A lament for my high school alma mater
The New York Times recently reported that about 1,500 students at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx skipped classes and marched out of the school for a protest demonstration. They were protesting the installation of metal detectors and x-ray machines to scan students' book bags at the school entrance and surveillance cameras along the building's stairwells.
New York City education authorities declared that these security measures were necessary because of the school's high crime rate which, according to the Times, is "60% higher than the citywide average for schools of the same size." When one considers how seriously the city's school system is crime-ridden, Clinton's situation is obviously catastrophic. Thirteen "major crimes" were recently reported at Clinton in a single year.
Clinton is now co-ed but was an all-boys school for most of its century-long history. The current enrollment is about 4,500. Insideschools.org, an independent guide to the city's public schools, estimates that about 60% of the students are Hispanic, 30% black, 5% white, and the remainder presumably Asian.
As an alumnus of DeWitt Clinton (class of January 1942), I am stunned and saddened that such extreme security measures are now needed to curb criminal activity at a school where I recall spending four enjoyable, academic-rewarding years. And this was during a period when many students' families, my own included, were hurting badly during the Depression.
The school was located on an attractive, almost pastoral campus, some distance away from crowded residential neighborhoods, providing a tranquil setting unlike that of the sterotypical inner-city school. I assume that the outside physical environment hasn't changed very much since then.
In my day, about 12,000 boys were enrolled. This required the scheduling of two different sessions, one starting early in the morning and the other begining in the afternoon. I don't believe that the overcrowded conditions affected scholastic achievement. Despite its huge size, larger than most universities at the time, the school had an excellent academic reputation.
Among its alumni are such well known personalities as actor Burt Lancaster, composer Richard Rodgers (who as president of the alumni association greeted my incoming freshman class at a special assembly), playwrights Paddy Chayefsky and Neil Simon, the African-American author James Baldwin (who was my classmate), fashion designer Ralph Lauren, jazz musician Fats Waller, basketball star Dolph Schayes, radio journalist Daniel Schorr, and many hundreds of prominent businessmen (Bloomingdale's former CEO Marvin Traub was another of my classmates), politicians (Basil Paterson, an African-American former New York state senator was also in my class), lawyers, scientists, judges, diplomats, doctors, scholars, and other professional figures. The legendary boxer, Sugar Ray Robinson, already a celebrity as a Golden Gloves champion, was also in attendance while I was at Clinton, but I don't think he stayed around to graduate. The lure of a rich professional career probably took precedence.
The ethnic/religious demographic makeup differed markedly in my day from the current study body. I would estimate that about 70% of the students was white and the remainder about 30% African-American. The white students were predominantly Jewish but with significant numbers of boys of Italian, Irish and other ethnic minority backgrounds. I do not recall any Asian or Hispanic students. The few dozen boys bearing Hispanic names were invariably Sephardic Jews. WASPs were a rare species.
I do not remember any incidents that might be regarded as "criminal," and racial tension was unknown. The only racial "issue" that comes to mind surfaced when an African-American boy wanted to enroll in a newly-introduced two-year modern Hebrew class. He was rejected because he could not read and write the Hebrew alphabet, as required for enrollment. This was a skill possessed, of course, only by Jewish boys who had undergone preparation for their bar-mitzvahs. And for some, that was a process that often lasted longer than two years. I don't think the boy made a big deal out of his rejection.
For fear of entering racist territory, I hesitate to note how Clinton's ethnic/religious makeup now differs from the late 1930s and early 1940s and to question whether this is a factor in the school's current crisis. I would prefer to believe that other socio-economic factors are in play. But I am troubled that few if any of today's Clinton students are likely to have the kind of pleasant high school memories that I now enjoy some 65 years later.