Ever wonder what became of the people who were voted ‘most likely to succeed’ in your high school class? I don’t have to – I was one of them. Alan Schick and I were selected from the Canarsie High School class of 1976. Though I don’t think Alan is famous, I certainly don’t hold that against him, neither am I. Success and fame are not synonymous in my estimation. We are Facebook friends and as best as I can tell, he is a successful attorney and family man. I hope he feels he has a fulfilling life. [Alan, if you are reading this and would like to chime in, please do!]
I’ve been thinking about it recently and, naturally me being me, the designation raises lots of questions. I wondered if anyone has ever done of study: were those folks predicted to be successful by their classmates actually successful? How did their lives turn out?
Not withstanding that question, why do we select classmates as most likely to succeed in the first place? Who came up with the idea? All of those ‘senior superlatives’ are tricky and they can be controversial, too. I looked back at my high school yearbook.
We had some interesting titles: Mr. and Miss Canarsie, Mr. and Miss Soul, Class Flirt, Class Fox (separate from cutest boy and girl obviously). What were we thinking with class flirt and fox? Popularity surely plays a role in all the selections. Why do we vote for any of the categories? I suppose it is fun, but is it?
Since I had all these questions I went to the font of all knowledge – Google. I typed in: Are people voted most likely to succeed successful? Voila! I found a piece addressing some of my questions on NPR (from 2011). It reported the following:
“A recent poll by the high school reunion networking site MemoryLane.com found nearly one-third of those named most likely [to succeed] came to regard it as a curse…” [Please note, it was not offered as a scientific study/]
Only 1/3, that doesn’t sound too bad. Apparently, another third of those polled said the designation had no significance at all, some had even forgotten about it entirely. One person quoted in the piece reported finding motivation in it. When things got difficult, he thought back on the confidence people had in him and it helped.
I can’t say I found it helpful, but I also wasn’t burdened by it. I do remember having some trepidation about attending our 30th high school reunion. I wondered how I would be judged, if people would be disappointed when I reported what I was doing. It turned out to be a nonissue. Though I chatted with people about my life, I don’t recall anyone commenting on whether I measured up to the label.
At the root of this lies a more important question: what does success mean? When 17- or 18-year-olds choose a classmate, what are the metrics of success they have in mind? According to that same NPR piece, most people polled said ‘rising to the top of your field,’ making a lot of money and becoming famous. By those standards, I wouldn’t make the cut. I didn’t have a field, per se. I worked in different government/nonprofit positions. I didn’t make a lot of money and I am not famous either (at least not yet, perhaps this blog will go viral, though I have been at it for five years and it hasn’t happened. Besides, fame is not my goal.). Not mentioned as criteria: having a long, loving marriage, raising children to be productive adults, maintaining friendships and family ties, continuing to grow and learn. If those were the measures, I’d be solid.
Whether one was voted most likely to succeed, another senior superlative or if one escaped high school without a designation, everyone deals with the weight of expectations. One way or another, we have to sort out what our parents want for us, the hopes of our family and community and what we want for ourselves.
Some may have to overcome a lack of expectation; feeling that no one has hopes for them. We all have challenges making our way in the adult world.
Should high schools continue this tradition? I’m under the impression that some have stopped. Did you get voted one of these titles? How has that impacted your life, if at all? I hope you’ll share. I’d love to get a conversation started.
Note: Today is Columbus Day or Indigenous People’s Day. It seems apropos to revisit another historical controversy – one not quite so long ago. Also, I’d like to give a shout out to my cousin Ira, celebrating a milestone birthday today, having been through a lot more than most. I wish him health, happiness and many more celebrations.
In a series of previous blog posts, I wrote about the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Teachers Strike of 1968 because it was a seminal event in both the history of New York City and my family. My Dad was a union activist and walked that picket line. That strike is seen by many as a turning point in the relationship between the Jewish- and African-American communities, damaging it so much that it reverberates to this day.
As part of my exploration of the topic I attended a panel discussion at the Brooklyn Historical Society in late January of 2019. Monifa Edwards, the valedictorian from the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Junior High School in 1968, began the session by talking about her journey. Ms. Edwards, who is in her 60s now, held herself like a dancer, lean and elegant. She spoke with assurance. She gave some background, noting that her family, originally from the Caribbean, valued education. Her parents were distressed that the neighborhood schools had such a poor reputation. As a result, they enrolled her in a public elementary school in Gravesend, way across the borough of Brooklyn, an opportunity offered by New York City to desegregate the schools.
She described a harrowing experience on one particular trip. The bus was surrounded by angry white parents. The driver and bus monitor vanished, and the parents started rocking the bus and yelling epithets. Monifa recounted that she could still see, in her mind’s eye, the face of one of the mothers – her hair in curlers, her face twisted in hate. Monifa was terrified and traumatized by the experience. She came home and told her parents that she was going to go to a neighborhood school next year, no matter what, even if the education offered was inferior.
I heard Monifa’s story and it broke my heart. I could imagine her fear as the bus threatened to tip over. It made me think of my own experience in 1973 attending junior high school in Canarsie despite a boycott of the schools because parents were against the proposed busing of black students into our district. I walked a gauntlet lined by police and white demonstrators who were yelling and shaking their fists at the few of us who dared to attend classes. It was unnerving.
Monifa continued, explaining how based on this incident, and other painful experiences, she was ‘primed to be radicalized’ (her phrase). To her radicalized meant adopting the beliefs of the Black Panthers. When she asked adults around her, how could that white mother hate her so much and want to do her harm, she was told that white people were the devil. This made sense to her young self. It explained what she had experienced. I could understand how a child would receive and accept that message. As a young teen she joined the Black Panthers in Brooklyn and they became involved in the controversy over the schools in Ocean Hill-Brownsville.
