The world around us changes remarkably quickly at times. We become history without even noticing it. At Inwood Junior High School the change that occurred was how quickly it turned from one of the best (if not the best) junior highs in the City into one of the worst. The school that regularly provided Stuyvesant and Bronx Science with their valedictorians suddenly made the front page of the New York Post, when one of its students died of a heroin overdose. But before all this happened, I had a lovely time teaching at Inwood Junior High.
Seemingly, there was nothing I could ask of my students that they couldn’t do, and they took pride in their accomplishments, sometimes just showing off, as did the girl (I think her name was Carol Bloom) who made a point of reading all of her books upside down. We studied “Romeo and Juliet,” and because I thought my students would like it, and they did. And because I valued memory, and wanted them to remember this class years later, I had them all memorize the Queen Mab speech overnight, and memorize it they did. I was asked by Finkelstein to organize a school play with one of my classes, and this led to the first presentation of Berthold Brecht’s “Galileo,” in New York. It did require a certain amount of work, as my 7th Graders (and I) had to show up at 7:30 AM to begin rehearsals, and often didn’t leave until 5 or 6. After their single public performance, my students knew they had accomplished something. By now, being a teacher, I thought it important that my students be challenged, and that they be exposed to the fact that truth had to be fought for, and the play did just that.
On weekends Hanauer ran the High School Chess League, and both Finkelstein and I assisted him in running chess tournaments, mostly at John Fischer’s New York Chess Club on 42nd Street, which has come down in chess lore as the Flea House. The three of us worked well together, both in and out of school, which may be the reason they asked me to take over the graduation ceremony.
Inwood was a large school, with as many as fifteen hundred students. Each graduating class was composed of nearly five hundred students, a not insignificant number. I had no experience with graduation ceremonies, as I had never attended one, not even my own, but a job was a job, and I had been given my orders. Finkelstein told me what was wanted, namely, a singing of the traditional “Gaudeamus Igitur,” (of which he and Hanauer were extraordinarily fond, and which I thought quite funny), and the choral recitation of a poem of some sort.
One of the music teachers came down to the assembly hall to teach and rehearse the entire graduating class in Hanauer and Finkelstein’s favorite song, and I picked “The Man With A Hoe,” by Edwin Markham (my Lefty leanings again!), as suitable for choral reading, and of course, I didn’t want it just read. It had to be memorized. To hear those five hundred kids singing “Gaudeamus Igitur,”(without understanding a word of it!), and then recite “The Man With A Hoe,” from memory was impressive. The parents loved it! Graduation was a big success. We repeated it for a couple of years. Then it had to be dropped. The school and its population had changed.