School Culture - Part Two
School Culture – Part Two
A school's culture is made up of the traditions, routines, expectations, and interactions that take place. Attending to these factors in a way that reflects the mission and values of the community, in and outside of the classroom, are key to a healthy culture. (online dictionary definition)
During the first decade of our school-without-interior walls it was natural to develop the trappings of a “real” school: a newspaper (Focus), a yearbook (Spectrum), a variety of “clubs” (Math, French, Spanish, Art, Model U.N., chess), --- all the kinds of organizations you would find in most “traditional” high schools. But beyond those “expected” clubs and organizations Blind Brook began developing an array of routines and interactions that were, indeed, unique to a school that was consciously progressive and believed, at its core, that students had a voice --- and a voice the adults in the community should listen to.
As a result, there was a shifting landscape of new clubs, new organizations, and new “traditions” --- and even “teams” --- as the first years unfolded. In Roger Smith’s words:
A student approached me and asked me to start and coach the ski team. That was a bit of a sham, because he was a much better skier than I, but he needed a responsible adult. Well, he got an adult.
That’s the way the school evolved. In those early years teachers were recruited by students to serve as “advisors” to a Birding Club, a Backpacking Club, a Batik Club, a Cartooning Club, a Frisbee Club (later, an “Ultimate” team), a “Learn to be thin” Club. Some of these clubs lasted over several years, some dissolved after certain classes graduated, while others (like the Frisbee Club) took on a life of their own and evolved over the years into cultural organizations or teams.
Beyond the Club scene, Blind Brook experimented with new ideas for “doing school.” One classic example was the C.A.S.T. program – “Creative Alternative to Substitute Teachers.” In the words of Allison Marx (Class of 1979):
For one month each semester we had no subs, instead each day had speakers, projects, films, etc.… that you had to attend if your teacher was absent. Each event was coordinated with a class, so the speaker would have an audience, even if no faculty were absent, but most teachers planned to take a sick day that month in order for the project as a whole to work and have an audience. Students would come in in the morning and look up at the walkway above the entrance foyer to the school. On the walkway was a sign saying who was absent that day and, therefore, who would be attending the CAST events. I wish I could say I clearly remember the films or speakers, but I don’t. I remember walking into school and looking up and being excited to see one of my teachers’ names. As a teacher, I imagine a project such as this required an open-minded administration, and a very hard-working faculty to put this together. For that I say thank you. I have never seen or heard of any school doing something like CAST.
This was, of course, an enormous undertaking but Suzette Tarshis, our wonderful Health & Sex Ed teacher --- and the mom of two future BBHS teachers --- oversaw the C.A.S.T. program during its existence. It lasted about three years but, as the school evolved, C.A.S.T. faded away (probably because the staff was involved in so many other projects --- including gearing up for our first Middle States Accreditation evaluation in 1977-78). Another challenge we faced was creating unique “traditions” that would live through the coming years --- things like the Sophomore Circus and Olympic Day.
Once again, Roger Smith’s recollection of the creation of the Sophomore Circus describes how Blind Brook’s culture emerged.
The second year (1974-75) I was the Sophomore Class Advisor. As a fundraiser, I suggested that we start a Sophomore Circus, which would have a midway in the Commons and cafeteria, and then circus acts in the gym. We packed the gym for magic, jugglers, and as the grand finale, Jimmy Kahn jumping over seven garbage cans with his minibike. I believe I have a black & white photo of him wheeling around just before he made his final approach. All eyes in the bleachers were riveted on him. His jump was perfect, and he got a thunderous applause. I remember looking up at Wilbur Johnson, who was watching the spectacle from the glassed hallway above the gym. He gave me a cross-eyed look and twirled his index finger around his ear, which meant “you are a fucking idiot for allowing that to happen.” I smiled. That’s how we rolled. As we counted the proceeds in the Commons at the end of the evening, we made over a thousand dollars. I threw the wad of ones and fives up high in the air and the bills came floating down like confetti at the end of the Super Bowl.
The Sophomore Circus remained a staple at the school for years to come --- and proved to be a reliable fundraiser for the Sophomore Classes year after year. Due to the success of the Sophomore Circus, Dave issued a challenge to the Faculty --- what could we do in the Springtime that might be like a “Field Day” that most traditional schools had? With a little brainstorming, the staff came up with the idea that we would have an “Olympic Day” which would pit the existing classes (we were now 7th through 11th) against each other in a series of group-oriented contests --- relay races (three-legged, piggy-back, etc.), tugs-of-war, and the like. It would also have a “carnival” aspect to it, a ring-toss, a hit-the-target-and-dump-a-bucket-of-water on a teacher, shell games, and so on. We would use our front lawn and all the fields as our staging areas and, somehow, design some way to “score” the class versus class events so that one of the groups could be designated “Olympic Day Champions.” There were no trophies or prizes --- it was all about the fun of spending a (half) day outside together, “competing” and enjoying the time. And it worked!
Other aspects of developing the school culture were far more informal but no less important. During the first year, several of the 7th and 8th grade teachers had lunch with the students in the cafeteria every day and, more often than not, went into the gym and played basketball before the period was over. The “eating with the kids” did not go beyond that first year (although enough can’t be said for the bonding it created) but the lunchtime basketball games persisted for years (remember – much of the staff were in their mid-twenties and energetic). Most significant in developing the culture of Blind Brook in those early years was The Commons.
I had done my teaching internship in the fall of 1972 at Greenwich High School in Connecticut. That new high school had just opened in 1970 and featured a huge “Commons” at its central core. The GHS Commons served as a lunchroom for the 2600-student body and an area where students (and, possibly, teachers) could spend any free time they might have. The school was divided into four “houses,” each with its own administration and teaching staff --- essentially 4 smaller schools within the larger High School. Each House had its own lunch period in the Commons. It was a spacious well-lit area and gave the school a sense of openness. I was glad to see that Blind Brook’s design incorporated a “Commons”, but I could never have predicted just how central the Commons would become in developing Blind Brook’s school culture.
Architecturally, the original Blind Brook Jr./Sr. High School Commons was brilliantly designed. As one entered the building (through an “airlock” of doubled glass doors) you were in a foyer, facing a two-plus story glass wall that looked into the Commons. There were another pair of glass doors to one’s left and, as you entered the Commons, you reflexively looked up because there was an angled skylight almost three stories above, often suffusing the space with light. You came in under a suspended walkway (which overlooked the Commons area) and, up to one’s right, were more glass walls that looked into the Science Labs. It was an open space with low, padded benches spread around the area and a recessed stairway at the far end, leading to the sunken cafeteria area --- which also had glass walls looking onto the back patio of the school. The Commons, almost from Day One, became Blind Brook’s agora. For those unfamiliar with that term:
Agora, in ancient Greek cities, an open space that served as a meeting ground for various activities of the citizens. The name, first found in the works of Homer, connotes both the assembly of the people as well as the physical setting. It was applied by the classical Greeks of the 5th century BCE to what they regarded as a typical feature of their life: their daily religious, political, judicial, social, and commercial activity. (bold, mine)
Indeed, the Commons was the hub of the cultural life of Blind Brook, and it was not unusual to find small groups of students “hanging out” there, but it wasn’t unusual to see students sitting with a teacher (or two) at any given time. There was an added element created by the suspended walkway above: students interacted with each other from one level to the other --- often in hilarious ways.
What struck me, as I researched Blind Brook’s history in the Yearbooks from 1976 to 1983, were the sheer number of pictures that featured Blind Brook’s Commons. As Debra Agran Palay (Class of 1982) noted:
It was not unusual for a teacher or two to join a group of kids who gathered in
The Commons . . . casually chatting, or sometimes engaging in deep conversation.
Impromptu discussions with our teachers occurred routinely during free periods,
between classes, or after school. These interactions fostered an environment.
of trust, and as students we felt valued, seen, and supported the adults we most.
admired and respected.
This new school’s culture was being created as the school grew, with new ideas and “traditions” emerging and growing just as the students, teachers, staff, and administrators were, too.
School Culture - Part One
A school's culture is made up of the traditions, routines, expectations, and interactions that take place. Attending to these factors in a way that reflects the mission and values of the community, in and outside of the classroom, are key to a healthy culture. (online dictionary definition)
Long before the Charter School movement was a “thing,” parents, teachers, administrators, and a school board in the Town of Rye, Westchester County marshalled their energy and creativity to create a junior/senior high school. As a result, a unique institution opened its doors to students in the fall of 1973 --- first as a 7 through 10 school and eventually graduating a full class of high school seniors in 1976 (4 students graduated in 1975). In this attempt at documenting the creation of that institution --- and what life was like during its first decade --- there are many stories to be told. This one is about some of the actual mechanics of starting a school from scratch --- never an easy task.