Hearing about the Black Panthers brought back images I saw on television when I was growing up. Angry young black men, wearing berets, camo and armed to the teeth came to mind. Those images were unsettling when they flashed on the nightly news in 1967, 1968 and 1969. The energy and anger that radiated was scary – especially when coupled with footage of cities burning. It felt like revolution was in the air.
As a young white girl in Brooklyn, it was beyond my control or understanding. I remember my Dad coming home from the picket line, tired and frustrated; talking about the ‘trouble-makers’ and ‘opportunists’ that were stirring the pot. He viewed the strike as necessary to protect union rights, to ensure due process for teachers who were disciplined. He thought schools needed to be protected from local politics. I implicitly trusted my dad’s judgment – I knew him to be an ethical, thoughtful person.
I later came to understand that the students and parents in the community felt unheard and disrespected in the current system. Though it wasn’t my dad’s intent, the structure he was supporting likely contributed to the community’s alienation. It was a dangerous situation – with the mostly white picketers (the teachers) in a Black neighborhood, Black Panthers on the scene, epithets flying both ways, anger bubbling to the surface, police sharpshooters on the roofs of buildings across from the junior high school. Each side believing in the righteousness of their cause. The civil rights movement, which had been nonviolent, was undergoing a change, especially after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. earlier that year.
Years later I watched the documentary Eyes on the Prize and learned more about the Black Panthers; I gained a fuller understanding of the organization. Their ten-point program doesn’t seem quite as radical today. These are the ten points:
What We Want Now!
We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our Black Community.
We want full employment for our people.
We want an end to the robbery by the capitalists of our black and oppressed communities.
We want decent housing, fit for shelter of human beings.
We want education for our people that exposes the true nature of this decadent American society. We want education that teaches us our true history and our role in the present day society.
We want all Black men to be exempt from military service.
We want an immediate end to POLICE BRUTALITY and MURDER of Black people.
We want freedom for all Black men held in federal, state, county and city prisons and jails.
We want all Black people when brought to trial to be tried in court by a jury of their peer group or people from their Black Communities, as defined by the Constitution of the United States.
We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace.
I’m sure some of those demands would trouble people today. Freedom for all incarcerated black men is not realistic, though I can’t deny that racism is embedded in the criminal justice system. ‘Robbery by the capitalists’ is still incendiary language, as well. But the thrust of the program addresses legitimate grievances.
The Black Panther platform also included statements of belief. This part likely stoked more of the controversy.
What We Believe:
We believe that Black People will not be free until we are able to determine our own destiny.
We believe that the federal government is responsible and obligated to give every man employment or a guaranteed income. We believe that if the White American business men will not give full employment, the means of production should be taken from the businessmen and placed in the community so that the people of the community can organize and employ all of its people and give a high standard of living.
We believe that this racist government has robbed us and now we are demanding the overdue debt of forty acres and two mules. Forty acres and two mules was promised 100 years ago as redistribution for slave labor and mass murder of Black people. We will accept the payment in currency which will be distributed to our many communities: the Germans are now aiding the Jews in Israel for genocide of the Jewish people. The Germans murdered 6,000,000 Jews. The American racist has taken part in the slaughter of over 50,000,000 Black people; therefore, we feel that this is a modest demand that we make.
We believe that if the White landlords will not give decent housing to our Black community, then the housing and the land should be made into cooperatives so that our community, with government aid, can build and make a decent housing for its people.
We believe in an educational system that will give our people a knowledge of self. If a man does not have knowledge of himself and his position in society and the world, then he has little chance to relate to anything else.
We believe that Black people should not be forced to fight in the military service to defend a racist government that does not protect us. We will not fight and kill other people of color in the world who, like Black people, are being victimized by the White racist government of America. We will protect ourselves from the force and violence of the racist police and the racist military, by whatever means necessary.
We believe we can end police brutality in our Black community by organizing Black self-defense groups that are dedicated to defending our Black community from racist police oppression and brutality. The second Amendment of the Constitution of the United States gives us the right to bear arms. We therefore believe that all Black people should arm themselves for self-defense.
We believe that all Black people should be released from the many jails and prisons because they have not received a fair and impartial trial.
We believe that the courts should follow the United States Constitution so that Black people will receive fair trials. The 14th Amendment of the U.S Constitution gives a man a right to be tried by his peers. A peer is a persons from a similar economic, social, religious, geographical, environmental, historical, and racial background. To do this the court will be forced to select a jury from the Black community from which the Black defendant came. We have been, and are being tried by all-white juries that have no understanding of “the average reasoning man” of the Black community.
When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and nature’s god entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to separation. We hold these truths to be self-evident, and that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its power in such a form as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accused. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, and their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards of their future security.
When I read it now, I am first struck by the reference only to men. The organization may have been progressive, but they didn’t extend the call for liberation to Black women. I am also struck by the rage that permeates. We needed to acknowledge that fury. We didn’t then, and we are still dealing with the consequences. While I don’t accept a number of their remedies (or all of the assumptions), some of their answers seem appropriate (decent housing, education that includes contributions beyond those of White men, and, reparations should be negotiated). As is often the case, more attention was given to the extremes, rather than focusing what could be agreed upon.
I can certainly imagine that a young person, like Monifa, would find all of it empowering and tantalizing.
Sitting in the audience that night listening to the discussion at the Brooklyn Historical Society, I thought there was a hole in the presentation. The perspective of someone like my father, whose motivations were not drenched in bigotry or a hunger for power for power’s sake, who legitimately believed that the principles of the union were at stake, was not represented. While giving parents a voice in schools is essential, it is reasonable to ask what their role should be if teaching is a respected profession. Having served as a school board member for nine years in an upstate New York suburb, I have grappled with this question. It is not easily answered. Sadly, in 1968 the union and the community could find no middle ground.
