It was the Sunday morning around New Year's Day, that nexus of melancholy, the time of year that remembering the past is supposed to be fun and insightful but often makes me feel like the years are passing too fast, and there are so many things I was supposed to do; I was watching CBS Sunday morning on the televison. Nancy Giles, a commentator who appears as so many women of African descent do, to be aging far more gracefully then their European descent counterparts, was telling a little story about her high school career as a musician, while painfully scratching out Auld Lang Syne on a viola. I am not sure I recall the whole point of the segment, but as Ms Giles described climbing to the fourth floor of the large high school and sitting on folding chairs with other enthusiastic if minimally talented orchestra members listening to Mrs Stevens, exasperated directions, that I started to suspect that I was one of those minimally talented viola players
And sure enough Nancy Giles ended the segment with (and I paraphrase here) "and that's what I learned from playing in the viola in the orchestra at Jamaica High School in the early 1970's."
There was a time in my life that I thought the a good portion of the world went to Jamaica High School, I was talking to a friend in Florida about that conclusion once, and the stranger next to us in a store, leaned in and told us he had gone there too.
But somehow after, Ms Giles and I left, the school started to fade as the star of Eastern Queens, no longer did people fake addresses or interests in obscure coursework only offered at JHS to get in, but exactly the opposite began to occur. To this day, the "zone" for Jamaica includes large swaths of middle class neighbors but staying out of Jamaica was the common goal among the many families I interacted with as my children approached the high school years.
Jamaica High School got the reputation of a troubled High School. I am not sure if that is a euphemism for "Black" high school. Surely when Nancy Giles and I played viola together the school was racially mixed, and I had no illusions about the "whiteness" of the world as so many of my college friends did. But the school, that perches high above some of the most expensive real estate in Queens was abandoned by the middle class.
Last Friday, I read in the New York Times the Department of Education had scheduled it for closing. I read through the comments, many of which fondly recalled their years there and lamented its passing. I looked at lists of famous alumni, (Francis Coppola, defrocked attorney general of the Nixon years- John Mitchel, and several Olympians including the most famous- Bob Beamen). And I wondered if our "small secondary school" could move in.
Saturday night, I spoke with a friend, who works at Jamaica. I listened to her angst and told her of my secret wish that I would end my career at the building where I began to want to be a teacher. Her comment:
"Tell me one good thing about the small high schools.- What's one advantage.?"
I answered, we graduate almost everyone (though as I write there are several students weighing heavily on my mind).
But it got me wondering. I don't know that we will be able to move, or in the end if that would even be the best thing. I realize that my friend and her coworkers, are like the GM factory workers tossed out of jobs they thought were secure,jobs that they did well, by people of power who make decisions that effect everyone's lives but their own.
I love the school I work in, and I realize I work with a whole community of people dedicated to educating young people. Does that mean all small schools are good? All big ones are bad? Even I am not that naive. I often long for the accouterments of a large school, from a teacher's cafeteria to a variety of sports teams (let alone- the obvious a cadre of people who do similar jobs to share worries and strategies with).
And I wonder if years from now, random people in different corners of the world will realize, the tv commentator or the people next to them on the supermarket line all have fond memories of the their high school on the hill.