Throughout the 20th century --- and into this one --- there’s been an amazing homogeneity to “the high school experience” across this country. Whether public or private, you can pretty much count on a high school having a yearbook, a newspaper, a prom, homecoming, a commencement ceremony, a musical, a drama production, and the like. Beyond those “expected” school culture traditions, most places develop their own unique “traditions.” When I was at Bay Shore High School, back in the mid-Sixties, we had a Spaghetti Dinner, a Senior Card Party & Fashion Show, and Class Day --- traditions not necessarily shared by neighboring schools. If you are starting a new school, from scratch, it’s easy to say, “Okay, we’ll create a yearbook and school newspaper, and we’ll have a prom” but what other “traditions” is your school going to have that distinguish it from its neighbors? And what are the other aspects of your school culture that will reflect “the mission and values of the community, in and outside the classroom?” That was a big question when the staff began meeting to plan the opening of our new school in September 1973.
Blind Brook was created with a vision of it being an “Arts/Humanities” school featuring an interdisciplinary curriculum and subscribing to a progressive education philosophy. Hence, a building with very few interior walls. As Mort Smith, a member of the school’s Founding Board put it: “You can’t close Arts/Humanities in a room! You need space for creativity.” The building’s glass walls, which were everywhere --- looking into the Science labs, overlooking the gymnasium, at the back of almost every teaching area --- added to that sense of openness and freedom. Given that, how do the parents, administrators, and staff create a school whose “traditions, routines, expectations and interactions” develop a school culture that lives up to the “mission and values” of the community? As luck would have it, David Schein and the staff he assembled were up to that challenge.
One early question we faced was: what are our school colors and mascot going to be? Believing in the tenets of progressive education, there was no debate about letting the students decide --- it was, after all, their school. This can be formula for disaster, of course. Our students ranged in age from 12 to 15 --- they might come up with anything. Were we, as a staff, willing to live with it? We were and, after an all-school vote, the new school’s team colors were red, white, and blue. More problematic was the mascot the student chose: a Trojan. We knew the older students had convinced the younger ones to go along with voting for a mascot that represented a condom company but we, as a staff, had promised to go along with the students’ decision. The kids, for their part, feigned they were all huge USC fans, and the University of Southern California Trojans were, indeed, their favorite team. We, in turn, feigned believing them and, to this day, the Blind Brook Trojans proudly compete in sports and academic challenges.
Beyond school colors and a mascot, the usual “traditions” of yearbook, school newspaper, etc. were easy to establish. But what else would make the place ours and ours alone? One early aspect regarding the school’s “openness and freedom” was that no teacher could shut his/her door and dominate a fiefdom. Because of the school’s architecture and design --- and unlike more traditional schools --- there were no hallways with doors enclosing classrooms. There was a semi-circle of Teaching Areas --- which were essentially like Stalls (with moveable walls) --- which students (and others) could walk around at any time. It was not unusual for passersby to stop and observe one’s class for several minutes and then move on (or for a kibitzer to interrupt the proceedings!). None of the teachers, of course, had ever taught in an environment like this before so we were all learning as we went. As Roger Smith, one of the Founding Teachers, put it:
Having taught for a year in a traditional high school in Central NY, having the department head, or (God forbid) the principal or vice-principal show up to do an observation in my classroom was cause for a guaranteed adrenaline rush. Of course, that probably happened all of three times in the whole year and it was always done as part of a mandated evaluation.
At BBHS, administrators, strangers, board members, other teachers, politicians, air conditioning installers, parents . . . pretty much anybody, was likely to walk through my area on any given day. After a steady parade of same, had I had a blood pressure monitor attached to me, there wouldn't have been a blip if Governor Carey had walked through.
And that became true for all of us. Early on in late September or early October of 1973, my class was interrupted by two construction workers who proceeded to install my Teaching Areas blackboard during my teaching period! We learned to take it all in stride and students, miraculously, learned to focus on tasks-at-hand, lectures, group work, etc. It did put the onus on teachers to create lessons that engaged their class --- you couldn’t shut your door and demand silence --- that Old World was gone, and this new school culture was taking hold.
Along with not having one’s own room as a teacher, our desks and work area was a communal space. There were doors off each Teaching Area into a central core office which was shared (downstairs) by all the Humanities Staff and (upstairs) all the Math, Science, and Foreign Language staff. (The business, art, music, and industrial & home arts each had their own areas.) Maybe because many of us were new teachers so we just didn’t know better, or maybe so many of us were the product of 1960’s “communal” philosophy we didn’t think it odd, but the staff rather seamlessly adapted to this. A by-product was that students could access teachers easily (there was no way to lock the doors!). As Paul Satenstein (Class of 1979) put it:
What I appreciated most was that the teachers' offices were at the center of the multi classroom floor square so access to teachers was very easy and casual. That easy access enabled me to get help when I needed it. Also, since the teachers got along so well, the environment was always cheerful and welcoming.
It may not have been that way for every student, of course, but I believe Paul’s recollection would be echoed by many during the first decade at Blind Brook. The collegiality the shared Teachers Area generated was another aspect of the developing school culture that was crucial to the school’s emerging identity --- and contributed directly to other unique features of our New World.
Context & Colgate
Fall 1973, the New York Metropolitan region 50 years ago. Richard Nixon is an embattled President, with the Watergate Scandal gaining momentum. The World Trade Center had just officially opened in New York City that Spring and the Mets were making a run for the World Series. And, in a tiny village on the New York/Connecticut border, a new Junior/Senior High School was opening.
Ordinarily, a new school opening would not necessarily be a significant event. But this school was unique in several ways. First and foremost, it was a school with no interior walls dividing classroom spaces. Second, the architecture was distinctly post-modern, predominantly glass-walled with deep-red brick. Upon first glance, one wouldn’t necessarily say, “Oh, that’s a school.” Set back from King Street – the road that divides New York from Connecticut – the school stood on a low rise to the right as you drove in.
Set back from the driveway, the school had the air of a castle, with turret-like corners. To enter from the parking lot or front drive students, teachers, and parents would have to walk along a cobblestone “drawbridge” (about 50 feet long and 15 feet wide) to the set of glass doors at the entrance. Once through those doors you were in a foyer, bathed in natural light, with a public telephone mounted on the wall to your right and a suspended slat-through staircase to your left. Directly in front was a two-and-a-half story glass wall, with a huge, blue-carpeted open space on the other side.
Entering “The Commons,” you were, once again, in a space you wouldn’t at all identify as a “Public School.” The long, wide space had low, padded wooden benches spread about, with another slat-through suspended staircase dividing the area – and an overhanging walkway above, to the left. Looking up, you saw angled skylights filling the room with natural light. At the end of The Commons was a descending staircase leading to a cafeteria, where the back wall, again, was glass. The sense of openness and light were the hallmarks of your entry into the building. An important opening “statement.”
As you entered the “teaching areas,” walking in a semi-circle, you passed by “classrooms” that had no solid, interior walls or doors. Tall, rolling bookcases and movable wall dividers separated one “teaching area” from another. A visitor – or anyone, for that matter – could see what was going on in 6 to 8 classes in one spin around the area. Upstairs was the same, with the exception being the Science labs, which overlooked The Commons --- with glass walls. Their classes were visible to anyone standing on the suspended walkway above The Commons. The watchwords were openness and light.
The other significant, distinguishing feature of the new Junior/Senior High School was the teaching staff. Because it was a new school in a small district (read, restricted budget due to low population) the first decade saw a procession of young, energetic, creative, and bright young educators learn to teach under the guidance of a visionary Principal.
Finally, there was a clear philosophical emphasis on the Arts and Humanities, with an eye toward interdisciplinary education. Many of the new teachers had recently graduated from progressive teacher education programs, where the focus was on student-centered learning and critical thinking. As a result, Blind Brook Jr./Sr. High School, with its open concept, blazed a path unique in the history of public-school education, producing an impressive parade of exceptional graduates over its first decade --- as unique as the building itself.
The Colgate Connection
Colgate University rests in the sleepy little town of Hamilton, in upstate New York’s Chenango Valley. While notable alumni included Adam Clayton Powell and Charles Addams, Colgate’s claim to fame, for our purposes, has to do with its Teacher Preparation program from the late Sixties through the mid-1970’s. Under the supervision of William Griffith (Class of ’33) and the inspired leadership of Bill Moynihan (Colgate M.A.T., Syracuse Ed.D.) the program produced a small army of progressive educators, all with a mission to serve as “change agents” in the U.S. public school system. As synergy would have it, the creation of Blind Brook Jr./Sr. High School in September of 1973 proved to be the perfect landing field for Colgate Master of Arts in Teaching graduates.
Throughout the late ‘60’s and early 1970’s Colgate’s Teacher Education Program focused on a humanistic, progressive approach to classroom teaching and learning. This meant reading Paolo Friere’s The Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Carl Rogers’s On Becoming a Person as well as Edwin (Ted) Fenton’s Teaching the New Social Studies in Secondary Schools: an Inductive Approach. Colgate’s program was aimed at producing educators intent on being teacher-leaders whose focus was student-centered and change-oriented.