I think in one respect that panel discussion repeated the sins of the past. An important voice wasn’t heard.
Sitting in the audience that night, I was also reminded that the messages we receive as children are powerful. I absorbed messages that I still need to examine, so did Monifa Edwards. It takes work and awareness to overcome them. Many people are not introspective, some may not want to make the effort, and others may not be willing to be honest with themselves. But if we are ever going to progress, we need to do the work.
Ms. Edwards said she had long since moved beyond her radical phase, she was able to overcome the hateful message that white people were devils. Unfortunately, time was limited and there were other issues to discuss so we didn’t learn how that process occurred or how long it took.
How many people in the world, who are currently traumatized by violence and/or abuse, are ‘primed to be radicalized?’ How many will do the work that Ms. Edwards did to move beyond hate? And, I wonder how she feels today, eighteen months later, in the wake of continued instances of black citizens being murdered by police, seemingly without consequence.
And, finally, I wonder when we will truly learn to listen and try to understand, beyond just the words.
Scaring kids straight isn’t supposed to work, but it worked on me. There is a school of thought that says that if you present adolescents with a frightening picture of what drug use looks like, it will keep kids on the straight and narrow. I haven’t looked at the data, but I’m under the impression that the strategy isn’t very effective. Maybe because adolescents think they are immortal, that they are unique, can maintain control and it won’t happen to them. Or maybe because they don’t believe the message adults are feeding them. When I was an adolescent, I believed.
When I was growing up in the early ’70s there were stories about people taking a ‘bad trip’ and trying to fly off buildings – to their death. There were other stories of tripping on LSD and wandering outside naked. I’m not sure which of those scenarios horrified me more. The idea of being out of control, or not being able to distinguish fantasy from reality, was terrifying to me. When there was a rumor that someone had laced the ketchup in Coney Island Joe’s, a neighborhood burger/hot dog place, with LSD, I stayed away for years.
When I was 12 a book came out,“Go Ask Alice.” It was released anonymously, described as the diary of a real girl who got mixed up in the drug scene. I don’t remember who got the book, my friend Deborah or me, but we were so anxious to read it that we went into her basement and read it aloud. I think we read the entire book that way – in one sitting. We were shocked and disturbed by it.
The story presented a 15 year old girl, who we could relate to as she struggled with social acceptance, whose first experience with drugs was accidental. It fed into the zeitgeist of the time (not that I knew that word then). After consuming LSD without knowing, she got deeper into the scene. She was new to her town and she became friends with a group of kids who were experimenting with drugs. It all seemed so plausible to me.
The worst part of the story was that the diary ended with her clean, starting a new path with new friends. There was a brief epilogue that reported that she died of a drug overdose a couple of weeks later. Deborah and I were devastated.
I was just starting junior high school and I never felt more alienated. As I have written before in earlier blog posts, Nana, my grandmother and closest companion, had died the year before. To make matters worse, I was zoned to go to a different junior high school from my classmates in elementary school. It was a challenging time to say the least.
Reading Alice’s story, the girl’s name is never actually revealed, we just assumed it was Alice based on the title of the book, convinced me that whatever loneliness I might have felt, befriending kids who were doing drugs was not an option. I think Deborah came away thinking the same thing.
I’m not sure what reminded me of the book or this issue, but when I did a bit of online research about it, I found some interesting things. Unbeknownst to me, a few years after it came out, there was controversy about whether the book was a real diary or if it was fabricated. The edition we read had the tag line “A Real Diary.” (see photo above) It was presented as non-fiction. Lo and behold, when information emerged about the possible author, Beatrice Sparks, it turned out she was a therapist who said it was a diary of one of her clients that the parents authorized her to use. But, apparently Sparks augmented the diary entries. Today the book is still in print, but it is categorized as fiction and includes a disclaimer. Turns out James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces” wasn’t the first of this kind of controversy.
Perhaps those adolescents who were skeptical about messages from adults were right. Ironic, isn’t it? I think my fear of drug use served me well, though.
Class ended. Mercifully, after two and a half hours of policy analysis and evaluation, it was time for lunch. A group of six of us, all full time graduate students at Columbia, had a habit of going to the diner a couple of blocks down Amsterdam Avenue after class.
I gathered up my stuff and started walking with the others to the elevator when Dan nudged me to get my attention. Dan, who wore crisp oxford shirts and chinos to class and spoke with authority, asked “Why do you always apologize before you ask a question? I don’t get it.” I looked at him blankly, “Huh?”
He continued, “You always start your question, in class, by apologizing for it. Like, ‘Sorry, but I was wondering…’ Why do you do that?” There was more than a trace of annoyance in his tone.
I felt defensive. I thought for a moment, as we continued walking, trying to come up with an answer. Fortunately, the others in the group were chatting amongst themselves.
“Well,” I began, “I can’t say I consciously knew that I did that….” I was thinking quickly, reviewing what had happened in class that may have triggered Dan’s observation, trying to come up with some kind of reasonable response.
“There’s no reason for it, you shouldn’t do that.” he said, emphatically. “Sorry if it annoys you,” I responded, and I sped up to join the others. I probably annoyed him again by apologizing again.
This happened over 35 years ago. I thought about it then, and I still reflect on it now. Asking questions, in class or in conversation, isn’t that simple. At least not to me.
As I thought about it, many things came into play. First, was self-consciousness and insecurity. Maybe I HAD missed something the professor said. I knew some students, as a result of those doubts, didn’t ask questions. I had enough confidence to ask, but not enough to not preface it by hedging or softening it. I realized, as Dan pointed out, that I likely did start with something like, “Sorry, maybe I missed this, but can you explain….” I wondered whether there was anything so wrong with that.
