A BEGINNING: LAFAYETTE HIGH SCHOOL - BROOKLYN NEW YORK
For each of us there is a beginning. I am not talking about
The fact that we are here makes this a fait d' complies. Rather,
I am referring to that place and/or point in time where something
sparked within to begin us on our career in this crazy business
we call TV news.
The truth be known, in the case of this writer there have
been so many sub-careers, or, at least "wanderings from
the path" that I often wonder what would have happened
if I had made one of the others my prime goal.
Alas, I will never know for as the character of Benjamin Stone
in the Steven Sondheim musical "Follies" laments:
"You take one road. You try one door. There isn't time
for anymore. Ones life consists of either, or."
Yet this last statement in itself is a bit of a dicotome in
that I might not have ever heard of "Follies" much
less have an abiding love of live musical theater had it not
been for the happenstance of being in the right school and
the right class with the right teacher at the right time.
Nor might I have turned my talent to the broadcast industry
either if not for an edifice of secondary education in my
native Brooklyn, New York, that was named after the Marquis
de Lafayette. A school that over the years has given the world
such greats as song stylist Vic Damone, baseball hall of famer
Sandy Koufax and our industry's own Larry King.
So we travel back in time. The year is 1958. Its the fall
term and my 12th year in the New York City school system.
For the past two I have been attending Lafayette High School
which is located not far from the confluence of 86th Street
and Stillwell Avenue. A point in space known to Brooklynites
as the place where the West End elevated train (today's B
train) turns south for the last few miles of its run from
MidtownManhattan to its final destination in Coney Island.
Perhaps the best way to begin this saga is to share a few
anecdotes about my own years in Lafayette. And we start with
the truism that in every high school there is a caste system.
Within the first few daysthat you are there an invisible label
painted on you. It may be that you will be among the most
popular, the most athletic, the most learned, the most entertaining,
etc. And then there's that "other" group. Thoseof
us who carried the invisible sign across our forehead that
simply said "geek." And dear friends, in the 1950's
I was the absolute epitome of a "geek" with a bent
toward technology. A "terchno-geek" -- if you will.
No, don't get me wrong. There's nothing wrong with being
a high school "techno-geek." The fact is that we
were, and still are a very necessary part of any schools social
landscape. Back then, we were the kids who, among other things
helped out in the Physics Lab, the Biology Lab, served on
the A/V squad or took pictures for the school newspaper.
We were the ones who put the microphones out on the auditorium
stage, turned on the old Newcomb or Bell-Sound amplifier,
waited for its tubes to warm up then gently advanced a noisy
microphone gain control just to the point where squealing
feedback occurred before backing it off a bit.
We then boldly walked out onto the stage in front of our teenage
peers, stood in front of each microphone and in our best imitation
radio announcers voice intoned: "...testing. 1-2-3-4.
there might even be a round of applause. And with each word
our self esteem grew.
Then there were those movies to run. Today a teacher slips
a DVD into a player and a monitor overhead on a wall comes
to life. But in my day it was a bit more complex. There were
no DVD's. In fact, there was little in the way of videotape
outside the early experimental Ampex quad machines of the
big city T.V. stations. In teenage world of the 1950's it
was 16 MM film and magic projecting machines that carried
such nowforgotten names as Victor Anamatograph, Ampro, Bell
and Howell, Movie - Mite, Natco and many others.
In Lafayette High School most of the projectors were RCA
400 series and Ampro Premirer 20's. In the auditorium projection
booth at both Lafayette and my previous Junior High (Seth
Low) were DeVry sound projectors equipped with 1000 watt lamps
and "long throw" lenses. The pair in Lafayette were
unique. As I recall, their audio output was insufficient to
be heard throughout the large auditorium without further amplification.
So, long before my arrival on scene they had been jury rigged
to an even then antique external audio amplifier from what
Ibelieve was a defunct juke box. I think it was marked SeebergManufacturing
and 150 watts RMS out. Not a lot by today's homeaudiophile
standards, but more than adequate to be hear from the four
speakers strategically (or maybe randomly) hung in the complex.
(If you are to young to remember 16 MM sound projectors,
take your web browser over to eBay and do a search. There
are plenty up for sale these days. Most at only pennies on
their original dollar cost.)
For me the most fun was being one of the school photogs.
