The tapestry of my life has intertwined threads woven through my life from the beginnings to the present day. On occasion, a familiar thread shows up somewhat unexpectedly, and then just as quickly it disappears. Reminiscences from the Old Days sometimes surface because of a quirky memory or a casually dropped word by another person.
A week ago, some of my friends and I were talking about high school, and I mentioned I had been the only girl ever to be on the Darkroom Squad in my high school.
Memories flooded back that evening. What do you remember about high school? In 1951, I graduated from William Cullen Bryant High School in Queens, one of New York City’s five boroughs.
Because of my intellect and knowledge, it was a only a three and a half year stint. On many complex and intertwined levels, it wasn’t the same world for me and those I knew as it is for today’s students. Mind you, I’m not saying our generation’s or theirs is good or bad. However, life during my stint in high school days was certainly different from today and of yesteryear. I honestly don’t believe I could have dealt with today’s world.
When we took the entry test, we were seated at the lunchroom tables. Tests “A” and “B” and “C” were given out to us to prevent cheating. However, the student next to me and I quickly discovered, though the questions were different, the pattern of the answers in the little answer circles on the answer sheet was the same for the three versions. The strategy made sense. In those days, the tests were scored manually, and over three hundred incoming freshmen took the three hours of examinations.
He saw how well I was answering questions, and he gleefully copied all my answers. Well, I was placed into the Honor School. So was he. Within two days, he sobbingly confessed his peccadillo to the guidance counselor and was rescued by regular classroom assignments. I understand he became a banker as an adult.
Keep in mind I was born onto a different philosophical, psychological, and cultural planet from most people. Consequently, by the time I entered high school, my family decided only a miracle from either God or Aladdin’s genie would enable me to survive until graduation. I was lucky.
During my high school tenure, I definitely became part of a miracle. There was no Aladdin, but there were caring, if somewhat unusual friends who were emotionally and intellectually my equals; as well as teachers who loved me, taught me, and protected me fiercely. The teachers actively encouraged my intellect and curiosities. Furthermore, my off-campus stomping grounds were the five boroughs of New York City, which included parks, famous historical sites, New York Harbor~ and, yes, I did see the Normandie after she sank at the dock! And, thanks to public transportation, my exploration included the natural world within a fifty mile radius of the Empire State Building The Good Old Days meant a network of inexpensive public transportation, no crowded interstates, and safe hitch hiking.
A personal sense of adventure brought about a series of discoveries on all levels. I learned about hiking the mountains along the Hudson River, inland seas, rivers, the Appalachian Trail, railroad bridges to hop on freight trains to get from Point A to Point B. Actually, after I turned sixteen, the freight train adventures ended when I began leaving the state via commercial truck hitch hiking. But that is another story.
Mrs. Rosalie Kirshen was the director of the Science Department and she introduced me to the director of the Biology Lab. They became my mentors. Happily, I became part of the student team who supplied the science teachers with live and stuffed animals, biological research materials, and laboratory materials for experiments. We would lay out and clean up laboratories. The six other assistants, all friends, and I were involved in experiments, student research, teacher assistance, and field trips during our entire time in high school.
From my early days as the child of ardent union-activist parents, I knew there were three choices of higher education open to me as a woman: get married or become a teacher or pursue being a nurse. Sexual activity was considered low class and demeaning. Not that my parents worried overly. After all, I didn’t shave my armpits and legs; nor did I use bras and deodorants. The family kept me out of blue jeans and insisted I wear skirts, heeled shoes, hats, gloves, and stockings during my excursions. It was an outfitting that kept me out of a great deal of trouble in Greenwich Village, where my outer appearance seemed to mark me as eccentric. Skirts were a minor annoyance, and until I learned to wear jeans rolled up under them, I ran into some interesting problems. For instance, shinnying up electric light poles on the Hudson River Parkway parks attracted police attention and stern warnings.
My two favorite teachers were enthralled with my adventures, but they also gave me the usual parental advice. May it be said I seldom fell off the middle class wagon?
Photography had begun in my early childhood and was encouraged by my parents, both superb photographers of people, places, and events. My skills and interest developed gradually in this area over the years, and I often brought my photos to school to share with friends, teachers, and clubs.
After six months in his basic math skills class, during which I struggled to master an impossible subject, I began to make progress. My math teacher then generously invited me to become part of the Photo Squad as a reqard, which included learning the fine points of composition, all phases of darkroom work, and taking photographs of school events. “I don’t know how you’ll do in math,” he told me, “however, we’ll see if my tutoring can keep you in the Honor School Mode.”
It worked! He taught mathematics as an illustrated language; as well as using his humor, strange cartoon figures, and strange art work. The other guys and I were actually able to pass our courses with B’s. This marvelous teacher worked miracles ! He arranged to have the group of us tutored by him during our time in high school, and charmed the other teachers to ignore much of our lack of mathematical gestalt. I wish I could remember his name after all these years. I remember he was young, completely bald, and had a delicious sense of humor. We all adored him. It made us feel so proud to have these two teachers such as him and Mrs. Kirshen have such great faith in us.
On a fine summer morning during freshman year, Walter H. Wolff, the principal, who was also a close mentor and very fond of me, stopped by and watched our group in action in the darkroom. He whispered something to the teacher, then called me over. “You know, you’re the first girl who has ever been on the photo squad. That’s quite an honor. Good work, Liz.” Then Dr. Wolff left, giving a thumbs up to our mentor.
So time went on, and I eventually graduated with honors. Then it was on to Queens College in Flushing,New York. My explorations and photography grew more sophisticated. However, like the other graduated students, I spent a great deal of time re-visiting my old high school and the mentors who had led and pushed me forward.
The math teacher always showed me the new equipment in the photo darkroom, shared the books he was reading, and one day, I thanked him profusely for having so much faith in me.
He smiled. “Well, considering your psyche and intellect, as well as your unique appearance and voice, I wasn’t worried that you and the guys would have sex, you know.”
Hmmmmmmm. I thought about it a split moment. “Well, thank goodness for your insight. But I must admit it is a bit embarrassing to be considered in that manner. In fact, some people would consider it an insult.”
We both laughed heartily. But I admit a smidgen of shame stayed with me most of my life. I was a “safe” girl. Goodness. The Photo Squad Maiden retained her honor!
Oh, if he only knew what happened to me at various later times in my life! Giggle.