I don’t think it occurred to me at the time, but it did years later, that it also probably related to being female. I knew that as a woman there was a line to walk, of not coming across too aggressively, but not fading into the woodwork, either. I had a hard time with that. I wanted to ask questions, I wanted to express opinions, but I wanted to be feminine, too. I think I felt that asking a question could be threatening and that was the last thing I wanted to communicate.
Other things probably played into it, too. When I was in college, Merle, my roommate, and I volunteered to work at the campus hotline, called High Hopes. It was a resource for students to call if they had questions. The question could range from the ordinary, like where to get birth control, to the very serious, like what to do about feeling depressed. We went through fairly extensive training – we weren’t supposed to be counselors providing therapy, but the hotline was a first line of getting someone help if they needed it. Some of the training involved attending lectures, getting information about drugs, sexuality and other common issues of concern to college students. We also learned about non-judgmental ways of listening to people and we did role plays.
We were trained, in a basic way, to use Carl Roger’s technique of reflection, which meant listening to the caller and repeating back what you heard them say. This method was intended to help the person clarify what they felt. Sometimes a person didn’t know exactly what they felt, so by reflecting back what you hear, he or she can evaluate whether it is accurate.
In addition, in reflecting, we were trying to refrain from judgment. Sometimes just asking a person ‘why’ can insinuate judgment. If we needed to ask the caller for more information, we weren’t supposed to ask, “Why do you feel hurt (or substitute any other emotion, angry, sad)?” It was better to say, “It sounds like you feel hurt. Can you tell me more?”
This made so much sense to me. I had a number of opportunities to use that approach on my shifts at High Hopes and, generally, it worked quite well. It turned out to be useful in parenting, too.
Leah was quite an emotional child. Supporting her through the roller coaster of adolescence was a parenting challenge. I was most effective when I remembered to use reflection (full disclosure: I didn’t always remember). It validated her feelings, helped her clarify them and often led to insights. I recommend it!
While that technique doesn’t exactly apply to asking questions in a classroom, which is what my classmate Dan was calling me out on, in one respect it does. As a result of my High Hopes experience, I became conscious of not implying judgment in a broader sense – I didn’t want a professor to think I was questioning their expertise, or suggesting they were a lousy teacher. It seemed like a reasonable strategy to start by acknowledging that I could be wrong or uninformed.
Before Dan’s comment, I hadn’t thought about it consciously, much less considered that there could be a downside to doing it. But I was learning that there was. If Dan was any example, it could be annoying. It also diminished whatever came after the apology, I was devaluing my own contribution. I didn’t want to go around apologizing for my existence. As I’ve gotten older, I think I’ve done it less.
This issue is relevant in another setting. As a school board member, and as a trainer of school board members, this aspect of communication comes up often. Frequently at board meetings a staff person makes a presentation and the board is given the opportunity to ask questions. This can be a minefield. A board member can, premeditatedly or thoughtlessly, embarrass the presenter by asking a pointed question. So much transpires in this communication. There can be history or baggage – is there goodwill as a baseline between the board and the staff? A particular presenter can be overly sensitive to questions. Some people are comfortable with public presentations and thinking on their feet and welcome engagement in the form of questions; others don’t. Even educators, who spend their day teaching, get nervous when speaking in front of the school board. We spend time at our workshops talking about modes of communication in order to raise awareness of potential pitfalls. I imagine this dynamic comes into play in many office settings. Who knew asking questions could be so fraught?
So, I’m still thinking about this issue. How do you ask a question?
I wonder sometimes how much of what I remember is real. This is especially true of my friendship with Susan.
I didn’t have many friends on my block. Somehow East 91st Street had an inordinate number of bullies and I was a target of their ridicule. Here are just a few examples: I was riding my bike when a couple of kids chased me thrusting a stick at my spokes hoping to knock me off, I was spat on as I walked home from synagogue on Rosh Hashana and my cat was mistreated (I wrote about that here). This was all at the hands of the Italian kids who lived at one end of our block. My brothers were occasionally called into service to scare them off. I knew enough not to generalize, after all, each of my brother’s best friends were Italian. But given all that I experienced, my friendship with Susan, who was also Italian but lived at the other end of the street, came as a surprise.
Susan was popular on the block and in my class. She was blonde and blue-eyed, with an up turned nose. She was rail thin. She was everything I was not. She could do a round-off, cartwheels and handstands. I will allow that I was athletic, but in a different way. I felt rooted to the ground by my thick bones and muscular frame. I could run and throw a ball, and my balance was good, so I didn’t feel clumsy, but I was unwilling to hurl myself into space to do any kind of gymnastics move. I didn’t have Susan’s grace or fearlessness, which is why this next part is so surprising.
Susan and I spent long hours teaching ourselves tricks on our bicycles. The street next to her house which abutted the weeds had very little traffic, so we would ride up and back endlessly, perfecting our moves. Starting simply by riding with no hands, ultimately, we were able to stand on our seats in an arabesque, one leg extended behind, our arms outstretched. I felt like I was flying. When we thought we were good enough, we invited our parents to watch our circus act. My mother was aghast. I think back and wonder, did I really do that? It seems so out of character. But, I did.
Susan loved horses and would draw them again and again. I came to share her enthusiasm, learning to draw them and reading horse-themed stories like Black Beauty and Misty of Chincoteague. She and I would gallop around her side lawn, her corner house had enough property to be considered a lawn, unlike the postage stamp we shared with our neighbors.
Susan and I were in the same class at PS 272. In 4th grade there was something called a ‘slam book’ that was all the rage. It was book made up of looseleaf pages fastened together, each page contained a list of favorites. Favorite TV star, favorite football team, but it also ranked the cutest girls in the class, smartest boys, etc. It was a measure of popularity and caused me great anxiety. The book made its way up and down the rows of the class while our teacher, Mrs. Feinberg, faced the chalkboard. For a while this was a daily occurrence. Kids ranked things and wrote comments anonymously. I was always afraid what I’d find when the book arrived at my desk. I think once I made it to fifth cutest in the class. Susan was always in the top three. In choosing to be my friend, I felt anointed, touched by her popularity.
