REMEMBERING DEWITT CLINTON HIGH SCHOOL
"On the lines below, please explain what DeWitt Clinton High School meant to you."
-DWC Alumni Newsletter, December 2005
Please don't ask me to explain what Clinton meant to me in three lines. It's way too big for that. Think: the height a pastrami sandwich at Katz's Deli. Think: the depth of the Jerome Park Reservoir. Think: the breadth of Van Cortlandt Park. Think: the length of the Grand Concourse. Think: the Bronx, from Marble Hill to Mosholu.
Just why Clinton was so important to me is not that mysterious. My whole family went there (well, except for my mother. Back then she had to go to Monroe, poor girl), which meant my father, my brother, my uncle, and me. In fact, when my uncle lay critically ill in Beth Israel, we discovered that his hospital roommate had also graduated from Clinton, so we were able to hold a little alumni meeting right there.
Clinton was also my neighborhood school. Everyday, I rolled out of my bed in the Amalgamated Co-op Houses and walked the few blocks to the Mansion. Everybody in my neighborhood went to Clinton, well, everyone except those who "got in" to Science. Little would I know that my not "getting in"would be the best thing that ever happened to me. I never heard the Science kids say they loved their school.
In those days, the early- to mid- '60's, Clinton was a naturally-integrated school, and we all got along. And if we didn't want to, there was the Dean of Students, Mr. Feibush, to make sure we did. At any rate, I don't remember any fights, except when we played Stuyvesant in the Thanksgiving Day football classic and we managed to keep their entire student body hostage on Randall's Island after they had the nerve to beat us.
And then, of course, there was the faculty. What an amazing group of teachers and scholars. Try this honor roll on for size: Katz, Guernsey, Farnan, Hlavety, Wilson, Fuchs, Simon, Boffman, That's already more names of more teachers than I can recall from the fancy Ivy League university I attended.
But there was something even larger than the student body and the faculty, and that was Clinton itself. It was like a giant magnet that pulled us together and then higher to something better. Whether it was its sheer size and its legion of famous alumni or (back then) its unusual uni-sex student body, Clinton created its own powerful mythology and mystique. It had, as Tevye would say in Fiddler on the Roof, "Tradition!" This was a tradition larger than any one teacher or student. You came to it. It didn't come to you. And this tradition expected things of you (in the classroom and on the field), and you delivered because you wanted to be a part of it.
So did my Clinton experience have an impact on my life? Unquestionably. Because of my excellent history teachers, I became a high school history teacher, and will be retiring next year after a 33-year career in Massachusetts. Because of my intense experience as editor of the Clinton news (Thank you, Mr. Simon!), I became the faculty adviser of my high school newspaper. Moreover, Clinton never seemed to want to let go of me. Even now, my own sons and students have to plead with me to stop boasting about my high school.
And how about this strange tale of destiny: about ten years ago, I was calling the roll for the first time in one of my history classes, when I suddenly came to..."DeWitt Clinton VI." Yes, the direct descendent! He and his father (the "Vth") hadn't even known there was a high school in New York City named after the family patriarch. But young DeWitt proudly came down for a "state visit" and he was truly received like a prince. Later, he and his family would be invited as guests of honor at Clinton's 100th birthday celebration. And you'd be surprised how many family friends, students, and parents have come up to me over the years to tell me that they or their grandfather had gone to guess where? old DeWitt C, of course.
In closing, I'd like to say this last word about my alma mater. What I am most proud of, is that Clinton was a school of working class kids who achieved. We came from homes that had more dreams than money. For us, being part of the Clinton tradition was really special. By the time I went to Clinton, the school was down to a mere 6,000 students. Nowadays, the experts will tell you that big schools don't work. There are even experts who will tell you that public schools don't work. Well, I have three words for all those experts: DeWitt C-l-i-n-t-o-n Boom!