When your parents are usually your bitter adversaries in a senseless, ongoing war, it is difficult to seek advice from them. I had a sudden reminder of this when I read this line in an article about Elizabeth Warren, about a proponent of integration who excepted his own children from the school integration policy he fought for.
His story — as the idealistic father who moves his own children out of urban schools — was chronicled in J. Anthony Lukas’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning book, “Common Ground.’’
I suddenly recalled my idealistic, liberal, pro-integration parents’ desperation when, during my two years in Junior High School, the local school zoning was changed (to increase racial diversity) and my local High School was no longer nearby highly rated Jamaica High but predominantly black Andrew Jackson High (talk about ironies, naming that school after rabid racist slaveholder and Trump favorite Old Hickory…) located squarely in a black area a few miles from where we lived. Students could opt out of the rezoning plan by pursuing majors at Jamaica not offered at Jackson, I recall metallurgy was one such major, or by getting into one of the specialized schools that required passing an entrance exam.
I took the exam and passed. It was my first inkling that I had a distinct talent for doing well on meaningless high-stakes tests . My choice, as winner of this lottery, was between the nerd-filled Bronx High School of Science (where I’d travelled to take the entrance exam, as I recall) or much closer, much cooler, Stuyvesant High School, a school, as I learned much later, with a long reputation as a liberal arts high school. My sister went there two years later and had the great Frank McCourt, later author of Angela’s Ashes, as her English teacher. She loved Frank, as most of his students apparently did.
From Stuyvesant, then located in Manhattan’s hippyish East Village, students could walk to Chinatown to eat. The trip to school was about 45 minutes by bus and subway from where we grew up in Queens. A good friend of mine to this day went to Stuyvesant and had a fine time there.
Science, by contrast, was more than twice that distance from home. It was located on a tundra, bitterly frozen in the winter where arctic winds off the reservoir would lacerate you on the long walk from the Grand Concourse. It was not located near any place anyone would want to go. Most of my classmates, outside of a few smart misfit friends of mine who happened to live in the Bronx (including the only musical genius I have ever met), were future engineers, computer geeks, physicists, chemists, mathematicians, quants, Nobel prize winners and so forth.
Because I never had a real discussion about any of this, and had no guidance from my parents, a friend and I basically flipped a coin and chose Science. As I recall we never thought about the length of the commute, what we were interested in by way of curriculum or any other factor. To make the deal even more meaningful, we had little contact in High School, after a semester of taking the bus and subway there together I don’t even recall seeing the guy there.
I wound up setting the Bronx High School of Science record for lateness by a student, a growing record of incorrigible tardiness bitterly pointed out to me by a series of red-faced deans of discipline. I was late to class virtually every morning. The alternative to lateness was being up by 6:30 or so and out the door not long past 7:15 a.m. I had few classes there worth my time, little of any interest at all. The English department handed out vocabulary sheets containing dozens of fancy, unfamiliar words we were required to learn every week. I applaud this practice, which instilled a lifelong habit of learning the meaning of every unknown word I encounter. Outside of that, I recall little else academically from my three years of strife there.
One day in High School I ran into a girl I knew from the neighborhood, a cute girl I’d always liked. She was going to Andrew Jackson and told me it was great. She wound up graduating at sixteen, because the classes were apparently so easy there that she aced everything and was able to do her three years of high school in a little over two. I promptly cut school and took the bus with her to Jackson. I recall spending a very nice day there, meeting her bright, politically active friends, hanging out. I remember standing on the steps of the school smoking a joint with her and some of her friends as classes went on inside. I recall not a single menacing black kid hassling any minority white kid, the ultimate fear of liberal parents.
At the highly competitive Bronx Science, my 83 average put me at the bottom of my class. As I recall I was somewhere in the 800s out of a graduating class of almost 1,000. The same amount of work (those diligent, angry last minute hours I spent every year cramming for the New York State Regents) would have put me at the top of the class at Jackson, probably put me in line for many a college scholarship.
I write these words with no bitterness, I really regret none of it. I merely point out that had my parents been capable of real parenting, as opposed to what they actually did, I might have had a chance of thinking through the some of the things I realize now so clearly. I would have learned to think through a choice and make the best decision for myself, instead of flipping a coin with a friend equally clueless about such things. The travel time alone should have been a decisive factor in my decision of where to commute to high school.
I’ve had to become my own parents, a process that no doubt set me back quite a few years, and cost me a ton of hard work. It was good work, and I certainly don’t regret it, in fact, I recommend it for everyone who feels the need for good parenting, but, seriously, man, what the fuck?
 Years later I’d score in the top percentile in the National Teaching Exam. I also got a perfect score on the exam for Census Supervisor, a test score that was later unaccountably erased along with my application. I also passed a variety of high school subjects I had not studied by bitterly cramming, often in a day or two, for a series of Regents’ Exams. I averaged very high scores on these predictable tests of subject matter that could be quickly learned merely by taking a series of past tests. My scores would rise from an initial 20%, to the 85 or 90% I’d score on the last test I’d take on my sleep-deprived subway ride to school to take the actual exam.