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30 right; 32 left; 14 right. Click!
After 50-plus years I can still recall my combination for my locker at Harry Burns Hutchins Intermediate school on Detroit’s west side. I can also rattle off the 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 Lansesky (my persistent gym wrestling buddy), the Wassermans, Melvin and Saul . . .
Most of my classmates were Jewish; a few were black. The school was located near three synagogs, and whenever the Jewish high holidays fell, there were only a few of us “goys” left in the halls and classrooms of the imposing two-story school that had been built in the 1920s as the middle school prototype. Naturally, we gentiles looked forward to these demonstrations of faith, wishing our Jewish buddies mitvahs.
Hutchins wasn’t my neighborhood school, and my mother had to get Board of Education permission for me to attend. (She didn’t want me to go to Jefferson Intermediate — too rough, she said.) So, each morning for three years, 15 cents and a bus card, I rode two miles to Woodrow Wilson and Blaine.
Coming from a poor family, I found Hutchins palatial. It had an up-to-date library, wood and print shops, two gymnasiums, two swimming pools, an ample auditorium, a staffed cafeteria serving hot lunches for 35 cents, an honors safety patrol, an orchestra, a school song, a “Hutchins Handbook,” with rules of conduct to be loyally — and strictly — followed.
At Hutchins, in addition to academic basics and parliamentary procedure, I learned to type, balance business ledgers, play cello, write for the Hutchins Star (contest editor), speak Spanish, shoot basketballs, do woodwork and soldering, practice public speaking and acting, and explore art with two gifted teachers.
My homeroom teacher, who 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 ask when I was on the verge of answering the obvious during my frequent remedial sessions.
I got A’s in gym, not because of any sports prowess, but because I printed well and was given the task of writing 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 wash out on that score.)
My most embarrassing moment: the day the girl’s gym teacher caught me whistling at them as they passed carefree by an open window. My punishment (concocted with H.B.G.’s approval) was to spend one full gym period — in my pristine white gym shorts — with the girl’s gym class.
“Girls, Mr. Alexander, who was impolite enough to ogle you, is our embarrassed visitor today,” said gym teacher Miss Deadman. “I suggest you politely ignore him.” And ignore me they did, until a fire bell sounded, and I had to march out on the sports field for staff, students, God and Orthodox Detroit to bear witness to my offense. (That’s why I’m gay.)
My last day at Hutchins was sweetly sad. I had made many close friends, gotten exceptional groundwork in place for high school and college, and took initial — and confident — steps in exploring my writing, music, and artist creativity. As we crossed the stage to receive our diplomas to say a three-year goodbye, I tried vainly to hold back the tears.