Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Tech Alma Mater, Molder of Men

The title of this piece comes from the opening words to the Brooklyn Technical H.S. Alma Mater song as we sang it when I attended from 1956 to 1960. The school was all boys back then; they have since changed the words of the song to reflect the molding of women as well. "Tech" as we called it was known as one of the best high schools in New York City, along with Stuyvesant H.S. and the Bronx H.S. of Science. For me, going to high school was a tough transition. Having attended a small parochial grammar school where I spent eight years with pretty much the same forty kids, going to a new school that housed 6,000 boys was an adjustment to say the least.

The school building was enormous. Located in downtown Brooklyn, the yellow brick monolith housed not only classrooms, but specialized labs, sheet-metal, machine and wood shops, a foundry, an operating radio station, basement pool and rooftop gym. In case you're wondering why a foundry in a NYC high school, Tech prided itself on preparing students for not just college, but careers in technical fields such as Chemistry, Architecture, Aeronautics, Electronics and Mechanical Drawing. The foundry was where we poured molten metal into a sand mold to create a casting of the "stepped V block" we made in wood shop. (To this day, I have no idea what a stepped V block is.)

During the years I attended Tech, William Pabst was its principal. He ran a tight ship for a public school, and nonsense was not tolerated. He had his S.O.S. (Safety, Order, Service) student patrols roaming the halls, waiting to ambush late arrivals or rat out anyone in the halls without a pass. The cafeteria had to serve lunch in shifts to accommodate the mass of students. They featured a daily "special"...a hot lunch for around 15 cents. You were also required to buy a plastic token that you would exchange for eating utensils. You would stand in line at the utensil booth, give the lady in the hairnet your token, and she would give you eating utensils for the meal. When you were done, you turned the silverware in and got your token back. They did this to prevent students from stealing the utensils or just throwing them away.

Tech had its share of fine teachers, but it harbored a few looney toons too. A Mechanical Drawing teacher named Mr. Riker would leave the room and then sneak back in, crouching beneath the desks and then leap up trying to catch students doing something wrong. I had a Geometry teacher (best not to name him) who ruined math for me. He was a heavy drinker and could barely stand up much less explain plane geometry. I also seem to recall a wood shop teacher with a missing finger. (Insert your own joke here.)

The teacher who had a major influence on me taught English, and went by the name of Patricia Hornberger. I always liked reading and writing well enough, but somehow she put my love of words into another gear. Maybe because she was younger than most teachers at the school, or because she had a sense of humor and knew how to make learning fun. She would make us read Shakespearean plays aloud, with each student taking a turn. If you don't think it's funny listening to kids from the streets of Brooklyn read lines like: "Fly, fly, my lord! There is no tarrying here" from Julius Caesar, then think again. I can only thank providence for sending Ms. Hornburger to me. I only wish I could tell her how much her passion for teaching changed my life.

All in all, I got a good education at Tech, but because I was a bit of a jerk, never graduated and had to finish high school elsewhere. In my senior year, I got in with some bad company and was soon cutting classes regularly. Because I was able to duplicate my mother's handwriting perfectly, I wrote absence notes that were accepted by the school without question. Once I misspelled a word on one of my fake absence notes. Catching the error, I wrote a replacement note, and tucked the incorrect one into one of my books. Unfortunately it fell out, was found by another student and turned in to the school office where they saw an almost identical note already on file. After bringing my mother in for questioning, the jig was up and I was asked to leave the school. My forgery career came to an abrupt end.

Some months later, during a nocturnal trip to Rockaway Beach where we went to drink Thunderbird wine, I angrily took off my Brooklyn Tech senior ring and flung it into the ocean. (I'm a very dramatic drunk.) Not graduating Tech is one of my regrets in life. Thankfully the seeds of learning were already planted by good teachers like Patricia Hornberger, and I went on to get my Masters Degree after I matured a bit and found a partner in life who, as Jack Nicholson said in the movie As Good As It Gets: "...made me want to be a better man".


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1 comment:

Ron Vazzano said...

"Proudly we rise to salute you again
loyal we stand now six thousand strong..."

Yes I remember it well...graduating in 1963.

but to be honest, the school had the ambiance of a prison. And Pabst was, well...like a warden.

Anyway. Tech is now in the news again for a sex scandal.

Great place to have graduated from, which I did. But wrong school for me.

But life turned out well.

Thanks for this post...brings back a lot memories...good and bad.

Ron