AN ADHD SUCCESS STORY – A GUEST POST FROM DAVID KAISER

Hello everyone! I am the 35 year-old “success story,” David, that my mother Ellin wrote about in this blog entry. I put success story in quotes because, like all of us, I am still a work in progress. Frankly, have not entirely let go of the demons of growing up — and living with ADHD.

I have a few thoughts to share, especially with those still battling these demons, parents with ADD and ADHD children, as well other family members who face these challenges.

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It’s easier as an adult to see the strengths of having ADHD (hyper focus, for example), than to see it as a child. However, it doesn’t have to be that way, at least completely.

Everyone can benefit from what I was taught in college and learned on my own about dealing with learning disabilities. ADHD or LD is not a prerequisite to benefiting from being embraced and embracing yourself as an individual. I have seven non-verbal learning disabilities as well as ADHD. There was and is a lot of stuff going on.

Focus on your strengths. Use them combat your weaknesses.

No one is good at everything. Some of us are square pegs and will never fit in typically round holes. Concentrate on things you are good at. Build your career of things you do well and about which you are passionate.

Of course you need to get through school first, but even there, by focusing on what makes you special and unique, you can push through, in college more so than high school.

In college, the answer is more important than how you reach the conclusion. That’s where I struggled in high school. I would say, “I can get the answer, but not your way.” That never seemed good enough. In college, and even more in the professional world, answers are critical. Unique perspectives can prove good, as well as profitable.

Be organized! Find a way to do it comfortably and effectively. Organization helps everyone.

Never forget that everyone is an individual and unique. Encouraging all youngsters to do what they are good at and rewarding them for it would help everyone. Further, instead of telling everyone they are a “winner,” which, even to children seems disingenuous, reward them for what they do well. Help them develop a sense of purpose and pride in their individuality.

Bottom Line

Everyone should be taught to embrace what they do well and not forced to focus on what they do poorly. Especially not at the same time.

Everyone needs to learn math even if writing is their specialty, but if you focus on figuring out what makes someone good at writing, it will help them with math and other studies.

This would be a big improvement educationally for every child, ADHD or not.

UNLESS THE COWBOY THING WORKS OUT

My father drops me off and just leaves me there in front of the huge brick building. Little me, standing on the wide sidewalk, autumn leaves swirling around my ankles. I’ve arrived but I have no idea what I’m supposed to do next. I’m four and starting kindergarten.

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Some weird timing things made me the youngest kid in the class. And the smallest.

All the other kids are bigger, taller, bulkier. I will always be the shortest or second shortest until high school, which is a long way off.

I wait for help. Eventually someone collects me, asks me my name, herds me towards a group of other little kids. Some of them are crying and all of them look lost. If a parent stuck around to watch over us, I never saw them.

Aldrich Street autumn

1951 was not the year for coddling kids. When the time to leave the nest came, mama birds gave a push and out you fell, tiny wings flailing.

Kindergarten was in a huge room on the ground floor. They didn’t want the wee ones getting run down by the bigger ones. Or getting lost in hallways.

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The ceilings are miles overhead and the windows go to the ceiling. Miss O’Rourke has to use a hook on a long pole to open or close them. I wonder why they don’t have normal windows.

The teacher looks ancient. Blue eyes behind steel-framed glasses and frizzy grey hair. She’s tall, talks loud … and slow. Everyone in my family talks loud, but no one talks slow.

When nap time comes, we’re supposed to put our blankets on the floor and sleep. I’ve never taken a nap, at least not that I can remember. And I don’t have a blanket. My mother didn’t know I was supposed to bring one. I also don’t have a shoe box for my crayons. All the other kids have one. It won’t be the last time I’m the class oddball.

Worst of all, I don’t have crayons. My mother didn’t know I was supposed to bring crayons.

She’s busy. I got a new sister a few months ago. She cries all the time and mom didn’t have time to come to find out all the stuff all the other kids’ mothers know.

Leaves With Bug 2015

I sit in a chair, very quietly, while everyone naps. Or pretends. I don’t think they’re asleep, but they all lay on the floor and pretend. Mrs. O’Rourke takes that time to write in her notebook.