Everything was so different about Susan’s family. Her mother, Maria, reminded me of June Cleaver. In my mind’s eye, I see her wearing a dress, with an apron, kitten heels and pearls. Her hair styled, lipstick applied. My mom and my Nana wore housedresses and slippers.
I remember one time Susan and I had a plan to practice our bicycle tricks. I rang her doorbell and was invited into the kitchen where her parents were each enjoying a bottle of beer. I don’t think I ever saw beer at my house. I can’t recall a single time. I knew what it was, I saw enough commercials during baseball games, but I didn’t know anyone who drank it. Susan was begging her father to let her have a taste. He relented. She took two quick swigs and we went out to our bicycles. Susan joked that after drinking the beer she wouldn’t feel it if she fell on her head. She giggled. I was shocked.
Susan’s Dad, Tony, was the executive chef at the Carlysle Hotel on the Upper East Side in Manhattan. The same swanky hotel where Presidents, Prime Ministers and celebrities stayed when they came to New York. Which raised the question: why did Susan’s family live in Canarsie? I don’t know the answer to that, but, not surprisingly, they didn’t stay long.
At the end of 4th grade, Susan’s family moved to Wycoff, New Jersey. It might as well have been another country. We did see each other one more time. My parents dropped me off at their suburban house where Susan’s mom served, among other things, sliced homegrown tomatoes and fresh mozzarella cheese, dressed with basil, olive oil and salt and pepper. I had no idea tomatoes could taste that good. It was a revelation. At the end of the weekend, they drove me into the city to meet my parents at the Carlyle. We were given a tour of the kitchen. I was too young to appreciate what I was seeing. I know my parents were impressed. That was the last time I remember seeing Susan. We lost touch. She went on with her suburban life, not just drawing horses, but riding them. I went back to Canarsie, read the rest of the Chincoteague stories, and tried to find a place to fit in.
I’m not sure what people from Canarsie call themselves – Canarsiens? Canarsie-ites? Either way, I’m asking for your input.
I started this blog with the hope of painting a picture of my life in Canarsie, Brooklyn in the mid 1960s through early ‘70s. It was a time not unlike today, in some ways. It felt fraught, dangerous even. So much was changing and violence, in the form of urban riots and crime, was lurking. I grew up acutely aware of those crosscurrents.
Others growing up in Canarsie at the same time had different perceptions. I deduce this from conversations I have had with friends and from comments posted on the Internet. This isn’t surprising, of course, one would expect different experiences. But some have described an idyllic childhood in which neighbors looked out for each other and children played together in harmony (mostly). Which made me wonder: was my experience the exception?
I want to explore that question. If you (and please feel free to pass this request on) grew up in Canarsie and graduated from either Canarsie High School or South Shore from about 1973-1977 and would like to share your memories, I would like to interview you. Please send me an email at LBakst.Canarsie@gmail.com and I will follow up.
The three major topics I am interested in exploring are: family life, ethnicity/race relations, and perceptions of safety. I am particularly interested in memories of the boycott of schools in response to the busing plan in Canarsie in 1972-73.
This is not going to be a scientific study by any means, but interviews can yield important perspectives. I am hopeful that I will gain more insight into a broader range of experience and then I can share those insights on my blog, either as part of my stories or separately. I will keep the information anonymous, unless you are willing to speak for attribution.
Aside from satisfying my personal curiosity, I’m hoping it will help paint a more detailed picture of that time and place, which in turn should lead to a better understanding of who we are now. I hope the conversation will be interesting to you, too! I hope to hear from you.
Note: Names and details have been changed in the essay below to ensure the anonymity of the participants.
One of my roles, when I worked for the New York State School Boards Association (NYSSBA), was to facilitate board retreats. These sessions were designed to build trust and improve communication between board members and the superintendent, and to review their roles and responsibilities. Although I have retired from NYSSBA, I continue to take assignments to facilitate these workshops. I like to think that I can be helpful to boards that may be experiencing some dysfunction or just helping them improve their performance as a team, and a little extra cash doesn’t hurt either.
I’ve had some interesting experiences in doing this work. We usually begin with an icebreaker activity where we go around the room sharing some information about ourselves. We start with some straightforward stuff, where they grew up, how many siblings they have. And, lastly, they are asked to share their biggest challenge growing up. I often share the difficulty I had growing up with crossed eyes (which I have written about in this blog).
I had done this exercise many times. Participants usually respond in a range of ways, from offering very little by saying something innocuous, to making themselves vulnerable by sharing a private pain. In a recent workshop, an older gentleman, who was the first of the group of 12 to share, responded in a way that I had not heard before.
He began, “I’m not quite sure how to put this.” I got a little nervous, not knowing what kind of experience he was going to recount.
He went on, “I was an excellent ballet dancer.”
In the words of my mother-in-law, this I was not expecting.
My first impression of him would not have led me to associate ballet dancing with the short, 50ish year old man sitting before me. Without casting aspersions, he presented as squat and not noticeably graceful. He didn’t hold himself in that elegant, regal way that dancers typically do.
I also didn’t know where he was going with this. Being excellent at something isn’t usually a challenge, but then again, perhaps his experience related to gender stereotyping, or people like me making assumptions based on appearances.
All these thoughts were bouncing around in my head as I listened to his story. Hopefully I maintained a neutral facial expression, as all professional facilitators should.
He went on, “I recognized I was better than most and I needed to learn to hide that knowledge.”
Wait, what exactly was his challenge? To learn humility?
“I’ll give you an example….” He went on to explain that in high school he had a run-in with some members of the football team, who were teasing him about his ballet dancing.
