Dear High, Dear Central High
Posted on May 05, 2015
I walked the halls of my high school last week for the first time since I graduated 46 years ago. It was, no pun intended, a real high: not only for reasons of sentiment and the pleasures of nostalgia—the cafeteria exactly as I remembered it; the corridors and lockers the same except for fresh coats of paint; the English class with the blackboard where I knew it would be and the desks scattered in proper disorder—but because the students of today were every bit as motivated, talented, and happy in their learning as I remembered my classmates were way back when. The Central High Alumni Association presented me with an award and will place a plaque including my picture on the alumni “Wall of Fame” along with seven other new inductees. But the greatest satisfaction of my visit was not in memory but observation. At a time of dwindling support for liberal arts and public schools alike, Central remains a model of what a public high school should be. There is a lot to be learned from its example—including lessons for JTS.
The mythology of the place has always given a mighty assist to its character. Founded in 1836, opened in 1838, entitled by its charter to award a BA in addition to a diploma, enrolling academically talented young men (and, since the late 1980s, young women), and providing them entrée to the civic and professional elites of Philadelphia, Central—to students and city alike—is more than just a school. It is a symbol: proof of what a diverse student body, elevated by first-rate teaching and facilities, and raised on the expectation of high achievement, can do in the world. All the new hall-of-famers in my cohort spoke in one way or another about these themes at the event last week: how we had come from neighborhood schools of middling quality and somewhat provincial family backgrounds, had not had direct and sustained encounter before Central with great books, ideas, and possibilities and owed much of our subsequent achievement to the experience at our alma mater. We received these gifts through the demands of wonderful teachers in classes filled with students from every neighborhood of the city, representing several religions and multiple ethnic backgrounds.
In my day, Central was a mix of Jews, Italians, and African-Americans, with a smattering of other White Protestants and Catholics. Many grew up in immigrant households. You know in principle before you get to a place like Central that intelligence and virtue are not limited to people of your own persuasion, but it is something else to experience that reality in science or history class, or on the ball field. Respect for others changes from something one should have because it is right to something that comes naturally when one is surrounded by people who elicit respect by virtue of who they are and what they accomplish. What is more, you experience with them the special kind of bond that comes from learning together. Sometimes the learning takes place side by side, with the added glue that results from shared trials (that physics exam no one could pass) and collective elation (we did it!). Sometimes it comes from what other members of the class teach you. That kid you barely knew but always kind of wanted to offers an insight into a poem or painting that stuns you with how true it is to your experience of the world. You can’t believe anyone else saw it that way too, least of all this person so different from you. One is grateful for that: grateful to the teacher whose assignment made it possible, to the artist who got it right, to that new friend you will be happy to see, if you get the chance, at an alumni event 46 years later. You are connected. You are not only wiser because of this school, but less alone in the world, more at home.
I spoke at the event about one teacher in particular: John J. Mulloy, who was not satisfied with existing textbooks on the intellectual history of the West and so spent many hours, day after day, typing up the texts he wanted us to read (I remember Coleridge and Burckhardt, Eliot and Nietzsche, and a Catholic historian named Christopher Dawson) onto a stencil and then running off multiple copies on a mimeograph machine. The smell of the ink is still vivid in my mind—and so is the sense of growth of my mind and heart in Mr. Mulloy’s class, as palpable as the inches added in those same years to my height. It mattered to me even then that my favorite teacher was a practicing Catholic and a cultural Conservative—not ways of being with which I was familiar.
Twice a week after Central (and again on Sundays), I walked up Olney Avenue to Broad Street and then down Tabor Road to the Hebrew High School program at Gratz College, where I studied with faculty that included my other favorite teacher, Rabbi Sam Lachs. The great books of two traditions encountered one another in me and complemented one another far more than they collided. The walk from Central to Gratz gave life and substance to the hyphen in my identity as American Jew. You are larger than your individual self, both teachers taught. (Last week, in the archives, I found a column written by Mr. Mulloy in an edition of the Central newspaper for which I wrote as a senior deploring the fact that most Americans had not followed JFK’s urging, and still worked only for their own welfare rather than for that of their country). We are citizens of a country and a world that include far more than our own particular group. There are higher powers—or One Higher Power—at work. Neither Mulloy nor Lachs ever preached in class, and neither seemed to me to represent a simple faith, and perhaps because of that both stood for versions of Truth and Right to which I could give credence, in teenage years when credence does not come easily.
You can matter, this education taught me and everyone else, in the way that mattering really counts: doing good. I transmitted to the students at the dinner and those I met at lunch the next day a message about leadership that has been expressed to me by political and religious leaders over the years. The most important prerequisite of being a leader is not managerial ability, technical knowledge, smarts, or people skills, though all of those are required. More important still is personal integrity. How can people work with you, or follow you, if they do not know who you are and what you stand for? How can they walk ahead of you, as you want them to do if you are a true leader, and grow stronger by your side, unless they know that in so doing they advance along the path that you, too, walk, and on which you want them to walk?
Many JTS students benefit from teachers as devoted to their craft as Mr. Mulloy and as committed to their tradition (and radical in their approach) as Rabbi Lachs. Our students are not all of one mind, thank goodness, nor are our faculty. They learn as much from the presence of people who share their passion for Torah but disagree profoundly in how they live and interpret it, as they do from the texts themselves. They will one day soon lead communities that are rapidly changing, and—in order to lead successfully—will need the personal integrity, self-knowledge, and immersion in Jewish tradition that are more essential at a time like this than in periods when lives and institutions are relatively stable. Our leaders will need to respect the communities they help to guide in all their diversity of belief and practice.
It’s great to remember “those days gone by, the glorious days of old,” in the words of Central’s anthem. Better still, however, is to make sure that we use what we learned to enliven classrooms (and, for JTS, to strengthen synagogues, Federations, camps, and communities) now and in the future. A good high school, a good teacher, a good set of classmates, can make all the difference in an individual’s future—and our collective future.