Thats because it got you out of class a lot. So did running
those movies, giving this scribe a lot of refuge from those
classes that he could not deal with but could not quit. And
in a way it was my introduction to this wonderful media we
work in. And, of coarse there was a member of the opposite
A SPECIAL CLASS AND A GREAT TEACHER
"Theater English" was class I took as an elective
subject I took in my senior year. As I recall it was only
the second semester that this class we being given and in
effect was a bit of an experiment by a wonderful teacher named
Miss Sandler. A person with a fondness of live theater and
film and the ability to instill that passion in her students
and who truly changed my life.
The class went to see first run movies and Broadway shows.
Imagine being a teen sitting in the Winter Garden Theater
watching a performance of "West Side Story" and
the positive impact of the lyrics and music on a young mind
such as mine. Then back in the classroom we would discuss
such things as plot, staging, social impact and lots more.
It was aclass that was way ahead of its time and, in retrospect
it likely only existed because this was a school whose administration
looked well beyond the basic "three R's" of education.
I know that it had that effect on me as I really began my
writing in her classroom and have never stopped. Miss Sandler
was the catalyst that set in motion thatpart of my adult career.
BILL AND JILL AND BILL
Also in that class was a girl named Jill Schaeffer. Candidly,
I thought she was the cutest girl in the school but I was
a "techno-geek" and as such I never had the guts
to ask her out on a date. Deep inside I was afraid she would
The only time I even came close to asking her on a date was
when she, myself and another classmate were sent to WCBS television
one Sunday morning to present a thank-you gift to the late
Bill Leonard. At that time Bill was the host of a local Public
Affairs program called "Eye on New York." It would
be many years before he would rise to prominence asthe President
of the CBS Network.
But in 1959 Bill had been gracious enough to come talk to
our class. He told us what it was like to work in live television.
He explained how a TV newsroom operated and how a program
got on the air. We all enjoyed his presentation and wanted
to reciprocate. So we had the woodworking shop craft a "thank
you" plaque and two girls were sent to present him.
Jill was one of them. I was the school photographer by virtue
that I owned a twin-lens Super Ricohflex camera and FR speedlite.
So I to go as well. More important, it gave me a chance to
really talk to Jill and get to know her.
We did talk and we quickly realized we really had allot in
common. We both liked live stage productions. We both liked
show music. We loved those "then" 10 cent hot dogs
sold from pushcarts roaming the beach at nearby Coney Island.
And we both liked being on the beach and playing in the surf.
We had so much in common, but, sadly, I could not get up the
nerve to say: "Want to go out this Saturday night?"
In the months and weeks that followed I tried, but never could
get the words out.
Jill transferred out of Lafayette before the end of our senior
year. Because of this, her picture never appeared in the yearbook
and I have no idea what ever became of her. I cannot tell
you if she followed a career into the entertainment industry
as I did, or, if the road of life she chose went in a different
direction or opened a different door. All that remains is
a "minds eye" memory of a 5'4" brunette with
a smile that could warm the heart of a snowman! Someone whose
departure really left a gaping hole in my then young life.
THE YEARS FLY BY
But that was 1959 years ago and this is 2004. Forty-five
years have passed since we threw our rented four-corner hats
in the air outside of the Kings Theater on our graduation
day. And, sadly, those years have not been very good ones
for the school where the road to my adult life was crafted.
What appears to be a combination of shifting population demographics,
poor administration and years of politicians using my alma
mater as a proverbial political football have made this once
proud institution of learning a mere shadow of its former
self. A school that the New York Post newspaper has dubbed
I first learned about the schools plight a few years ago
when I was sent a link to that Post article. Wanting to know
more, I called some friends who had been in my graduating
class. They too had heard rumors that the school was in steady
decline but had not paid very much attention. They, like I,
were busy with their careers and had little time to worry
about a school that had long since dropped from their thoughts.
Yet something kept gnawing at me. It was this little voice
in our head that we all get from time to time. And this one
said that its time to go back and see. So I a few years ago
I decided to do just that. I wrote the school offering to
come and talk before the weekly assembly about the business
I am in and the success in life it has brought to me.
Since I go to the "Big Apple" several times a year
to visit friends and take in Broadway shows it would not cost
the school or the NYC Board of Education a penny. I figured
that in doing so I could pay back a little to the place that
got me started and, maybe, interest others in coming to careers
in our industry.