I’m not sure how much of that I was aware of when I applied to Colgate’s M.A.T. program in the fall of 1972 but when I was accepted and they offered not only a paid internship but also a substantial scholarship (combined with my Regents Scholarship, which was still usable 5 years after graduating from high school!) there was no question where I would prepare to become a public school teacher.
Once I got there, in June of 1972, I learned two things very quickly: this was a serious and well-focused program, and I was with a cohort of equally smart and energetic future educators. On one of my first days there I met Steve Jones, a fellow Long Islander with a dedication to teaching and commitment to sarcastic humor that immediately made us fast friends. Colgate’s immersive summer program had us reading deeply, participating in probing seminars, and practice-teaching following a system developed at Stanford University called “micro-teaching.”
Microteaching is a scaled-down, simulated teaching encounter designed for the training of both preservice or in-service teachers. It has been used worldwide since its invention at Stanford University in the late 1950s by Dwight W. Allen, Robert Bush, and Kim Romney. Its purpose is to provide teachers with the opportunity for the safe practice of an enlarged cluster of teaching skills while learning how to develop simple, single-concept lessons in any teaching subject. (https://education.stateuniversity.com/)
Students from Hamilton High School were paid to be our classroom guinea pigs and we were videotaped and de-briefed every-other-day during the summer --- to work on our classroom practice skills. In all, the reading, the seminars, the microteaching, and the informal interaction with our cohort and professors proved a wildly effective preparation and, as it turned out, one that fit hand-in-glove with the new Blind Brook Jr./Sr. High School.
As spring of 1973 unfolded, Steve Jones and I were living in a two-floor townhouse on the edge of the Colgate campus, rooting for the New York Knicks, and wondering if we would land jobs for the fall. It happened that I subscribed to the “Teacher Drop-Out Newsletter,” a publication out of Amherst, MA aimed at recruiting teachers for “alternative,” “open,” and “free” schools --- products of late 1960’s school reform notions of how schools should change. I was determined to find a job at a school that was on the cutting-edge of the reform movement.
An ad for a new, “open-space” public high school opening on the New York/Connecticut border intrigued me. I had done my paid internship in the fall of 1972 at Greenwich High School – also on the NY/CT border – and had a wonderful experience. Greenwich was a huge public high school – around 2800 students, as I recall – divided into “Houses,” creating four smaller schools. Each House had its own teaching staff and administration, and the school used a “modified” block schedule, so classes only met 4 times week, with two meetings being 66 minutes (with the other two the usual 42 minutes) -- a great place for me to experiment with new ideas and methods. I answered the Drop-Out Newsletter ad and was invited to interview in the Village of Rye Town.
I’m not sure everyone has a sense of how they fare in interviews, but I would say my sense of “oh, yeah” or “oh, no” has been almost flawless throughout my career --- whether interviewing for a teaching position or a bartending job. And the Blind Brook interview was no exception. The immediate rapport I felt when meeting David Schein, the new school’s Principal, proved true and my decade working with him bore that out.
When I went to sign my contract, Dave Schein --- knowing he already had three Colgate M.A.T.’s in me, Steve Jones, and Roger Smith (sounding like a very WASPy law firm: Johnson, Jones, and Smith?) asked if there were any Science teachers in the Colgate program who might be interested in working at the new school. I told him I’d check and, before you knew it, Mike Nyhan (a married Army veteran from New Hampshire, who was in our M.A.T. cohort) was joining the staff, too. Out of 12 newly hired staff for the Blind Brook Jr./Sr. High School (“The Dirty Dozen,” according to Cora) four of us were products of Colgate’s progressive, change-agent program! Quite a coup.
But that was just the tip of the Colgate iceberg. As it happened, I was hired by Colgate to serve as a “graduate student liaison” and “micro-teaching video de-briefer” for the summers of 1974, 1975, and 1976. I would be spending 6 weeks each summer, in Hamilton, with the cohorts that followed my group. Since Blind Brook had opened as a 7 through 10 school, it was hiring new staff until it graduated its first class in 1976. As a result, Dave Schein was looking for more progressive change-agents. Synergy. I became Dave’s talent scout and, in late-July/early August of ’74 & ’75 & '76 he would call and say: “We need a math teacher, another science teacher, and Spanish teacher.” I would pass the word along to candidates I had watched micro-teach (and gotten to know), encouraging them to apply to Blind Brook. Within the first decade of BBHS, ten of the high school’s 40 teachers were Colgate M.A.T.’s and we were making quite a mark on the school’s culture.
Add to that group, our Assistant Principal Sal Corda’s work with Charles Weingartner (co-author of Teaching as a Subversive Activity) at NYU, the math department’s Jim Alloy and David Press with their experience in the New York City alternative Satellite Schools program, Bill Mendelsohn’s prep in a program at Yale, Doris Patrao’s experience at Sarah Lawrence and Columbia’s Teachers College, as well as the veteran teachers from Ridge Street – Jean Hurley, Jim Nelligan, Tommy Reistetter, Patty Overby and the Language Department (Simpson, Yellen, Toulouse) - who already had experience with Project-Based Learning and the Arts/Humanities Program --- and you had a very impressive staff primed to walk into a new building with no interior walls, glass walls, and a commitment to student-centered progressive education. We were off!
Toes in the Water
Toes in the Water
In the spring of 1973 my Colgate housemate, Steve Jones, and I had been sending out resumes and looking for jobs --- we both had weddings coming up in late June and early July, respectively. We drove down to Pine Plains, New Jersey, at one point and I recall trying to sell ourselves as a package deal --- two energetic young educators ready to go. They weren’t having any of it, but we did stop in Canarsie, Brooklyn and get a great lunch with my grandmother on the way home. While I wanted --- indeed, needed --- a job, I was unwilling to cut my hair or shave my beard to get one. At least not yet. That’s when the Blind Brook ad popped up and I headed down to Westchester to meet David Schein.
The Ridge Street school was a classic 1950s low-slung building, although it did have two floors (the lower one built-into the “ridge’s” hillside). Unlike the red-brick models I was accustomed to, Ridge Street was a very attractive flagstone and glass design with a welcoming entryway. Upon arriving I first met Elmer (“Bud”) Moore, the District’s Curriculum Coordinator and one of the architects behind this “Arts and Humanities” High School idea. He was interested in my background and seemed to like that I was certified in English and Social Studies/History and had been an American Studies major at Yale. All interviews are a two-way street, of course, and I was trying to size up “Bud,” as well. While his ideas seemed interesting, I detected an aspect of a hustler/grifter in his demeanor --- he seemed to have a lot riding on this whole project and maybe was overselling it? Whatever.
David Schein was a totally different story. Dark-haired and tall with intelligent brown eyes that made direct contact, Dave had an almost-smile curled at the corner of his mouth as he clenched his Sherlock Holmes pipe between his teeth during the interview. He was familiar with Colgate’s M.A.T. internship program and seemed to like that I had worked in nearby Greenwich. Unlike the interview with Bud, this felt more like a conversation about education, tossing around ideas about how we might implement an interdisciplinary arts/humanities curriculum in a new school that would not have interior walls. The no-walls thing was news to me, of course, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t skip a beat in telling Dave some of my ideas about teaching and learning. It was a fun interview, and I knew I would like to work with this Principal --- but was clueless as to whether I’d get an offer or not.
I got back on the Hutch, headed South toward the Tappan Zee Bridge and back to Hamilton, planning my usual stop at the Roscoe Diner on the way. The interview had sparked a lot of ideas and this new school seemed like a perfect match for all the progressive education theory we had been working on at Colgate. I loved the idea of teaching interdisciplinary Humanities and didn’t at all mind working with 7th graders --- I had substituted in Middle School in the spring of 1972 and survived without scars. I just wanted to get out there and start teaching --- and this Blind Brook job seemed like an ideal match, from my perspective. I could only hope it was from theirs, too.
It wasn’t long after the interview that I got a call from Cora Lattanzio, David Schein’s administrative assistant, asking if I’d like a position teaching 7th grade Humanities at the new Blind Brook Junior High School. There was no hesitation, of course, and I vaguely remember kind of floating through the rest of the day, feeling relieved (I had a job!) and ecstatic (I had a good job!). I had spent enough time talking to Cora (before my interview with Dave) to know that she was exceptionally smart and perceptive --- and that she didn’t miss a thing. That was confirmed when she called again and asked if I was looking for a place to live (she knew I was getting married at the end of June). Of course I was. Cora informed me that a small “carriage house” on the property of the Ridge Street School was going to be available as of August --- would I be interested? The School Board would be the landlord and the house was about one mile from the new school. I told Cora to “hold” the place and I’d be down to look at it when she called to let me know my contract was ready to sign.
Probably a week after that Cora called back and Steve Jones answered the phone. She told him she was calling for me about signing the contract and Steve asked “Hey, are there any more jobs there?” Cora told him there was an English position (I believe it was teaching 10th grade) and they arranged an interview. Before you knew it, my housemate and best friend at Colgate was now my colleague, too. And I would be renting the carriage house (for a very reasonable sum) and living on the grounds of the District’s elementary school --- for the next eleven years!
