I graduated high school in 1962 from the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, usually referred to as U-High. This June we will be celebrating our 50th class reunion, and, this being 2012, some classmates set up a social media group site that any member of the class of '62 can link to and participate in an online conversation.
Through the years, I have been involved with the University of Chicago (U of C), which I attended after high school for both college and graduate school. In particular, I have been a member of the Physical Sciences Division Visiting Committee for years. But, I have not been involved with U-High, perhaps because I only went there for my junior and senior years. I have not attended previous class reunions, and was not sure if I would attend the 50th reunion when I first heard about it. But I joined the online group site, as a way to learn about high school classmates which I have not heard from in almost fifty years.
The group discussions started slowly, but after a few days, I was really looking forward to the postings. It has proved to be fascinating, not only because of what I am learning about my classmates' lives, but because the discussions of teachers, neighborhood places, and class events have brought to mind many long forgotten memories. I feel like a character in a coming-of-age film, who as an older man, is reminded of an important period of his youth, which he then proceeds to narrate.
All private property was taken away, including my parents’ store. We eventually left Cuba for Chicago, my sister and I in October of 1960, my parents several months later. It was a very, very painful period for my parents. They saw everything they had worked for being taken away. They had to leave just about everything behind and start life all over again.
My last 18 months in Cuba were a nightmare. My parents were going through a terrible time, as they had to deal with increasingly hostile employees who were being told by the Castro government that all owners were evil exploiters. My father ended up in the hospital a couple of times because of nervous exhaustion. My mother was in tears a lot. I did my best to help them, going to the store with them whenever I could.
And then, it all suddenly changed. I remember one day my father talking to his sister in Chicago, and the next day my sister and I were on a plane to Miami, then on to Chicago. When we checked our bags for Chicago, we had to pay extra for overweight luggage. We had no money with us, but my father had written a message in Yiddish which he put in my wallet and in the airport told me to look in my wallet once the plane had taken off.
In the message, my father wrote that he had put dollar bills inside tubes of tooth paste and talcum powder in our luggage. So, when the agent said we needed to pay an extra charge for the luggage, I told him to wait, opened the bag, took out a tube of talcum powder, went to a toilet stall in the bathroom, opened the tube, found the money, and went back to pay with white powder all over my clothes.
I was fifteen when I arrived in Chicago in October of 1960. My sister and I lived with our aunt until my parents joined us about six months later. I had two years of high school to go. My aunt made a few phone calls to get advice as to where I should go to school, and was told about this very good high school, U-High, associated with the University of Chicago. She called, and they asked us to come over so I could take some tests and be interviewed to see if I was suitable for the school.
In Cuba, I went to a very good Jewish secular school - Centro Israelita. I had been a pretty good student, especially in math. My English was passable, as I had been studying the language since fifth grade. I must have done well enough in the tests and interviews, since I was admitted to U-High.
It is hard for me to imagine a more welcoming transition to the US than my two years at U-High. Overnight, I went from a nightmare environment where everything around me was falling apart, to this wonderful, stimulating, nurturing environment. The U of C Lab Schools was, and still is, one of the top private schools in the country. According to its Wikipedia entry:
“It is considered one of the top preparatory schools in the United States, reflected in the Wall Street Journal's findings that the school is amongst the top five feeder institutions in the nation for elite colleges. It has been heralded as one of the more diverse independent schools with about 35% students of color and over 44 nationalities represented. The student body is about 60% white.”
While the demographics may have been somewhat different, the U-High I encountered in 1960 was an interesting mix of very sharp students. One of our ’62 classmates, a basketball star at the time, stimulated a fascinating online discussion when he posted some entries with the poetic title: Remembrance of Tribes. He wrote that he found U-High “a wonderfully interesting place primarily because of the confluence of the tribes.”
He reminded us that there had been three main tribes in the school. The largest tribe was the faculty kids, most of whom lived in Hyde Park, the University’s neighborhood, which at the time was one of the most racially integrated communities in the US. Most of them had been in the Lab School for many years. Then in high school came a group, mostly Jewish, from South Shore, which at the time was a well-off neighborhood south of Hyde Park.
The third group consisted of the sons and daughters of middle/upper-middle class black families from all over Chicago’s South Side, who sent their children to U-High because it was one of the best, most integrated high schools in the country. Then, there were assorted kids who commuted to U-High from different parts of Chicago. Finally, as one of my '62 classmates wrote: “We certainly had an interesting mix culminating in my mind with the arrival of Irving Wladawsky-Berger - Polish/Jewish/Cuban all in one. Talk about exotic.”
The Hyde Park faculty kids were nerdier, before the term was invented. The South Shore kids were generally one year older, because at the time, the Lab Schools combined the 7th and 8th grade into a pre-Freshman year. They were also more sophisticated socially. “To a nerdy Hyde Parker like me, the South Shore kids seemed more like real high schoolers,” wrote one of my classmates. “The girls wore more makeup, had hairdos, and were just more glam. South Shore kids had cars, belonged to fraternities, and dated. They were generally a year older. We Hyde Park faculty kids seemed young and innocent by comparison.”
My own group of friends in Havana were probably similar to the Jewish South Shore students. But, when I came to U-High, I must have discovered my inner nerd, a quality further developed during my subsequent years at the U of C and at IBM Research. While I remember getting along well with just about everybody, most of my friends were from Hyde Park, primarily faculty kids but also others living in the neighborhood. Since I had a long commute from my parents' house to the school, in my senior year I roomed with a graduate student and a lawyer in an apartment a couple of blocks from the high school, which made it much easier for me to see friends within walking distance in Hyde Park.
Even though I was a refugee from Cuba and did not speak English all that well at first, I don’t remember ever being made to feel as if I did not fit in. The Lab Schools were a diverse, welcoming environment for everyone. One of my first friends was a very smart and beautiful student, who had herself escaped from Hungary with her family during the Hungarian Uprising of 1956. Tragically, she died in a plane crash in 1979.
Another ’62 classmate wrote a very good piece - Reflections of an Older Traveler: Aging body/Playful heart, about her recent travels around the world, - which generated quite a bit of discussion. The members of the class of ’62 are in their mid-late 60s, but we generally still feel quite young. We are often surprised when others see our gray hair, and no-longer-so-firm bodies and assume we are old. We wonder why people offer us senior discounts. Compared to our parents’ generation, we are postponing acting our age for as along as possible.
There is also a period-piece nature to our group conversations. The times through 1962 were essentially the end of The Fifties, which are remembered primarily as a time of stability and conformity. But, just around the corner were The Sixties, when society was radically transformed by the civil rights movement, feminism, the Vietnam War, the Beatles, drugs, and, alas, the sexual revolution. We all lived through those explosive times in college and beyond. But, our high school years feel innocent and calm compared to the turbulent times that followed.
I had forgotten how precious my time at U-High was, especially given the major transitions I was going through. These were important formative years which had a big influence in my future, from my eclectic professional career to my views on social issues. Our class-of-’62 group discussions have been really wonderful in bringing all these long forgotten memories to mind. I look forward to our reunion in June.