My Truth: My Journey Toward Servant Leadership
THE ENGLISH HIGH SCHOOL
Boston’s English High School (EHS) was huge, with a 2,000-plus, all-boys student body from every one of the city’s ethnic neighborhoods: East Boston (Italian), Dorchester (Irish), South End (Black), South Boston or “Southie” (also Irish), Roxbury/Mattapan (Jewish), and so forth. From my jr. high school, seven of us went to EHS ; a few other entering 10th grade students transferred in from Boston Latin School for sundry reasons.
The school was then on Montgomery Street in Boston’s South End. There were relatively few Black students at EHS – 30 of of us among over 600 students in my graduation class. Other than us Black students, there wasn’t another Black face to be seen at EHS. The entire administrative, clerical, janitorial, and faculty were white. Our teachers were all male and overwhelmingly Irish.
Students were seated and assigned to our homerooms alphabetically. As a result, you got to know your homeroom classmates quite well. Square C. Johnson, a Black kid from the South End, sat directly behind me for our entire high school career and later kidded me about the boredom of spending three years looking at the back of my head.
EHS was definitely academically oriented. For example, two languages other than English were “recommended.” It was assumed that everyone, no matter what your ethnicity, would attend college. Still, despite its academic orientation, EHS had no college guidance counselor. Counselor “Red” Reynolds, was actually the school’s disciplinarian-in-chief. He made no pretense about keeping students current on college entrance requirements.
Latin was required of all college-bound students. And early into my tenth–grade year I was able to recite from Julius Caesar’s The Gallic Wars, “Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres.” Translation: “All Gaul is divided into three parts.” It wasn’t a barnburner of a story.
We feared being called upon to recite in our Latin class, so an interlinear translation book, a “trot,” became an underground bestseller at EHS. It was a required survival tool for students like me. The trot offered lines of English translation below the Latin lines. Translating with a trot was considered cheating and it was subject to confiscation if anyone was caught using one. But the classroom benefits of the trot far outweighed any such risks and used copies of were readily available at deep discounts, depending on their condition. I paid fifty cents for my rag tag copy.
I also continued my French classes – my second language — enjoyed ancient history; barely managed to pass plane geometry; struggled in science; but nevertheless accumulated additional credits toward qualifying for college. Western history was so dominant in those days that we never gave any thought to Black history.
At EHS and throughout Boston’s public schools, the dominant white caste defined our European-centric history. Their version of Black history was the motion picture, “Gone with the Wind.” Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves. Reconstruction was portrayed as incompetent Black buffoons holding offices, for which they were totally unqualified, and Northern carpetbaggers coming South to exploit the vanquished Confederacy. Needless to say, nothing about rebellions of enslaved people, led by Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, and others. John Brown was dismissed as a mad man. Even Boston’s all-Black heroic 54th Infantry Regiment received no mention.
As in most high schools, then and now, cliques were common at EHS. Almost everyone took public transportation between their neighborhoods and EHS, thereby strengthening existing neighborhood cliques. Our pecking order, as an all- ale athletic powerhouse, placed jocks at the top. At the pinnacle were those students who were designated All Scholastic (that is, citywide all-star high school athletes) by Boston’s newspapers’ sports writers. The EHS Hall of Fame is dominated by students who excelled athletically, not academically.
The traditional EHS/Latin School Thanksgiving Day football game is America’s longest continuous high school football rivalry. The game was so important that an EHS player could earn his prestigious letter “E” only by playing against our historic rival, Latin School, no matter how great his athletic prowess. 1946 was a great year by EHS’s most important measure. We beat Latin School 19-0 at Harvard Stadium, before 20,000 spectators.
Military Drill was required of all of Boston’s male high school students. It dated back to the 1860s, intending to develop a cadre of youth prepared to defend the Union in the event of an invasion of the North by the Southern Confederacy.
We wore khaki army uniforms, shirts and ties, including web belts, and were assigned to companies and regiments. With student officers and using replica rifles, we practiced the Order of Arms, military courtesy and close–order drill. Like armed forces everywhere, each school had its unique shoulder patch. Ours was a shield-shaped, navy–blue patch featuring a simple “E” in Columbia blue, the light blue associated with Columbia University.
