Education Week’s page-one Nov. 25, 1992 article, “Custodians’ Abuses in New York Schools Provoke Reform Calls,’' was preceded by a CBS “60 Minutes’’ report on Nov. 15, 1992. The opening segment of the program showed the front of a high school, and I turned to my husband and said, “that’s mine, that’s Erasmus.’' The next few scenes confirmed neglect of the kind that Jonathan Kozol describes in Savage Inequalities.
Both your article and the “60 Minutes’’ program were focused on the conclusion by New York City’s special commissioner of investigation that 1988 controls to stem abuses in the custodial system had failed and the decrepit disrepair of some city schools was the result.
I think both Education Week and CBS have overlooked a more important issue, one only hinted at in a letter to CBS read on the air which stated, “Send them back to school in Japan where the children clean their own classrooms, including the windows.’' This was an expose about custodial neglect, but it should have been a story about what happened to a culture-building place and how that mission broke down somehow since I graduated in 1964.
Erasmus Hall High School sits at 911 Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, N.Y. Founded in 1787 (the same year as our Constitution), it is the second oldest high school in the United States, second only to the Boston Latin Grammar School. The land for the school was donated by the Dutch Reformed Church to build an academy, and in the late 19th century it became a public school.
Let me tell you about the Erasmus I remember, the one I wanted to show my child on a visit to New York City, but couldn’t because the policemen guarding the Flatbush gate denied me access to this historical site.
In front of the original building in the center of a quadrangle stood a statue of Desiderius Erasmus, the humanist scholar of Rotterdam and symbol of high standards, his open book the receptacle of pennies tossed during Regents week to insure success on exams. The stained-glass windows in the library represented the founders of Erasmus, families that lived here and supported this ivy covered school over 200 years ago. Tradition was symbolized by the Flatbush arch, the gateway to knowledge, the towers, the Custode Dea Crescet on the seal, and the chapel (no simple auditorium here) where we lined up to get TB tests and hear the Hallelujah Chorus and Beethoven’s Ninth.
Beyond the physical building, I remember the teachers, their Phi Beta Kappa keys dangling from chains around their necks, telling us which ones taught the famous, alumni such as Barbara Stanwyck, Bobby Fischer, and Barbra Streisand. I remember the pride in being an Erasmian, being an art editor for the oldest continuously published school literary magazine, the award-winning Erasmian, in sharing the accomplishments of my fellow students, the Merit Scholars, the Arista inductees, the chorus members.
But most of all I associate this place with Camelot of the 1960’s, all wrapped up in a vision of a future that was of my own making. Anything was possible. This is where I campaigned for the first time for a Presidential candidate, where I came to know teachers as human beings, where I acquired the skills and sensibilities that I took with me into my profession as teacher and professor at a university. This is where I was when Kennedy was shot, where I learned to act on my convictions, where I acquired a voice.
I know you can’t go home again, but what memories and lessons will this generation of Erasmians look back on in 30 years? No, this is not a custodial problem, and buildings can be repaired and repainted. This is a culture-building problem, one that is not exclusive to this inner-city school. It is one we in education face every day, especially those of us who train future teachers.
At Erasmus, we used to sit in the hallway under the mural depicting Homer’s Odyssey. What will the odyssey of this generation be when they start out without the opportunity to chart their own course?
A version of this article appeared in the December 16, 1992 edition of Education Week as Remembrance of Things Past