It’s a long day. I have almost a mile to walk home. My mother doesn’t drive. She doesn’t worry about me. I’ll find my way. It’s just the walk home is long and uphill. I’m tired.

I don’t know why I had to do this. All we did was play with toys. I could have stayed home and played with my own toys.

By the time I know the answer, I’ll be 19, graduating from college. When I learn the answer, it won’t make sense. School will be where I sit around doing things slowly so other kids can catch up with me. Or math, where I have no idea what’s going on. I don’t even know what questions to ask. Who needs that stuff anyhow?

I’m going to be a writer. Unless the cowboy thing works out.

PIANISSIMO

GROWING UP WITH A PIANO – STRIKE A CHORD

My mother believed that children needed not just food and a roof over their heads. We also needed culture. Art. Sculpture. Literature. Dance. Music. Moreover, a properly brought up young lady had to play an instrument.

She had grown up poor on the Lower East Side where so many immigrant groups settled after passing through Ellis Island. They didn’t have much. A tiny flat, two adults and six kids. And a piano.

No one knew where the piano came from, but it seemed to have always been there. There was no money for lessons, but my mother taught herself to play. Not brilliantly, but well enough to bang out a tune and sing along.

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When she and my father bought the house in which I grew up, a piano was the first major purchase. First a Baldwin spinet which fit neatly in a corner of the living room.

Eventually, I outgrew the spinet and for my 14th birthday, I got a Steinway living room grand.

Some of my best memories of childhood are little me, sitting on the piano bench with my mother as she sang. Mom sang all the time. Sang, hummed. Half the songs I know I learned because my mother sang them. I don’t think she realized she was singing. It was just her way.

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When I was four, my brother was deemed least likely to succeed at playing an instrument. He wasn’t completely tone-deaf, but pretty close. I, on the other hand, could pick out his music with two fingers, even though I was tiny and my feet were to short to get near the pedals. My piano teacher (formerly my brother’s piano teacher) said “Let him go play stickball. I want her.”

So began my musical career.

I was a small child. Thin, short, buck-toothed, wildly curly hair. Not a particularly pretty girl. I improved some with age. Classical beauty was never mine, but classical music was. If you had hands and gave it your heart and hands, the piano would love you in return, frizzy hair and all.

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I progressed quickly, though I was never as good technically as I needed to be. I was a good interpreter, but not a gifted performer.

The biggest problem were hands. Tiny hands. To this day, I can barely reach a 9th with either hand. Most classical music was written by men with big hands. I was at a disadvantage unless I was playing “small music” which fit my little paws. My favorite composers were Chopin and Beethoven, but I had to pick pieces to find those my hands could manage.

Beethoven’s “Sonata Pathetique” was my performance piece. It was a loud piece, one of the few that made the family shut up and listen. I never got used to being asked to perform, then having all the aunts engage in a lively discussion while I played. It’s a family thing, I suppose.

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I never conquered Beethoven, though I got close, sometimes. It was a struggle. I didn’t notice how much I was struggling until I got to Grieg piano sonata in e minor, Opus 7. I was 15 and it had yet to be recorded. My teacher thought I could be the one who did it.

NOTEIn the preceding performance by Glenn Gould, you hear only the first movement of this sonata. There are three more movements, totaling 28 pages of music. I like the later movements better. This is not one of the great piano performances because Gould played everything too fast.

I never worked so hard in my life as I did on that sonata. I practiced until I thought my hands would fall off and every once in a while, I managed to get it right. It was a big piece of music. After months of trying, I knew I would be almost good enough to perform that piece.

I majored in music at college for the first few years, but it wasn’t happening. Almost good enough in classical piano equals not good enough. Because for me, it was piano or nothing  — and I didn’t have it — it was over. I moved on.

I have a piano today. Electronic. The arthritis in my hands has stopped my playing, but music, especially classical, is embedded in my heart.

