The coach praised the players after the match
With all the changes at my old school, the sun still sinks behind the west goal. On autumn afternoons, it still glares directly at the east goal.
It all came back to me Thursday. I had not seen a game at Jamaica High since the end of the 1955 season, when I was benched after edging over to the sidelines to catch up on the Dodger-Yankee score. (It was the seventh game of the World Series, and we were playing in Brooklyn.)
So much has changed. The comprehensive Jamaica High School has been phased out, replaced by four smaller schools tucked into corners of the grand old building on the glacial hill. But there is still a Jamaica team in the Public School Athletic League, and on Thursday it played a big game against Far Rockaway.
The coach is Dana Silverstein, twenty-five years old, a former player for the University of Rhode Island. She says the young men have probably never played for a female coach before, but they listen to her, they show respect.
I remember the polyglot Jamaica team of my years. Silverstein told me she heard at least thirteen different languages in the building but that one player will translate a fine point for a teammate, if needed.
The Jamaica home uniform was a white shirt and navy blue shorts. I remembered our ratty red long-sleeved jerseys and our school song, to the tune of Aura Lee (Love Me Tender): “Red and blue/ Red and blue/ School of red and blue…”
The Jamaica football team – another innovation since the 50s -- practiced directly behind the west goal. The players dressed in the fieldhouse which I remembered as old and musty, where we ate orange slices at halftime. More recently I have heard that Joe Austin, the legendary coach for St. Monica’s – Mario Cuomo’s mentor for life -- used to keep a spare set of clothes and perhaps spend the night there if the baseball games ran late.
Far Rockaway had won ten matches and lost only once, scoring above three goals seven different times. Jamaica, with a 4-6-1 record, could not afford another loss if it wanted to qualify for the playoffs. From the start, Far Rockaway was more physical, knocking Jamaica players to the artificial turf, pounding the ball downfield.
I have been watching games from the press tribune for the past eight World Cups, as Sócrates and Baggio and Zidane and Donovan moved forward like Pak-Men on electronic rampage, but down here on terra firma it happened fast.
For this ancient defender, the old terror came back – how hard it was to track the ball while facing west, the autumn haze, the sun at a nasty low angle, and suddenly hordes of opponents would materialize, as if in a science-fiction movie, right out of the glare.
Far Rockaway fired wide a few times but then scored the goal that had seemed inevitable. “Keep fighting,” the coach shouted.
The teams changed sides at halftime, and with the sun at their backs, the Jamaica players seemed invigorated. They tied the match with a lightning shot from distance; a few minutes later they scored another cannonball goal. “Zero-zero,” Silverstein shouted, meaning, don’t let up. But Far Rockaway pressed toward the fifty Jamaica football players clustered behind the west goal, and with about five minutes left, the visitors scored.
“Fight back, Jamaica,” the coach shouted. “This is your season.”
The match ended in a 2-2 draw. The coach called her players onto the turf and addressed them: “I can’t think of a bad thing to say,” she said, her tone optimistic, encouraging. “You played well. Practice tomorrow. Game Monday.”
The last game is 4 PM Monday at Campus Magnet in Cambria Heights, which used to be Andrew Jackson – Jamaica’s biggest rival in the old basketball days.
My word to my old teammates, from Long Island to California, is that these guys watch the great clubs and national teams, which we never could do. My teammates would love their, power, their moves, their maturity on the field. Go, Jamaica.
The roster, straight from the website http://www.psal.org/profiles/team-profile.aspx#012/28517:
Jamaica rallied in the second half
Jean White Grenning and Jackie Forrestal
The link is Jamaica High School, built to last forever, high on a glacial hill.
The White family moved into the house in 1938. Jean White was our class president for 1956, a born leader. President for Life, we call her.
Jean was captain of the cheerleaders when her boy friend Eddie Grenning played for Brooklyn Tech against Jamaica, in the PSAL semifinals in 1955. Then she led the cheers for Alan Seiden and Artie Benoit as Jamaica won the title.
When Eddie passed, way too young, Jean sought out adventures, getting air-lifted onto a remote island in Alaska, where she spent a winter working as a community liaison. Now she lives on another island, called Manhattan.
