(I am in a rage over the closing of the grand New York tradition, Jamaica High School. The building still stands, built to last forever, on the glacial hill in Queens. My mom was in the first class to enter the new building in February of 1927. I was in the class of 1956, way down, but in it. A decade ago, I visited some honors classes and found education and hope alive and well. But New York let the school get away in recent years, and the most imaginative thing the city could think to do was close it down, and put four experimental schools in corners of the building. We’ll see how that works out. The concept of holding up a beacon to the new and the hopeful and the future of Queens seems to have escaped the city. What rank failure.
(Unable to be around on June 26, to pay homage to the last graduates and dedicated teachers of Jamaica High, I asked Kathy Forrestal, whose family has remained close to Jamaica, to write her impressions.)
By Kathy Forrestal
Not long after this year’s graduating seniors were admitted, the Department of Education moved for a second time to close Jamaica High School and, after four years of slowly phasing out, the school graduated its final 24 students on Thursday, June 26, 2014. “You are the 175th graduating class,” Principal Erich Kendall told the graduates, “and there will not be a 176th.”
I was a member of the class of 1994 and have been involved in efforts to save the school. I’ve had many opportunities to return to Jamaica. Watching the school phase out has been like watching a loved one waste away, particularly for the students and teachers who lived the loss daily. Principal Erich Kendall wondered if immediate closure would have been merciful; others noted that then the students and teachers wouldn’t have been able to spend those years together. The loss of Jamaica is traumatic for those who love the school.
Shortly after I graduated, NY Times reporter and Jamaica alum George Vecsey wrote of a visit to Jamaica, “I see the same energy, the same dreams, the same potential. You remind me of my friends.” I can say the same thing about the graduating class of 2014: they remind me of my friends, and I am happy to welcome them to the Jamaica High School alumni family. I could not be sorrier that there will not be any more members added to this family in the future.
“We were told Jamaica was a failing school, but we came, and we saw,” said graduate Philip Samuel. “We stayed. We chose to come to Jamaica and to work hard with our teachers to overcome any disadvantages associated with attending a closing school.” Twenty-plus years ago I was told I should reconsider my decision to go to Jamaica; how wrong people were. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard “I heard it was a bad school, but I was so wrong;” I wish we had been able to make more people believe us. Jamaica was family, a second home and, in spite of phase out, this sentiment was echoed by this year’s seniors.
The Jamaica these students knew was different in many ways than the one I attended. As Jamaica’s student body shrank, the school lost classroom space to the growing schools co-located within the building. Honors and AP courses disappeared, as did the specialized programs like my old Computer Science program. Favorite teachers were excessed, including a teacher who represented the heart and soul of Jamaica. Every semester brought loss. If you can succeed in a phasing out school, Principal Kendall said, you can succeed anywhere. I have no doubt the 2014 graduates will succeed; they are truly impressive young adults.
Student speakers expressed gratitude for the undying support of their teachers. Teachers past and present attended graduation. More than a few were emotional watching tribute videos, including one set to Passenger’s “Let Her Go.” The song’s lyrics say, “'Cause you only need the light when it's burning low, Only miss the sun when it starts to snow, Only know you love her when you let her go.” Jamaica alums know we love the school but just how much we loved her became truly apparent when we had to let her go, but the wonderful thing about Jamaica is the people. That can’t be destroyed and I’m clinging to the knowledge that Jamaica lives on in its alums.
Jamaica has great alums. Assemblyman David Weprin, class of 1974, was saddened by the closure of his alma mater and spoke at graduation of the fact that his brothers (including Mark, a member of the NYC Council) both were alumni as well. The legacy of the school, he said, will live on in its graduates. Given the number of alumni and friends in attendance at graduation – including Borough President Melinda Katz, whose father taught at Jamaica High School, and Special Assistant to the Borough President and former NYC Councilman Leroy Comrie, who graduated in 1976 -- that legacy is strong and will remain.
“These students understood the loyalty and pride of being part of Jamaica High School,” Jamaica High School coach Susan Sutera said. “They carried the legacy of tens of thousands of students who came before them and they did it with incredible honor and dignity. They sent the school out with a bang.”
I never wanted to say good bye to Jamaica. Walking its halls, seeing the mural in the lobby depicting colonial Jamaica, photos of students who attended long before I was even born, trophies representing decades of athletic dominance, and most importantly meeting alums from the 1950s through today, I know without a doubt you can’t replace Jamaica High School.
(I can only echo Kathy’s lovely words. Sue Sutera and James Eterno and Josh Cohen and the other teachers had the same dedication and effect that Irma Rhodes and Jean Gollobin and Rose Kirchman had in my time. The terminators who closed Jamaica High will never understand. It’s their failure but the city’s loss.)
More on Jamaica’s closing:
“They may hate the cultural context they now find themselves teaching in, but they love their work. The Achilles’ heel of schoolteachers, one all too easily exploited by politicians, is that they love their students.”
(One of the best reads in the NYT these days is Margaret Renkl, in Nashville. In her latest post, Renkl describes the dedicated core of “born teachers” – the majority, she submits.)
(From Madeleine Albright in one of her final interviews in February):
“Putin is small and pale,” I wrote, “so cold as to be almost reptilian.” He claimed to understand why the Berlin Wall had to fall but had not expected the whole Soviet Union to collapse. “Putin is embarrassed by what happened to his country and determined to restore its greatness.” – Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, recalling her first meeting with the relatively unknown Vladimir Putin in 2000. – The New York Times, Feb. 23, 2022.