LIVING WITH ADHD … BEFORE IT WAS FASHIONABLE – ELLIN CURLEY

My son had ADD and ADHD in the 80’s before the diagnosis came into fashion. He was going to an expensive private elementary school in New York City. He was bouncing off the walls and “disrupting” his class.

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He spent a lot of time out in the hall, resulting in huge gaps in his basic reading, writing, and arithmetic knowledge … and only exacerbated the situation. Eventually the school called my husband and me into the office and told us our son had a problem. They told us we should get a tutor and a therapist to handle it. They could not (would not) deal with it.

We already had a therapist and didn’t think a tutor was the answer. We decided to move the whole family to our weekend home in a small Connecticut town where the public school system had a Special Ed Department. Shortly after the move to Connecticut, a new therapist diagnosed my son with ADD and ADHD. She put him on Ritalin in its most basic and unrefined form. The drug has come a long way since.

ADHDBlogRitalin was a mixed blessing. It had major side effects and only worked a few hours a day. At least we finally had a diagnosis and knew what was wrong.

The local public school had staff and programs to help my son academically and socially. We were surrounded by caring people who were at least trying to help.

Unfortunately, back then, understanding of ADHD and how to help kids with learning disabilities was very limited. In the end, all they could do was hold his hand and get him through each year. It damaged his self-esteem. He never developed confidence that he could succeed at anything.

We were lucky. We found a college in Vermont. Landmark College is solely for kids with learning problems. There, for the first time, my son was given tools to cope with his issues. He learned ways to work through and around them so he gained a sense of control over himself and his life. He began to function well. The school taught him how to build on each small success.

He learned to tell when he could get things accomplished and when it was a waste of time to try. He learned how to break each task down into manageable steps, to organize his time, work space, and work.

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He uses these skills in his job with a hedge fund in New York. He uses them to get the laundry done, to keep his house stocked with essentials.

He’s doing well now, but it saddens me to think how different he might be today if he had learned these coping skills in kindergarten rather than college. He could have skipped years of feeling inadequate, helpless, and hopeless. He might have enjoyed learning, explored other career paths. Above all, he’d feel would have felt better about himself.

Supposedly, schools and parents are better equipped in 2015 than they were thirty years go. Hopefully they have learned to support families and children with learning and behavior issues. I know there are many new drugs, presumably more refined and effective. Hopefully, new approaches to ADD and ADHD are more sophisticated. I hope kids with disabilities are given the tools to take control of themselves and their lives at an early age, before the damage is done.

That’s what I hope. Everyone talks about it, I’m just not sure what the reality is.

LOSING OUR LEGACY

Traditions, Rich Paschall, Sunday Night Blog

A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no?

The strength of many schools, churches and community organizations lies in its rituals and traditions.  They provide a constancy that is reassuring to students, members, alumni.  While traditions may seem a bit crazy to some, to most they are cherished as part of their heritage.  Those who do not honor tradition are likely to incur the wrath of those who want to find comfort and solace in the reassure that traditions may bring.

When traditions remain constant throughout the years, they begin to bring identity to organizations.  The school, recreation program, and community center become known for their special features and regular activities.  Identity leads to purpose and purpose leads to dedication and commitment.  Maintaining what you have been good at through the years is important to gathering loyalty.

And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you
in one word… Tradition.Fiddler 73

Consider the years you went to elementary school or high school.  If you should return to those institutions you are likely to ask if the have the same tournaments and games.  You may ask about the basketball, football or baseball teams.  You may want to know if the school still has the Arts Festival, Chorale and Band concerts.  You may be interested in whether the big annual show is still produced, whether you were actually a part of the shows or not.  These were traditions and you want to know if they are still alive.

Because of our traditions, we’ve kept our balance for many, many years.

Long lasting and enjoyable traditions will find support in parents and alumni.  Just as everyone wants to feel that they have a purpose and identity, they also want to see that their schools, parks and community organizations maintain an identity and purpose as well.

While some graduates may always feel that their years, their programs and participation were the best years of a school or organization, they will nonetheless support an organization with their word of mouth praises, and perhaps even their dollars, in order to keep the traditions alive.

Because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do.

