The current edition of the New Yorker contains a terrific article by Jelani Cobb about the fate of our mutual alma mater, Jamaica High School in Queens.
(Brian Savin notes the article is available on the New Yorker site, so I am showing the link here. Subscribe anyway.)
Cobb has been working on the article since he sat in my family kitchen for a few hours on a snowy day in February – or perhaps I should say, since his mom made sure he attended Jamaica because of a teacher she respected.
That teacher was Herb Sollinger, from a family I have known for many decades -- the bonds to that beautiful building on a hill, bonds that New York City, under Michael Bloomberg and Joel Klein, went out of its way to atomize.
The building still stands – built to last forever – and four small schools take the place of the entity known as Jamaica High School. I hope they are doing well -- and I visited a couple of smaller schools in Queens last year that seemed to be excellent.
Cobb does a wonderful job detailing the education JHS gave to generations. He also fairly represents the problems, the challenges, the occasional violence, in the new era.
But I was in Jamaica High quite a lot in its last generation, as the guest of dedicated teachers and students who reminded me of my era.
I visited Josh Cohen’s honors English class, where a young African-American woman quizzed me about freedom-of-information laws. (I tensed up because she knew more about it than I did.) She was a bright light and now works for a union in the city.)
Another time I visited Cohen’s class, and a young man with an Islamic name was reading his term paper on “The Crucible” by Arthur Miller.
The city tried to scare off students, distributing flyers about violence in the area. Two young women in chadors told me how their parents had transferred them to another old school, but the girls soon told their parents they were getting a better education at Jamaica, and transferred back.
Education was happening. Some young people were going on to college.
I got to know teachers like Sue Sutera, who held the place together as a teacher, as a coach, as a mensch. When Jamaica High was blown up, there was no institutional memory; she had to scramble to find a job elsewhere. I suspect union-busting as a motivation, also.
I’ve written about Jamaica on this web site – just click on the tab for Jamaica High.
The subject could not have found a better and fairer journalist than Jelani Cobb. I am a huge fan from watching him on MSNBC and reading him in the New Yorker, as he wrote about Ferguson and Charleston – and now our own high school.
I originally did not include the free link out of respect to Cobb and David Remnick, the editor, who has installed new energy and gravitas to a grand institution. I wish New York’s leaders had found the courage and wisdom to do the same for Jamaica High.
“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.