Today marks anniversary number twenty-six since the Class of ’87 spent two hours sweating in our polyester caps and gowns on a triple-H summer evening at Memorial Field in Mount Vernon, New York. Oh yeah – and graduated from Mount Vernon High School. Not a big year to mark an anniversary, for sure. But still important for me to remember. After all, I’ve just published a book in which I spend a significant amount of time talking about myself and my former classmates whom help comprise this Class of ’87.
Today I want to say a few positive things about this class, particularly the Humanities Program members of this class. Not that this isn’t in Boy @ The Window as well. But it does help me to reiterate both the obvious and the hidden. Without Humanities, I wouldn’t have taken the path that led me to become the writer, historian, thinker or man that I am today, good, bad and occasionally even ugly. Period.
Not that every high-achieving student in A.B. Davis Middle School or Mount Vernon High School was in Humanities. Some of the more creative and musically-talented folks I’d either met or knew of were in what what I call “gen pop” and not in Humanities. But being someone who on his best days can barely hold a baritone tune (in the same way that an experimental fusion reactor produces energy for only a few seconds), Humanities gave me a chance to do some of what I did best on a platform that could occasionally allow me to maximize my academic gifts.
After ten years of undergrad and grad school at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon, and years of teaching at places as different as Pitt, CMU, Duquesne University School of Education and George Washington University GSEHD, my former classmates remain among the highest academic achievers I’ve ever met. As a group, that is. I’ve met many super-talented and highly creative individuals since ’87. Some of whom were literal geniuses as musicians, actors, studio artists or writers. Students whose academic and athletic prowess would’ve made their peers think about how unfair life can be.
But the one boon (and one criticism too) of Humanities for me was the competition it inadvertently sanctioned. That competition made me a better student, one who could actually focus on the long-term implications for any course I took and how it would apply to what I’d need to do in college. Some of my classes I realized were bullshit (see Andy Butler’s eleventh grade “Higher Math” as prima facie evidence), but I found something useful in most of my courses for my years at Carnegie Mellon, if not at Pitt.
I think that this competition made us all better students, even as it often didn’t make us better human beings. After all, out of my immediate circle of the top twenty students in the Class of ’87, three of us have doctorates (history, psychology and mathematics education), two have medical degrees, and seventeen of us have earned at least a bachelor’s degree. I’m sure that some of us would’ve done well in college, grad school and our careers even without Humanities. But I’m also sure that the poorest among us – yours truly included – would’ve struggled mightily in college (even if we found a way to graduate) without such a focus on the academic in the first place.
I’ve taught high school students whose skills readily approached my own and those of my classmates from a quarter-century ago, particularly in versions of the AP US History course I taught at Princeton in ’08 and ’09. I’ve also served on the curriculum committee at my son’s school here in Montgomery County, Maryland for the past three years. These students – some more talented than anyone I knew in Humanities – have one thing in common. For the most part, they aren’t challenged by their schools, teachers or curriculum to be competitive, to be well-rounded academically, to strive to be both better students and develop creative talent simultaneously.
Many of these students already feel a sense of academic fatigue, partly because of constant yet meaningless testing, and partly because of a concentration on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields. Both have led to the near-total exclusion of extensive work on reading and writing skills (even though picking apart STEM field problems requires good reading and analysis skills). Not to mention the slashing of budgets for physical education and art, music and chorus, theater and so many other things that would push them to be better students, to be competitive – in a healthy way, that is.
There are nearly 120,000 words in Boy @ The Window, about 60,000 of them dedicated to my years between the end of sixth grade and the beginning of my junior year at Pitt. Many of them describe all that I remember about being in Humanities. It’s not a pretty picture overall. Despite this, without the likes of Laurell and Sam, Brandie and Bobby, Alex and Allison, Dahlia and Dara, Phyllis and Wendy and JD, Joe and Danny, Suzanne and Denise and Mandume and Rhonda and Kim and so many others, I’d still be living in Mount Vernon right now. I’d be lucky to have a minimum-wage job and a one-room flat in someone’s dilapidated house on the South Side. It’s just that simple.