Chapter 1: At Flushing High School, 1964 (i)
I was a Flushing High School senior in Fall 1964 when I heard about the Free Speech Movement [FSM] at Berkeley. I especially identified with FSM leader Mario Savio, who had grown up in Queens like I had. Savio had gone to Martin Van Buren High School. Van Buren was the high school that the older students in the Beech Hills garden apartment development where I used to live had attended.
What most touched me about Savio and the Free Speech Movement’s message was the assertion that we were “human beings” and “not IBM card numbers.”
I had concluded that the whole rat-race and competition to get into college was ridiculous. I looked down upon students in my classes who were mark-happy and super-competitive, instead of intellectually curious. The process I was compelled to go through in high school in order to get into college seemed emotionally empty. I felt unfree in high school. The 1964 Berkeley Revolt indicated to me that other people in my generation shared my disgust with the U.S. mass educational system.
Another aspect of the Free Speech Movement which caused me to identify with it was the link to the early 1960s Civil Rights Movement. Since the 1957 controversy over the integration of Little Rock, Arkansas schools, one of the passions of my life had been my support for the African-American freedom struggle. The people who were fighting the University of California at Berkeley Administration were often the same people who had gone down to Mississippi to work with SNCC to win freedom for African-American people.
I considered myself a writer-activist in high school, even when almost everyone else in the three high schools I attended was non-activist and not interested in questions of war and peace and racial injustice. In Bayside High School, in Broad Ripple High School in Indiana and in Flushing High School nearly all the students I met were just interested in getting into college, getting Saturday night dates, driving, sports or shopping. When I learned that the FSM students were involved with the Civil Rights Movement in a way my classmates had never been, I felt that FSM people were my kind of people.
My interest in the Civil Rights Movement was reflected in the writing I did in high school. I wrote a character study of a former African-American classmate, entitled “Benny”, which the English teacher, Mrs. Griggs, liked so much that she read it aloud to the class, which found the piece hilarious. Mrs. Griggs—who had some connection to the Columbia University School of Journalism’s high school journalism program—wrote the letter of recommendation that most likely was decisive in getting me admitted into Columbia.
I was restless and eager to get out of high school and into a more activist student setting. Senior year seemed like a waste. I was put in detention for coming late too often. I still liked to play saxophone in the high school band, though.
School’s only value seemed to be as a place to meet high school women in a classroom setting, and as a place to play saxophone with other musicians. My love of writing had no outlet because the school newspaper at Flushing High School was run by a clique that never printed “controversial” articles which criticized the educational process at Flushing, and the literary magazine wouldn’t publish my stories.
James and the Twenty-Seven Bicycles
10 years ago