The August 29 program “Speaking of Faith guest, Michael Rose spoke of the tension between “practical experiences” and “book learning.” I was fortunate enough to attend a special high school in New York known as Brooklyn Technical High School.
As an African American, I was raised in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, a predominantly Jewish, Italian neighborhood. My mother and father encouraged learning of all subjects. My father had a saying, “make every day a school day.” My mother had a junior high school education and was a part time domestic. My father had a high school education, during a time when most American did not graduate from high school. He worked as a presser in small tailor shops. With little income, my mother help pay for all four children’s piano lessons, by inviting the piano teacher to have dinner with the family every Tuesday evening. She read stories and poems to us.
My youth was filled with sports, building model airplanes and experimenting with a prize chemistry set that my mother “wangled” out of my father for my birthday. By junior high school, my mind was made up to take the test for Brooklyn Tech. I had no doubt that I would get into Tech, as I had always been assigned to the “smart” classes; however, my grade advisor had other thoughts. Despite my grades, she continued to tried to steer me into a vocational high school. In the eighth grade I took the entrance examination and was certain I would be accepted. A few weeks later I was devastated by the news that I was not accepted. My ninth year was filled with uncertainty and self doubt. I knew I didn’t want to go to my neighborhood high school, but I was certain I didn’t wanted to suffer the humiliation of a second rejection at the only high school I had ever wanted to attend. I had delayed my decision until the last minute, and was advised that I had to make a decision immediately. I decided to take the exam again, and went to my new advisor to apply. It was in that meeting that my advisor made a discovery. She discovered that my record had been altered to imply that I was a discipline problem. She knew me and knew that wasn’t true. She advised me that I should have my parents meet with the principal to let him know that they knew what had happen. There was no question of who had made the change to my records. I took the exam again, and was accepted to start in September 1951.
It was four and a half years of joy! I learned how to learn at Brooklyn Tech. Tech’s curricula demanded that we should have hands on experience as well as a vigorous academic experience in the science, the technologies, and the arts.I was initially interested chemistry when I entered Tech. We had two years before we had to pick a major. In those two years I was torn between my two loves, chemistry and aeronautics. But I was like a kid in a candy store. All of the different technologies were pulling on me. But before I reached the point of making a selection, I had a full program with a mixture of practical and academic studies.
In our freshman year we were required to take a pattern making shop project. We had to construct a pattern of a jig, known to all Technites as the wooden “step-v block.” It was crucial that you constructed it with specific tolerances, because in your sophomore year you would use that pattern in the foundry shop to create a sand mold to pour in melted cast iron. If your measurements were off, the sand mold would crumple when the pattern was withdrawn from the mold. A poorly constructed pattern had serious consequences a year later in the foundry.This connection of the practical with the academic continued through students’ course work at Tech.
Students in the Architectural Course were required to construct a two-story house within a two-story shop room. Students in the Structural Course had to assemble a structure consisting of beams and columns connected by rivets, using strength of materials theories. I selected the Aeronautics Course. In this besides studing aerodynamics, we had to construct airplane parts. My aluminum pontoon bulkhead, still hangs on my den’s bookcase after all these years. In Engine Shop we were broken up into teams and assigned to a radial airplane engine. We were required to disassemble the engine and learning every aspect of its parts. When we thought we knew it all, we would call over the instructor. He would quiz us. If we missed three questions, we would have to reassemble the engine and start all over learning as we again disassembled it.
Although the majority of the students went on to college, there was a College Prep course for those students who could not decide a major. The students in this course had to take chemistry in either French or German.
The liberal arts were not short changed. My freshman year English teacher described my writing skills as “abominable.” She gave me an assignment, over the Christmas holidays. I was to write a short piece, each day, based on any subject, a movie I saw or an event I witnessed. It was a struggle, especially during the holidays. It paid off years later when I got two short pieces published in a literary magazine. It was at Tech that I discovered Shakespeare, Sinclair Lewis, among others. As demanding as our academic schedule were, we fielded better than average sport teams.
Forty-nine years after graduating I attended my first Alumni Homecoming. I didn’t know what to expect of the students. Were they as dedicated to the school? Were they of the same high quality of the students of my day? I was pleasantly surprised. I saw the same light in their eyes when they talked about their subjects. They talked about how they were using sophisticated computers to take measurements and make calculations. The proud looks in the eyes of the visiting alums were obvious. We teased them and said we did all that using slide rules. That was six years ago, and I have not missed a homecoming since. I’ve learned that we have the largest public school alumni association in the country. We’ve raised more than 10 million dollars over a ten-year period. We have a new goal in the 21st century, “21 in 21." I’m told that we are more than half way there. Many of our alums have done well in a variety of fields, e.g., Leonard Riggio, founder of Barnes & Noble bookstore chain, C.B. Wang, founder of Computer Associates, and owner of the New York Islanders hockey team. Riggio put it this way, “I graduated from NYU and from Brooklyn Tech. When I meet an NYU alum, I say ‘ho-hum’ but when I meet a Technite my eyes light up!”We have had people from other schools asking our alumni how to go about creating such an association. It’s the wrong question. The association was created by what took place in those classrooms so many years ago. The teachers wanted all Technites to shine, regardless of their race. During my class’s 50th anniversary, a group of us were walking through the halls reminiscing on events that had occurred over 50 years ago. The wife of one of the alums asked, “ How do you guys remember with such details events over 50 years ago, while I can’t remember anything about my high school experiences.” I said, “ When you are fourteen years old, and you are selected to attend such a school, where all kinds of gadgets and instruments are at your disposal, and you know that by the time you have completed your freshman year, that you will know how most things in the world are made and how they work, and you knew that that would be more than most people will ever know, you don’t forget those experiences.
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