Politics aside, the highlight of our Boston school year was the annual Schoolboy Cadets Parade. Each spring, every high school, represented by its male student cadets from the Military Drill and its marching band, paraded throughout downtown Boston, concluding at Copley Square where dignitaries judged and awarded prizes for best band, best school and so forth.
Despite my spotty school attendance during my junior and senior tears at EHS, I was thrilled to put on my freshly-starched cadet uniform and join my classmates in representing EHS in the Schoolboy Cadet Parade during each of my three years at EHS. It was a day when our school’s neighborhood cliques, jocks, nerds, and all racial and ethnic groups came together to put EHS in the best possible winning position.
As we approached Copley Square, we could hear the school bands in front of us and the rising crescendo of cheering crowds as we approached. “Left, right, left right….” We were tight!
Within about fifty yards of the reviewing stand, our battalion commanders would shout, “Pass in review…. Eyes right.” Our championship band would play louder with a flourish, and we diligently checked one another a final time to be sure we were all in step as we strode forward, our heads snapped to the right so our faces were visible to the reviewing stand.
And the girls! They’d be screaming our names. But we couldn’t be distracted, lest we lose points from the judges. We stayed straight-faced in tight, lock-step formation. Inside, though, we were bursting with pride.
The winner of the parade enjoyed city-wide bragging rights. That we at EHS took second-place one year was almost a miracle. As the largest student cadet detachment, we had more room for defects in our formation.
Decades later, I was in a parking lot at Chicago’s O’Hare airport and saw a young man wearing a khaki military jacket with my EHS “E” shoulder patch. I tried to catch up with him, but the large crowd prevented me from doing so. Who was he? How did he acquire that EHS jacket, complete with shield?
I often counsel our mentees that everyone has a story. We must try to listen to and learn from those stories. What was that young man’s story? Was he interested in my story about Boston’s Schoolboy Cadet Parade?
Today, Boston’s Military Drill program, after a hiatus during the anti-war Vietnam era, is entirely voluntary, fully co-ed, and called Junior ROTC.
To understand what it was like for a kid to grow up in Boston, you must appreciate the relationship between Bostonians and the Boston Red Sox. Boston has been a rabid sports town forever, as I wrote earlier. Or at least it seems that way. And despite being the last major league team to desegregate, the BoSox enjoy the enduring loyalty of its fan base, Black and white alike.
It should come as no surprise that like, almost all Bostonians, I have a love affair with my beloved Red Sox, but, like my secret crush on my seven grade classmate, Aphrodite Chronopoulos, my affections have not been returned.
Take 1946, for example. The Red Sox started the season winning ten straight games, including a series sweep of the hated New York Yankees. We – that is, the team — placed eight players (Ted Williams, Bobby Doerr, Johnny Pesky, Dom Dimaggio, Dave Ferriss, Mickey Harris, Hal Wagner, and Rudy York) on the American League All-Star team and coasted to the American League championship by a whopping twelve games. We were loaded and certain that, after years of disappointment, 1946 would be Our Year.
It had been 28 years since we’d won the World Series. After all those years of “Wait-until-next-year,” a World Championship was finally within our grasp. Our National League opponents, the St. Louis Cardinals, had to win a tough playoff game against the Brooklyn Dodgers to sneak into the World Series. We were certain that they’d be too worn out to put up much of a fight against us. Bring ‘em on, we felt.
Excitement at EHS and throughout Boston was at a fever pitch; so high that our teachers allowed us to listen to the games during class on our portable radios.
Everything seemed to come to a standstill in Boston. Even Ma, not a sports fan, was caught up in the excitement. She didn’t know the players, but she definitely wanted to keep up with the score inning-by inning.
Ted Williams, playing with an injury, didn’t have a good Series. Somehow, the Series became tied at three games apiece. It was a chilly overcast day in October for Game Seven, the deciding game of the Series. The pundits said, “There’s no tomorrow.”
I was in the bleachers at an English/Roxbury Memorial high school football game during Game Seven. My best friend Don Shelton, starring for Roxbury Memorial HS, was having a great game, but still, we – English High — were winning. It was the best of all worlds for me.
