Back to George Washington High School, 1969

Absolutely Beautiful George Washington High School

It all began with a picket line of white and black parents in front of the school demanding the racial integration of George Washington High School.  The principal, whose name I’ve now forgotten, looked out his window, saw the picket line, clutched at his heart, and decided it was time to retire.  Events proved him to be a wise man. 

The school was already integrated.  As a matter of fact, whites now constituted a minority of the student body, the rest being Dominicans who happened to live in the neighborhood and the black kids who came in by subway from Harlem.  How the school was to be more integrated than it already was, was the problem for the demonstrators.

Now among our white students was a girl, a very nice girl, whose mother was a woman who taught a course at the New School for Social Research on how to disrupt a school.  As a matter of fact, she had written a book of the same title, and she now proceeded to create a practicum on school disruption 101.  It involved not only picket lines, but motivating students to do whatever they felt necessary to achieve their aim.  Under her personal leadership life at the Dubs (as it was known among students) became interesting.  At one point, there was a front page photograph in the New York Times, of one of our several principals sitting in the shambles of what remained of his office after students and adult activists had trashed it at the end of an unhappy “negotiation” session.  That unhappy principal was one of the six we had in a rather brief period of several weeks, weeks that at the time seemed endless.  I think he was deemed insufficiently “sensitive” in the language of the period.

The school already being integrated, the “demonstrators” decided that the guidance department was insufficiently so, particularly as the counselors carried out most of their business privately, in their offices.  The demands transmuted into one requiring the establishment of a guidance table in the front lobby of the school, in full sight of all, to which students could go to register complaints and make other demands.  The guidance department, with the support of the rest of the professional staff, resisted this because it felt that privacy was of the essence when advising students not only on courses, college choices and even when dealing with complaints, but also when dealing with more personal issues such as sexual abuse within families, drug dependence and accidental pregnancies, all of which were quite common. 

The Board of Education kept changing the principals.  Each of the principals tried to negotiate; sometimes people were brought in from 110 Livingston Street (Board of Ed headquarters), all to no avail.  The riots, the beatings, the knife fights in the school cafeteria, all continued.  Not much education was taking place, but no one seemed to mind except the teachers, the upheaval in the school being much more interesting than what was being taught in the classrooms, and could later be viewed with relish on TV or read in the following day’s newspaper.  Then the city decided on a firmer approach.

To get an idea of what was happening at George Washington High School (and that I’m not exaggerating), you might want to check out this link: http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive/pdf?res=F00C1EFB345B1A7493C2AA178BD95F458785F9

About AlexLevy

Dr. Alex Levy is a retired English teacher who survived World War II and the "Final Solution" by hiding in a Catholic orphanage for girls in Belgium for several years.
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