Now the anecdote started to make sense, though, he certainly started the telling in an unusual way.
“There were three or four players, including the quarterback, in the room before class started,” he explained. “hassling me about being a ballet dancer. I said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. I get to hold an attractive girl, whose costume leaves little to the imagination. You, on the other hand, put your hands behind the butt of another guy! Who’s the gay one?’ That shut them up.”
There were 12 of us in the room, sitting around a rectangular conference table. Everyone was silent. I think we were all nonplussed. I’m not sure if he was expecting a response, but after a brief pause, he continued.
“Later, when the school day ended, I was heading to my locker. I saw the guys from the football team at the end of the hallway. We made eye contact. I left my stuff in my locker and turned to leave school and head home. The football players saw me turn and they took off, chasing me. I ran.
It was a distance to home and there were some hills. One by one the football players gave up, until only the quarterback was left chasing me. I was just outside my house when I stopped and faced him. We looked at each other. I said, ‘Let’s make a deal – you don’t do anything to me, you leave me alone, and I won’t tell anybody at school that I, a ballet dancer, outran the football team!’ After all, that would have embarrassed them. And, I would have done it, too. He agreed and that was the end of it. They never bothered me again.”
As he finished his story, he had a self-satisfied smile on his face.
I wasn’t sure how to respond. Was the story true? Was this a story he told himself? I looked quickly around the room to see if anyone wanted to say anything. After a bit of an awkward silence, I smiled and said, “Joe, thank you for sharing, sounds like a challenge you handled. Jill, how about you go next.”
I felt a mix of emotions. I was a bit incredulous, it all seemed too neat, almost scripted. But, it certainly wasn’t appropriate to question him. I was also offended by the casual sexism and homophobia in the way he relayed the story. Though this was an experience from many years ago, and talking that way was understandable and would’ve been acceptable then, there was nothing in his telling that showed any insight gained over the years. He was quite pleased with himself.
I also felt sad. I should have sympathized with him – it must’ve been difficult to be a male ballet dancer all those years ago. It likely still is. But, in how he framed his story and in his telling, he buried the pain of it. And that made it difficult for me to respond with genuine empathy.
Interestingly, as we went around the table and others shared, it was as if they, in response to his approach, revealed their childhood challenges without masking their pain. It was quite remarkable actually – in that small group, three had been abandoned by their mothers and one had a parent who died when he was in high school. Two revealed that they had a parent who was an alcoholic. I was reminded, again, how much private pain there is in this world.
The point of the exercise is to build trust among the team. I wondered if it had the desired effect.
I was very lucky. I grew up with a father who made me feel safe and supported. Although I did not fully understand my good fortune until I was a young adult, I did know it long before he died. I appreciated him in his lifetime and I am grateful for that.
Dad had an imposing presence. He was a bit shy of 6 foot, which in my mother’s estimation wasn’t tall enough (she was over 5’7” before osteoporosis and age did its damage), but he was a good healthy height by the standards of most Jewish people of his generation. It might be different today, with hybrid vigor and all, but notwithstanding my mother’s family, my grandparents’ and parents’ generation tended to be short. More than his height, though, Dad had broad shoulders, both literally and metaphorically.
I came to a greater appreciation of my father’s broad shoulders when I was a freshman in college.
I remember the trip up to Binghamton to drop me off quite clearly. We were listening to the radio as we drove through the Delaware Water Gap in the early morning, which was scenic with its green mountains and shimmering waterways. The sun was shining – a good omen, I thought. Coincidentally, the radio was tuned to a station that was playing music around the theme of saying good-bye. That may not have been the best choice for listening under the circumstances.
I already had mixed feelings about leaving home to go to college. I knew it was the right thing to do. It had been drummed into me that it was an important growth experience. My parents lived at home when they went to Brooklyn College and wanted their children to have the opportunity to go away. But, I was only 16 and had never been one to embrace change easily, so it presented a challenge. While I made progress during high school, gaining confidence and more self-esteem, I still had a long way to go.
For my oldest brother, college away was a great fit. As my parents liked to tell it, Steven arrived at the SUNY-Brockport campus, unloaded his bicycle, hopped on and rode away without looking back. They didn’t know if he would return to say good-bye.
For my brother Mark, I think it was a bit different. I don’t think he felt particularly ready to leave home, but he seemed to adjust to life at Oneonta. He was two years ahead of me and was quite settled by the time it was my turn to go to Binghamton.
In late August of 1976, as we drove through the Delaware Water Gap, with the sad songs playing, I felt a mix of melancholy and hopefulness. It was a new chapter and I had no idea what to expect.
We arrived on campus and were directed to my room, which was difficult to find. I was assigned to the College-in-the-Woods dorm complex, the newest of the dorms on campus and supposedly the most desireable. The buildings were a modern design, with a quirky layout that included large rooms, intended to be triples, where the door to the room was outside the building. Those rooms weren’t really part of the rest of the floor. Not only was the room set apart, but in my case, it was located in back of the building, so it was isolated. When I opened my room door, I saw a small driveway, garbage dumpsters and then the woods. There was also a door to the rest of the dorm across a short walkway. The room was allegedly part of the basement floor, called “the Pits,” of Cayuga Hall. My new home.
Dad was not happy with my room. In fact, he was angry. We went to find someone in authority. Dad vigorously made the case that he thought it wasn’t safe for young women. In his opinion, the room should have been assigned to boys. There were no options for changing anything, though. They assured us that it was safe, there was adequate lighting and the RA (resident assistant) on the floor would be attentive. Reluctantly, Dad gave in, but not before putting everyone on notice about his concerns.
My Dad, who I thought was the strongest person in the world, single-handedly carried my very full, heavy steamer trunk into the room. We all made several trips from the car to the room. They helped me unpack and my mom made up my bed. Then, they left and headed back to Canarsie. I had to fight the urge to climb in the backseat.
