I think as conscious beings, at some point, we all stop and wonder what life would be like if we were born in a different time or a different place. I was born in 1970 and raised in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, NY. My childhood included The Electric Company, Good Times, Sigmund the Sea-monster, Fun Dip, hot peas & butter, Lottos, hard-pressed Lee’s, getting in the house before the street lights came on, neighbors sitting on the stoop or looking out the window who would tell your parents if you “showed out”, three finger name rings, Kangols, government block cheese, Guardian Angels with red berets on the A train, Pop-rocks and double dutch with wire cords. My childhood also included chain snatchings, muggings, Decepticons, rows of burnt out houses, open lots with stray dogs and the birth of crack. If I could have control over when or where I was born, I would change nothing.
Evidence of the beauty of the haphazard mystery that placed me on this earth when and where it did is deeply rooted in the years 1984-1988 of my youth. I spent 1984 -1988 as a high school student at Murry Bergtraum High School for Business Careers. The same Murry Bergtraum High School that was dubbed “The Worst School in NY” earlier this week. Yes, I am in education, but I’m not about to blog about education. This isn’t a piece about failing schools, over-crowded classrooms, out of control students, dis-connected parents, ineffective teaching methodologies, poor leadership, low expectations, teaching to the test or educational policy. Are these all worthy topics? Of course they are! However, today, I refuse in this blog to search for the blame or for the answer to what has happened to my beloved Bergtraum. All I want to do is reflect upon is my journey from 1984-1988 at Bergtraum.
I came from a Catholic elementary school in Brooklyn. For the most part, two types of families sent their children to Catholic schools at that time. The first type of family were the ones that worked hard to pay tuition to provide their children with an education that they believed surpassed that of whatever the local public school in our neighborhood provided. The second type of family that sent their children to Catholic elementary school were, well, Catholics. I came from both types. At the end of the eight-grade, my Grandparents were not happy to learn that I had chosen to go to a public high school. Though my mother was no longer a practicing Catholic by the time I graduated elementary school, my Grandparents maintained that their granddaughter belonged at all girl’s Catholic school, just like the one my mother and aunt attended. My going to a public high school was surely a step backwards in the progression towards success for two Caribbean immigrants who founded our family unit.
I was actually waited listed at Bergtraum. I don’t remember when I came off the list, but I remember being devastated when they didn’t accept me at the first go round. I remember preparing my self to attend a fairly new school called Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics. Nevertheless, I came off the list and my Bergtraum journey began. I lived in Bed-Stuy and Bergtraum is located in lower Manhattan. The distance by the train is 30 minutes door to door, including a stop at the bodega for a pack on Funyuns. However, I was my Grandparents only grandchild and a girl. At 13 years old, I wasn’t allowed to catch the train at my local stop of Bedford & Nostrand. I had to take the #38 bus from the corner of Tompkins and DeKalb, across from Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church, which was the former St. Ambrose Catholic Church where my family attended and I was christened, all the way to Jay St to catch the A train two stops to Broadway and Nassau. What should have been 30 minutes was 60 minutes for me, each way. The bus ride wasn’t bad, though. Most mornings the bus was too packed for me to get a seat, but by the time those Brooklyn Tech kids got off at Ft. Green Park, I had enough time to finish my math problems for Mr. Seba.
Up until that point in my life, I only had one friend outside of Brooklyn. Her name was Michele, we met at camp and she lived on the Upper Westside. It was at Bergtraum where I made my first friends from The Boogie Down, the LES, Washington Heights, Cambria Heights and the most remote part of NYC known to mankind, Staten Island from a place called Park Hill. I had Asian friends that would bring me pork dumplings that weren’t even available at the Chinese spot around my way. My love for pulpo salad was born thanks to a Bergtraum classmate. Under the roof of that triangle building were children of every shade of brown, black, beige, yellow and shades of pink imaginable. Bergtraum was a melting pot. On Facebook today, I posted a news article about MBHS written by a long time teacher. A dear classmate responded to that post and wrote, “It was definitely a way out of the neighborhood, to a whole diverse perspective on life and my city!” Yes it was! Up until September 1984, I knew Bed-Stuy, I knew Clinton Hills and I knew downtown Brooklyn like the back of my hand, but I knew NOTHING about New York City. Bergtraum brought all five boroughs to me each and everyday.