A few weeks ago, Jean White Grenning was in the old neighborhood and decided to take a look at her childhood home, which the Whites had sold to the Forrestals in 1977. Jackie Forrestal sent her daughter Kathy to Jamaica High, where she worked on the school paper, the Hilltopper, and loved her time there.
On this spring day, Jackie and Kathy were both gardening in the front yard when Jean dropped by. So much history in that meeting. Jackie has become a leading activist, sticking up for the legacy of Jamaica High, as the city, in a fit of Pol Pot nihilism, has sought to destroy the landmark high schools. Jamaica High is being phased out, with the gorgeous indestructible building turned over to the new fad in education, boutique mini-schools.
In its time, Jamaica nurtured Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee
, Democrat from Houston, Letty Cottin Pogrebin
, Stephen Jay Gould
, Bob Beamon
, epic Olympic long-jumper, Paul Bowles, Sid Davidoff
and Herb London
. Four friends of mine, who lived a few blocks from each other, became doctors, some still working.
The last legal hopes for Jamaica High are stalled somewhere in the court system
; Jackie Forrestal goes to meetings, reminding people that her daughter Kathy had a great time in Jamaica not so long ago. Jackie has come to be the caretaker for bound issues of the Hilltopper, our school paper, and other treasures, just in case the school somehow emerges from this dark age.
A few weeks ago, Jean White Grenning and her brother Stuart White took the subway to Parsons Blvd and walked up 164th St., visiting their old church, the First Methodist Church of Jamaica. “The minister graciously showed us around the church and explained that he would be leaving for another church in South Jamaica. In general, he said, church attendance is down all over.”
They stopped in the old candy store, now a deli, and talked to new owner who has been there six years. Then they visited their old house, a few blocks from Jamaica High, and Jackie showed them around the house “which looks the same to us. We then walked to Union Turnpike stopped in another deli (now Korean) and peeked into the windows of Dante's which did not open until 4 o'clock.” (Back in the day, Dante’s was a mere pizzeria, where everybody went after the basketball games.)
Jean and her brother walked up 168th St. to Jamaica High, where they chatted with a few boys in one science-oriented mini-school. “They were unsure if they liked the smaller school and thought maybe they would like a bigger school,” she said.
The neighborhood has changed; there is a bustling mosque on 168th St. A few years ago, I had a great time visiting some classes at the old school; I felt Jamaica High was still producing strong people like the Whites and the Forrestals.
Larry Sills Visits the Farm Over his Office.....Photo by George Vecsey
Editing papers at Jamaica High and Dartmouth College, Larry Sills dreamed of working for The New York Times. Instead, he went into the family manufacturing business.
The next thing I heard, Sills was the focus of a terrific article in the Atlantic in January, about a company that still makes things right here in the United States.
If you want to jump immediately to the article by Adam Davidson, I would encourage you to do so. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/01/making-it-in-america/8844/
I was told about the article by the Hon. Walter Schwartz
, my lawyer and friend -- otherwise known as Chief -- the editor of the Hilltopper in our senior year at Jamaica. Sills was the sports editor who gave up his column and assigned me to take over. I hope I remembered to thank both of them for giving me a start.
Schwartz and I visited Standard Motor Products
the other day. The Sills family used to own the six-story factory on Northern Blvd., but now leases the airy top floor.
Sills told us how the recession has challenged his company, but he continues to produce things in Greenville, S.C. and elsewhere.
He paused and pointed to the ceiling.
“There’s a farm up there,” he said, telling us how the landlord arranged for the Brooklyn Grange
to run a one-acre farm on the roof.
Sills described how a crane lifted tons of dirt and a tractor onto what New Yorkers used to call Tar Beach. He winced as he recalled the concussion of the tractor spreading dirt a few inches above his curly head.
We climbed a flight of stairs to the farm, where four or five nimble college-age people were doing what farmers do. There was also a photo shoot going on, with an actual model; we tried to stay out of her way.
Sills pointed out the skyline of Manhattan, plus the tomato and pepper plants, and early shoots of sunflowers which, in a few weeks will reach our height. He pointed out several bee hives in one corner and laughed about how the bees took a ramble one day, blocking traffic on the busy street below. He showed us the chicken coop. Every Wednesday, he said, Brooklyn Grange holds a public market in the lobby, in front of the art display.