It is true that some remain a part of their school or recreational program throughout their entire lives.  As students become young adults and then parents, they may feel it important to maintain a relationship to those places that were important to them when they were young.  They may even wish to send their children to these same schools and programs.  That it how strong the bond of tradition can be.

In this past week, a former community resident passed away at the age of 90.  From the time I was a child at the local Boys Club until just a few years ago, this dedicated woman was always at the carnivals, festivals, and fund-raisers of all sorts.  It was her passion to be a part of the traditional events each year.  The value of her volunteer service can not be calculated.  The importance of the traditions she helped to maintain was something beyond measure, to her and everyone who knew her.

Unfortunately, leadership comes along in the life of some schools and community groups that does not understand the importance of what they have.  They set about changing things for no other reason than change.  These types of people can quickly tear down what took generations to build.  A decade of bad leadership can wipe out a lifetime of good will and dedication.

When I returned to alumni events in recent years, I was disheartened to see the lack of concern for the past.  It is not that we were better than anyone else, but it is that we had identity in our long cherished events.  For our school, it was the Fine Arts.  The Fine Arts meant nothing to recent leaders which was disheartening to many of us.

When you walk the halls of an old and venerable institution, you like to see the pictures, trophies, art work and sayings of the past.  It is discouraging to know that the school song is unimportant, the traditions are gone and the leadership is oblivious to its importance.  When someone takes away your tradition and legacy, it is time to move on.

Tradition. Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as… as a fiddler on the roof!

IT’S THE THEATER

A Hall of Fame Teacher

There are a lot of dedicated teachers.  Many find a good school and stay with it for decades.  Most of us can recall a teacher like this.  The fortunate ones will encounter several as they go through school.  I had such a teacher.

It is rare that 20 years after a teacher retires, her legacy lives on.  At my parish and high school, current administrators frequently hear from alumni the stories of a teacher they never met.  “Mrs. Kittler was the best teacher I ever had,” many remark.  The praises have not stopped long after the teacher retired and moved away.

Photo Credit: St. Benedict HS archive

Photo Credit: St. Benedict HS archive

Laurette Kittler started out with a brief foray into acting and would seem to have a promising future.  She decide to follow another passion however, and went into teaching.  In the spring of 1959, St. Benedict High School asked her to come direct a show they had already started.  Apparently it needed help, and a lot of it.  At that time she was teaching at another area school.

The production of Tekakwitha was rescued, more or less, and in the fall of 1959 she moved to St. Benedict where she taught and directed shows for the next 37 years.  Most years it was not one play, but many productions.  Summer shows were frequently part of the program too.  It was not just the drama students who participated.  Often other students showed up to participate in the spring musical.  You just were not cool if you did not join the show.

In recent years a facebook group dedicated to Mrs. Kittler has been formed and hundreds of former students have posted thousands of pictures and programs from past shows.  It seems the legacy was not only contained in the dusty store rooms of the former convent at St. Benedict’s, but also in the albums, cabinets and closets of the former students and parents.

Photo: Courtesy of Monica Kaepplinger-Bofani

Photo: Courtesy of Monica Kaepplinger-Bofani

Now, at the age of 87, Mrs. Kittler has decided to answer the call of her former school and students and return to Chicago from southern California.  She will be honored as a “Hall of Fame” teacher, and current and former students will entertain her with songs from shows she directed.

Alumni wish to thank her for the impression she made on their lives.  Students wish to meet the teacher whose name still echoes through the halls of their school.
*****

It’s The Theater, by Rich Paschall

Project!
She said “Project!”
I thought I was screaming
At the top of my lungs.
Be loud
And also strong.
You have to be heard
Up at the highest rungs.

“Articulate!
And you’ll be great.”
She said that I mumble
And words are not too clear.
Sounds nice
And clear to me.
Why can’t she hear it all,
When she’s standing oh so near?

It’s the theater.
I love the theater,
It has taught me how to act,
And has taught me how to sing,
But more than that.
I learned of life.
Now I hit my mark
When I’m doing anything.

