REMEMBERING HIGH SCHOOL – Marilyn Armstrong

I had no choice about what high school I’d attend. In New York, unless you were going to one of the four or five special schools for performers (that’s where “Fame” came from, the New York School for Performing Arts) or the few for math and sciences and there were a couple of others, but I don’t remember them anymore, you went to your local high school.

In my case, Jamaica High School. Built to hold 1200 students, it housed nearly 3,000 when I was there. It’s closed now. I think they have turned it into some kind of museum.

Jamaica High School

It was five stories high with the choir loft at the top — five stories of stairs to climb and no elevators. I was in a cast my final (senior) year, so I had to be homeschooled for nine months. They sent an actual teacher to the house. I learned absolutely nothing at home but to be fair, there wasn’t much to learn that I didn’t already know, at least from a studies viewpoint. Most of the learning took place in earlier years. But homeschooling did let me meet some interesting and odd people.

Music was always with me. I was a serious piano student. It had nothing to do with high school since I studied privately. I was in the chorus, not the choir. I didn’t think my voice was good enough or strong enough for the choir. My alto voice was okay, but I would have had to study to make it better and stronger. I was so wrapped in piano, I didn’t have time.

That, and of course, writing.

I was always part of the “junior genius” crowd, but my grades didn’t reflect it. I coasted. I did well in things that I liked, not very well in others. I still won two national merit scholarship as well as the Westminster Scholarship (based exclusively on test results — NOT my grades).

They wouldn’t give me the money because my father earned too much. I never understood how they could do that. I thought I had earned it, but even after I got married, they STILL based it on my father’s (not my husband’s) income. Times have changed, but I was furious then and remarkably, I’m still annoyed.

High School, really

It didn’t make as much difference in 1963, though. Colleges were surprisingly inexpensive. Hofstra, where both Garry and I went, was for him just $17/credit and for me, just $42/credit. Now, it’s very expensive. Unimaginably expensive.

I wanted to study music. It wasn’t what I was best at. I was always a better writer, but I loved music. The piano also wasn’t the right instrument for me, but I didn’t know that until years later. I was tiny when I started studying and still tiny when I reached my “full” growth. The piano was big and my hands are little.

It never occurred to me until I was years into college that I could change instruments. By then, I was drifting back to what I was good at — writing. I never worked as a professional musician because I wasn’t good enough. I was good, but the difference between “good” and “good enough” in classical music is gigantic. Good gets you gigs at a piano bar. Good enough gets you concerts. Better than good enough and maybe — if you are lucky — the world is yours.

I didn’t want to teach piano and certainly didn’t want to play in local bars, but I thought maybe I’d write a great book. I sort of did, but I sort of didn’t. Define “great.”

They didn’t teach instruments in my high school. They didn’t even teach them in college. You still needed a private teacher and my teacher was miles away and I didn’t drive. I did what I could on my own, but I needed a teacher.

We didn’t have a senior prom in High School. It was canceled because no one signed up to go. Nor were there parties to celebrate unless they were small and private. The school was divided by race, class, where you lived, what your extracurricular activities were, and whether you were Jewish, well-to-do-white, poor white, Black, Hispanic or Something Else.

My grades weren’t great, but my IQ was ridiculously high. I’m still not sure what that means in terms of the life one lives. Most of the super smart people I knew, in the end, lived fairly normal lives. The people who made billions were not necessarily the ones with the highest IQs, either. They were the ones with the most determination and focus, something tests don’t measure.

Hofstra in 2014

Nonetheless, I won the two big merit scholarships. There was a ceremony in our auditorium where the Principal pointed out that MOST OF US deserved the award, with an evil eye sent to me and my best friend Heidi — another under-achieving winner.

I think the people who miss high school are people who had a special relationship with it or someone in it. For me, it was something I needed to survive until I got to college. I really enjoyed college, though. It wasn’t just studying. It was social and spiritual and the people I met there are still my friends today.

