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Abigail B. Calkin

A Blog of Personal Thoughts

Friends Seminary, NYC

June 2024

Two weeks ago I attended my 65th school reunion at Friends Seminary, a kindergarten through twelfth grade school in New York City. Tony, Rick, and Elizabeth started in kindergarten and attended all grades. The rest of us came later, two as late as twelfth grade. In those years class size limited at 25. I attended in second grade when my parents and I lived next door in the small Quaker residential hotel, The Penington. I returned for the four high school years.

I was in second grade when I learned my name was not Gail but Abigail. I changed the name in my second-grade reader, Fleetfoot the Cave Boy.

second grade signature

My signature revised from Gail Calkin to my correct and preferred name, Abigail B. Calkin. I learned in second grade that that was my proper name. (My mother didnít like the name Abigail because it was too old-fashioned.)

Fleetfoot the Cave Boy

Our second-grade reader

Friends Seminary and Friends Meeting House

(R->L) Friends Seminary (school), Friends Meetinghouse, The Penington Quaker Hotel (now House) is which the light-colored four-story building attached to the Meetinghouse.

After second grade, my parents and I moved to Maine. I fell back in love with rural New England. My parents decided to move back to NYC at the end of my fifth grade. I suggested I could stay in Orono and live with a family there or with Aunt Mary and Uncle Henry on their farm in Pennsylvania. Both requests received a firm no. I liked living at The Penington, but hated New York City with its noise, dirt, and all the people.

Since both my older sisters were coming with us, we lived in a three-bedroom apartment at 2 Fifth Avenue. That was okay, but I didn’t get to go back to Friends for the class had its 25 students. Instead, I went to Grace Church School for three years. After forming more lifetime friendships there, I returned to Friends in ninth grade. I tried to turn them to call me Abigail, but that didn’t work. Too many of them knew me as Gail, the name I never cared for. Two weekends ago the class of 1959 had its 65th reunion and nine of us attended. Yes, we had had 25th, 50th, and 60th reunions. By now, eight had died, seven were too ill to come, three are unknown, and one attended his son’s wedding. That doesn’t add up to 25 because Nancy and Chris left during our high school years. The husband of one of our deceased classmates attended also. Yes, we were and are a close group. We also look forward to our 70th reunion!

Once in ninth grade, the girls in the class decided to rebel against the norm of the day including the class ahead of us. No pageboy haircuts, loafers or saddle shoes, sweater sets, or lipstick for us. Most of us grew our hair long, wore no lipstick, wore black tights and any shoes we pleased.  

I called classmate Julie one fall day in 1984. I didn’t realize how frustrated I was with work until she said “I’m buying you a ticket to come for a long weekend.” Rather than protest that I didn’t have the time, could afford my own ticket, I said, “What a gorgeous offer and I’m going to accept.” What a lovely, relaxing, and busy weekend that was, starting with, fairly typical for Julie and me, going to three parties on Friday evening. As we drove through San Francisco, a panel truck passed us, “Lorenzo Boelitz Electrical.” That has to be our classmate Martin’s younger brother, we declared. Indeed it was. I’m still indebted to Julie for that trip.

Julie and I also went to a West Coast Friends reunion that weekend. One of our classmates, Tony, also attended. He was preparing for a trip to the Soviet Union to conduct an American choral group to sing Rachmaninoff’s Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom at the 1,000th anniversary of the Russian Orthodox Church. “Come along!” he said. My sister and I tagged along for the trip of a lifetime.  

We kept in touch in other ways. I stayed in touch with Elizabeth who lived across the street—both fifth Avenue and Washington Mews.  Margot and her husband came to visit me in Alaska. Abby and I got together at a Barnes & Noble one day and another year I visited her in Woodstock. Some other time I visited Tony and his family in California.

Washington Mews

Washington Mews, the one-block long private street. Below, the one on the left is #4 where I lived and on the right #64 where Elizabeth lived. (Thank you, Wikipedia.) On the night of graduation, we had a party with champagne. As we overflowed into the Mews with our champagne, whoops, our parents decided we should move indoors as most of us were only 17. Some of the Mews houses were from the 1880s when they were used as stables for the Washington Square houses, including those for the childhood home of Henry and William James.


Keith, Tony, and Chris (in our reunion t-shirt).

Ah, the story of the t-shirt’s slogan, “Saxums sunt invicti.” Saxum is Latin for rock, thus it reads rocks are invincible. Until the reunion, I didn’t know the story behind it. The 1950s were the time of gangs in New York City, a tradition back to the 1800s really. Gangs posted graffiti around part of lower Manhattan. I lived in The Village, Greenwich Village, that is, in the days when there was only the west Village. The now-East Village was still the Lower East Side and not a place for us from Friends or The Village to hang out or even go. Some of the boys in our class decided to form a gang. What did that make it—a Quaker gang? Some of these boys in our class went around the neighborhood writing “Saxums” on various walls and in the run-down Union Square. The real gangs took notice and began to look for this heretofore unknown Saxum gang invading their territory. It seems there was a confrontation with one of the Village or Lower East Side gangs. Our “gang” of invincible rocks just turned tail and ran away successfully.

I am now left to wonder about the time Elizabeth and I were assaulted by two girls, probably from the Sullivan Street Gang. Coming home from school, we got off the 6th Avenue bus at Eighth Street to walk up to our homes on Fifth Avenue and Eighth Street. First, they threw verbal comments, then insults at us. About half way up the block the two gang girls began to push us and hit us with their purses. As they grew more aggressive, we walked faster. So did they. We decided to duck in the side entrance of 2 Fifth, hoping the side door was not locked. If it had been locked, as it sometimes was, we would be hit by more than purses. They would have cornered us and thrown fisted punches at us. The door was unlocked and we didn’t need to go around to the front entrance and be saved by the doormen. Did they know we, by association, were a part of the Saxums?

I don’t think we knew it at the time, but we at Grace Church School and Friends Seminary grew up a privileged group of children. I know it now and that’s one of the reasons why I went into public school teaching and administration. Everyone should have the dignity, the educational opportunities and privileges we had no matter how little money the families had.

While at the reunion we had the opportunity to visit a new room, the Skyspace, designed by artist, James Terrell. When he was a boy living in New York City, he and his parents were members of The Fifteenth Street Meeting. The two websites show its design. My two photos are still images I took in the room. The light and colors change and move. I’m a wordsmith not a visual artist so you need to search for Terrell on the internet to learn more about him and his Skyspaces. I know he has made 75 around the world and that the Museum of Modern Art in New York City has one. These two websites show information about Friends Seminary's Skyspace's design. I wish those of us at the reunion has sat in that space together.

Friends Seminary's Skyspace design 1
Friends Seminary's Skyspace design 2

My mother always said to keep childhood friends close. She was right. I have three different groups of childhood friends and we always pick up where we left off. Maybe it was yesterday, maybe ten years ago, maybe even 50, but there we are talking about books we’re reading, how a job is going, what play or concert we went to recently. I’ll just use part of quote from 1 Samuel 19:1-24, “Keep your friends close….”

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