“Hear you!
I can’t hear you,”
Came a voice out of the dark
From the furthest seat away.
I cannot see her,
But I can hear her,
And I’m told I must be louder
In everything I say.

“I’ll go east.
I could go east.
You have to play the show.
And you have to do your best,
But I can walk,
And my hat will float.
I have shown you all the way.
And now you must do the rest.”

So we pray.
It’s time to pray.
We are asking Saint Jude
If he can save the day.
But we’ve been taught.
We learned our lines.
We are ready for our moment
When we can start the play.

It’s the theater.
I love the theater.
It has taught us understanding
Of the world all around.
Not just emotion,
But its compassion
Has us soaring through our lives
With our feet back on the ground.

It’s the theater.
We thank the theater,
The teachers and director
Who helped us find our way.
The lessons learned
Went way beyond
The shows and the songs
To reward us every day.
*****

Note: I recently had to explain the “walk east” reference to a current student. It was a favorite saying of Mrs. Kittler. She would tell students in her own unique way, that when the curtain opens, they must stay and do the show. Her job is done at that point, and she could always walk east until her hat floats if the show is not ready. Lake Michigan is east of us.

THE LIFE AND DEATH OF AN URBAN SCHOOL – JAMAICA HIGH SCHOOL

Why was Jamaica High School closed down?

1981.CREDITILLUSTRATION BY OLIVER MUNDAY; PHOTOGRAPHS BY VIC DELUCIA / THE NEW YORK TIMES / REDUX; JACKSON KRULE (TOP-LEFT)

Jamaica High SchoolThe Jamaica High School building last year and, at right, in 1981.CREDITILLUSTRATION BY OLIVER MUNDAY; PHOTOGRAPHS BY VIC DELUCIA / THE NEW YORK TIMES / REDUX; JACKSON KRULE (TOP-LEFT)


Jamaica High School, in Queens, was once the largest high school in the United States. For most of its history, it occupied a majestic Georgian Revival building on Gothic Drive, designed in the nineteen-twenties by William H. Gompert, who had begun his career at McKim, Mead & White. With east and west wings, granite columns, and an elaborate bell tower, the building looked like a state capitol that had been dropped into the middle of a residential neighborhood; it sat on the crest of a hill so imposing that planners would have been guilty of pretense had it housed anything other than a public institution.

One evening in June of last year, Jamaica students wearing red and blue gowns gathered with their families and teachers and with members of the school staff at Antun’s, a catering hall in Queens Village, for the senior-class commencement ceremony. Accompanying the festivities was the traditional graduation boilerplate—about life transitions and rising to new challenges—but it carried a particular significance on this occasion, because it was as applicable to the faculty and the staff, some of whom had been at the school for nearly three decades, as it was to the students. After a hundred and twenty-two years, Jamaica High School was closing; the class of 2014, which had just twenty-four members, would be the last.

The New York City Department of Education had announced the closure three years earlier, citing persistent violence and a graduation rate of around fifty per cent. Accordingly, the department had begun to “co-locate” four newly created “small schools” in the old building. Advocates argue that small schools can best resolve many of the ills associated with urban education, but the reorganization produced a logistical problem. The schools tended to operate like siblings competing for bathroom time. Access to the building’s communal spaces was at a premium. Unable to secure the auditorium for a graduating class of two dozen, Jamaica High School found itself, both figuratively and literally, pushed out.

Underscoring the indignities that attended the school’s last days was a difficult irony: for much of its time, Jamaica was a gemstone of the city’s public-education system. In 1981, the schools chancellor, Frank Macchiarola, decided to take on the additional role of an interim high-school principal, in order to better appreciate the daily demands of school administration. He chose Jamaica, and was roundly criticized for picking such an easy school to lead. Four years later, the U.S. Department of Education named it one of the most outstanding public secondary schools in the nation. Alumni include Stephen Jay Gould, Attorney General John Mitchell, Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, Walter O’Malley, Paul Bowles, and three winners of the Pulitzer Prize: Gunther Schuller, Art Buchwald, and Alan Dugan. Bob Beamon, who set a world record for the long jump in the 1968 Olympics, graduated with the class of ’65. The school’s closure felt less like the shuttering of a perennial emblem of stagnation than like the erasure of a once great institution that had somehow ceased to be so.

