When the invitation to my 50th high school reunion in New York City arrived in the mail earlier this year, I knew I would attend. I just wasn't sure why. Friends in Los Angeles were amused. I did not seem the type. Was there a special girl I wanted to see after all these years? Old friends? None of the above, I laughed.
Which one is The Jewish Journal's editor, Gene Lichtenstein? (see bottom of page)
I should have explained that mine had been a special school, the Bronx High School of Science. An exam was required for admission, and only one in six passed. But everything about Bronx Science -- classes, teachers, other students, college preparation -- suggested it would be our ticket out of the Bronx and into America. This was not without its own sense of anxiety. If we did well, there was a good chance that we would leave behind our friends, our family and our home. And, indeed, after high school, we rarely saw one another again.
We lived, most of us, in the Bronx, first-generation Americans, 90 percent of us Jewish, all males and bound for college. We had been told, and believed somewhat naively, that this was meritocracy at work. Few paused to question the absence of women, or that there were only four blacks in our class, and no Asians or Hispanics.
Our teachers understood that we came from poor homes. My rough-hewn class background had been made clear to me by my freshman-year social studies teacher, Mrs. Friedenthal. We were required to wear ties to her class, she informed me, and if we owned one (emphasis on that word "owned"), a jacket as well.
Loftily, she explained that our speech needed improvement, as did our manners, if we wanted acceptance from the wider world out there -- non-Jewish, well-mannered and not particularly sympathetic to Jewish outsiders like us. Our grades would be affected (slightly) by dress, speech, manners, she informed us. There was little doubt, she made clear, that our grade-point average and our extracurricular record were now the twin defining points of our life.
Despite Mrs. Friedenthal, my classmates and I made little progress with manners or dress; rather, we discovered the pleasures associated with learning. Our other teachers moved us along in a straighter line. They cared deeply about their subjects and were devoted to teaching...and to learning. And we fell into step right away: five years of science; four years of mathematics, English, history, foreign language. Homework became a serious matter and took more hours than we expected. Reading, writing and studying, these became our priorities.
Still, it was a schoolfriend who took me to see Clifford Odets' "Waiting for Lefty," and another who first played Billie Holiday's records for me. It was my classmates at Science who mattered even more than the faculty. It was to them I turned as we came to share a set of values that differed from those we had brought with us from home.
It was not that we were necessarily happy at Bronx Science. I was not. Mostly, I was sex-starved and struggling with adolescence, two subjects that the school and my teachers treated with what I thought was profound indifference.
On paper alone, the reunion was a success. One hundred three filled out a registration form and signed on; half were accompanied by their wives. When you calculated that at least 24 had died and another 30 had been impossible to locate, the number of acceptances was more than 50 percent.
The reunion was scheduled for an entire weekend in May: an afternoon party, a lengthy four-hour brunch, a visit to Bronx Science itself. A casual glance suggested that most of us had landed somewhere near where we had aimed. Among the 103, there were 13 doctors, eight engineers and/or scientists, 16 attorneys, a handful of writers and theater people, a judge, a rabbi and even a West Point graduate. Not surprisingly, 15 were college professors. We were the American dream come true...even though a fair number had changed Jewish-sounding last names to something, well, more American.
I talked with Marty Zimmerman. He had been our star athlete, probably one of the most popular kids in our class. He had been genial, easy, practical, not particularly intellectual. He was our West Point graduate. But he also had become a computer specialist (a master's degree from Stanford in computer science while still in the army) who wound up as a deputy chief of staff of the U.S. Army, retiring as a civilian but with the rank of a major general. He was now a highly respected computer consultant. He seemed comfortable in his skin. He asked questions of everyone, leaning forward and listening intently for the answers. He still seemed easy and genial. But thoughtful too. I liked him immensely.
Alfred Schwartz appeared the same, though. He had been quiet, serious, focused -- a handsome kid with not much room for irrelevant or wrong choices. He became a lawyer, married a lawyer and retired at 53. For the past seven years, he had been teaching second-graders to read at P.S. 75 through the Gift of Literacy Program of the Jewish Community Center on New York's Upper West Side. He still seemed serious and focused...and now a bit avuncular, probably still with little time for irrelevant projects.
Mingling with them, and others, I was surprised at how sweet the occasion had become, and also how intimate. The affection we felt for one another was palpable in the room. As boys, we had used humor and irreverence as defenses against that threatening world outside. And, now, almost unconsciously, we fell back upon jokes and banter, as though all the intervening years had suddenly melted away. We strained to recall classes, teachers, defining moments, trying to catch a glimpse of the boys we had once been. It was my 16-year-old self, I realized, for whom I was searching.
Of course, it was illusory. We were now grown men, each with a private and separate past. Nevertheless, chatting, hugging, touching one another, we could not help be wryly amused at how well life had turned out for each of us. Was it part of our affection for one another, that gift of bonding we had unthinkingly passed along at Bronx Science? Was it a reward for years of hard work and focused ambition? Or was it simply that this is what life is all about: growing up, letting go, caring about work, and finding friends and family to love? -- Gene Lichtenstein
Gene Lichtenstein is bottom left.
Gene Lichtenstein is Editor-in-Chief of The Jewish Journal