“The Hager House”
The carriage house was attached to a stable and was built in the late 19th century. It had been part of the Lehman Estate and was a lath-and-stucco building with five small rooms, two pantries, and a cellar with a sump pump. Downstairs was a living room with windows on three sides (great sunlight!) on one side and a large kitchen (with two walk-in pantries) on the other. There were stairs down to the cellar off one pantry. Upstairs there was a bathroom (with a tub on “legs”), two small bedrooms (with equally small closets, abbreviated by the angled roofline within) and a “master” bedroom (no closet, built in the days of armoires). The attached (and dilapidated) stable had been built to accommodate the carriages and teams of horses the Lehmans employed prior to the automobile age. There was school “grounds” equipment stored inside and it was not my garage. In August 1973 my wife and I moved in with our dog (Maxwell) and cat (The Rodent) looking forward to our new life.
As I came to meet various members of the Blind Brook-Rye School District Staff (custodians, groundskeepers, bus drivers, office staff) I found everyone asked how I liked living in the “Hager House.” It took a while for me to discover that the former Head Custodian and Head Matron of the Ridge Street School --- the Hagers --- had lived in the house for the last 35 years! Eventually, when people asked where I lived, I simply said, “The Hager House.”
I had wanted to live in the community in which I taught --- I thought it would be a benefit. Few of my friends or colleagues agreed --- and as time went on, I could understand why. There were pro’s and con’s to the situation. On the positive side, I was a member of the community I worked in. I’d be a resident, a voting citizen choosing the school board members (my bosses) and would be part of the warp and woof of life in Rye Brook, as I saw it. Having grown up on Long Island, in suburban New York, I thought I already had some insight into what life might be like and would proceed accordingly. On the negative side, living right there put me under a microscope. Anyone --- parents, students, school board members --- could show up on my doorstep at any time (and sometimes did!). It also meant my colleagues would expect me to have insight into “what’s going on?” in the community (sometimes true, most times not). Either way, there I was and there I lived until leaving the district in 1984, with lots of stories about living in “the Hager House.”
The Game of Life
The Game of Life, also known simply as Life, is a board game originally created in 1860 by Milton Bradley as The Checkered Game of Life, the first ever board game for his own company, the Milton Bradley Company. The Game of Life was US's first popular parlor game. The game simulates a person's travels through their life, from early adulthood to retirement, with college if necessary, jobs, marriage, and possible children along the way. In 1960 the modern Game of Life was introduced. A player travels along the track in a small plastic automobile, according to the spins of a small wheel on the board with spaces numbered one through ten. (Wikipedia)
The Game of Life
Isn’t it interesting how one’s life can twist around itself? You might, for instance, spend years driving past certain parkway exits, giving them no mind whatsoever, and then discover, as you reflect, that events were transpiring off those very exits (as you were driving by) which would have spectacular consequences for your life! Such is the case with the King Street exit on the Hutchinson River/Merritt Parkways, which delineates the state divide between New York and Connecticut. Little did I know.
June 17, 1967. My father, mother, brother, and I squeezed into our new Volkswagen beetle early that Saturday morning for a trip to New Haven, Connecticut. I had been accepted to Yale on April 15th but never visited the campus. As a working-class family, “college visits” were not on our radar. However, since I had been accepted, my parents decided it would be good to visit the campus prior to my moving there in September - so off we went.
I had never set foot in Connecticut prior to that trip. My parents, early in their marriage, had taken a trip to Plymouth Rock and Cape Cod so they had driven through the state at least once before. The drive to the north shore of Long Island and across the Whitestone Bridge was familiar --- we had often gone to my Grandmother’s house in the Catskills via this route. But following the Hutch north – and not heading for Taconic State Parkway or the New York State Thruway – was new. Even though the Hutchinson River Parkway – and then the Merritt Parkway – were like Robert Moses’s “ribbon parkways” we knew well on Long Island, the terrain they traversed was novel. Rolling hills and plentiful, variegated foliage was unique to New England – and new to us. As with anything new, I found it engaging in the immediate without thinking how commonplace it would become over time. By the time I graduated in 1971 the Hutch/Merritt scenery was old hat and barely noticed.
Over four years, I can’t calculate how many times I passed Exit 30 (heading north) and Exit 27 (heading South) traveling between Bay Shore (on Long Island) and New Haven. More significantly, I had no idea there was a place called “Rye Town” (in New York) located directly off that exit, much less that what was brewing in that unincorporated village during those years would have life-changing consequences for me!
And those events, which I have only lately learned, is where this story really begins.
“The Fifth of Rye”
Rye Brook is now an incorporated village in New York State, bordered by Port Chester on the South, Rye to its East, Purchase to its North, and Greenwich, CT to its East. But it wasn’t always so. In fact, Rye Brook only incorporated in 1981, and that was after years of turmoil, particularly with the village of Port Chester – which Rye Brook was part of, as an unincorporated entity for many years. Rye Brook was one of five “districts” within Port Chester’s school zoning. In fact, it was District 5 – and its critics from Port Chester disparagingly referred to it as “the Fifth of Rye.” There was genuine animosity between residents of Port Chester and the inhabitants of Rye Brook --- a slowly simmering feud that began in the late 1950’s.
After World War II large tracts of land in the New York metropolitan area --- Long Island, northern New Jersey, Westchester County, NY --- were being sold to developers to create new housing for the returning veterans. Spurred by the G.I. Bill, the housing and baby booms exploded. Such was the case in Port Chester/Rye Brook (then called “Rye Town”). Port Chester had incorporated as a village in 1868 and by the post-World War II period was a working/middle class town with a large Italian American population. The Rye Brook community grew in the late 1940’s on the former Lehmann Estate property and, by 1950, had erected the Ridge Street School for the new Port Chester District #5. The population of Rye Brook was upper-middle/upper class professionals and, over time, predominantly Jewish. The combination of economic and ethnic difference between Port Chester and Rye Brook was a long, slow fuse that finally ignited in the late 1960’s. While I was driving past the Ridge Street and King Street exits on the Hutchinson River Parkway during those late ‘60’s/early ‘70’s, I had no idea that local conflicts over public schooling were reaching a head --- and that it would have a monumental effect on my life in the not-so-distant future.
The Ridge Street School, District #5, served the Rye Brook community and the building ultimately housed a K-9 student population. After 9th grade students would go to Port Chester High School --- until the late 1960’s. At some point around 1967 or 1968, the conflicts between the Port Chester School Board and the Rye Brook School Board reached a breaking point and Port Chester announced they would no longer accept Ridge Street School students at Port Chester High School (“overcrowding” was the ostensible reason) --- causing the Rye Brook residents to send their 10-12 students to Mamaroneck or Valhalla High Schools, a significant distance away, particularly compared to the convenience of Port Chester High School.
At that point, the serious fighting began. A group of progressive activists in Rye Brook petitioned the State of New York to create their own high school (something the State was not inclined to do at that point in history). The more conservative elements in Port Chester, particularly through the local newspaper, the weekly Westmore News, began a concerted attack on Rye Brook’s School Board (and citizens) – portraying them, alternately, as “Rad-Libs,” “Limousine Liberals,” and “fascists.” The citizens of Rye Brook, by the fall of 1970, presented the community with a referendum to build their own junior/senior high school (they had convinced the state and secured a potential bond from Citibank). The Westmore News stoked the usual “uncontrolled spending, rising taxes” scare stories while accusing their upscale neighbors of creating an “elite, private-like arts and humanities” school with an “indoor-outdoor” swimming pool (no such pool was ever in any plans). By November 1970 the referendum for a new high school had passed and the Blind Brook Junior/Senior High was about to become a reality, with construction to begin as soon as possible. The unincorporated village was looking forward to opening their new facility in September 1973.
As I traveled back and forth from New Haven to Long Island, from New Haven to Washington, D.C., from New Haven to Manhattanville College (Yale was still an all-male school when I began in 1967), from New Haven to New York City, I passed the Ridge Street and King Street exits countless times, unaware of the local drama being acted out just beyond my vehicle. In the fall of 1972, as part of my master’s degree program at Colgate, I was assigned a paid teaching internship at Greenwich High School and lived in Byram, Connecticut, one block away from Port Chester, New York. The Byram River, the state line between New York and Connecticut was, literally, in my backyard. I had no idea that Blind Brook Junior/Senior High School was under construction just a few miles from where I was living.
Spring 1973 found me back on campus in Hamilton, New York, completing courses for my degree and, by March, job hunting. An ad in the “Teacher Drop-Out Newsletter,” a publication listing jobs in “alternative schools” out of Amherst, MA, caught my eye. A new public school was opening in Rye Brook, New York in the fall of 1973 and needed people who could teach “Humanities.” I was about to be certified in Social Studies and English so “Humanities” looked like a good fit. Early in April, I found myself back on the Hutchinson River Parkway, taking Exit 29 (Ridge Street) and headed for an interview at the Ridge Street School with the new Principal of Blind Brook Jr/Sr. High School, David Schein. It was the first time I ever took that Exit, but it certainly wouldn’t be the last.
