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Monday, July 10, 2023

"Looking Back at High School in Brooklyn" by Ellen Levitt - 2022 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist




Looking Back at High School in Brooklyn


by Ellen Levitt


I think that I learned a lot when I attended Edward R. Murrow High School on Avenue L. I read and discussed some excellent novels and poetry, learned from a particularly good Algebra Two teacher for most of that year, studied physics and chemistry (even if I don’t recall lots of specifics now), and worked on black-and-white photography darkroom techniques. I learned how to create a storyboard for a film. I took independent study courses and was able to learn self-paced course study habits.


I lifted weights and practiced basic yoga sequences in phys ed. I learned engraving, using the noisy tools on plastic and metal. I participated in student government, and the Senior year varsity SING show as a pianist. I made all types of friends, from a variety of ethnicities and abilities, including special education students. I earned money by working in the after school tutoring center and delivering newspapers on campus.


These and many other things contributed to what I consider a solid and fairly enjoyable secondary education (especially when compared to junior high, which I did not like nearly as much, sorry Hudde JHS 240K). But for a variety of reasons, when I reminisce with my high school friends and even my daughters (they attended the same school), what do I talk about the most? The less savory incidents, the urban woes incidents. The gross-outs.


Here are two that have made me laugh the most, and I guess I learned hard-luck lessons as a result.


1)    In junior year, I had Physics class first thing in the morning. I sat at a lab table with Lenny, Robert and Rosemary. (Yup, I still remember them.) We always perched on stools, writing our notes in binders. One day all four of us noticed a roach walking across our table; the other three kids flinched but I removed my penny loafer and smacked it down on the table, killing the insect. The whole class gawked at me and I announced     “I just killed a roach.” I got a round of applause for that.


2)    In senior year, during part of each day, a few younger students sat in front of my locker. When I would ask them to move aside so I could open my locker, they would roll their eyes and barely scoot over. One day I stood on tiptoes and tried to remove my combination lock, and it fell down on one girl’s head. I apologized but she wouldn’t accept it, and I reminded her that she had barely moved over for me.


           Later that day one of the girl’s friends confronted me, a tough young kid. “You hit my friend with your lock!” she announced and then she challenged me to a fight. Mind you, we both had our friends surrounding us. I looked at this kid and said “Okay, I will fight you but I have a few rules: no biting, no scratching and no pulling hair.” The girl looked at me, dumbfounded. I repeated my fight rules and added “And we’re going outside to fight, in the playground or the parking lot across the street, because I have a really good reputation in this school.” (I was on the Principal’s Consultative Council, and was a Senior Class officer, among other things.) The girl looked at me and said “You’re fucking nuts,” and walked away. No fight. My friends were bug eyed.


When I tell other people these two incidents, their reactions seem to fall into two main categories: if the person I tell this to went to school in Brooklyn (or Queens, or Staten Island) they laugh, or say something that shows a sense of been-there, done-that. But if I tell people who attended private schools in or outside of NYC (and there were many of them that I met at college) they look at me like I went to the most poverty ridden, nasty school. I didn’t. In fact, Murrow was and is considered one of the better public high schools in New York City, let alone Brooklyn.


These two incidents are part of me, part of being a lifelong Brooklynite, and I say this with a dollop of affection. I enjoyed my high school years greatly (for the most part) and look back at them fondly. But I realize that many other people hear stories about roaches and almost getting into fights, and look down at me, at my schooling, at my adolescence. They don’t think these are humorous stories, but consider them to be pathetic tales, and seem to think that I’m trying to make myself feel better for attending a subpar educational institution.


Did I?


Did I attend a crappy inner city school and I’m making myself feel good about the experience? Is being old-school Brooklyn a thing to feel ashamed about? A former boyfriend years later referred to me as a “PSK” and when I asked what that meant, he said “Public school kid,” and it was clearly an insult, something embarrassing.