Jamaica had become an institution of the type that has vexed city policymakers and educators: one charged with serving a majority-minority student body, most of whose members qualified as poor, and whose record was defined by chronic underachievement and academic failure. Even so, word of the school’s closure angered students and their families, the community, and alumni. I was among them—I graduated with the class of ’87—and for me, as for many former students, the school was a figment of recollection, frozen in its academic glory. George Vecsey, the former Times sports columnist and a member of the class of ’56, accused Joel Klein, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s schools chancellor, of “cooking the books,” to make schools slated for closure appear worse than they were, and compared the Department of Education’s closure policies to the nihilism of Pol Pot. Vecsey later apologized for having slighted the suffering of Cambodia, but he held to his contention that Klein ruled by dictatorial fiat. He wrote, in a blog, “The city destroyed a piece of history because of its own failure.”

There are two broadly competing narratives about school closure. The one commonly told by teachers, students, and many parents at underperforming schools centers on a lack of financial and material resources, which insures that the schools will be unable to meet even minimum standards. Strongly connected to this version is a belief that closure functions as a kind of veiled union-busting: shutting a school allows reformers to sidestep contracts and remove long-term teachers.

Reformers view closure as a necessary corrective to what they see as bloated bureaucracies, inept teachers, and unaccountable unions. They argue that urban schools are often too large to give students the attention they need. In 2000, the Gates Foundation began funding education reform, with an emphasis on reducing school size. Nine years later, in an annual newsletter, the foundation reported that its efforts had not met with significant success, particularly with schools “that did not take radical steps to change the culture, such as allowing the principal to pick the team of teachers or change the curriculum.” The foundation also said that it “had less success trying to change an existing school than helping to create a new school.” The reform movement nationwide increasingly saw closure and the creation of new institutions—as opposed to funding and reorganizing existing schools—as the way forward.

During the nineteen-forties, in a series of landmark tests conducted around the country, the psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark demonstrated that black children associated virtue and intelligence with whiteness, and had correspondingly internalized racist stereotypes of inferiority. Robert Carter, an attorney with the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense Fund, heard of the Clarks’ work and brought it to the attention of Thurgood Marshall, who was then the legal fund’s director-counsel. Marshall made the Clarks’ findings central to the argument for school desegregation in the Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education. The decision made Kenneth Clark famous (while largely overlooking his wife’s role in structuring the experiment). Clark, who had grown up in Harlem and was a professor at the City College of New York, then turned his attention to the city government, which, he charged, had fostered segregation in the schools.

Arthur Levitt, then the president of the New York City Board of Education, responded that the schools merely reflected residential patterns: children who attended overwhelmingly black schools lived in overwhelmingly black neighborhoods. A Commission on Integration was set up to examine the issue, with Clark as one of the commissioners, and Levitt as co-chair, and it issued recommendations, which were never quite translated into policy. (Clark resigned, but continued to push for integration throughout his career.) In 1959, the Board of Education experimented by sending four hundred students from overcrowded black schools in Brooklyn to under-attended white schools in the Ridgewood and Glendale sections of Queens. The move was met with rancorous opposition and a brief boycott that anticipated the riotous response to busing in the seventies.

In 1949, John Ward, an African-American student whose family had migrated to New York from Virginia after the Second World War, enrolled at the school. Ward’s father was a bus mechanic, and his mother worked as a domestic; between them, they earned enough to buy a home in Jamaica. Ward recalls the area as a place where Italian-Americans, Polish-Americans, African-Americans, and Jews lived in peaceful proximity. His house was not far from the grocery store that Mario Cuomo’s parents owned, and Ward, who played baseball as a boy, remembers the future governor from games in the neighborhood sandlots. The area had not yet entirely shaken its rural roots. “There were still people farming there,” Ward told me. “I remember seeing people butcher hogs on Linden Boulevard in the forties and fifties.”

