I just had to change careers. Working for the Welfare Department, doing what I was doing, was simply too awful, too depressing. To get an idea of what it was like, consider having a conversation with a man in a tiny, smelly bedroom. He is sick, suffering from cancer of the penis. I urge him to go to the hospital, the one serving his community, Harlem Hospital. He absolutely refuses my suggestion, arguing that the hospital is so awful that it would probably hasten his death. From what I’ve heard of Harlem Hospital, he’s most likely right. He is going to die in this small, smelly bedroom. Almost every day, I stumble into one horror story after another.
At home, Linda had urged me to take the teaching test again. The political situation has changed. Civil Rights groups have been demanding more Black teachers in the classrooms of the city, and this loosens up the speech requirement somewhat. I take the test again, and this time I get a pass on the verbal part of the exam. The written part was never a problem. Now I had a license to teach English in the junior high schools, grades 7, 8 and 9. With that taken care of, I begin looking for a teaching position not too distant from where I live.
The infamous Board of Education (it really wasn’t as terrible as the NY Times wanted its readers to believe), at 110 Livingston Street, in Brooklyn did have a central registry for new teachers, but I decided to pay personal visits to the local junior high schools, with the idea that my sheer size would recommend me as a capable teacher. As I fill out a job application in the general office of Inwood Junior High School on Academy Street, in Inwood, I notice a busy, bald man in the office with a FIDE pin in his lapel. FIDE (which stands for Federation International Des Echecs), is the controlling body of international chess. I call out to the man, and I ask him if he’s a chess player. It turns out that he’s Milton Hanauer, one of the top American chess masters, a former New York State Champion and Olympic Team competitor. Naturally enough, we immediately hit it off. Besides being a chess champion, Milton Hanauer is also the principal of this school. However, he has no position available at this time, but he promises to remember me and call me should something become available.
A few days later I get a phone call from the Board of Education’s employment registry, asking me whether I was available to take a position as a “regular” substitute English teacher at Frederick Douglas Junior High School, on West 139 Street, between Lennox and 7th Avenues, (both Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were still alive, and therefore did not have any avenues or boulevards named after them) in the heart of Harlem. I knew nothing about the school, and I did need a job. So, I wound up teaching at Frederick Douglas Junior High School, the last all-boys junior high school in the city, and as the expression goes, one of the most “troubled.” The only school that had a worse reputation was the all-girls version on West 145th Street, a few blocks away. But Frederick Douglas was my introduction to teaching, and what an introduction it was!