A Fifties education: the high school years

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On the brink of high school, for the first time there were choices to be made. Either head for the neighborhood institution to which we were zoned and remain safely surrounded by your childhood buddies or take the exam for one of the special high schools. The elite three – Brooklyn Tech, Stuyvesant and Bronx High School of Science had a license to cream the best and the brightest. That choice was sure to be the first step toward distancing me from family, friends and neighborhood, an inevitable time bomb inside enticing educational gift wrap. I took the exam for Brooklyn Tech, a cavernous monster that swallowed 6,000 boys every morning and spat them back out on the streets of downtown Brooklyn at 3:05 every afternoon. The test was administered in the school’s auditorium whose intimidating birthday cake layers of triple balconies brought to mind my family’s annual excursion to the Radio City Music Hall. We were issued lap boards on which to rest our exams, the very same ones on which I took my New York State Regents’ exams three years later. All the important decisions about my academic future were to be played out in this venue better suited for the Rockettes.

Brooklyn Tech, even more than its elite counterparts in the other boroughs was a training ground for engineers. Stuyvesant and Bronx Science might have been better choices for me, but the geography didn’t work quite as well, and parents like mine, who were both immigrants and survivors of the Depression were, understandably, obsessed with security. Engineering had the reputation of providing that safe future, so the less rebellious of us were directed into those professional holding pens. Many remained, but large numbers bolted, as I did, when they discovered how little the engineering life suited them.

Although I took all the required English, Social Studies and French classes, it was the science, the math, and the four years of shop and mechanical drawing that have stayed with me, not always for positive reasons. The science sequence began with a unique cocktail called Industrial Processes from which I emerged steeped in the esoterica of steel production, sulfur mining and oil refining. It was an invitation into the Masonic mysteries of Industrial America for its future priests. More traditional forays into physics and chemistry followed, but in those now unimaginable days before DNA was discovered, biology was scratched from the course dance card, dismissed as too soft, with no practical applications. Even our language courses were labeled “Scientific German” or “Scientific French”, the only two options available, based on their connection to a significant history of scientific achievement. However, my French teacher was enough of a subversive to smuggle a fair dose of literature into the curriculum. He was, by the way, one of several teachers at the school with Ph.Ds. They had come to high school teaching during the Depression years when the job market tanked, much to the good fortune of students like me.

Being “handy” was a central construct in my mother’s vocabulary. It covered a variety of physical skills, mostly having to do with small home repairs and other problem-solving skills that required manual dexterity. My father was decidedly not handy. I was, by a shade, more “ept” than my father, although I was constrained by my mother’s contention that it wasn’t so good to be too handy because people who worked with their hands were somehow less than people who worked with their heads. Four years of shop and mechanical drawing for someone like me who was mechanically and spatially challenged was sheer hell. The shop sequence was a well-conceived excursion through industrial processes that had prevailed in manufacturing since the 19th century. First, we made wood patterns for machine parts which then went to the foundry to be cast. From there they went to the machine shop where they were precision tooled to specifications and finally to the inspection shop where they were measured with gauges to assure accuracy. Each one of those stages represented a year of shop work

I was terrible at all these operations and even worse at the three-dimensional renderings of machine parts and buildings that we were expected to produce in mechanical drawing aka drafting. It’s as close as I’ve come to understanding what it feels like to be learning disabled or simply overwhelmed by the traditional academic learning that I excelled at. Unfortunately, class rankings at the school were determined by a fiendish system called weighted averages which factored in all these “handy” courses with the traditional academics. Term after term this system dragged me down below the upper echelons of my class and made me wish for the comforts of the neighborhood high school I had forsaken.

In addition to being an all-male school, Brooklyn Tech could not possibly had more than a dozen Black students. I wish I could say I was as pained by the absence of students of color as by the absence of girls, but that would not be the truth. The uniformed Catholic girls who crowded into the subway cars on my way to and from school were the stuff of my dreams, and as much as I found the elite masculine image of Brooklyn Tech intoxicating, I longed for a school where I could ogle the girls during the ten minute passing periods or press dangerously close to them in the elevators that ferried us like cattle from floor to floor in that cavernous eight-story building.

If Black students were few, there was an interesting array of classmates who introduced me to the non-Jewish world outside my neighborhood – Joe DiIorio, Damian Pepe, Gordon Bray, Michael Shea. The schools’ population transcended neighborhoods, even borough boundaries. Friction was almost non-existent because the school sat in neutral territory, unclaimed by any of the groups we represented. Although diversity was not a major subject of discussion, we were proud of our polyglot population. We even had kids with foreign accents – Greeks, Italians, Venezuelans – which guaranteed an almost automatic annual trip to the city soccer championships.