Present at the Creation
September 24, 2023 will mark 50 years since Blind Brook Jr./Sr. High School opened. I'm not sure that anyone on the "campus" is even aware of that fact but, having been "present at the creation" I have begun working on some way to commemorate that event for several reasons.
For those who are unfamiliar with what BBHS was at its inception here are the details you should be aware of:
* it was designed to be a public high school dedicated to the Arts and Humanities
* physically, it was a school with almost NO interior walls. Classes were separated, initially,
with movable dividers and, later, with permanent walls that created teaching stalls/areas.
* there were NO hallways --- you traversed around the classrooms and had the ability to
watch classes as they were happening.
* as a teacher, you couldn't "close your door" and shut out visitors, observers, or random students
wandering by (what I have often referred to as "teaching naked").
The school, during its first decade, was, quite consciously, dedicated to a model of progressive education that would have made John Dewey proud. It attempted to be as student-centered as possible, as democratic as we could make it, and, like its architecture, an open place that valued its community. What is remarkable to me, in hindsight, is how successful it was --- and how it tried to fulfill its goal of being an Arts/Humanities high school (with sterling STEM departments!). While no school can be everything to every student, Blind Brook was unique in producing a disproportionate number of graduates (in its first 8 graduating classes - 1976 - 1983) who went on to have careers in the Arts/Humanities. As an affluent New York suburb it also produced a significant number of very successful doctors, lawyers, and business people, too, of course.
But the story I want to tell is about that first decade, when a visionary principal and a relatively young, creative, and energetic faculty and a (mostly) supportive community set out to intentionally create a school that was unique and special. This, then, is the first "introduction" (of several) that The Blast will be serializing in the coming weeks. Hope you enjoy the stories.
Setting the Table
It all started with a phone call in January 2022. Craig Bierko, that rare species of human who is a Working Actor, was on the phone.
“Doc, I’ve been reading your book (Right Time, Right Places: One Teacher’s School Reform Journey) and the chapters about Blind Brook brought back a flood of memories --- and ideas. I think we should make a documentary.”
Explanatory Note: Blind Brook Jr/Sr High School is in Rye Brook, Westchester County, New York. It opened in September 1973 as a 7-10 school and was an “Open Space” school --- that is, there were no interior walls to separate teaching “areas” (“rooms,” in a traditional school). It also featured an interdisciplinary oriented curriculum with an emphasis on the Arts and Humanities. Craig attended Blind Brook from grades 7 through 12 and graduated in 1982. I was called “Doc” because I was the first Varsity basketball coach at the school --- at the same time Julius “Doctor J” Erving was starring for the New York Nets. “Mr. J” became “Doctor J” to my students and that was shortened to “Doc.” All these years later former Blind Brook students call me “Doc.”
As Craig and I began to talk about the idea of, somehow, documenting what a downhill slalom Blind Brook was during that time some thoughts began to emerge. Since September 2023 would mark 50 years since the school opened, we had a natural timeline for our project – if we started right away. We also knew that there was a strong presence of Blind Brook alumni from those first years on Social Media, so we had potential resources at our fingertips. Finally, it seemed natural to look at the first decade of Blind Brook, when it was truly the Wild West of Progressive Education, to help focus and limit our scope.
With that in mind, here’s the story of a unique experiment in public education: an Open Space school focused on its students, encouraging participation in a wide range of activities, and learning on the fly about creating a genuine Learning Community --- even if that’s not what we called it at the time.
A quarter, A funnel, and a Pitcher of Water
Here’s what made BBHS different from Day One: it was a school with Sense of Humor! And it was a school that could take a joke – understanding that we are all human, vulnerable, insecure, and, yes, downright silly sometimes.
Michael Caplan is an MD/PhD and Chair of the Cellular and Molecular Physiology Department at Yale University. He was a member of the first graduating class at Blind Brook in 1976 and, as such, was essentially a “senior” for three years. Because Blind Brook started as a 7-10 school, adding a grade each year, Michael’s class of sophomores in 1973-74 were the first juniors and then the first seniors at BBHS. They were a bright and energetic group of adolescents, just as you’d find at any secondary school anywhere in the U.S. But this group was dropped into not only a brand-new school--- it was a brand-new school without any interior walls! It was, truly, an “Open Space” junior/senior high school. Right there in affluent Westchester County --- a living, breathing educational experiment. A secondary school Petri dish, birthed by late Sixties mid-wives who believed that traditional “egg-crate” structures were stultifying and joyless spaces and unfit for energetic, creative teen-agers. Thrust into this environment, Michael and his cohort were genuine pioneers --- and instrumental in creating the school that Blind Brook was throughout its first decade.
When asked what he remembered about the experience Michael explained that he believed the space one lives and works in --- whether it’s a school, office, or home --- sets a tone for one’s behavior. And Blind Brook’s Open Space was one of “shared air and shared environment.” In his mind, “openness was more than Space,” it was an ethos that permeated Blind Brook during those early years and the students were “partners in creating the esprit and culture” of the new school. Indeed, from my newly minted teacher’s perspective, that’s exactly what we were after --- and we, the faculty, had no doubt that David Schein, our Principal, supported that notion whole-heartedly.
By their senior year, Michael and several of his best friends felt they “had the run of the place” and “a sense that we were trusted.” As he described it, he and his friends believed they were “loved and nurtured” and, as such, could push the envelope as long as they were not “disrespectful or cruel.” To genuinely understand the limits of “respectful/disrespectful” in Blind Brook’s early going --- as well as the faculty’s and Principal’s sense of humor --- there is a particular story that must be told.
To set the stage, one needs to understand several items about Blind Brook school culture between 1973 and 1976, when the first class graduated. First, David Schein’s office was always open to students. One of the few places in the school that had a door and an enclosed space --- Dave’s door was almost never closed. And students, from early on, got into the habit of walking in and talking to Mr. Schein. Sometimes it was with a particular complaint (the cafeteria food was often a target) and other times it was simply to shoot the breeze. Most of the kids knew Dave had played football at Harvard so Monday mornings would often find boys in there talking about weekend football games and such. As Michael Caplan noted, the “openness” at Blind Brook was not just physical, it was also a philosophical linchpin to how the school operated. As a result of Dave’s “open door” policy, many students got to know their Principal --- an unusual circumstance in most public high schools, even today. Dave’s open-door policy sometimes opened him up to “challenges” as Principal.
By 1975-76, Michael Caplan and his friends were feeling confident in their “good standing” with the Faculty and Dave and participated in some interesting (?) pranks (one of which involved a motorized fetal pig from the science lab running amok in the cafeteria!). The most notorious prank, which became legendary among the faculty and student body, involved a quarter, a funnel, and a pitcher of water.
None of the participants in this prank (Michael Caplan, Peter Adamson, and Bob Bessen) has an exact memory of where it all originated but they are all in agreement about two facts:
#1. They did a “trial” run on Bill Metzler, their Math teacher.
#2. They decided, somehow, they would try it on David Schein, Principal.
The prank itself requires that you know your subject/target has a certain amount of pride in his/her athletic prowess --- this is the “entry point.” There is a simple proposition posed to the subject/target: Here’s a physical challenge that is, supposedly, so difficult that only a very good athlete can succeed. If the subject/target wants to hear more, they are told the challenge involves a quarter (25 cents) and a funnel --- like those found in most kitchens. The task is this: put the funnel inside your waistband/belt, tilt your head back and put the quarter on your forehead, a little above your eyebrows. Once set, can you, the graceful athlete that you are, flip the quarter into the mouth of the funnel in your waistband? The prank, of course, is that once the subject/target tilts his/her head back and puts the quarter on his/her forehead, the pranksters have a formerly hidden pitcher of water they pour down the funnel! Brilliant in its simplicity.
Our students had a good relationship with Bill Metzler, their Math teacher (and the Varsity Tennis Coach) and decided to try this prank on him --- originally thinking it would be a one-shot trick and a great story to tell.
Between classes, with some time to kill, the boys offered Bill the challenge, and he took the bait. As Michael Caplan and Bob Bessen set him up with the quarter and funnel in front of the science lab table, Peter Adamson sneaked over to where they had hidden a pitcher of water, preparing to strike at the opportune moment. It came off perfectly. Metzler put his head back and was placing the quarter on his forehead and Adamson rushed in and poured the water into the funnel, dousing the teacher’s trousers.
In most schools this would be a transgression that might result in suspension --- or at least significant detention. Not at Blind Brook in 1975. Good sport that he was, Bill realized he had been pranked, laughed along with the boys, and then went into the Science teachers prep room and came out with a hair dryer! According to Bob Bessen, here’s what happened next.
“As Bill Metzler is blow-drying his pants, Peter Adamson: “Let’s get Schein!!”
Not as easy as getting Metzler, though.
Well, we were all arriving for math class…everyone was milling about…nothing to alert him to having water poured down his jeans.
Let’s get Schein anyway!
How’re we going to do it? 1
Ok, we’ll need a distraction.
