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Thirty-five right. Twenty-five left. Fifteen right. Click! After 60-plus years I can still recall my locker combination at Harry Burns Hutchins Intermediate School, located on Detroit’s west side.
I can also rattle off 30 names of my Homeroom 223 classmates: Lenore Abramowitz, Roland Anderson, Judith Berkowitz, Lois Carmichael, Thomas Diamond, Henry Gonte (forever combing his blond hair), Kenny Lenseski (my persistent — and most welcome — gym wrestling buddy), Ella Maxwell, the Wassermans, Melvin and Saul…
Most classmates were Jewish; a few, black. Hutchins, built in 1922 as a model intermediate school, was located near three synagogues, and when the high holidays fell, only a few “goyim” attended classes. We gentiles looked forward to these celebrations, wishing our Jewish buddies mitzvahs.
Hutchins wasn’t my neighborhood school. My mom got Board of Education permission for me to attend. She felt nearby Jefferson Intermediate was too rough for me. Each morning for three years, 15 cents plus bus card, I rode safely two miles to Woodrow Wilson and Blaine.
Coming from a poor family, I found prototype Hutchins palatial. Up-to-date library. Wood and print shops. Two gyms. Two swimming pools. Ample auditorium. Staffed cafeteria serving 30-cent lunches. A string orchestra. A school song. A “Hutchins Handbook,” with rules of conduct to be loyally and strictly followed. Or else. Face no-nonsense Ass’t. Principal Luther Hale.
Along with academic subjects, I learned to type, balance business ledgers, play cello, write for the Hutchins Star (as contest editor), speak some Spanish, shoot basketballs, do woodwork and soldering, practice public speaking, act, and explore my nascent art talent with two gifted teachers.
My homeroom teacher, who also taught math, was Miss Harriet B. Gaston. (I can still forge her hall pass initials.) “What’s under the crust of a cherry pie?” “Who’s buried in Grant’s tomb?” she’d prompt when I was on the verge of answering the yet unrecognized obvious answer during remedial sessions.
I got A’s in gym, not because of any sports prowess, but because I printed well and wrote out attendance slips for two classes. I had swimming once a week. We swam naked, and were shyly curious in the shower to see who had pubic hair status. (I was a washout on that score.)
My most embarrassing moment: the day the girl’s gym teacher caught me whistling as the girls passed carefree by an open second-floor window. My punishment — concocted with HBG’s stern, but amused, approval — was to spend one full gym period in my pristine white gym shorts among the girl’s gym class.
“Girls: young Mr. Alexander, who was impolite enough to ogle you, is our embarrassed guest today,” said Miss Reba Kelly. “I suggest you politely ignore him.” And ignore me they did, ’til a fire alarm sounded, and I had to march out onto the sports field where staff, students, God (and surely all Orthodox Detroit) bore amused witness to my offense. (That’s why I’m gay.)
My last day at Hutchins was sweetly sad. I had many close friends, gotten exceptional groundwork in place for high school and later college, and took initial and confident steps in exploring my writing, music and artist creativity. Our song: “School Ever Glorious.” It was.
As we crossed the stage to receive our diplomas to say goodbye, I tried vainly to hold back tears to no avail: 35-25-15!