Orientation week began. I had major ups and downs. On the upside, I bonded with Merle (who was tripled in a similar type of room one floor above me on the other side of the same dorm), Alison and Dianne immediately. On the downside, I didn’t bond with my roommates and I found the campus atmosphere stifling. It felt unreal to me, not only was my room isolated, but the whole campus felt like an island. I was used to reading three New York City newspapers every day. I was used to watching the news on television every night. The only television available was in the common lounge and there was no cable in those days, we didn’t get the NYC channels. The local Binghamton newscast seemed quaint by comparison. I felt disconnected…and I was.
I called my parents regularly, often in tears, often feeling lonely. I would be apologetic, “I’m sorry I’m calling you so unhappy.” My Dad was reassuring, “You have nothing to apologize for. We want you to call us if there is something bothering you. You are not a burden.” Although he couldn’t fix things, he and my mom did make me feel better. He wrote me encouraging letters. He tried to help me navigate things with my two roommates.
The three of us were an interesting combination. Me, from Brooklyn, Sue from Long Island and Sharon from Rochester, NY. Sue and I got along fine, but we were from different worlds. There was a large contingent of freshmen from her high school and she socialized with them. They reminded me of the kids from the camp where I worked – and not in a good way. They were concerned with hair, make-up and designer clothes – and partying. They came across as entitled and monied. So, while as an individual Sue was fine, I didn’t enjoy her group and I didn’t hang out with her.
Sharon was from a suburb of Rochester and she was a completely different story. She came to college not knowing how a woman got pregnant. She was naïve beyond belief. Sue offered her her copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves. Though I was totally inexperienced in that regard (I had a lot to learn from Our Bodies, Ourselves, too), I at least knew the facts of life. Sharon was a very odd duck. One of the things that was unique was that she could burp louder than anyone I had ever known. Each time she did, I couldn’t help myself, I would go, “Woah!?!,” a mixture of awe and surprise. I was taught to keep all bodily functions as quiet and private as possible, so Sharon was a revelation. Beyond that quirk, we also didn’t have much in common, and she seemed a bit troubled. During midterms, she scratched her own face in a fit of anxiety.
I had my own struggles that first semester. My writing, which was a source of pride in high school, was criticized by both my Lit & Comp TA (teaching assistant) and my Intro to Poli Sci professor. I was reeling. The weather in Binghamton in the fall and winter of 1976/77 was biblically bad – it literally precipitated for 40 days and 40 nights. There was snow on the ground from my birthday (October 3) through April – and we had snow flurries during finals in May. I had to steel myself, I hunched my shoulders and tightened my muscles each time I opened the dorm door to the bitter cold. Previously I didn’t know nose hairs could freeze, but they did when I walked to the classroom wing! Gray clouds were a constant. For someone prone to melancholia under the best of circumstances, this was a bad recipe.
In the middle of that fall semester, weird stuff started disappearing from our room – some money (mostly loose change), a robe, a pair of pajamas. Not major theft, but it was noticeable. I mentioned it to my Dad. He told me to report it to the RA. I did.
They did an investigation that included being interrogated in the RA’s room by the Resident Director, with a single lamp shining on my face, while I sat on the RA’s desk chair. After a few days, I received a letter (I think all three of us received the same letter, but my memory fails me on this) that said they knew who was doing this and that person was expected to go to Psych Services (the counseling center). I shared this with my Dad, who was incensed. I was totally perplexed. Who was doing this? It was more of an annoyance than frightening to me. He wrote a letter to the President of the University saying that the matter was being mishandled and that the letter I had received had better not be included in my official record and should be destroyed. Dad received a letter in return that agreed with him and assured us that the letter was torn up and was not part of my official record.
Shortly thereafter items stopped disappearing. It was all very strange. That incident certainly didn’t help my relationship with my roommates or connect me to my RA and the other residents of “The Pits.” It solidified the need for me to change rooms and roommates.
At another point in that semester I received a bill indicating that tuition had not been fully paid. I think it may have related to not getting credit for my Regent’s Scholarship. Once again, I called home. Dad told me he would take care of it, and he did. I didn’t receive another bill.
As painful as freshman year was, I learned a great deal. Aside from reading The Iliad and other classics, I made life-long friends. And, I came to understand how lucky I was to have parents who were there for me. Dad especially offered unconditional love and would help me sort out whatever issues came my way. Many of my friends were left to their own devices when bills came or were only able to rely on their Moms for emotional support. Recognizing my good fortune was more important than any academic lesson.
After I retired I took a writing workshop that was an awesome experience. I have written before about how liberating that class was for me. One of the assignments we were given was to write a poem in response to another work of art – a poem, a painting, song lyrics – whatever inspired us. I wrote a poem in response to “Down to You,” by Joni Mitchell. For those who aren’t familiar with it, or if you don’t remember the lyrics, here they are:
Everything comes and goes
Marked by lovers and styles of clothes
Things that you held high
And told yourself were true
Lost or changing as the days come down to you
Down to you
You’re a kind person
You’re a cold person too
It’s down to you
You go down to the pick up station
Craving warmth and beauty
You settle for less than fascination
A few drinks later you’re not so choosy
When the closing lights strip off the shadows
On this strange new flesh you’ve found
Clutching the night to you like a fig leaf
To the blackness
And the blankets
To lay down an impression
And your loneliness
In the morning there are lovers in the street
They look so high
You brush against a stranger
And you both apologize
Old friends seem indifferent
You must have brought that on
Old bonds have broken down
Love is gone
Ooh, love is gone
Written on your spirit this sad song
Love is gone
Everything comes and goes
Pleasure moves on too early
And trouble leaves too slow
Just when you’re thinking
You’ve finally got it made
Bad news comes knocking
At your garden gate
Knocking for you
You’re a brute, you’re an angel
You can crawl, you can fly too
It’s down to you
It all comes down to you
Joni Mitchell from the album Court and Spark, 1974
I must have listened to that song, among many other Joni songs, hundreds of times during my college years. She was a mainstay of the soundtrack of that time in my life. This is the poem (or prose-poem) that I wrote after reflecting on that song:
It is a Binghamton kind of night.