In a school of such vast proportions, even the cafeteria had to be run on military lines, each table assigned to a badged monitor overseen in turn by a section leader, lord  over eight long rectangular tables who was responsible for seeing that they were cleared and cleaned by the time the bell sounded signaling the end of lunch. I still own those badges which were coveted as passionately as professional athletes covet their championship rings. Each semester of cafeteria service earned us points toward admission to Arista, the student honor society; it’s not even fair to ask from this side of the divide why that was important.

There were other ways to earn service points – the usual special interest clubs (French, Math, Science), tutoring, participation in the G.O. (General Organization), the student government we all recognized as a sham in an unabashedly unapologetic authoritarian system. For students everywhere the G.O. or its equivalent provided the first taste of political cynicism, a glimpse into the workings of a pseudo-democratic institution. Campaign platforms, posters, vote counts, acceptance speeches – everything but actual power. An unfortunately apt training ground for the real thing.

My most engaging service work involved the NYC Board of Education radio station, WNYE, whose headquarters were in a four story add-on that sat atop the school’s eight story academic area like an ornament on a wedding cake. The station’s radio antenna made Brooklyn Tech’s location visible throughout downtown Brooklyn.

Several times a week, during my scheduled study hall periods, I ascended into a world far more glamorous than the sand-strewn foundry shop and the regimented hallways with their painted center lines, crossed on pain of death, designed to keep traffic flowing between periods. What I did in those office was distinctly unglamorous. It was the work of the modern day unpaid intern – delivering papers from one office to another, collating and stapling scripts, surviving long bouts of dead time in the station’s waiting room. But I knew that somewhere close by actors were beaming to thousands of elementary students across the city programs about our neighbors to the south, the framers of the Constitution and fun with numbers. That struck as more real than anything that was happening on the floors below.

The stuff of my social, emotional and spiritual life (yes, Virginia, teenagers do have spiritual lives, often at least as active as their sexual lives) was playing out on a stage far from school. At 14, I joined a youth group at the synagogue my father and I attended on Saturday mornings. Temple Petach Tikvah (Doorway of Hope) was a domed edifice, approached by a long set of granite stairs alongside which rested a bulletin board announcing the subject of Rabbi Abraham Block’s  weekly sermon – “Abraham and Isaac: the Ultimate Sacrifice” or “ Forty Years in the Wilderness: A Cleansing Journey.” It was literally and figuratively a few steps above the basement synagogue my father and I had attended in my earlier years.

The Youth Group met weekly for discussions of Jewish subjects, conducted its own Sabbath services, participated in weekend conventions at other synagogues, organized dances, fielded its own basketball team and sponsored members’ attendance at a two week summer camp in Connecticut. It had everything that school was lacking – girls, opportunities for serious (but not too serious) discussions about ethics, God, history, prayer, death. It also represented a cause – my first – about which I could be passionate. The State of Israel, founded in 1948, was still in its infancy. We all knew the story of its victory against hordes of hostile invaders and the ingathering of exiles from across the Diaspora. We sang Israeli songs, danced Israeli dances, rebutted the propaganda of anti-Israel groups within the Jewish community who were fighting a rear-guard action against a state whose existence raised questions about their unswerving loyalty to America. The Zionist seeds planted during that period inspired me to spend a year in Israel after my freshman year of college, which needs to be the subject of a separate piece. At the end of that year, I vowed to return permanently. I never made it.

Not a soul at Brooklyn Tech knew me, except as a Delaney Card, a small bit of heavy paper stock on which teachers recorded

our test scores and participation grades. These slid into slots in a binder on the teacher’s desk in a pattern that corresponded to the room’s seating arrangement. I drifted through my three years in a cloud of anonymity. Not so at the Temple. Our youth group leader, also named Marv, a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, was our mentor, teacher and big brother. He oversaw our services, led our discussions, and hung out with us at the office while we laid out our newsletter or planned a weekend convention. Our parents were working people, too busy to volunteer at the Temple and too removed from the teen age American milieu we swam in, so Marv was our designated adult presence. Besides we would have died of embarrassment if our parents had intruded into our adolescent sanctuary.

Marv saw something in me that I was too insecure and self-effacing to see in myself – that I was a creative thinking person, capable of commanding the respect of my peers’ respect. Marv made it clear that I was worthy of his attention and had a fair shot at surviving my pimply adolescence to become the kind of adult who has not jettisoned his ideals and passions en route. Marv was the mentor every kid needs but whom few are lucky enough to encounter.

How quiet and sheltered those high school years seem from today’s perspective. In a time before social media, our world was smaller and more innocent. But strip that all away and what lies beneath are the same struggles for identity, for friendship and for guidance for a way forward into territory where the stakes were ever higher.

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Marv Hoffman

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