulled wagons full of fruits and vegetables. The bustling bakery at the corner of Seventh Street and Avenue C sold Italian bread, onion bread, bialys, éclairs, rugelach and hamentashen. Yiddish, English and Spanish were freely spoken and, in the spring, merchants sold fragrant lilac branches. Our classrooms smelled very good, indeed.
Throughout the years, I’ve thought often about the small oasis where we learned about social justice, Martin Luther King and our responsibility to help others. Some of us lived in the projects and others in walk-up tenements. We knew about drugs and crime and many of us were poor. Some of our parents were illiterate; our dad only finished third grade. At school, we were taught that just like the art masterpieces we studied, we were each unique and beautiful.
I recently read with heart-wrenching sadness that St. Brigid School will be closing its doors in June. I don’t know where you are, or whether you’re even alive, but to all the teachers and staff and my classmates, I want to simply say “Thanks.”
Lizbeth González is an associate justice of the Appellate Term (1st Dept.) and a Supreme Court justice in Bronx County.