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35 right; 25 left; 15 right. Click! After 60-plus years I can still recall my locker combination at Harry Burns Hutchins Intermediate, 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 was located near three synagogs, and when the high holidays fell, only a few “goyim” were left. Of course, we gentiles looked forward to these celebrations, wishing our Jewish buddies mitzvahs.
Hutchins wasn’t my neighborhood school, so my mother got Board of Education permission for me to attend. (She said nearby Jefferson Intermediate was too rough.) Each morning for three years, 15 cents plus bus card, I rode 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.
In addition to academic subjects I learned to type, balance business ledgers, play cello, write for the Hutchins Star (contest editor), speak some Spanish, shoot basketballs, do woodwork and soldering, practice public speaking and acting, explore art 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 ask when I was on the verge of answering the obvious 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 wash out on that score.)
My most embarrassing moment: the day the girl’s gym teacher caught me whistling as they passed carefree by an open window. My punishment (concocted with HBG’s approval) was to spend one full gym period in my pristine white gym shorts among the girl’s gym class.
“Girls, Mr. Alexander, who was impolite enough to ogle you, is our embarrassed visitor today,” said Miss Rene Swope. “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 Orthodox Detroit, bore amused witness to my offense. (That’s why I’m gay.)
My last day at Hutchins was sweetly sad. I had made so 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 tears. 35. 25. 15 …