Friday, August 08, 2008

MEMOIR: Remembering my high school days

My grandson has just entered high school, which reminds me that it was exactly 70 years ago this year that I entered high school. For four years, I attended DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, which probably had more students than any high school in the country. (The school was named after New York's first governor.)

The school, which was then nearly a half-century old, had about 12,000 students--all boys. It was so big that separate morning and afternoon sessions were required to accommodate the student body.

The school also had an annex, several miles away from the main campus, which I attended during the first half of my freshman year. The annex was then closed and and later became the initial site of a new specialized school, the Bronx High School of Science.

Clinton's main campus was located in a tranquil neighborhood close to the Westchester County line, far removed from the city's crowded streets. Virtually all the students had to take the subway to get there.

I attended Clinton largely because most of my friends and male relatives went there. We received an excellent education, but we never had the kind of active school social life enjoyed by students at a co-ed school.

Clinton always boasted top-notch football, basketball, and track teams. Strangely, however, it didn't have a baseball team. Baseball was my favorite sport, and if the school had had a team, I would have tried out for it. I did, however, try out for a spot on the track team as a sprinter.

I didn't make it, largely because I had the misfortune of having to compete against twin African-American brothers named Calendar, who were such spectacular performers that 10 years later they were members of the U.S. Olympic track team. (One of them eventually became a municipal judge.)

Although I failed to achieve success as an athlete, I was essentially content with my high school experience. I recall that many of my teachers were superior to many of my college professors. But hanging over me and my classmates was the strain of the Depression. My father was frequently unemployed, and economics played an important role in my life during my teen-age years.

Considering Clinton's size, it is not surprising that the school produced countless men who became internationally prominent in their respective fields. The celebrities ranged from movie star Burt Lancaster to fashion mogul Ralph Lauren.

I can still recall the special assembly that was held for incoming freshmen. The main speaker was the head of the school's alumni association. He was Richard Rodgers, the famed composer of classic Broadway musicals.

Rodgers may have been an inspiration for the school's theatrical tradition. When I entered the school, Paddy Cheyefsky, who graduated a year or two before me, was writing the school shows. After he graduated, Neil Simon, who graduated a year or two after me, succeeded Cheyefsky as Clinton's primary student playwright.

Clinton's student body was predominantly Jewish. I would estimate that about 20% of the students were African-American. Clinton, which had an excellent academic image, was known to be the high school of choice for boys in Harlem who aspired to attend college.

Two of the most prominent members of my 1942 graduating class were African-American, the author James Baldwin and Basil Paterson, who became New York's secretary of state and is the father of the state's current governor, David Paterson.

Sugar Ray Robinson, the famous world champion boxer, was also a student while I was in the school. As the lightweight Golden Gloves champion, he was already a celebrity. I can still recall seeing Robinson pridefully wearing a jacket bearing crossed boxing gloves on the back. This was the emblem of the Salem-Crescent Athletic Club, a noted Harlem boxing club, many of whose members were Clinton students.

I believe that the lure of a lucrative professional boxing career probably induced Robinson to quit school before graduating. I seem to remember reading an interview published in the school newspaper, however, in which he claimed that his ambition was to become a doctor.

As an aspiring journalist, I applied to become a writer for the school paper. The paper was a hallowed institution at Clinton. A venerated English teacher (I remember only his first name, Raphael) was the paper's faculty adviser.

Applicants for the paper's staff were required to attend lengthy journalism classes that he conducted after regular school hours. I was either too lazy or busy to attend, and I never did become active on the paper. My record of extra-curricular activities in high school was therefore quite thin. I can recall being a member only of the History Honor Society and the Library Squad.

I pray that when my grandson graduates from high school, he will not face what clouded the future of those of us who graduated in January 1942, a month after Pearl Harbor. The following year most of us were in military service.



Blogger Heather said...

Fascinating Blog. I was just wondering today what the future holds for my daughters once they complete high school. Although they have not even began the high school journey yet.

Friday, August 08, 2008 10:52:00 PM  
Blogger Darlene said...

Mort, the alumni of your High School reads like a list of "who's who". Clinton must have had an impressive faculty.

You graduated a year ahead of me and I will be attending our High School's 65th reunion in September. I remember our graduation ceremony when the boys who were already in the service stood up to be recognized. It was a poignant moment.

Saturday, August 09, 2008 9:12:00 AM  
Blogger Linda Hillin said...

Mort, as always I enjoyed your post. What an impressive group you went to school with. I have to believe that what our country is facing now is not as severe as when you graduated from high school in 1942 (I was born in 1942). My mother lost a brother in the Battle of Normandy. Surely times are not as bad as it seems to me they were back then. You've written a fascinating piece.

Saturday, August 09, 2008 7:35:00 PM  
Anonymous Eileen said...

Kind and generous stories which I'm thrilled to have found! Thank you so much for your wonderful blog.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008 5:36:00 PM  
Blogger Ginnie said...

Yes, I agree with everyone that you had an impressive High School education and fascinating alumni. I attended a much smaller school in Wellesley Hills, Ma. but we did have one very famous alumni, (in my class, no less)... Sylvia Plath.
I wish I could agree with your commentor about our present situation as a country being less severe than it was then. I find this to be the scariest time of my long life and feel that we've compromised almost everything that we are supposed to stand for.

Saturday, August 16, 2008 1:24:00 PM  
Blogger Sylvia K said...

I can't believe that I didn't leave a comment after reading your post! It was indeed an impressive place to have had the privledge of attending! No wonder you were so inspired and you have succeeded in becoming one more spendid example of all that they had to offer.

Saturday, August 16, 2008 4:52:00 PM  
Blogger Norma said...

I thought my husband's high school was large (4,000 in Indianapolis). Sounds like you got an excellent education that prepared you for your career.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008 6:06:00 PM  

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