There were only three things that I learned about Haaren High School before I began my teaching career. It was called DeWitt Clinton High School in some past time, and that Robert Mitchum and John Carradine both went there. The last two items came from an old teacher and attendance officer. I make no claim that they are correct. Haaren had been built in the gargoyle style of the 1890’s, sometimes called Tammany Hall Gothic. It had a faded red brick look and was encircled by a fence close to the building walls. Inside it was inhospitable, dark and without any sign of learning. Rooms were often dark, except those, like mine, with a view of the Hudson River. All in all a building that could have been the scene of Bel Kaufman’s Up the Down Staircase.
The students came from all parts of the city, including local kids from a Ukrainian Catholic school, a Chinese community, African American and Puerto Rican kids and working class white kids. We started out with 2,300 students on the rolls and ended up with 1,400 officially at the end of the school year. In one year, we graduated fifty young men. Oh yes, it was all male.
I prepared ferociously for my first day of classes. The first set of students were to be my homeroom and there were a number of logistical chores that I had to do with them. However, I was not prepared to receive my first jolt, when an officious gentleman, someone whom I had never seen, came into my room about 10 minutes before homeroom and gave me a new list of thirty four things that I had to do with my homeroom class. I was shocked and depressed for the next ten minutes and then the kids came in.
Some came in with smiles on their faces, some with scowls and others pathetic looking in their kind of street clothes. I greeted them all warmly. Some had been part of a return to school program that the New York City schools were attempting. Students who had been out of school, for a while, but were under 21 were encouraged to finish their high school careers. I was twenty two at the time and Jose Rosa was 20. In actuality, the older kids were very helpful to me in keeping things in order in my class.
I actually got through all of the minutia within the prescribed time, dismissed my homeroom class and began the act of teaching. “ Hello there, I am Mr. Hillman and I will be your teacher for the next year. This class is ( economic geography, world history, U.S. history, civics) and there are some things I want to talk to you about.” I began with asking them to tell me their names and tell me a bit about themselves. That was the most interesting part of the day. I found out that Leong had just come from Shanghai and was not at all conversant with the English language and that Yuri was not at all interested in American history, but wanted to know all about the heroes of Ukrainian history, that Carlos’ family came from Puerto Rico and did not care at all about history, but liked music. Allen Bonds told me that he was first cousin to Gary U.S, Bonds of rock and roll fame. Melvin told me that he wanted to finish high school and that he would be the first one in his family to finish. It was a startling introduction to my first day of teaching. How was I going to get through to any of these kids on the subjects that I was supposed to teach?All at once it seemed to fall apart after the first day. There had to be some commonality of interest among all of the kids. What was it that was going to draw them together so that we could move ahead in our studies?
Turned out the common thread among all of my students in all of my six classes was ME. They were exceptionally interested in what I had done in my life and how I had come from my background to this place and time. The older students like Jose wanted to know about the military and where I had been stationed ( a perfect in to geography). Since Africa was in the news on an almost daily basis, countries gaining their freedom, the idea of history, slavery in particularly, engrossed the African American students. The Ukrainian kids loved the fact that I knew something about their country ( I appeared to know something because I had read some and could say a couple of words in Russian from my grandmother). I could do very little with Leong and the Chinese kids. They did not speak up in class , probably because they couldn’t. However, on any test that they took, they aced them all. They listened and read. The others were mostly interested in the sounds coming out of my mouth and rarely did any assignments.
I had come to the realization that I could not do beautiful lesson plans and expect to get through them on any given day. I made general sketches of what I wanted to do and visualized my room and what my students looked like. The process by which I taught was as eclectic as anything that I did subsequently. These students were a challenge. That is the 1950’s 1960’s use of the word challenge. I then began to lose them. I don’t mean in the classroom, but they did not come to school anymore. The absentee list, on a daily basis, looked like this: Lopez 18/34, Stevenson 20/34, Ivanovich 29/34. That means that some of the kids, on the 34th day were absent those many days.
I asked some of the kids like Carlos de Los Santos why so many of the others were not coming to school. He told me, “ Mister Hillman, it’s not that they don’t like school, some come only for lunch and gym and leave to work or take care of their moms or brothers or sisters and some even have no place to sleep at night and sleep someplace during the day.” I began to ask more questions and wound up helping some of the kids with places to be, money and learned all about social services and what to do when you had no place to be. It may have helped my sense of ego to do those things, but not much for the kids.
After a few months of dealing with lunch duty, absentees and bureaucracy, I decided to focus on those who actually came to school on a regular basis. Those who continued to come seemed to enjoy my style of teaching, the thought cards that I believed that I had invented,and the introduction of Fred McCarty as an Alaskan explorer and scrimshaw expert. After an intense first semester, I began to relax a bit and sort of see my life again through the fog. I was continually going down to Beaver College. It was getting serious and Carol and I began talking of the future.
My immediate future was instigated by my fellow new teacher Ed Strom. It was only two years later that he told me that his name was Ernie. I asked him why he waited so long to tell me. He said it was not worth the bother correcting every one. Ernie was going to enroll at the New School for Social Research way downtown in Manhattan. He kind of gave me a rundown about the place and I enrolled. Because of my lack of understanding of graduate school and working full time, I took 9 credits each semester till I graduated in 1963.
I loved the new school- Paul Tillich ( eminent theologist), Saul Padover ( renowned Jefferson expert), Otto Kircheimer ( advisor to President Kennedy), Erich Hula, Dorian Cairns ( whose lectures in philosophy I am sure I still do not understand), Frederick Burin , O. Edmund Clubb, whose knowledge of China was firsthand, being the last person out of China in our delegation in 1949.These were all towering people. I was just a young man who wandered in off the street. The New School was so advanced that it gave out a degree above the doctorate, Doctor of Social Science. The dean had that degree and one other person whom I have met in my lifetime.
I know that I appreciated the intellectual exercises that I went through at the New School. However, I did not appreciate it as much as I do know, because I remember so much of what I learned and still apply some of that learning today. I can recall during the Cuban Missile crisis, as we were listening to our little radios in class, Dr. Hula criticized Adlai Stevenson, then ambassador to the U.N., for using the wrong part of the U.N. Charter to base our actions in blockading Cuba. The next day Stevenson corrected himself using Hula’s words. Those were heady days for my intellectual growth.I majored in Political Science and minored in philosophy. It would become apparent to me later on in life that I would need a philosophical underpinning for everything that I did and that the political science I learned would be my armor and my shield in future battles.