I still remember the 1970s classrooms in Mt. Vernon High School, not that they were distinguished. Loose chairs and desks strewn around the room, which the teachers made orderly after each class.
The furniture was built of chrome and a plastic composite whose manufacturer probably guaranteed indestructibility. But the desktops were gouged and covered with crossed-out insults and messages written in the unmistakable blue of a leaky Cristal Bic pen.
On the walls, a few posters: the kitten clinging to a rope telling us to “Hang in there!” And always, the image of a girl and boy silhouetted against a sunset:
I do my thing and you do your thing.
I am not in this world to live up to your expectations,
And you are not in this world to live up to mine.
You are you, and I am I, and if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful.
Now this is interesting. Looking up the quote to make sure it is as recalled, I learned that these words did not appear first in a Hallmark card. Rather, this is the “Gestalt Prayer” written by Fritz Perls, a psychotherapist, in 1969.
And there is a last line that I swear was not included in the Mt. Vernon classroom posters:
If not, it can’t be helped.
Oh well. Keep it positive. After all, the school presented many challenges.
A sprawling modern building, modeled after Harvard president James B. Conant’s post-war comprehensive high school, it surrounded a courtyard planted with pathetic trees and grass. Their growth likely was stunted by the clouds of smoke that filled the air during lunch and every time classes changed.
Getting a new high school had been controversial, polarizing the city for more than a decade as referendums repeatedly were defeated by anti-tax, anti-busing, and anti-integration groups. A liberal coalition of Protestants, blacks, and Jews ultimately won the day. Black students were bused from the South Side – across the railroad cut – to the North Side, where the school arose on land formerly owned by Hollywood mogul Harry Warner, who built a ranch there during the 1930s.
Opening in 1965, Mt. Vernon High School fell far short of integration. Based on test performance, students were assigned to classes which often broke down by race. We self-segregated in the cafeteria. The great leveling occurred in physical education. The first decade of the new school encapsulated some of the most troubling issues in public schooling during the 20th century.
Of course it’s been four decades, as the reunion invitations insistently remind me. And despite my awful description of the school, I do recall a few instances of revelation in those classrooms.
Despite longtime math troubles, the year of geometry had near-perfect clarity!
In 10th grade World History, the teacher assigned Anatomy of a Revolution by Crane Brinton, published in 1938 and now surely considered an antique (although it has been revised and remains in print). The book compared the Russian, American, and French revolutions and the 17th century English Civil Wars. I had read a fair amount of history but never before encountered a thesis, and loved it.
Finally, one of our English teachers handed out a literature book that somehow got by the censors. It was full of counterculture poems and art. I tore out two pages and kept them; they illustrate this post.
Let’s not forget the flap when a boy in my homeroom refused to say the Pledge. It must have been 1973, since the war was still raging. We were born in the late fifties, therefore too late for the student movement. But, his transgression duly recognized, he was sent to the principal’s office.