In recent years Brooklyn has been recast as this trendy place, a multicultural patchwork quilt with lots of cool places to visit, to eat and drink, to grab a coffee to go. And I do appreciate that. But many people do not remember when we were mocked for being from Brooklyn, when we were chuckled at for saying “Caw-fee” and “New Yawk” (and I still do, cannot help it). So, I am one of those people who spans the old, grimy and less fortunate Brooklyn and the hip, fun and fascinating Brooklyn. I’m not the only one (shout-outs to my fellow Murrow alums Sherryl, Miriam, Eric, Jodi, Eunice, Barry, Patrick, Tian, etc.)


Honestly, my feelings about going to a public high school in Brooklyn are somewhat complex and even as a teenager, I realized the pros and cons. During my sophomore year there was a brief transit strike, and for a few days we were told to show up at our local schools for attendance. Murrow was my local school (I was considered local Zone A) so I did show up at Murrow, but many other kids did not because they lived far away, and many of them couldn’t bike over or get driven to school by their parents. Obviously this was disruptive for thousands of students, teachers and staff members. It made me realize that going to school in NYC had its definite disadvantages.


Even the fact that some of my classrooms backed up to the subway train lines, and could be noisy due to that, made me realize that our situation wasn’t ideal. Yep, sometimes there would be four different trains rattling past us, two locals and two expresses. My chem teacher Mr. Forman would fold his arms and stare at the ground, drowned out by mass transit, and I felt pity for him (and a bit for us students).


(Years later, I taught in a Brooklyn high school in which the east side of the building was just yards away from an elevated train line, and my primary classroom was located on that side of the building. Not only could I hear that train, if I was in the rear of the classroom, I could see individual passengers.)


Thinking back on my high school days, I also remember what my mom told me about her days at Erasmus Hall High School, the oldest secondary school in North America. She attended the castle-like EHHS during World War Two, which certainly cast a pall on her teen years. And she told me in detail about how the students and staff mourned late in her senior year, when President Roosevelt died.


But Mom also told me about the big water bug that she (or a friend) killed on the floor and how it left a lasting stain; about how she and a friend ate sunflower seeds in the back of a classroom; about how one of her teachers continuously mispronounced her last name (she was Leah Jainchill but the teacher would call her Jonquil). She told me about singing in two school choirs, including the Cantata, an “elite girls chorus” as she put it. She described swimming lessons in the pool at school, and volunteering in an assistant principal’s office.


(Dad attended Brooklyn’s Tilden High School and offered few details about his days there. He was mostly bored at high school.)


Reminiscing about one’s high school days is not solely a Brooklyn thing, obviously. But there is something about going to a large, urban public high school that shapes you. You realize that life isn’t always easy and smooth. I’ve seen people look down at this, or wrinkle their noses, and even condemn it. I’ve seen other people cheer it along as “school of hard knocks.” These comments are overly simplistic. Attending high school in Brooklyn is a much more nuanced experience, or set of experiences, than most people would like to admit.


And at Murrow we had a highly diverse student body, when this was not necessarily common nor touted as a plus. We had extremely bright kids of different races and ethnic groups, as well as very average kids. There were students who used wheelchairs and walkers, who wore hearing aids. I was friendly with teens whose backgrounds were Jamaican, Panamanian, Greek, Italian, Chinese (and from different parts of China), Puerto Rican, and so on. My friends were Jewish and Catholic, Protestant and Muslim, and more. Some kids were quite wealthy and others were quite poor. Everyone had a different story to tell, but it was situated in Brooklyn.


We also had a somewhat dizzying amount of course offerings: photography and TV studio, car care and secretarial skills, band and orchestra and choirs, many different English and science courses (including multiple levels of astronomy and horticulture), at least five or six foreign language choices (plus independent study), honors courses and remedial, and more. Even the Phys Ed department offerings were varied (track, gymnastics, yoga, dance, softball, tennis, Polar Bear, and so on).


This amount of choice, a certain degree of autonomy, also shaped me and my peers. My years at a large public high school in Brooklyn could have been better, but could have been much worse. Those years, that school, the teachers and students and courses and activities, all helped to launch me forward into our society. They helped me become a practical person who embraces learning but also has a sense of humor, because you always need a sense of humor.










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