WHEN TILDEN WAS THE WORLD
By SAM ROBERTS
Published: December 17, 2006
THE REV. AL SHARPTON and I don’t have much in common — but we do share a defining backdrop for our wonder years in Brooklyn. At different times, we both attended Samuel J. Tilden High School.
And both of us were chagrined by the announcement Monday by the New York City Department of Education that Tilden — deemed unsafe and unsalvageable academically — would be closed and replaced by a cluster of smaller and presumably more manageable institutions.
Tilden alumni are hardly slouches. In addition to Mr. Sharpton, they include the Mets manager Willie Randolph, the labor leader Victor Gotbaum, the former White House counsel Leonard Garment, the writer Murray Polner, the jurist Milton Mollen and the weightlifter Dan Lurie.
Sid Gordon batted for Tilden before joining the baseball Giants. Ronnie Blye broke scoring records at the school before playing for the football Giants. The folk humorist Sam Levenson, though not an alumnus, taught Spanish there in the 1940s.
Jake Ehrenreich, whose memory play, “A Jew Grows in Brooklyn,” opened Off Broadway in October, not only graduated from Tilden but also makes his entrance on stage wearing a Tilden sweatshirt, emblazoned with a giant T.
Tilden, which opened in 1930, was built to accommodate about 3,800 students. But within a decade, enrollment swelled by 50 percent. I grew up about a mile away, on Kings Highway, one block from the hulking New Lots el, which more or less defined the border between East Flatbush and Brownsville. Almost overnight, Brownsville, heavily blue collar and lower-middle class, would be recast from Jewish to black. We lived in what we considered solidly middle-class East Flatbush, which I deluded myself into thinking was an integrated neighborhood because an Italian family lived on our corner.
Also, I like underdogs, and like almost everybody at Tilden during those years, I knew that its namesake was a New York governor who had won the popular vote for president in 1876 but been deprived of the job because supporters of Rutherford B. Hayes had stolen the election in Congress.
The school wasn’t perfect. As early as 1958, a police officer was regularly stationed outside. We abandoned the annual Thanksgiving football rivalry with Jefferson High School ... because more injuries were suffered in the stands than on the field.
After last week’s announcement by the Department of Education, I dug out my 1964 Tilden yearbook. Since we graduated on the stage of the old Loew’s Kings, I’d been in touch with a handful of Tildenites and knew what had become of them. Robert Ellman became a teacher, just as he’d predicted in the yearbook. Marilyn Schwartz became an educator, too, and acquitted herself in the thankless role of spokeswoman for the school district that includes Columbine High School in Colorado. Paul Nussbaum had said he wanted to be a politician; he became chairman of a giant hotel chain.
Most of the girls said they wanted to be teachers or stenographers. One boy wanted to be a roofer. Was that really what they aspired to? ... Did Ilene Kleinman become a psychiatrist? Did Philip Asher become a choreographer? Judy Gitlin had been voted most likely to succeed. Did she? At what?
At Tilden, fewer than 44 percent of students scheduled to graduate last June did so, and only half of those got a Regents diploma.
In the 1930s, Tilden established the school system’s first guidance department to effectively deal with what was quaintly described as juvenile delinquency. Now it is considered one of the city’s most dangerous schools.
In the Tilden I attended, nearly 98 percent of the students were classified as “others,” a euphemism the Board of Education used to designate people who were neither black nor Hispanic. Still, the mix of ethnicities and religions made the school much more multicultural than any place I’d ever been.
By the time Mr. Sharpton graduated, the proportion of “others” had shrunk to 63 percent, which was still considerably more than he would have encountered if he had stayed put on Lenox Road.
Right around the time Mr. Sharpton was attending Tilden, Sam Levenson was asked how the old neighborhood had changed since he taught there. More mixed, he replied. “No matter where I go, or how successful or unsuccessful I am,” he explained, “I never in my life shall ever feel that ‘they’ are coming. There is no ‘they’ to me, because I know about being ‘they’; I have been ‘they.’ ”