A long time ago in a school district far, far away…
Well not that far away really, just the Bronx.
At the beginning of World War II, when New York was still heating up the melting pot of immigrant cultures that would define the five boroughs, my father started his Freshman year at DeWitt Clinton High School, class of ’45.
My father’s father had come alone from Russia at fourteen, eventually finding steady work in the garment district in New York City. His family lived in a one bedroom apartment in the Amalgamated Co-op on Van Cortlandt Park South. My dad and his older brother shared the bedroom. Their parents slept in the living room on a Riviera hide-away bed.
The DeWitt Clinton student body at that time drew from the immigrant families who lived in the neighborhood; largely Eastern European Jews but also Italians and Irish as well as black students coming up from Harlem–thousands of them pouring out of the Mosholu Parkway station on the Lexington Avenue line every morning.
As my father describes it, DeWitt Clinton was an all college-bound high school. When he attended, there were over ten thousand students, all boys. I have his Arista pin, signifying his membership in a city-wide honors society which came with enviable perks like unmonitored access to the hallways between classes.
In addition to the core curriculum of math, language, science, history and English at this college-prep, ethnically diverse, public high school, students at DeWitt Clinton also had a full spectrum of arts classes to choose from. These included drawing and painting, theater, choir, band, and sculpture. My father particularly enjoyed sculpture.
They also apparently used what we now refer to as arts integration. My father’s Sophomore English class studied “Macbeth” with each student being given lines to memorize and recite. My father’s assignment was Lady Macbeth’s soliloquy. “Come to my woman’s breast and take my milk for gall.” I’m quoting my father, not Shakespeare. He still remembers a few choice bits.
And then there is The Magpie, DeWitt Clinton’s student literary magazine.
Read this for example, written by a young James Baldwin, ’42,
Black Girl Shouting
Stomp my feet
An’ clap my han’s
To dese fair lan’s.
Cut my lover
Off dat tree!
To set me free.
To de Lamb
Where’s my man?
Black girl, whirl
Your torn, red dress
Black girl, hide
Black girl, stretch
Your mouth so wide.
None will guess
The way he died
Turned your heart
To quivering mud
While your lover’s
Soft, red blood
Stained the scowling
To cut him free!
—The Magpie, Winter 1942, v. 26, n. 1, p. 32.
And look at this illustration by his brother John Baldwin, ’40.
A Stroll Down Broadway, End Paper (Part 1) January 1940 issue
And this image by Robert Blackburn, ’38,
School Yard, p 21. 20.
James Baldwin served as The Magpie’s literary editor for a time. Richard Avedon was his buddy. Neil Simon was there then too, probably wandering the hallways wearing his Arista pin.
Countee Cullen, Will Eisner, Avery Fisher, Paddy Chayefsky, Frank Gilroy, Fats Waller–DeWitt Clinton has graduated an amazing list of illustrious people, as well as my father, who went on to become a high school and then a community college teacher in both ceramics and math.
Keep in mind that this was the high school you went to for a good education. If you wanted to be an artist, you went to The Music and Art High School next to CCNY.
So here was a public high school in a working class, immigrant neighborhood, during wartime, following the most traumatic economic period in US history, before fundraising auctions or walk-a-thons were a twinkle in any PTA member’s eye, providing art for its students without questioning art’s educational value or requiring significant data or RFQs in order to continue its funding, turning out some of the most creative American minds of the past century.
Yes, I am naive and no historian, and that was New York and this is Seattle, but still, the contrast is pretty awesome. What happened? Why don’t we value the arts in education anymore?
I think the answer may be that we don’t value education anymore. We value stuff. Lots of stuff. And Power.
And our culture no longer perceives knowledge as power. Instead, money and fame are what we respect most. If you asked the American people what they would rather have–a 55” Class Edge Lit Razor LED™ LCD HDTV with VIZIO Internet Apps® and unlimited cable access, a you-tube video of their overweight cat going viral resulting in an interview spot on the Ellen Degeneres Show, or a free, excellent, public education–what do you think the majority would answer?
What if that changed? What if education became the priority in our society across all learning areas? What if the entire population rose up to support schools, teachers, students, learning? What if knowledge was part of the American Dream?
If not, how many creative minds of this century will be left under-nourished?