You mean like starting a fire?
No. Mike – you stand in front of Schein’s desk and distract him. Bob – you hand me the beaker. I’ll pour the water in once he puts his head back.
Ok. But we’re not going to be able to get behind him with the beaker of water.
Then Mike, make it a really good distraction!
(Knock, knock at Mr. Schein’s office)
We have a coordination test for you. We bet you can’t do it!
Oh, really. What’s this about?
Well, you’ve got to slide a quarter starting from your forehead, then let it roll down your nose and into a cup near your waist.
You’ve got to stand up, though. Now we don’t have a cup, but this funnel is just the right size. Here, tuck it inside your belt to hold it up.
(Mike starts his animated distraction, Bob hands Peter the beaker of water.)
Ok, now put your head back. Hold on tight to the funnel – make sure it doesn’t move. Ok, put the quarter up higher on your forehead…….No, you have to tilt your head waaaaay back.
Here we go!
(Out of the corner of Schein’s eye, he sees movement, and quickly drops his head and pulls the funnel away. Some water splashes in, but the pants are bone dry.)
3 more seconds, and…coulda, shoulda, woulda....”
So, Mr. Schein did not suffer Mr. Metzler’s fate, but he did make sure he posed for a photo for Blind Brook’s first Yearbook (The Spectrum) holding a pitcher of water just above Peter Adamson’s head, with Peter mugging fear of getting drenched.
What this story reflects is the culture that was established at Blind Brook in those first three years --- through Dave’s guidance and the faculty’s energy and engagement with the students, who were full partners in creating a high school --- that was proudly different and wonderfully unique.
The State of Our Union
If you’ve been watching the opening days of the 118th Congress, you know it’s an out-of-control dumpster fire. Kevin McCarthy, at this point, reminds me of the kid who gets picked last when his peers are choosing up teams. Not that I feel sorry for him (not one bit!). Indeed, his soulless ambition and blatant hypocrisy (his immediate reaction condemning the January 6th Insurrection before beating a path to Mar-a-Lago to kiss the former guy’s ring) make him a less than sympathetic character. What, in fact, does he stand for? As bad, what do the 20 or so Republicans opposing his Speakership want and what do they stand for --- other than an opposition to majority rule? Who is their candidate for Speaker? In fact, we’re dealing with a renegade band of nihilists who, somehow, call themselves “patriots” while propping up autocratic beliefs.
So here we are, watching “democracy” in action. Interestingly, much of what we’re seeing has to do with what I used to teach as the “unwritten Constitution” in my secondary United States History classes. Like political parties, the rules of the House of Representatives are not prescribed or described in the U.S. Constitution. Section 5 of Article One states: “Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings, punish its Members for disorderly Behaviour, and, with the Concurrence of two thirds, expel a Member.” It does not specify what we are watching: that is, that no business can transpire until a Speaker is elected by the majority of Representatives. We have learned, of course, that the Speaker need not even be an elected member of the House of! Article 1, Section 2 simply says: “The House of Representatives shall chuse their Speaker and other Officers.” The Unwritten Constitution is “based chiefly on custom and precedent as expressed in statutes and judicial decisions” (Merriam-Webster) and is not specified in the Constitution and its Amendments. So, we now find that one long-term result of the January 6th Insurrection has been the establishment of a group of “Congressional Kardashians” (as I heard it called on “Morning Joe”) holding up the business of government. To what end, other than to reinforce that majority rule (90% of their party supports McCarthy), is not something they agree with!
Basically, we have a half dozen or so Congress-people who clearly dislike Kevin McCarthy to such a degree that they will never cast a vote for him as Speaker of the House. Let’s remember, again, that 118 members (out of 222) of the Republican caucus voted against the certification of a “free and fair election.” It is not simply that this party is dysfunctional --- more than half of its Representatives (and eight of their Senators) are opposed to the tenets of democracy that the nation abided by since 1789 (except for the Civil War, 1861-1865, of course).
These Republicans have not done the simple calculus (which reflects their mid-term failure) that has left them with such a slim majority that FIVE undemocratic renegades can torpedo any legislation or other business either party may want to put forward. With such a small majority their ability to “govern” (not that they necessarily want to) is severely hamstrung. We must remember, however, that this is the vestigial (autocratic) Trump Republican Party. Today marks two years since that party attempted to overthrow the government. And I am not convinced people have kept that event in proper historical perspective, given our 24/7 news cycle and the presence of Fox News, NewsMax, Steve Bannon’s podcast, etc.
January 6, 2021 was a serious attempt at a palace coup! The then-President of the United States incited a mob to attack the Capitol to intentionally disrupt --- if not totally stop ---the legitimate business of certifying the election of the winner of the 2020 Presidential election. Not since Southern states seceded from the Union have we been confronted with as serious a Constitutional crisis as this. We can only hope that 2023 will see an aggressive Department of Justice, led by Jack Smith, deliver justice to the perpetrators and their criminal mob boss, Donald J. Trump.
In the aftermath of that attack, Kevin McCarthy calculated his path to the Speakership was through the disgraced ex-President and, by April 2021 was seizing on every photo-op at Bedminster, Mar-a-Lago, or anywhere else he could. One of the original “Young Guns” (the title of a book co-written with Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor) touted as the future of their Party, McCarthy is now their Last Man Standing. Ryan, of course, had a brief stint as Speaker --- and retired from the House after that experience. Cantor, in 2014, when he was the second-ranking Republican, was primaried out of his Virginia seat by a Tea Party radical --- and that’s when the writing started to appear on the wall. Trump simply brought all the far-right, megalomaniacal chickens home to roost when he rode down his golden elevator.
And now we have this shitshow, entering Day Five with no clear end in sight. It seems McCarthy has already given away the store to a group of self-serving “brand-conscious” elected officials who care more about appearing on Fox and NewsMax than accomplishing anything for the American people. When the House finally is brought to order, these Congressional Clowns will start their investigations into Hunter Biden’s laptop and begin childish attempts to impeach Joe Biden, showing their dedication to Trump and their preference to screen time over substance. It’s an unfortunate situation but one that, sadly, has been predictable. Once we headed down the Trump path there was no going back to “business as usual.” This is not to say that the United States government does not reforms. But there is a huge chasm between reform and destruction --- and that is the point we are approaching. The mid-terms were encouraging in that there wasn’t a “Red Wave”, but the Republicans did gain the majority in the House, and we can see where that’s going. We can see that a small minority within that Party can hold 90% hostage ---essentially a second insurrection against majority rule!
An encouraging fact we might keep an eye on is that, historically, during every two-year Congressional term, anywhere from 15 to 20 House members leave their seats (death, indictment, personal reasons, etc.). Given the George Santos situation, we may see the first of those in the next few months --- and who knows if some Republican members may tire of the “Freedom Caucus” antics and choose a Kristen Sinema defection to “Independent” and caucus with the Dems (I can dream, can’t I?). In all, don’t blink because this show is just starting and promises to be one of the great train wrecks of all time. Fasten your seat belt.
A Century of Solstices
A Century of Solstices
Wednesday was my mother’s 96th Winter Solstice. She’s not aware of it and, quite honestly, my brother and I thought her 95th would be her last. She went into hospice care over a year ago and, even though she still recognizes us (most days) she immediately forgets we were there once we’re out the door. It’s sad and not a situation she would ever ask for or care to be in. Miraculously, her vital organs keep working for another day and then another day. Back on December 2nd she seemed “unresponsive” and the woman who runs the Assisted Living facility (a high school classmate of my brother’s daughter, I believe) sat at her bedside, where staff came in to, essentially, say “good-bye.” (She’s been there for over a decade and is beloved by the staff.) According to my brother’s text, “the staff were coming in to check on her, people filling up, and then she woke up and said, ‘Why are you all standing around – are you going to get me something to eat or what?’” Anyone who knows Mom, knows that’s a perfect take if there ever was one. In the last five years she’s broken both her hips, a shoulder, fractured her pelvis and had a brain bleed --- yet here she is, living through her 96th Winter Solstice. In keeping with that indomitable spirit, I thought it might be interesting to consider what Mom saw as all those Winter Solstices passed by.
Grace DiGangi (born Maria Grazia DiGangi) arrived on August 15, 1927, before the Stock Market crashed. By her fifth Solstice that event had occurred and Franklin D. Roosevelt --- a President always spoken of in reverential tones --- was elected. Her father, a carpenter and construction worker, somehow always found work (even moving to Chicopee, Massachusetts – by himself - at one point) to provide for the family which, by Mom’s tenth Solstice (the year the Hindenburg exploded) was comprised of her parents, an older brother and two younger boys. By her twelfth Solstice Germany had invaded Poland and World War II had begun. As Mom entered high school and her 14th Solstice approached, Pearl Harbor was bombed (December 7, 1941) and the U.S. entered the Second World War. Prior to her 16th Solstice her neighbor and friend (my dad) had enlisted in the Navy (August 1943) and a year later her older brother followed suit --- and another brother (Frank, April 1943) had joined the DiGangi clan. By Mom’s 18th Solstice she was a high school graduate, the war was over, and the boys were home.
