Living Through History at Nightingale

OCTOBER 22, 2020

School looks a bit different this year, no? The COVID-19 pandemic has expanded our classrooms both inside the Schoolhouse and to our Hawks@Home, face masks, social distancing, lunch delivery, extra disinfecting, cancelled athletics and events, and virtual admissions processes. Protests and support rallies for important social issues are regular occurrences. Political discourse has become increasingly polarized. It’s not the typical start of a new school year.

As a 100-year-old institution, Nightingale has been through its share of challenging times. We are fortunate to have materials in the archives that allow us to learn how Nightingale endured various hardships throughout its long history. Some of these include building schoolhouses, the September 11th Terrorist Attacks, and World War II.

You may already know that Nightingale’s schoolhouse has been located on East 92nd Street since 1920, in various forms. While students may be able to endure limited renovation construction, what are they to do when the schoolhouse is being demolished and rebuilt? The Fall 2000 issue of Nightingale-Bamford magazine is dedicated to what was dubbed “The Great Adventure,” the period from June 1989 to September 1991 during which the school operated from about twenty different locations across the Upper East Side while a new schoolhouse was built. Bus service shuttled Upper School girls from lunch at Browning to the library at Collegiate or the science labs at Chapin. The Parents’ Association President even opened up her apartment for a faculty lounge. Joan McMenamin, Head of School at the time, noted: “The most challenging aspect for me as Headmistress during the time that we were out of the building was to make sure that the School not become fragmented.” Her extraordinary leadership, along with the positive attitude and willingness of everyone involved, was credited for the school’s ability to turn the period into a highlight of Nightingale’s history rather than a disaster. You can find testimonials and photographs from The Great Adventure in the magazine, including one memory of an impromptu field trip for 180 Lower School girls to the Statue of Liberty when teachers arrived one morning to find the Park Avenue Synagogue (their temporary classroom space) unexpectedly closed for a Jewish holiday.

In the October 2011 issue of The Spectator, one student called September 11, 2001, “one day that stands in infamy” for her generation. On that tenth anniversary, Upper School students, who were in lower school in 2001, and faculty members recall the events and aftermath of that tragic day. The archives also holds letters received from students around the world, written just after the tragic event, poems and remarks from a 2002 memorial assembly, student letters to firefighters in 2001 thanking them for their service, and photographs of related student art.

Digging even further into the archives reveals how the Nightingale community came together in full force to support efforts during World War II. The school received multiple citations for service, including clothing collection, participation in the Schools at War fundraising program, and other drives. The spring 1944 Bulletin of the Nightingale-Bamford School (Service number) includes an essay by Miss Bamford on how parents, teachers, and students are better from the war, and essays from young alumnae who took jobs as engineers and with the Red Cross to support war efforts. In addition, the Social Service Committee fostered children in France and Belgium whose families were affected by war conditions, sending care packages with clothing, food, and money and exchanging letters.

What stands out when looking at these hard times is that the Nightingale community has come together, supported each other and those in need outside the community, trusted its excellent leadership, and approached challenges with thoughtfulness and positive, can-do attitude.

We will be documenting this time in Nightingale’s history. When we think about collecting items to archive a particular time in history, we can ask ourselves, “What would you want future Nighthawks to know about this time? How has it affected you, your family, or the school community?”

Suggestions for submissions include:

  • Personal journals, essays, poems
  • Sample calendars or schedules
  • Art (on paper, preferably no larger than 8/5 x 11), or a photograph of art, especially if the art is three dimensional
  • Photographs, short videos
  • Letter to your future self or future Nighthawks
  • Go to recipes for baked goods or dinner during this time
  • Oral History Interview (StoryCorpsConnect is a great remote recording app!)

Scope should be limited to effects on and experiences of the Nightingale school community and its members. Records should be accompanied by the name of the creator (and grade/age if relevant), date(s) of creation, and other description that gives context to the records. Photographs should also identify date, subjects, and location. Submissions should be sent to for use in a virtual gallery and placement in the school’s archives.

This article was written by School Archivist Katie Bednark.