We took a short drive to Zenon Taverna
in nearby Astoria, for some excellent grilled fish, celebrating this ethnic borough. Sills and Schwartz and I discussed our college newspaper careers at Dartmouth, City College and Hofstra, respectively.
As it turns out, Larry and I both chose industries currently being challenged in this new economy. He did not display any remorse about heeding the tug of his family business. After all, he used to accompany his dad to work on Saturdays as a child, and he keeps photos of his ancestors in the board room.
The company has given him a livelihood that supports his family. He has been portrayed in what seems like a fair way by a good young journalist in a major magazine. Plus, the roof continues to support the farm right above him. A century ago, people built factories to last.
Jamaica High: Good Teachers Then and Now
Tuesday is National Teacher Day
, and people are being asked to salute a teacher
who made a difference in their lives.
We’ve got teachers in my family – my wife, our daughter-in-law, a sister, a brother, a sister-in-law, two nieces, a nephew and his wife. I’m proud of all of them.
But the teacher I am thanking today is Irma Rhodes, who found me underperforming in high school and turned me around. She opened a world for me, after I had washed out of honors classes at Jamaica High in Queens.
I honor the teacher who did what teachers do – she made English exciting, or fun, or at least tolerable. She was, as I discovered, an educated woman with intellectual and literary interests, and she managed to transmit a bit of her enthusiasm to her class of juniors.
Early in the fall semester, Mrs. Rhodes assigned us to write a book report, any author, any subject. As the son of two journalists, I chose Stranger Come Home
by William L. Shirer
, a novel by a well-known journalist.
The book was probably lying around the house; my mother probably put it in my hand. (By that time she was legitimately worried that I would remain a slacker.) I did some minimal research and deduced that the plot pretty much matched the career of Shirer – a correspondent in Europe who had been pursued by the red-baiters when he returned stateside after World War Two.
Mrs. Rhodes read the report and asked me to me read parts out loud in class. She was so pleasant that she never transmitted the feeling she was turning me into a teacher’s pet. She just said, this is a book report, and people in the class seemed happy for me. She created a positive mood among the students, which is not easy to do.
She followed it up, talked to me after class, inviting me to work on the school yearbook, promoting me when openings came up. She held salons in her home for the yearbook staff – a bit of work and planning, plus piano playing, literary talk, refreshments. She organized theater outings to Manhattan on weekends – something at the Jan Hus Playhouse
on the east side, Anastasia on Broadway.
Oh, yes, and I got a date for the senior prom, much to my shock. A girl, a year older than me, liked my essays when Mrs. Rhodes had me read out loud. (Jean, our class president-for-life, had to virtually order me to ask the girl out.) As Richard Price wrote in a classic essay in 1981
, one of his earliest lessons was that being The Writer was a neat way to meet girls.
Mrs. Rhodes and I kept in touch long after I was actually accepted by Hofstra and started working for newspapers. I brought my wife to her home. I mourned when she passed much too soon and I mourned when one of her daughters also passed way too young.
I don’t mind saying I think Mrs. Rhodes was proud of me, the way my wife is proud of the smart young man she taught in her humanities group in the challenging late ‘60’s, who is now a national byline.
I see that same pride in our daughter-in-law who teaches English as a Second Language. I cannot describe how proud I am to see this dedicated young woman going to work every day with the new ethnic groups of my home borough of Queens.
Teachers do this. The vast majority of them care. It makes me crazy to hear taxpayers complain about the alleged high salaries and perks of teachers. “(They get the whole summer off.”) They didn’t see my wife doing lesson plans on weekends, or my sister's daughter using part of her modest salary to buy school supplies for the underprivileged children of her southern town.
About a decade ago, I got to reconnect with my old high school – the same rooms, the same hopeful faces
as my contemporaries in the ‘50’s, in some honors classes I visited. I could feel Mrs. Rhodes (and Mrs. Kirchman and Mrs. Gollobin and all the rest) still in that building.
Yet the city of New York saw fit to cook the books so Jamaica High would look like a statistical failure. They are keeping the glorious landmark building open and are tossing out the institution in favor of the new fad of boutique schools
The teachers of today remind me of the teachers who taught us back in the ‘50’s. I thank them all, and most of all I thank Irma Rhodes.
* * *
I should add: memories of favorite teachers are welcome here, under Comments. GV