By her 20th Solstice Mom and Dad had married (June 1, 1947) and were living around the corner from her parents in Canarsie, Brooklyn. FDR had died, two atomic bombs had been unleashed, and the post-War Baby Boom had begun. Mom and Dad joined that parade and, by her 22nd Solstice, I joined the family. We moved into the now-finished basement apartment in my Grandparents home on East 93rd Street as my first Solstice approached. By Mom’s 25th Solstice we had moved out to Babylon, Long Island (a “development” called “Twin Oaks”) and my brother had joined the family. Dad worked for the Babylon Village Police Force, and we were the embodiment of the new American Dream lifestyle --- the nuclear family living in the suburbs where low-slung new schools were being built as Levittown-inspired developments began sprinkling the landscape. Just before her 27th Solstice I had started Kindergarten at the South Bay School and my parents were talking about finding a bigger house. By Mom’s 30th we had hopscotched over West Islip and moved to Bay Shore --- and my brother and I were walking to our new neighborhood school. We were living our version of the post-War American Dream and Mom saw us as Bay Shore’s “Nelson Family,” playing Ozzie, Harriet, David, and Ricky.
By Mom’s 40th Solstice she had seen quite bit of the world shifting. Kennedy had been elected and assassinated, the Cuban Missile Crisis had scared everyone, the U.S. and Russia were engaged in a Cold War and Space Race, the Civil Rights movement gained momentum and the war in Vietnam was becoming more and more controversial. The next decade of Solstices saw an acceleration of events. As her 50th Solstice rolled around, men had walked on the moon, Nixon had been elected and driven from office, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy had been assassinated, and the U.S. had withdrawn from Vietnam. On a personal note, Mom and Dad retired, sold the family homestead, and moved to an apartment in Bay Shore (which didn’t allow them to keep their dogs, so I inherited Radar and Coffee!).
In the next decade, by her 60th Solstice, Mom and Dad had moved to Tampa/St. Pete --- but returned to the northeast (Stroudsburg, PA) when their first grandchild was born in 1980. They settled into a mobile home in Marshalls’ Creek, PA and Dad started working part-time at a Sears (or Penney’s?) Automotive Center in Stroudsburg. In the wider world, Ronald Reagan had been elected (much to Mom’s dismay), the AIDS epidemic had begun, the Challenger exploded, the Stock Market crashed --- and a second grandchild arrived.
By 1997, Mom’s 70th Solstice, the Berlin Wall had fallen, the Los Angeles Riots occurred, and bombings at the World Trade Center and in Oklahoma City highlighted the foreign and domestic threats we were now facing. We also had our first Baby Boomer President (and Vice-President) and the beginnings of extreme right-wing reactionary politics with Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America.” And we saw the O.J. Simpson “Trial of the Century” in Los Angeles. On the sports front, the Johnson nuclear family was thrilled by the New York (football) Giants winning two Super Bowls and the New York Yankees successful return to the World Series!
Another decade of Solstices passed and, by 2007, Mom was still adjusting to living with Dad’s passing (in 2000) and the topsy-turvy world we found ourselves in. By her 80th Solstice we all had lived through the Clinton impeachment, the Columbine shooting, the Y2K scare, the disputed election of 2000, the 9/11 terrorist attack, the start of the War in Iraq, the creation of Facebook, the Hurricane Katrina disaster, the beginning of another recession, and the creation of the first iPhone. Technology was accelerating the pace of change in our society, and we were all adjusting to living in the 21st Century!
I think it may be hard to imagine seeing 90 Winter Solstices, but Gracie did, and that next decade brought new historic events. The election of Barack Obama, of course, is first on the list --- and something Mom loved. This decade was marked by several horrific events: the Sandy Hook school massacre & a number of other mass shootings as well as the Boston Marathon bombing. Superstorm Sandy also devastated a large swath of the country. On a more positive side, we ended our involvement in Iraq and Osama Bin Laden was killed, the Supreme Court ruled same-sex marriage was constitutionally protected, and Obamacare miraculously passed into law. But storm clouds were looming.
By the time this 96th Solstice came to pass, Donald Trump had been elected President and a far more chaotic world ensued. As Trump attempted to dismantle the Climate Accords and Trans-Pacific Partnership, he also promoted tax cuts for the rich, railed against the Black Lives Matter movement, and instituted draconian measures regarding immigration. Impeached twice (but not convicted) his response to the Covid-19 crisis was dramatically ineffective and, of course, his reaction to losing the 2020 election was to attack the Capitol. On the personal side, Mom managed to get Covid and survive it, but the isolation of that year had a severely deleterious effect on her psychological state and cognitive abilities.
In all, it was an incredible (almost) Century of Solstices. What I’ll remember, from my perspective (of 74 Solstices), is that Mom and Dad did their best for their kids. There’s no playbook for being a parent but now, I’ll look back and remember that, as a boy, there was always a radio on and Mom was often singing along with Hank Williams and Perry Como and whoever was crooning. I’ll recall that she usually wouldn’t smoke her first cigarette of the day until after dinner --- but kept smoking until a hospital stay a few years ago finally put her on the patch and relieved her of the habit. I know that our liberal politics were introduced early on --- Mom loved the Kennedys (successors, in her mind, to FDR), was against the war in Vietnam, supported “labor,” hated Nixon, Reagan, the Bushes, and, most of all, Trump --- and wouldn’t hesitate to let you know it. Things were far from perfect (the words “intrusive” & “controlling” come to mind) but now I’d rather focus on how amazing it is to reflect on the almost Century of Solstices of my mother experienced and what a full life she has lived.
The BLAST is BACK!
(and why it’s important)
The January 6th Congressional Committee has wrapped up its work and their full report will be issued on the Winter Solstice. Monday’s final meeting, of course, created a big stir because the Committee issued criminal referrals for a former United States President --- and rightly so. The length and depth of Donald Trump’s criminality extends well beyond the January 6th insurrection, but I think it’s important to step back and consider that event --- and the former President’s role in it --- with an eye toward how it fits into the arc of United States history.
Much of my 42 years as an educator was spent teaching --- or teaching people “how to” teach --- United States history. As an American Studies major it was a subject I relished and loved tackling all the interesting and problematic aspects of telling the story of the development of our nation. And it is a fascinating, if difficult, tale to trace. Teaching U.S. History --- and teaching it as honestly as one can --- is a challenging task. Traditionally, U.S. history is taught chronologically and topically. That is: “The Colonial Period” (1607-1783), “The Constitutional Period and Federalist Era” (1783-1801), “Jeffersonian Democracy (?)”(1801-1824), “Jacksonian Democracy (?)” (1824-1840), “Manifest Destiny and Westward Expansion” (1840-1850), “The Civil War and Reconstruction” (1850-1876), “The Age of Conservation Reaction (Robber Barons, Jim Crow, etc.)” (1876-1901), “The Progressive Era & WWI” (1901-1921), “The Roaring Twenties and the Crash” (1921-1932), “The New Deal & WWII” (1932-1945), “The Cold War & American Idealism (?)” (1945-1960), “The Sixties” (1960-1974), “Conservative Reaction Redux” (1977-2008), “Obama and Trump” (2008-2021). Those are the approximate “units” commercial textbooks, and many U.S. History teachers, use for course instruction (the titles are mine & reflect my orientation/biases). Personally, I’ve never found one piece of research which substantiates that people learn history “better” if it is taught chronologically so I preferred to loosely approach the course, often “doubling up” chronological topics (the American Revolution and the Vietnam War are a perfect pairing, for example, as are the two “conservative reaction periods” as well as the 20’s/60’s, etc.). There are many creative ways to teach American History, but I believe there are particularly important themes which must provide the “spine” to a course: race, immigration, American “mythology,” geographic determinism, and democracy, for example. It is the last theme which, of course, directly relates to the January 6th committee and demands our attention as we close out 2022.
Telling the story of “democracy” as we look at the development of the United States is a complex and difficult tale to tell. Long before Jefferson hypocritically wrote “all men are created equal,” various colonial legislatures were enfranchising landed white men, inventing governments “by the (some) people,” implementing John Locke’s “consent of the governed” and adhering to “the rule of law.” Throughout our racist, misogynistic, and homophobic history the sins of the Republic were shielded by those idealistic concepts as we became, in our own view, the much-vaunted “City on a Hill” and (in our own eyes) the envy of the world. As the nation slowly began reckoning with its burdensome history in the second half of the 20th century age-old divisions emerged in higher relief --- at times blatantly, at other times with more subtlety. Yet, even with all of this, all the conflict, all the clamor, all the chaos we never questioned that our basic democratic processes should be destroyed. Never.
