Chapter 1: At Flushing High School, 1964 (iii)
Most of March and April in the Human Relations Club was spent rehearsing the anti-bigotry play. Because Rona had the most expressive and clearest speaking voice, she was chosen by Mr. Freedman to play the teenage woman character that had the main role in the play. Around school, I would bump into Rona and say “hi.” But I couldn’t figure out any way to interest her in more than just a casual acquaintanceship. By the end of the school year, I was as lovesick as Romeo at the beginning of Shakespeare’s "Romeo and Juliet."
Outside of the Human Relations Club meeting discussions, I can recall very little intense or significant discussion with any students at Flushing. Most of my conversation with people there was on a superficial level. I just couldn’t wait to get to college and get away from my parents’ apartment and be on my own and get away from the public school system.
Although I strongly identified with the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, I kept most of what I was feeling about the System inside of me. At Flushing High School, I never really found anybody else who fully shared my sense of alienation and was willing to talk for long hours about what we could all do, as a generation, to secure more freedom.
When the weather was not too cold after classes, I spent many afternoons playing basketball in the Whitestone playground at 149th St. and Willets Point Boulevard, just north of Memorial Field. Most of the other guys I played with attended one of the local parochial high schools: Holy Cross High School or Bishop Reilly. After the pick-up games ended, we each went our separate ways.
In the playground, if you played enough basketball games with each other you would get close on a certain level. But high school guys never really talked deeply to each other, if their only point of contact was meeting in the playground and they attended different schools. Most of the guys I played basketball with were Italian-American or Irish-American. But none of us working-class guys thought ethnically very much, in those days. Each of us thought of ourselves as being, primarily, white American. Being ethnically Irish, Italian or Jewish was felt as a secondary identity.
To get into Columbia College in the 1960s, an applicant had to submit to a personal campus interview. In early 1965, I dressed up in a suit and tie and took a bus and subway to the 116th St. and Broadway station in Manhattan. I walked through the kiosk exit/entrance that used to be there (before Columbia had their station modernized in the 1970s) and located the School of Journalism building, where my screening interview was to take place.
Glancing around Columbia’s campus between Low Plaza and South Lawn, I felt that it looked more like a real campus than Queens College’s campus. The campus seemed much smaller than Indiana University’s Bloomington campus, with which I was familiar as a result of visiting my older sister there. But Columbia’s campus, situated in the middle of Manhattan apartment buildings, interested me more, because I wanted to be involved with people who lived in Harlem. Indiana University’s large campus could not fulfill that desire.
In the early 1960s, the large Midwestern state universities seemed to offer just size and football teams. I assumed Columbia would offer me both activist intellectual stimulation and interaction with the cultural riches and neighborhoods of Manhattan. I assumed that Barnard and Columbia students interacted with each other easily on a daily level, because of the closeness of the two schools.
James and the Twenty-Seven Bicycles
8 years ago