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Discovering the library


School – a frightening adventure
Sherwin Nuland Surgeon
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School, to me, was a frightening adventure, because there were plenty of immigrants' children, but those immigrants could read a report card and they could read the books their kids were looking at. There were many, many words in English I didn't know when I started at Public School 33 in the Bronx, and there were a number of embarrassing episodes that I had.

But it was a wondrous world. It was nothing like home. There were two marvellous kindergarten teachers. In those days, almost all teachers were Irish Catholic maidens, who had given their lives to these immigrant kids. A lot of us were Italian or Irish, a lot of us were Jewish. I never knew a Protestant till I went to medical school in 1951. And there we were, learning about America with these devoted, very kind women. And that was my experience all the way through school until… really until I started high school, that there so many of these unmarried women who recognized that our academic, intellectual, maybe economic, futures lay in their hands, and whatever they may have thought of us or our religious beliefs made no difference whatsoever. They were just kind and good.

One of the extraordinary things that happened to me along the way was when I learned to read. I wasn't precocious in learning to read. I was in second grade before I could read very well. So I'd go to the library, I'd get a library card, just like my teacher said, Sherwin, you should really do this. And I… it was about a two-mile walk to our library through the streets of the Bronx.

Sherwin Nuland (1930-2014) was an American surgeon and author who taught bioethics, the history of medicine, and medicine at the Yale University School of Medicine. He wrote the book How We Die which made The New York Times bestseller list and won the National Book Award. He also wrote about his own painful coming of age as a son of immigrants in Lost in America: A Journey with My Father. He used to write for The New Yorker, The New York Times, Time, and the New York Review of Books.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: immigrants, childhood, English, public school, kindergarten, library

Duration: 2 minutes

Date story recorded: January 2011

Date story went live: 13 September 2011