At Bergtraum, I learned that I could not type to save my life. At Bergtraum, I learned that I was good at math because I had a teacher who said I was. At Bergtraum, I discovered my love for Shakespeare and attended my first Opera, because the most eloquent, refined and intelligent man I had ever met made sure I was exposed to the Arts. At Bergtraum, I fell in love with fashion and the runway. At Bergtraum, I became the best girl’s volleyball fan ever, cause Lord knows I was born without the athletic gene. At Bergtraum, I covered a year long battle with alopecia with an array of hats, head wraps made from any cloth I could put my hands on, long bangs that not only covered my lost hair line and bald spots but also my right eye, yet no one ever judged me. At Bergtraum, I had an advisor who knew I was too prideful to ever discuss any challenges in my life, but also knew that a locker located outside of The Guidance Office that was filled to the brim with clothing, shoes and toiletries was surely not going to go unnoticed for long and moved my locker into her office. At Bergtraum, I disliked by Guidance Counselor because she discouraged my college choices. At Bergtraum, I met a new English teacher who enter my senior year, requested that I take her AP English class (the first time MBHS offered an Advanced Placement class) and contradicted everything my Guidance Counselor said. She knew that at 17 years old, I was working two jobs after schools and was solely responsible for the financing of my college career. She said “I want you to apply to SUNY Binghamton” and I did what I was told. Although not a universal truth, at Bergtraum we planned on living the life of Whitley and Dwayne and attending a college that was just like what we saw on television. If college wasn’t in our plans, well, that was okay too. We were graduating from Murry Bergtraum High School for Business Careers and surely had a great gig linked up in the corporate world that was far more prestigious than the work our parents did. We made our parents proud.
Bergtraum was fun. Bergtraum was safe. Bergtraum was my home. I knew it then and I know it now. But, what I didn’t know then, that I do know now is that the bonds created during 1984-1988 would grow greater and stronger over the years. Fast forward to the birth of Facebook. Well, maybe not the birth of Facebook, but the introduction of Facebook to the over 30 crowd. By 2008, Facebook was one big, virtual Bergtraum yearbook. I reconnected with close friends from school and connected with classmates that I only slightly remembered but have since grown close to. Since 2008, the MBHS Facebook community has functioned as a family. We “speak” daily. We pray for each other. We cheer for each other. We work together. We visit each other. We share our children's antics (I’m extremely guilty of this one). We post the visual snapshots of the years we missed as well as our daily living photos. But it’s more than that.
Two of our sister-classmates were diagnosed with cancer. We held a conference call prayer meeting. We sent each an Ipod filled with dozens and dozens of songs, dedicated to each of them from their classmates near and far. Each classmate picked a song/s, wrote sentiments of support and we sent them to our sister with hopes that they would both feel our love transmitted through the music. When their battle ended, we grieved together.
When our sister-classmate gave birth to a baby girl with a rare heart disease, we sent baby clothes and items and raised funds for the cause. We’ve participated in major charitable walks in the name of our beloved classmates to help eradicate that that challenges them.
We are at the age where burying our parents is becoming more familiar. We sent donations and flowers during our time of sorrow. We are in the midst of an economic downturn that resulted in lost jobs. We sent support and dug deep into our professional networks for employment leads.
We board airplanes to celebrate each other’s birthdays, graduations, children’s baptisms and family reunions. I’m sure there are a tons of other examples that I am forgetting and tons more that I am unaware of. We don’t always agree, but we always respect.
A few years ago I started a small annual scholarship at MBHS grad. It’s not a lot amount, probably just enough to buy one semester’s worth of books for the recipient. I named it The Reciprocity Scholarship. I knew that I had to give back to the table that fed me so well. Each year, I read over the applications. I am not looking for the best scholar with the highest grads. I’m looking for the student with drive, resiliency and desire to be helpful in their community. Each year, the stories get more and more heart wrenching. The adversity that these students face is mind boggling, yet they continue to navigate a path toward college, independence and productive citizenship. I’ve been blessed to keep in touch with not only my 1984-1988 MBHS family, but my scholarship recipients as well. There is one I consider my daughter. She lives with me now. Each day I become more and more proud of her and her accomplishments. She is working her way though college and is a member of The National Guard.
I have no idea what the future hold for Murry Bergtraum High School for Business Career, but I know there was a time when I planned my future within the comforts of Murry Bergtraum. Murry Bergtraum took care of me and I've tried my darnest to return the favor. I am thankful for my experience. I would change nothing…not even those mustard and ketchup gym uniforms. In 1988, an extremely talented singer-classmate who I love more today than I did then sang our graduation song. For the bottom of her heart with each note perfectly executed, she sang George Benson’s “Everything Must Change.” Who knew how right she would be?