Curtis Alumni from 1936

Greer Gerney

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  In 1936, Curtis celebrated the thirty-second year since its opening in 1904 as the first high school on Staten Island. There were upward of five hundred students graduating that year, either in January or June depending on their birth date, and one of the youngest graduates was Shirley Mae Palmer (now Elfers). Born on Staten Island in 1920, Mrs. Elfers was only sixteen when she was handed the diploma we all so covet. In talking with Shirley, I was able to understand the growth of this community through the personal and fascinating lens of her own experiences. I interviewed her with the hope that her stories could bring to life a Curtis and Staten Island of the past, a first hand portrayal of the place which continues to give education and wisdom to its students.

This June will mark eighty-three years since the graduation of the class of 1936 and to say the least, much has changed. Socially, politically, technologically, and even locally, the experience of being a high-school student at Curtis today is vastly different than that of a student in the early twentieth century. The beginning of the 2019 school year in September will mark the one hundred and fifteenth anniversary of Curtis’ opening, while in 1936 the school was barely into its third decade.

           We carry computers in our pockets and back then, people didn’t have televisions in their homes. Mrs. Elfers was born two years after the end of the First World War, the Great Depression began when she was nine, and her generation would become the veterans of the Second World War. As Generation Z, we were born just as the War on Terror began, as the twin towers fell, and our parents bore the weight of the worldwide economic recession in 2008. The similarities between our struggles and triumphs as students was the driving force behind this conversation, with the goal of gaining a new perspective on our community and history from a woman who has seen so much.

Shirley Mae Palmer was born on May 11, 1920 in the house built by her grandfather on Hendricks Avenue. She has lived on Staten Island for her whole life, commuted to Manhattan to work and built her life in the borough of her birth. Mrs. Elfers is the oldest of her siblings, three years older than her sister and eight years older than her brother. We talked a lot about her family and how much they meant to her, their German heritage and the fun stories that she holds dear. Mrs. Elfers was only twelve years old when she first came to Curtis as a freshman, an accomplishment she accredits to her love of learning. “I loved school and because I did well, they pushed me. I skipped four times! I got out of grammar school at twelve instead of fourteen so I graduated from Curtis at sixteen,” she said. Somewhat similar to the “house” system that we have now, each student in her year had to select a focus and because of her aunts, she chose the commercial program. Both of her mother’s elder sisters, Emma and Clara, worked in business world of Manhattan which is what she says she aspired to do in high-school, making the choice of her focus obvious. The commercial program would prepare her for the career as a secretary she began immediately after graduating. While attending Curtis, Mrs. Elfers says that her favorite subject was history and when she needed credits in what would be her final year of schooling, she opted for ancient history. Though obviously talented and interested in the humanities, she never took any higher level math courses. “I was cheated on math because by skipping grades in grammar school I never learned algebra to start and to go on, I needed algebra,” said  Elfers.

After graduating in the midst of the Great Depression, Mrs. Elfers became a secretary for the Charles E. Merrell Company that manufactured schoolbooks. When I asked if there was anything she regrets, her immediate response was, “Not becoming a school-teacher.”

Upon beginning this project, there seemed to be endless degrees of separation between myself and 1936; the separation of our worlds was something that seemed too vast to cross. As we began to talk though, Mrs.Elfers was able to paint for me an image of her Curtis that I can see.

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