Then the unthinkable happened in the World Series. With the score tied in the top of the eighth inning, the Cardinal’s Enos Slaughter scored from first on a single, supposedly helped by our Johnny Pesky’s muffed cutoff play. The Cardinals won. No, we lost.
I was stunned. I was inconsolable. I was devastated. And so, it seemed was all of Boston. I couldn’t get myself to watch the Series highlights in the movies. Why should I subject myself to those feeling still another time?
The closing stanza of Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s legendary poem, “Casey at the Bat,” captures the mood of the entire city of Boston on that gloomy October afternoon of 1946.
“Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light;
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville – mighty Casey has struck out.”
“Casey at the Bat”
By Ernest Lawrence Thayer
Lesson learned. Loyalty. Loyalty. Loyalty. Despite adversity, stay loyal.
In the years that followed, the Red Sox, broke my heart countless times; always promising to do better next time. “Next year” finally arrived in 2004, when the team finally broke the cycle. I’m still a passionate fan of the Boston Red Sox. But, just like my ill-fated childhood attempt to abort choir rehearsal by filling the piano with prayer books, sometimes you’ve just got to take a breath and fight the battle another day.
That fight-another-day attitude, learned from baseball, doesn’t work for me today with a more important passion. Today, I’m driven by the fierce urgency of now when it comes to the pressing issue of social justice. I am not willing to wait until tomorrow, much less next year, to fight for what’s right. .
A SIDE NOTE — EHS ALUMNI
Not surprisingly, given its history, EHS has many thousands of alumni scattered around almost every state in the U.S. Still, I never expected to meet an EHS alumnus who was a sitting judge in Prince George’s County, Maryland nor a fellow guest at a Savannah, Georgia middle school.
It was 1995 or so. After a routine court appearance as a prosecutor, I was schmoozing with the presiding judge, Gerard F. “Jerry” Devlin, as local lawyers were often inclined to do after court. When I mentioned I was from Boston, I was stunned by his reply of, “Yes, I know that. What part of Boston?” No one, that is, no one from outside of Boston, ever asks that particular question.
It turned out that Jerry Devlin lived in Dorchester (Irish and white), adjacent to my home in Roxbury; he was a 1951 graduate of EHS and recalled many of my fellow Spartans. He even recalled urging his father to vote for Eugene Wolcott (now the Hon. Louis Farrakhan) in the Major Bowes Amateur Hour, a national amateur talent show. (He did, and Gene, a talented violinist, won.)
Jerry also gave me the low-down on some of our “distinguished” EHS faculty. Like Mr. Repetto, my home room and French teacher who taught me absolutely nothing – and now sits in the EHS Hall of Fame. The esteemed Mr. Repetto was a bookie. Apparently, his part-time job was well-known, and his services were regularly patronized by many EHS faculty members – during school hours.
Like me, Jerry Devlin is a great story-teller. We became great friends. Once at a scholarship fundraiser for Black law students, called “Taste of the Counties: Men Who Cook,” sponsored by the J. Franklyn Bourne Bar Association, Inc., we presented a traditional “Saturday night in Boston” dinner. It featured frankfurters and beans, Boston Brown Bread, and Boston Cream Pie. No, we didn’t win a prize, but we had great fun regaling everyone who stopped by our table with stories about EHS, Boston, the Red Sox, and our neighborhoods.
I can’t remember the name of the other (white) EHS alumnus I met in 2010 at Savannah’s Heard Elementary School. Initially, he claimed to be a member of my 1949 graduating class. But then he told one that he’d built a fire bomb in his EHS chemistry class — during Fire Prevention Week, no less. He was summarily thrown out of EHS and transferred to his neighborhood high school, from which he actually graduated in 1949.
We found that fire-bomb incident absolutely hilarious and shared it with everyone who would listen to us, including the then principal of Heard Elementary school, James Heater. Together, we mused about the serious and potentially life-changing consequences of such an act committed a child in any school today — school suspension, designated felon, juvenile court, “baby jail.”
Times have changed.
Next, “Coming of Age”
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