The Happy Man Moves On

Benjamin B. Ferencz

It was probably my notoriety as Chief Mickey Mouse that procured for me an invitation to become a member of the Dramatic Club in Public School 80. The teacher in charge recruited me when I was in the seventh grade. She explained that I would have a part in a play that the club would produce. Membership dues would be fifty-cents per week to pay for the costumes. I was assigned a minor role and told to show up for the initial rehearsal the following week.

When I appeared, as scheduled, I remembered the part but I forgot the dues. My mother convinced me that since she could make my costume herself, I did not have to make the payment. The first rehearsal went so well that I saw no need for me to repeat it. When I showed up again, in time for the final performance, I was unceremoniously canned. In no uncertain terms, the irate instructor made plain that my presence as a member of the club was no longer desired. Not only was I delinquent in behavior and attendance but also in the payment of dues. I was out! My unsolicited career as a Thespian came to an abrupt halt. Since I had memorized my part perfectly, and did not yet appreciate the need for cooperative practice by the entire company. I felt that an injustice had been done.

When I was promoted into the eighth grade, another teacher gave me a second chance in the limelight. I was invited to star in the graduation play. No dues were required. The theme of the play was that a powerful but grumpy king always complained about his troubles and his aches and pains. The Crown’s doctors concluded that the only remedy for the ailing sovereign was to wear the shirt of a happy man. His couriers scoured the kingdom but every one they questioned had some sad tale to tell as a reason for his discontent. The searchers were desperate, fearing the wrath of the King if they returned empty-handed. By chance, while wandering over a meadow, the King’s guards heard the merry lilting tones of a flute being played by a young shepherd. When asked if he was happy, the boy looked puzzled by the question, but responded merrily that he found joy in every day. “Quick,” said the King’s man, “you must give us your shirt to save the life of our sovereign.” “But,” replied the flustered and hesitant youth, “I do not have a shirt to my back.” Whereupon, with a flourish, he opened his sheepskin coat and revealed a naked body covered only by a small pair of my black swimming trunks. Of course, I was the merry shepherd. When the apprehensive messengers reported to the King that the only happy person they could find in the kingdom did not even own a shirt, the monarch roared with laughter. He was cured forever. The audience applauded gleefully and I gained lasting fame as “The Happy Man.” I have tried to live up to the role ever since.

Another story during my years at P.S. 80 surely altered the course of my life. My eighth grade teacher was a kindly Irish lady named Mrs. Connelly. She cared about all of her students as though they were her own children. One day, she asked me to bring my parents to school to meet with the Principal. I feared the worst. When I explained that my father was no longer available, we settled on an appearance by my mother. At the appointed hour, my messy hair was combed, my dirty shoes were shined and, hand in hand, my mother and I appeared to meet the Principal and the teacher of my graduating class. They said, slowly and carefully, that they wanted to talk to my mother about the future of her only son. It sounded ominous.

They explained that I was an unusual child—a fact my mother, as well as some of my victims, already suspected. I guess she also expected a lesson on how to discipline unruly children. Much to our pleasant surprise, these splendid teachers wanted to talk to her about sending me to a special school; not for juvenile delinquents, but for “gifted boys.” We didn’t know what a “gifted boy” was, since I was not in the habit of receiving gifts. The terminology came from the official program of a unique educational institution. “Townsend Harris Preparatory School, Preparatory for the College of the City of New York” was the only school of its kind in the country. It offered an accelerated curriculum that, if passed successfully, would ensure automatic admittance to the College of the City of New York. There would be no tuition charges. No one in my parents’ family had ever gone to college. Everyone we knew went to work as soon as they could find a job. To finish high school was regarded as the highest possible academic achievement for immigrants like us. Now my mother was being told that her little boy might go to college and it would cost nothing, which was about all we could afford. Only in America! I have been a grateful patriot ever since.

My mother expressed appreciation and said that she would have to leave it to the teachers to decide what school I should attend. It was a moving meeting. It also meant that we would have to move—again. Townsend Harris High was located on 23rd Street in Manhattan in the building that housed the Business School of City College. If we stayed in the Bronx, I would have to travel alone on the Third Avenue El train for almost an hour to get to school every day. The teachers there were college professors, and the courses were geared to college students. It was expected that the studies would be completed in three years instead of the usual four. How or why I was selected, I do not know. A new door opened new opportunities. The challenge could not be turned down. The family began to look for new lodgings.

129 East 64th Street in Manhattan was a good address in a good neighborhood, and I could get to Townsend Harris by a short bus ride down Lexington Avenue. Of course, we couldn’t afford to live there. My determined and creative mother somehow managed to lease the small brownstone townhouse and rent the ten furnished rooms within as sublets. We lived on the ground floor, in what had been a kitchen, rented out the other rooms, kept the house clean, and in essence carried on the noble traditions of janitoring we had learned in Hell’s Kitchen. Uncle Dave tended the furnace and did repairs when he came home from his job as an ironworker. I was experienced as an Assistant Janitor, and was now on my way to becoming something more.