It took several months before I heard back from the school.
It came in a phone call from one of the then administrators
(I was home recovering from some surgery and on pain killers
when the call came so the details are a bit sketchy.) The
guy was very blunt in telling me that the "assembly"
sessions of my youth were no more and that there were safety
concerns regarding visitors. I told him my offer stood at
anytime I was in New York and all he need do was to call.
I have yet to receive aninvitation to put it on the line.
THE CITY VS. THE DOJ
This in itself made me all the more curious as to what was
really the situation Lafayette. So I began scouring the Internet
and with each passing week there were more and more items
posted that the wondrous Google search engine uncovered. Perhaps
the most telling of these was a Consent Decree entered into
last June 1st. between the Department of Justice with the
city of New York and various school district officials, settling
allegations of civil rights violations and deprivations of
equal educational opportunities at Lafayette.
The case was brought by the Educational Opportunities Section
of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division in conjunction
with the United States Attorney's Office for the Eastern District
of New York.
Quoting from the DoJ press release:
"The government's complaint, filed in the U.S. District
Court for the Eastern District of New York, alleges that school
district officials deliberately ignored severe and pervasive
harassment directed at Asian-American students by their classmates.
This harassment allegedly included both physical and verbal
abuse, including multiple violent assaults. According to the
complaint, students regularly threw food, cans and combination
locks at Asian-American students, while shouting ethnic slurs.
Additionally, the government alleged that school district
officials failed to take appropriate action to help students
overcome language barriers that impeded their equal participation
in the school's instructional program, as required by the
Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974."
Candidly, I was floored. Could this really be the same school
I had gone to? The place where the most "violent"
crime was the school bully demanding you give him half your
lunch or a dime? But what followed in the DoJ report was even
"Under the consent decree, which remains subject to court
approval, the school district will implement an anti-harassment
policy that addresses peer-on-peer harassment, provide training
so that the defendants respond appropriately to harassment,
and take proactive steps to minimize the likelihood of future
harassment. In addition, the consent decree requires the school
district reform the school's English Language Learner (ELL)
program to ensure, among other things, adequate assessment,
placement, and academic counseling of ELL students. The consent
decree also increases the opportunities for the parents of
ELL students to be involved in their child's education by
requiring the school district to provide appropriate translation
and interpreter services."
THE BIRTH OF A DOCUMENTARY
To me this language by the DoJ was a clear indictment of
both the school administrative structure and the political
climate in New York regarding the Lafayette. Lets face it:
If the Department of Justice has to get involved, a real problem
exists. And if the city is willing to enter into a Consent
Decree rather than defend itself at a trial, it knows it has
done something wrong. Further research brought numerous articles
regarding the tensions between various ethnic and racial groups
and some of the reasoning those reporting gave for the current
social climate at the school. And as I read, pictures began
to form in my mind. More than a single frame. Rather a motion
picture of the way that Lafayette was then and how it got
to where it is now. A film that not just lay blame where blame
was due, but also showed that this school and others like
it can return to their glory days if the community, the city
and the school administration work toward that final goal.
And in the past few months the idea of producing such a documentary
has become an important part of my life. I already have written
a basic outline, a one page overview and the opening lines
of the script. My big problem is that I am here in Los Angeles
and the school is 3000 miles to the East. I really need to
find a partner in this project.
One who lives in the New York City area, who knows documentarytelevision
production, who went to Lafayette and who feels a strong a
kinship to the school. A person with the ability to draw one
his/her minds eye and make that the reality of video.
Why do I want to do this? Because amid all the tumult I see
hope. I know what this school was like in the past and it
can be that again in the future. And for me its a special
place and a debt of gratitude that I owe. So that's where
the road that I chose back in the late 1950's appears to be
taking me now. Or, as another fictional character from "Follies"
named Buddy Plummer says while waiting for his date: "
I see it all. Its like a movie in my head. Its not just the
bad things I remember. Its the whole darn show."
To be continued at some future time.....
Note: If this project interests you, or if you are a graduate
of Lafayette High School and want to chat with Bill about
your days there, you can reach him by e-mail to email@example.com.
He really does answer all of his e-mail and if you include
a phone number he will call you. You can also visit Bill's
website at http://www.arnewsline.org
and Bill's old high school has a web presence at http://www.lafayettehs.org.