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Shared Experiences, Nearly 70 Years Apart: Two Pelicans Reflect on Their Time at Packer

In honor of Packer’s 175th Anniversary, The Packer Magazine brought the Development Offices’ most junior and most senior volunteers together for a conversation. Over Zoom, senior Sara Gerson ’21, who came to Packer as a Kindergartener in 2008, and Ellin Rosenzweig ’52, who enrolled as a Third Grader in 1939, shared memories of their time on Joralemon Street. Their dialogue illuminated how much has changed, and how much has stayed the same, over the years.

Sara: What is your first memory of Packer?

Ellin: My first memory was when I was brought in to be interviewed. I was interviewed in the Third Grade classroom by a Second Grade teacher by the name of Ms. Mungeon. Sara: I swear I remember my interview as well. I tell my parents the story of how I think it went and what happened, and they always tell me I’m lying. So apparently my first actual memory is running around Pumpkin Patch [the annual Halloween festival in the Garden], with my new Kindergarten friends. I remember feeling so independent that I could walk around the building alone, and I was genuinely excited to go to every activity. Tell me about your most memorable teacher.

Ellin: There is no question, it was Ms. Elizabeth Wright. She was the head of the elementary school. She chaired the Music Department. She was the head teacher for the Eighth Grade. She played the organ. She led the choir in Chapel every day, she led the Glee Club, and she also conducted and directed the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta every year. One time, one of my French teachers didn’t show up to class. Someone told Ms. Wright, and she came in and taught us French! She was absolutely amazing.

Sara: Wow. That is really impressive. I would have loved to have met that teacher. Mine’s a little simpler. I had an English teacher [in Middle School] named Mr. Todd Johnson. English was a subject that was really hard for me, and I hated attending the classes. He noticed that I wasn’t doing my best and that I could be thinking deeper and doing better. He raised my confidence level. English is my favorite subject now. I’m very, very thankful for him because he’s definitely inspired my educational journey. What was your favorite Packer tradition?

Ellin: The Christmas Pageant. It was held in the Chapel every year. Each year, they chose different people to play the roles of Mary, Joseph, Gabriel, the baby angels, and the shepherds. And there was always singing.

I was on the Alumni Board when they told us that there would be no Christmas Pageant anymore. The two people there who groaned the most were me and another Jewish person. We were so sad that it wouldn’t be taking place anymore.

Sara: I just love Dance Concert [a showcase of student-choreographed dance performances]. Because it’s student-led, it creates an environment where students can build their confidence. Performing for everyone is so rewarding, that feeling of knowing that everyone is seeing the work you’ve put in. What was the Garden like during your time at Packer?

Ellin: It was one big square of grass, which you couldn’t walk on for most of the year. You were punished if you did. And it was surrounded by a brick sidewalk. There were some benches that you could sit on. In the springtime, it was gorgeous. Azalea bushes were blooming. And the ivy on the walls, the old gray ivy walls, and they had wisteria vines growing up the wall. It was really beautiful.

The Garden in the late 1940s. Ellin’s classmates are seated on the left: Joan Shamyer Shalhoub ’52, Virginia Dagher Stewart ’52, and Phyllis Thornhill Riffel-Schwedo ’52.

Sara: Now it’s a little bit different. There’s the Imagination Station, which is the infamous playground made of wood that’s been there for years. And there’s the big open space in the center [now landscaped with pavers, to encourage students to play]. It’s still really pretty. In the fall, sitting outside the Atrium and looking out into the Garden with all the trees and the leaves falling is genuinely one of my favorite things ever. What role did the Chapel play in your Packer student experience?

Ellin: Everyone—Third Grade through Junior College—met there every day. And Fridays, we said the national anthem. Someone from the Senior Class always said something. It started out with a hymn, Bible reading, the Lord’s Prayer, and then there’d be announcements. Occasionally someone would come in and play one or two pieces on the piano.

At one point, one of the presidents of the school thought we needed more space [to accommodate classes], so he wanted to change the Chapel. I was on the [Alumni Board] then. I had a long talk with him, and that was the end of that! He ended up repairing the Chapel instead.

Sara: My Chapel experience is actually pretty similar, except it’s not every morning. It’s once a week. A Senior speaks every time and there are musical performances and presentations from students who are eager to share their learning. What were your neighborhood hangouts during your high school years?

Ellin: We weren’t allowed out, so we didn’t have any. We weren’t allowed out of school during the daytime at all. You know where the Pratt Building is? That was a playground. After school we could play kickball, and there was a jungle gym, and slides and swings. The head of the Gym Department would try to teach us to play tennis there.

Alumnae Hall opened onto a walled playground on the corner of Joralemon and Clinton streets until 1957. The first floor windows of Alumnae Hall can still be seen today inside the Blackburne Library and the Upper School Office.

Sara: So you didn’t even hang out after school around Brooklyn Heights?

Ellin: No. Weekends we’d get together, go to the movies or have a sleepover, but there were no neighborhood gatherings after school. Sara: That’s interesting that there were no neighborhood hangouts. I go to the pier [in Brooklyn Bridge Park] a lot with my friends. I love taking walks down the Promenade, and just looking at the skyline. I dance every day after school. And just like you, I love hanging out with my friends on the weekend, seeing movies, getting dinner, sleepovers.

Ellin: Some things don’t change. What is one major news event that occurred during your time at Packer, and how did students respond?

Sara: One that stands out to me was the [2018] Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, because it hit so close to home. It was kids our age. Packer students really spoke up and rallied together and went to protests.

Ellin: I was at Packer when the Second World War started. My father enlisted and he was almost going to have to take me out of Packer. But Dr. Schaefer, who was the head then, gave me a scholarship so I was able to stay.

I remember in the Fifth Grade we knitted squares to be made into afghans for the troops. And we had air raid drills. You have fire drills; we had air drills. Sometimes we had to get under our desks. It was kind of a scary time.

Sara: What are some of the biggest changes you’ve noticed?

Ellin: They’re all good changes. Packer’s co-ed. We’re integrated. The Garden has become more usable. There are many more course offerings. The Packer Early Learning Center, the Middle School building—they’re all wonderful.

Our class was very, very lucky because we were a class that was more accepting of change and accepted the fact that Packer went co-ed, that it integrated. Our class just accepted everyone and everything that happened. What would you want the Class of 1952—and other Packer alumni— to know about Packer today?

Sara: Packer students are driven to create change, and are eager to speak their mind. And do what’s right, always. The teachers are very motivated to help you succeed, and there are so many resources to make sure that you do. And we’re very spirited. We love doing quirky things. I have loved the people I’ve met at Packer. Seriously, I know they’ll be my friends for life.

Read more:

175 Years: Packer’s Demisemiseptcentennial

Images From the Packer Archives