The air so cold it hurts.
The sky is clear, pinpricks of light shine against the velvet blackness.
I am in exile.
My roommate’s boyfriend is visiting.
I will spend the weekend studiously avoiding my dorm room.
I am holding my pillow pressed against my chest, my knapsack on my back.
Waiting til 8:00 pm when I will meet a friend at her dorm room
where I will crash for the next two nights.
So, I wonder, where is the ‘pick up station’ that Joni sings about?
I have never found it.
Wouldn’t know how to work it, if I did.
She counts lovers like railroad cars.
I’ve had none.
But, I would like to lay down my loneliness.
I don’t think her way will work for me, though.
Can’t imagine picking up a stranger and feeling less alone.
Joni is right about one thing, though.
Pleasure moves on too early and trouble leaves too slow.
Sixth grade was a nightmare. Maybe sixth grade is a nightmare for most – especially for girls since we’re all in different stages of puberty and it wreaks havoc on our bodies and emotions. Compounding that reality was the fact that I had a truly terrible teacher that year.
Mrs. Garner was the kind of teacher who seemed to take pleasure in humiliating students. She would call a student up to the board to do a math problem when she knew the student likely couldn’t solve it. I wasn’t particularly good at math, so I was one of her victims. She would also give back test papers from lowest to highest score so everyone knew how you did. This was especially embarrassing for me since my math test scores were dismal. It took me years, and better math teachers, to get over the damage done and realize that, in fact, I wasn’t actually that bad at math.
If that was her only flaw, maybe it wouldn’t have been that bad. But as that teaching strategy revealed, she was mean. I guess in a perverse way it was a good thing because, as a result, I bonded with some of my classmates. We had a siege mentality. It became an ‘us versus her’ situation. Cindy, my best friend, and I were united in our rebellion. We plotted various schemes, and shared lots of laughs in thinking of ways to get back at her. We thought we were pretty creative when we ordered a pizza to her house. We sent an insulting letter to her home, as well. I’m embarrassed to think of it now, but we didn’t know what else to do with our hurt and anger.
For the first and only time, I played hooky that year. Cindy and I hatched a grand plot. We, and another friend, were going to meet at Cindy’s apartment. Her mother must not have been home that day. I left for school that morning, as I usually did, but took a detour to the Bayview Projects where Cindy lived, which was conveniently located right next to our school. I went to Cindy’s building and, terrified that I would be seen by another classmate, I went up the stairs instead of taking the elevator. Our other friend chickened out and went to school. Cindy and I spent the day baking (we had a food fight!), watching television and laughing.
Cindy’s older sister came home and threatened to tell. We cleaned up and vacuumed. I don’t recall if Cindy got into trouble, but since her sister knew I was afraid word would get to my parents, I fessed up before that could happen. I told my mom and she had a very unexpected reaction. She told me she should have given me a mental health day off, and that I should talk to her first if I was feeling that desperate. I never played hooky again.
Mrs. Garner did another student more harm. This past August I went to my 40 year (holy shit! I’m that old!) high school reunion and was reminded of an incident that is illustrative of her character. I went to the reunion specifically to seek out classmates who had also been in my elementary school class. As part of writing this blog, I wanted to compare notes.
Clayton was one of two African-American boys in that class. Clayton and I had been in the same class three years running. He was the smartest kid every year. He could be talkative, more talkative than the teachers appreciated, but there was no denying his smarts. In sixth grade, toward the end of the year, the class was asked to vote to have a student representative who would speak at graduation. Our class voted for Clayton. Mrs. Garner gave the honor to a white boy, telling Clayton, that he didn’t enunciate clearly enough to deliver the speech. I don’t recall the class being offered any explanation. I can say that Clayton spoke perfectly clearly (as good (sic) as any Brooklynite, if not better).
When I went to the reunion, I asked Clayton about a different incident I remembered from fourth grade. He didn’t recall it, but he shared three other experiences that reeked of racism. When he told of the election described above, parts of it came back to me. Interestingly, I didn’t remember which student had been denied the honor, I only remembered my feelings of righteous indignation that the class choice had been overridden. I wouldn’t have remembered that it was Clayton who had been wronged if he hadn’t told me. It is so interesting what we remember, what makes a mark on us.
One of the things Clayton and I discussed at the reunion was that Mrs. Garner was the wife of the District Superintendent. In addition to having tenure since she was a veteran teacher, Mrs. Garner likely had no concerns about being rebuked by the administration for her teaching methods or actions.
Hearing Clayton’s story validated the intense dislike I harbored for Mrs. Garner. She may be long gone from this earth and I may have acted out inappropriately, but my 11-year old self knew she wasn’t a righteous person.
Note: In writing this blog piece I reached out to Cindy and Clayton. Both were helpful and generously shared their memories. To further illustrate the damage done, Clayton shared the following in an email: …in addition to this slight, she then had me placed me in Class 773 in John Wilson (the lowest-ranked of the three “SP” classes in the upcoming 7th grade). Now, how you go from Valedictorian-elect to the lowest class of the SP program is beyond me, but it added to my frustration with school in general. I never again got inspired to do well in school–it just seemed not to be worth it. It wasn’t a meritorious system, it was one of politics and preferences–preferences I seemed destined to never receive. So, I have to say that in many ways, I never recovered from 6th grade.