I admit I didn’t try terribly hard. Most things came to me easily. I had a great memory (unlike now). The hard work came after school. At work. When I had to learn Systems Analysis in two weeks. I needed to know them to do the work I did — so, I learned them. I thought my brain was going to explode.

Little Theater – WVHC 1963

Long after college days were done, one of my bosses was a Ph.D. in Higher Mathematics from M.I.T. I commented that I hadn’t really had to study in school. He laughed. He said that was the thing about M.I.T. Everyone there had been able to go through school without studying. At M.I.T., you studied or you dropped out. It turns out, there ARE schools where you really have to study. I suspect when you get into hard sciences and math, that was also a different story. History is a lot easier to remember than physics.

I was lucky insofar as not only did I grow up in an area full of every kind of person, but my mother urged me to get to know them. She wasn’t just a liberal in-name. She meant it. I don’t think she thought I’d marry someone of a different race, but doubt she’d be surprised.

She knew I dated men of various hues and aside from occasionally pointing out that babies from mixed marriages might have a hard time, she didn’t say anything else. It took me a long time to be comfortable as the only white person in a group of darker people — until I realized no one cared except me, after which it was much easier.

It’s funny looking back into the early sixties. All the things we were striving to do seem to be in the process of being undone. I’m not sure where we are going or with whom we are going. I’m hoping I live long enough to live the difference.

13 thoughts on “REMEMBERING HIGH SCHOOL – Marilyn Armstrong”

  1. Yes, high school years were interesting. In 1942, I went to Forest Hills High School, not too far from your school in Jamaica, for three years before doing my senior year in California at a private high school. Burt Bacharack (sp?)and Captain Kangeroo were classmates at Forest Hills. Young actors and dancers were fellow students in California. I got married as a teenager and didn’t take college classes until after my divorce, and those only at a university where I worked in Nevada. It wasn’t until I was 38 years old that I went to college part-time for six years and finally got my Masters in English and started teaching. Before that I worked in the industry for sixteen years for Desilu Studios and Eddie Albert. It was a great experience going to college later in life with much younger students. Kept me on my toes, although I had the advantage of life experience that helped. One is never too old to learn.

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    1. ’42 was a great year. 17 years later, I graduated from Malverne (Long Island) High School. Our Principal, John “Jake” Archer told our class, “..you’re on the brink of great adventures…going into a new decade…you’ll see and do things we’ve only dreamed about.” It sounded good.

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  2. I don’t want to think about those years. I certainly wouldn’t want to go back. But seeing what my granddaughter went through, I sure wouldn’t want to go through it today.
    Leslie

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    1. The “High School” experience you always see on TV and in the movies is from someplace no one really lives. Friction-free schools with supportive teachers and well-taught classes. Where school administrators take an active role in improving the life of students. My elementary school wasn’t bad and we won’t even mention “middle school” which was and probably still is awful. But high school could have been better for everyone. Even given the overcrowding. There were good teachers there and a pretty large array of bright students — from every group. Someone needed to BE there for them.

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  3. When it comes to life, the pendulum always swings back and forth. High school! Mixed feelings. College? It’s a long story. In the end, I got a degree. I loved math. I wanted to be an Algebra teacher. Another long story, oddly related to the Vietnam War and bad advice from a high school guidance counselor.

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    1. For schools, that pendulum has never swung back. Why? Because we keep cutting the budget of schools, not giving teachers the salaries they should get or the money to supply students with materials. When we were picking up my eyeglasses at Target, the woman ahead of us in line was obviously a teacher buying toys for her young students. On her own dime. She teaches in Sudbury, which is a well-to-suburb. This isn’t a poor downtrodden neighborhood in ANY sense of the word, but they still won’t give their teachers enough money to buy supplies for their schools.

      NO BUDGET FOR SCHOOLS. So no, it won’t swing back. Not until we supply schools with budgets and pay teachers what they are worth.

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      1. I agree that our teachers are grossly underpaid and undervalued. My brother teaches ESL and my sister is a special education teacher. They love teaching. As do many good teachers, even though they don’t get paid well. And schools cut important programs ☹️

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