One of the things that has always irked me about the Watergate Scandal is that Nixon’s criminality was not sufficiently punished and, worse, that the focus of what he did is never sufficiently emphasized. His “Plumbers,” quite simply, were fixing the 1972 election. While we are used to Trump’s ranting about “rigged” elections we seldom, if ever, focus on the fact that what Nixon’s “Committee to Re-Elect the President” (with the apt acronym: CREEP) did was fix the 1972 election so the incumbent President would run against the least-electable Democrat, George McGovern. If you watch Alan Pakula’s brilliant All the President’s Men (or read the equally brilliant Woodward/Bernstein book of the same title) there is a scene where the reporters uncover that Nixon’s “dirty tricksters” created the infamous “Canuck Letter” which undid Democratic front-runner Edmund Muskie’s presidential campaign during the New Hampshire primary campaign. That the bumbling Watergate burglars were caught trying to bug the Democratic headquarters in June of 1972 --- and Nixon then conspired to cover-up the illegal operations of his Re-Election Committee --- compounds just how corrupt the Republican Party’s politics have been for the past half-century. Yet even amid all this craziness no one, not even Richard Nixon, ever considered destroying our (bizarre) Electoral College system --- until January 6, 2021!
Lincoln’s election in November 1860 led to our last insurrection – the Civil War. Because Southern states believed Lincoln and the northern Republican Party would abolish slavery, they left the Union and took up arms against the Federal government before his inauguration (March 4, 1861). No Southern states had cast a single Electoral vote for Lincoln. The votes were divided among 4 candidates, but Lincoln dominated the voting in the populous North and secured 180 Electoral votes (152 were needed for election). There was no attempt at preventing his certification --- the unhappy South simply left the Union --- and a violent internecine conflict ensued. What we saw, on January 6th, was nothing short of an attempted coup, an insurrection aimed at de-railing the peaceful transfer of power from one administration to the next.
As a U.S. history teacher, I always liked to point out to my students that one of the most unique aspects of American democracy was that every four years Americans voted for the leader they wanted and, even when a candidate won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College vote (4 times), power was transferred peacefully. Early on, John Adams refused to attend Thomas Jefferson’s inauguration --- and his son, John Quincy Adams, didn’t attend Andrew Jackson’s --- and the impeached Andrew Johnson did not attend Ulysses Grant’s inauguration in 1869. But none of them attempted to ALTER the outcome of their election. And none of them summoned their supporters to attack the Capitol the day the Electoral College votes were being certified! Until January 6, 2021.
And this is what makes that date infamous and the crime egregious. It was the first time since 1861 that citizens took up arms and tried to violently overthrow our government. Consider this: what would have happened if, somehow, they succeeded? What if the Electoral count had been aborted on January 6th and, somehow, Trump’s Fake Electors were installed and counted? Remember, 147 Republicans (139 Representatives, 8 Senators) voted against certifying the Electoral count (and more Republican Senators were planning on voting against --- until they were attacked). What if the Fake Electors from the Swing States had somehow succeeded? Would Trump and his Republican allies then institute martial law to eliminate the “liberal elites” they believe have too much power? Based on Trump’s unwillingness to accept reality, to admit defeat, and his inclination to sidle up to Putin, MSB, and Kim, were we that close to losing our democracy --- the way Germany did in the early 1930’s?
Because Nixon was only declared “an unindicted co-conspirator” and pardoned by Gerald Ford, he was able to lay low for a few years and then present the world with a re-habbed/re-invented “elder statesman” persona and outrun his infamy. It is imperative that Trump be made to pay for his criminal behavior. His attempt to subvert democratic rule and overturn an election, simply because his childish fragile ego cannot bear to be a “Loser” is not only unacceptable --- it is criminal -- and he should suffer the consequences for his actions for the first time in his life.
The Republican Unholy Trinity
The Republican Party’s Unholy Trinity
By continuing to genuflect and kiss the ring of Donald Trump, the Republican Party reveals the true unholy Trinity it worships: White privilege, racism, and gun violence.
First, let’s make a clear distinction between white privilege and racism. White privilege, built on the foundation of white supremacy, is that sense of entitlement white people —- particularly white men (like Tucker Carlson) —- have which believes in the unquestioned RIGHT they have to CONTROL the levers of power in our society. Any threat to their grip on that power —- be it from African Americans, women, Latinx people, Asian-Americans, the LBGQT community —- and they reel in paroxysms of victimization (tune in to Fox News at any given moment if you want to see this in real time). White privilege is embedded in the societal structure of the United States —- its government & political parties, its economic system, its basic social status (structure), all of which were designed and controlled by white men from the very start. Let’s be honest: the Constitution (the 3/5th clause, the Electoral College), Supreme Court decisions (the Trail of Tears, Dred Scott, Plessy), and years of legislation (Jim Crow, the Chinese Exclusion Act, etc.) have only served to reinforce a worldview that is based on white men not only being in charge but being entitled and privileged within that system. Consider the centuries of privilege white men have accrued —- being the only ones admitted to “elite” colleges, where they created networks that continued in their domination of the economic and social systems throughout our history. Simply look at the work required for minorities (including women, LBGTQ, et al) to gain the simplest of rights (voting, access to public facilities, admission to universities, etc.) —- rights that have always been granted to white men. Those who continue to argue that they are “white and don’t have privilege” are lacking perspective, historical knowledge, and, I’d contend, a realistic view of the world. I know that being a blue-eyed white guy named “Johnson” was nothing but good for me from an early age. That sense of white privilege is the first solid leg of today’s Republican Party’s three-legged stool.
Regarding racism: the latest violence against a minority (the Atlanta Asian-American murders) reveals the deeply inherent racist bias of policing —- which is only one aspect of the historic and divisive racism the nation has nurtured for over 400 years. Reflect on this: imagine if the gunman who killed 8 people in the Atlanta area had been Black or Latino. Like Dylan Roof, the 21 year old white man who killed 9 people in a Charleston, South Carolina church, the Atlanta assailant, even though he was considered “armed and dangerous,” was arrested by white officers without “incident”—- and then we were told he was having a “bad day.” Eugene Robinson wrote about failing to hear if George Floyd might have been having a “bad day” --- and I’d add Eric Garner, Philando Castille, Sandra Bland, and Breonna Taylor (as the start of a list), wondering if those people were having such “bad days” that they deserved to die. But the policing is only an extension, an arm, of a system that has violent embraced racism from the start. In keeping with a system of white privilege, racism is a natural outgrowth. The “other” (be it black, brown, yellow, red, gay, female, etc.) is always seen as a threat —- because the white people in power, from the start, know that those who are discriminated against, who are the target of terrorist violence, who are treated as “less than,” will, given the opportunity, seek justice and equality. The real sickness of the racist mind is the assumption that those who have been on the receiving end of their racist treatment will react violently (because the whites in power have, historically, used violence repeatedly against any who challenged them —- including white workers who wanted to unionize!). This racist mindset is now a solid leg of the Republican’s three-legged stool.
The final leg of the stool, of course, is guns. This is a hill the Republicans are willing to die on. Let me be clear: I do not want to do away with the Second Amendment and I do not want to “take your guns away.” I do, however, want much more strict regulation of: a) how people are able to acquire guns; b) what kinds of weapons and ammunition are available to the public; and c) how we keep track of who has what. The people I know who are gun owners are incredibly responsible --- their guns are in safes and/or otherwise secured in their homes (for “self-defense”). The problem we have in this country right now, as we saw this past week in Georgia, is that in any number of states a person, on a whim (or worse), can walk into a gun store and walk out with a lethal weapon --- no background check, no waiting/”cooling off” period, nada, nothing, zilch. We know that “gun shows” proliferate a vast number of states and anyone can acquire a tactical assault weapon (the big regulation” is that weapons can’t be “automatic,” meaning they take a little bit longer to fire shot-after-shot (and we discovered that “bump-stocks” make that point almost irrelevant). Yet, despite the number of mass shootings we have seen year-after-year, the NRA has convinced the Republican Party that the “Second Amendment” is more important than the First! And that’s the final leg to the Republican Party’s three-legged stool --- its unholy Trinity.
Let’s remember that this is not Trump’s doing alone --- he inherited a half-century of right wing/Republican evolution into this party of “No,” this party that stands for nothing other than “power” and blocking/stopping progressive change. Remember it began with Richard Nixon’s “Silent Majority/Southern Strategy” and continued with the Reagan and H.W. Bush dog whistles about “welfare queens” and Willie Horton. It was advanced by Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” and W. Bush’s “compassionate conservativism.” With the explosion of the internet and the beginning of widespread conspiracy theories (remember “9/11 was an ‘inside job’”?) Trump’s “birther” mythology and his tv celebrity were perfect platforms to transform the white privilege/racist/gun-loving party into the 35,000 lies/insurrectionist-supporting party. And that’s who they are. They continue to LIE, blatantly, and genuflect at the Holy See of Mar-a-lago, where their Babylonian Captivity (aka the Avignon Papacy) is playing out. It will take time to undo the half-century of what the Republicans have constructed. Other political parties have died due to their inability to evolve --- the Federalists, the Whigs, the Know-Nothings --- and we may well be witnessing the Republican Party’s self-immolation. Only time will tell.
Stay safe. Get vaccinated.