“Ever to thee” are words of loyalty from a high school anthem, a school song that reverberates in my mind a half a century after I left DeWitt Clinton H.S. back in days I lived in the Bronx.
There’s no doubt that my experience and instruction at “DeWitt C” helped propel me into journalism as a career, and ultimately, to writing opinion columns like this.
When “my” then all-boys school, once the biggest high school in the world, was threatened with closure by bureaucrats who fancy themselves “educational reformers,” I made a film about DeWitt Clinton, its 100 year plus history, and the challenges that confront it as a wave of privatization sweeps over education with schools shuttered in city after city. I wanted to celebrate the importance of public education.
Years ago, in my book, “News Dissector: Passions, Pieces and Polemics,” Electron Press (2000) I wrote about my formative years in editing the student newspaper.
I called it “Bodoni Bold.”
“Journalism has its mysteries. Typefaces are one of them. Our newspaper at the mighty DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx chose Bodoni Bold, a deep black inky distinctive typeface. I was never quite sure why. There was a rumor that the printer, who set the paper for us in hot type eight times a school year, had cornered the bodoni market, had it locked up, maybe even received a commission on each slug banged out in the bold.
“Who knows? Who cares, except it is one of the details still percolating through my brain cells all these years. later. I am thinking of a stuffy, tiny Clinton News Office, for a time my home away from home.
“On every wall there were lists of the students who had come before us, including some famous names who went on to the big time. Where did the others go? Most of them, I suppose, had the good sense to move on to other non-journalism lives. I rose through the ranks from reporter to editor, getting a whiff of newsprint, leads, headlines, and the by-line bug. It gave me a taste that would stay with me for the rest of my life.
“Lou Simon is the guy I’d thank. He was our advisor, teacher, confessor. He was young when he came to Clinton in the mid-fifties, maybe 28 or 29. He had a crewcut and a funny duck walk. His English classes and journalism sessions hammered away at basics. Who? What? Why? Where? When? How? He made us recite these five W’s, and slashed away at stories that missed one or another aspect of the formula. “Get it right, check your facts, watch your grammar.” Nothing was sent to the printer without a big Blue L from Lou Simon scrawled up in the left hand corner of the copy. It was his stamp of approval.
“There were times that I fought with him, fussed with him and cursed him under my breath. He was stubbornly insistent and usually right, and the Clinton News had the scholastic prizes to prove it. Here we were, this massive 4200 all boy Bronx High School, so rough that we quipped we’d have a recess every day to carry out the wounded, and we’d win top national student press prizes every year, competing in the kudo count against newspapers from fancy prep schools.”
Fully a third of the students came from feeder junior high schools in Harlem. Every year, four tall high scoring black kids would bring the tricks from their playground practices on to the backboards in the school gym. Somewhere they’d pick up a Jewish kid, or an Italian here or there, some guy whose every minute was spent practicing jump shots or learning to drive towards the basket like a Spanish toreador. Clinton was supreme on the courts.
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 after whom the school was named. He brought the kid back to the Bronx and introduced him to the institution that carries his name.