June 06, 2007
I WANT MY HIGH SCHOOL BACK
Unless you went to Lafayette High School in Brooklyn, this column won't mean much to you. Although if you think back to your own high school years with the same bittersweet memories I have, you will see how sad it is to wake up one day and realize your high school will soon cease to exist.
What was it? Was it the music? The Penguins singing, "Earth Angel, Earth Angel, will you be mine" or the incredibly untalented Johnny Ray scratching, "If your sweetheart sends a letter of goodbye. .It's no secret, you'll feel better if You c-r-r-r-r-y."
We loved it. It was our music. Our parents and teachers hated it. Maybe that's why we loved it. We were young and invincible then and we went to a great high school called Lafayette.
When you walked in the halls of Lafayette in those days it was as though you had walked on to the set of the movie Grease. The halls were filled with black-leather-jacketed would-be tough guys singing,
"Life could be a dream
If I could take you up in paradise up above
Lafayette was Grease, in spades. It was "Happy Days" ten times over. Lafayette was in a neighborhood which, in the 1950s, an ambitious Mafia-hunting Tennessee Senator named C. Estes Kefauver called "the breeding place for crime in the United States." Instead of being shamed, the neighborhood was proud. Recognition, any kind of recognition, is welcome when the world is pretending you're not there.
Whatever the neighborhood was, there was a magic. And a big part of that magic was the high school called Lafayette.
In the mother of all dumb moves, they're closing it. There will be no Lafayette High School in the future.
The Board of Education, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Joel Klein have thrown up their hands and admitted the bad kids have won. "No mas," they cry. "We're closing the school." Why?
The board cited factors such as graduation rates and academic performance among the reasons that the school is being closed. The Department of Education specifically cited Lafayette, Tilden and a couple of other schools as having four-year graduation rates that are lower than average, and below-average academic performance. Then there are the fights and kids being picked on and serious racial disturbances. If that's the criteria, Lafayette should have been closed 50 years ago.
There's nothing wrong today with Lafayette that a few good teachers and some strong security presence can't cure.
Nothing has changed to call for this move. When I went to Lafayette, as many as 20% of the boys attending the school quit before they were 16. They got working papers and most of them went to work on the docks. Lifting, hauling, pushing and straining.
At that same time Lafayette graduated a kid named Fred Wilpon, who went on to become a New York leader and who now owns the New York Mets. Ask him about Lafayette.
One of the people who attended Lafayette at that time was a kid named Frankie who today is part of the witness protection program. He admits that he whacked eight other mobsters. But another Lafayette graduate of that same time is Sandy Koufax — arguably the greatest pitcher in history and one of the nicest people in the world.
A lot of kids who went to Lafayette got into trouble and "went away." But it's the same school that graduated more major league baseball players than any school in New York, including John Franco, Ken and Bobby Aspremonte.
Lafayette was the high school of artists Peter Max and Maurice Sendak, actors Paul Sorvino and Art Metrano, singer Vic Damone, sports writers Phil Pepe and Larry Merchant, financial wizards and community leaders like Michael Steinhardt and Frank Borelli.
A number of years ago at a Lafayette reunion, one of Lafayette's distinguished graduates made a speech where he recounted that as a young Jewish boy attending Lafayette, he was picked on and was beaten up by the Italian kids every day at 3 o'clock. His name was Larry King. I came up to the podium to speak and told Mr. King he had been avenged. "I'm an Italian and I married a Jewish woman, Judy Licht, and every day at 3 o'clock she beats me up."
Lafayette has always been a tough school with a low graduation rate. I know, I barely made it out of the school with a 59 average. I cut classes, I shot craps in front of the school and, yes, I accidentally knocked over the principal, Mr. Grady, when I was running away as he broke up one of our crap games. If there is statute of limitations, I'm in the clear. It was nearly 50 years ago.
One of the kids who was shooting craps with me became a successful doctor. Two others are successful businessmen. One kid is a retired policeman, another is a retired fireman, six of the seven other kids turned out fine. The seventh, I've heard, served some time.
I went back to Lafayette a few years ago to speak at the graduation. I had heard and read all the stories about how the school was "Horror High." What I found was a school that hadn't changed that much from when I was a student. Except for the diversity of the students. The graduation class was made up of Italians, Jews, African-Americans, Asians, Russians, and Poles.
After my speech an African-American woman asked me to pose for a picture with her son. She was proud as she could be. Her eyes were so filled with tears she had trouble seeing through the camera's viewfinder. "He's my first to be going to college," she said, then she put her hand on the shoulder of her little girl and said, "but he's not going to be the last."
That is the Lafayette I will always remember – a tough school but a great school where every student tasted life.
Lafayette was and is in a poor working-class neighborhood. It will never be at the top of the list for brains. But it will not take a back seat to any school in this town for heart.
I want my school back.
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