We were sports kings all right, terrorizing the mere mortals who played against us, some of whom were more frightened about the inevitable fight after the game than the athletic contest itself. Anyway, Clinton boys had a street rep; a respect born of intimidation. We were the incarnation of the movie "Blackboard Jungle." Every few weeks, there were reports of rumbles on the subways involving some of our fellow students. 4200 adolescent boys pump out a lot of testosterone.
Being on the newspaper didn't do much for you on the mano a mano scale, but the athletes liked you because they wanted their pictures in the paper.
Thinking back on it now, I'm glad I went there. I was thrown into the great NY melting pot or, perhaps more accurately, the salad bowl, the stew of ethnicities and neighborhoods that give the city its vitality. Some of us mixed; some of us didn't, but we were all together. When you'd go to the boy's room, there were always some black kids harmonizing. They felt that the tiles in the bathroom sweetened the sound. And they were always on key.
The comedian Robert Klein, who graduated two years before me, has produced a comedy album and an HBO special goofing on his time at DeWitt C. He has even written a song celebrating life in the Bronx back then "The Bronx is so beautiful this time of year." He belted the song out at the School's hundred year reunion. Grown men cried, singing along. There was even an alumnus there from the class of 1919.
I was a working class kid at a working class school. No pretensions, little elitism. It was a real down to earth grounding, and for me part of a larger tradition. My father went there, as did my uncle. My brother followed me. Something must have touched him about the experience, because he has been a high school teacher ever since getting out of college and a great one.
And, irony of ironies, one of his students was a descendant of the original DeWitt Clinton, the great New York Governor who created the Erie Canal, after whom the school was named. He brought the kid back to the Bronx and introduced him to the institution that carries his name.
Don't get me wrong. This was not high school heaven, it was no educational oasis or utopia. It had many problems and flaws. It was run then like a boot camp! There were overcrowded classes, incompetent teachers, and hard-headed students including many who were proud to be called JDs--juvenile delinquents. It also practiced tracking, a form of elitism, so that the brighter kids were exposed to more advanced subject matter and greater opportunity. But we were all mixed together up n the lunch room, in gym, on teams and in the intro courses.
The school made the toughest kids, the real hoods, into hall monitors to channel their energy in a more positive but still authoritarian direction. I may have hated a lot of what went on there then, but I remember it fondly now. Time does take the edges off--and allows us all to mythologize about a golden age that, of course never existed.
We were also the fifties generation. We had duck-and-cover fallout shelter drills. We had assemblies with patriotic themes. Most of us wore our hair short and were pretty straight. I was introduced to pot by a black friend who identified with the jazz world. But only a few of us had our illicit puffs then. (And yes, I inhaled.) It was basically the pre-drug era.
I did okay in school--not great. I was hopeless in math, bored in science, but animated by history, and, yes, a bit of an ass-kisser and do-gooder. But to this day I am loyal to the red and black, and can still remember every word of the school song, "Clinton Alma Mater, thy name we sing."
About five years ago, I went to a reunion that brought together some of the Clinton generations. Maybe it was a sign of the times, but it was held in suburban Westchester where many Bronx residents fled after the borough was allowed to decay in the urban disasters of the "60s. That year, the honorees were the 50 year veterans of the Class of "43 and the silver anniversary vets, closer to my time, the Class of "68.
The World War Two vets celebrated their war, "the big one," with anecdotes about hearing of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in the school auditorium and then rushing out to enlist. They left as boys and came back as men. Not all of them came back.
I was more touched by the representative of 1968 who said he wished he could have been as proud of his generation's war, the one in Vietnam, but he wasn't. There was silence, and then a trickle of applause. He stood there, six foot six, black and proud, with tears welling in his eyes as he apologized for dropping a ball in a Public School Athletic League (PSAL) city-wide championship game a quarter of a century earlier. "Forgive me," he asked, "but it has been bugging me all these years."
The shame of it was still with him twenty-five years later. He received an ovation with the older alums who went up on stage to embrace him. Then they all hugged and squeezed each other, little old Italian men in ill-fitting suits and this giant jock groomed on the streets of Harlem. That was the Clinton spirit!
But then, it was time for the big shock. In the intervening decades since I graduated in 1960, Clinton fell on hard times. Large sections of the Bronx had been torched for the insurance money. The borough became national exhibit number one for urban decline. All of New York's social problems soon infiltrated the halls and the ranks, decimating the student body and the school's reputation. Soon, Drugs. Crime. Gangs were blamed for the collapse of educational standards. The Board of Education seemed bored with promoting innovative educational programs.
At some point, the powers that be decided on a drastic step, a radical break with tradition. They integrated the school. They let girls in!