Ward wanted to be a teacher, but Woodrow Wilson, the high school that most blacks in the area attended, was a vocational trade school. So he applied to Jamaica, which had acquired a reputation as one of the city’s strongest academic high schools. Ward initially found the rigor daunting. “My first semester, I failed about three major classes,” he told me. “My father said, ‘If you’re not going to work at school, you’ll have to get a job.’ ” Ward studied hard and spent an extra semester earning enough academic credits to apply to college. He played baseball well enough to be selected for the All-City team in 1954, his senior year. “I don’t really recall there being much racial tension,” he said of the school. “The blacks mostly hung out with other black students, but, being an athlete, I interacted with a lot more of the white students.” For a few years in the fifties, Jamaica’s integrated athletics teams, with their winning records, were a point of pride for the school. In 1954, Ward was elected the school’s first black class president.

He was accepted at Morgan State University, a historically black institution in Baltimore, but his family couldn’t afford the tuition, so he played D-League baseball for a few years, then applied to the New York City police academy, and, in 1960, became one of the first black members of the motorcycle corps. Of the more than three hundred graduates in Ward’s police-academy class, fewer than two dozen were African-American. In 1974, he was promoted to a plainclothes unit working out of the 114th Precinct. “Out of sixteen guys, I was the black on the street-crimes unit,” he told me. His career on the force was, at least demographically, a replay of his experiences at Jamaica, and Ward later credited the school with giving him not only an excellent education but also the skills that allowed him to navigate primarily white environments. “Jamaica being integrated in the fifties was something unusual,” he told me. “But it was also a place where I felt I belonged.”

South Jamaica’s black population continued to grow in the fifties and sixties, though not all of it was as economically stable as Ward’s family. In 1947, when the Olympian Bob Beamon was still a baby, his mother died, and he was eventually sent to live with a guardian in a rough part of the neighborhood. After a troubled childhood and a brush with juvenile court, which resulted in his being sent to a remedial, “600” school, Beamon became convinced that if he could get into Jamaica he could turn his life around. Four decades later, in a memoir, “The Man Who Could Fly,” he wrote of the school in nearly ecclesiastical terms:

Mr. Louis Schuker, the principal at Jamaica High, had a long talk with me and Coach Ellis. He said the odds of a 600 school student making it in a regular school environment were next to zero. His admonition to me was reminiscent of the one given by the judge who had sentenced me to the 600 school.

“Beamon, any trouble out of you and you are out of here,” Mr. Schuker said. “Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes, sir,” I answered firmly and clearly. I knew that I wasn’t going anywhere but Jamaica High. This was where I wanted to be. This was where I belonged.

It’s easy to wax idealist about the happy spaces of one’s childhood, but in Beamon’s case the assessment can’t be so easily dismissed. He traced his desire to compete in the Olympics to a visit that the track-and-field star Wilma Rudolph, a triple gold medalist in the 1960 Games, paid to Jamaica during his sophomore year. The school was a place where someone like him, who grew up poor in a crime-plagued neighborhood, stood a chance of encountering someone like Rudolph.

Jamaica High School

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Notes from a graduate of Jamaica High:

I attended Jamaica High School, graduating from it in 1963. Those were probably the last peak years of the school. It had issues of racial non-integration. Despite the author’s statement, in the years I attended it was anything but racially homogeneous. Kids ran with kids like themselves, more or less divided down the lines of ethnicity and race.

There was little active hostility between the groups and a surprising amount of cross-pollination and dating. The school was far from perfect, but there existed a cadre of talented and dedicated teachers who made themselves available to those who wanted to learn, or who needed help.

Was it a model for the future? There were standardized tests — Regents exams — but these were based on what we learned in school, not on some bureaucrats notion of what we should “know.” Most of us came out better than we went in. And that’s saying a lot, especially these days.

On a lighter note, it was the only high school of which I’ve ever heard to cancel the senior prom (1963) due to lack of interest.


 

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About the Author

See on Scoop.itIn and About the News

Jelani Cobb has been a contributor to The New Yorker and newyorker.com since 2013, writing frequently about race, politics, history, and culture.