Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Remembering Newtown, a New York City high school

I had been hearing stories for a time that my alma mater, Newtown High School in Elmhurst, N.Y., was going to close down.

Newtown was far from the crown jewel of the New York City public school system, but it wasn’t half as bad as some might have made it out to be. From 1974 to 1978, the heart of the city’s budget crisis, I attended Newtown and got a decent education. Of course, I had to put in some effort; back then, you didn’t blame your lack of achievement on the teachers, but on yourself.

So it was while reading a comment someone put in about the death of a girl when I was in high school that I learned the terrible reality. Newtown is closing, and reopening under another name.

In a way, it’s a typical political whitewash. According to CBS in New York, the closure of Newtown was the result of a failure to reach an agreement on teacher evaluations. Protests have been conducted and more are planned, as well as hearings. And the school building isn’t really closing; it’ll be converted into smaller academies. Still, without the Newtown name, it won’t be the same.

For political reasons, Mayor Michael Bloomberg will shut down the school whose illustrious graduates include Zoe Saldana (Lt. Uhura in the “Star Trek” reboot and in “Avatar,” too); Carroll O’Connor (the legendary Archie Bunker of “All in the Family” and its spinoffs); comedian Don Rickles; Estee Lauder; Gene Simmons of the rock band Kiss; and Richard Grasso, former chairman and head of the New York Stock Exchange.

The memories I have of Newtown are so strong, and I’m bound to share some of them with my reader or readers.

In June 1974, I graduated from Our Lady of Hope elementary school in Middle Village. I was willingly going to public high school and shortly after Labor Day in September 1974 waited with hundreds of other new ninth-graders outside the Newtown High School Annex. It was in a converted bowling alley along the Long Island Expressway. Actually, that stretch of road was called the Horace Harding Expressway, but we had a less nice name for it.

High school was a change in so many ways. There were students of different races, for one thing, and for a moment before we went into the building, I wished that I was back at OLH. But you have to go forward.

The school was very overcrowded, and the annex relieved the pressure on the main building, which was still on split sessions. Moving up to the main place in the sophomore year was a big deal, and there was much talk about the environment of “the main building.”

On many a morning, I waited at the corner of Eliot Avenue and 80th Street with my fellow students, some from OLH, waiting to catch the bus to Queens Boulevard. At the bus stop by the subway entrance, we’d catch the next bus to the annex. For fun, we’d watch the people trudge toward the subway for the ride to work in Manhattan. It was a tough time for all of us then, with the city in severe financial straits, and we stood out there in all weathers. Sometimes we walked to school, or walked home from school or the bus stop. It wasn’t that far.

One of the older guys, who had graduated Newtown and was waiting for the bus to Queens College, loved to lord it over us at the stop, declaring, “All the little kiddies, going to Newtown.” Other wags called it “Zootown.” Others said we wouldn’t last a minute at the main building.

Tenth grade at Newtown’s main building meant reporting to school at around 7 a.m. for the morning session. That meant getting up really early and taking another bus up to Newtown.

My memories of the main building are that we students were not allowed in the elevators – for teachers only! – and the place was just plain gigantic! If your class schedule said you had to go from one end of the building to the other in the three minutes allotted, better get there because there were no excuses allowed.

You could see the part of the school that was really old, and the newer part, from the different architecture and the level of grime on the outside. There was a fifth floor tower classroom where music appreciation was taught, and a great joke was to send sophomores in search of the “fifth-floor swimming pool.” There was none.

We had a gym, and on nice spring days the gym teachers would have us run our 50-yard dashes and other exercises in the street outside the school. It was a fun way to get some fresh air and feel a little free.

The great promise of high school is extracurricular activities, but they’d been cut to the bone. The focus was on academics. Sports had also been severely cut back. The school’s athletic fields were a few blocks away, behind tall locked fences near Macy’s.

This was in the day when the great exams that terrified everyone were the dreaded Regents’ exams. A sure-fire way for a teacher to get the attention of a class was to announce, “I know this will be on the Regents’.” Most of us then paid attention.

Still, there were times of fun. In one English class, the teacher – and some of us students – were huge fans of “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” a bent takeoff on afternoon soap operas produced by Norman Lear of “All in the Family” fame. The content was pretty daring, even for the supposedly open-minded late 1970s, and most stations that showed it presented it after their 11 p.m. newscasts.

The first 10 minutes of that class was a discussion of the latest episode of “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” and especially the time when the protagonist agreed to have sex with the police officer, causing him to have a coronary.

There was so much more, the different-colored bus passes for every month, sitting and having lunch with my fellow classmates. I was friends with a guy named Jimmy Sah, and there was a young black fellow who was tons more intellectual than I was. He was in the JETS – Junior Engineering Technical Society. Remember, personal computers were a dream you read about in Popular Electronics back then, so we entertained ourselves as best we could.

In September 1978, I graduated from Newtown High School. The ceremony was held at St. John’s University, and I remember hearing that there were no jobs available for the graduates. Not much has changed in 34 years.

I went into the Marines and eventually landed in journalism. I still have that yearbook and those pictures of those folks I went to high school with, and I wonder what has happened to them.

I hope they know that soon Newtown High School will be closed, and pass into history thanks to the idiotic machinations of some loser politicos.

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April 2, 2012 - Posted by | Education, Life lessons | , , , , , , , ,

4 Comments »

  1. There’s the same non-sense about closing the high school I went to. Cleveland in Ridgewood. The graduation rate is below 60% and that’s the teacher’s fault, not the students who don’t know enough english to pass their exams.

    So you went to high school with Don Rickles — who knew!!!

    Comment by Diana in NYC | April 3, 2012 | Reply

  2. As far as I know, there is no active Facebook group for NHS Class of 1978, but http://www.facebook.com/groups/212633158770630/ is close… Great read as usual, please look up the Newtown all-year group at http://www.facebook.com/groups/47486807610/ if you don’t mind Facebook.

    Comment by Long-Vinh Ly | April 10, 2012 | Reply

  3. I went to the Annex in the 1976-1977 school year. It was fun.

    Comment by David Dixon | April 28, 2012 | Reply

    • Wow! what memories. Went to the Annex myself in 1975. The main building was spooky sometimes. Good memories though. Moved to Piscataway, NJ after my sophomore year and graduated from Piscataway HS. Still miss Elmhurst, hope I make it back one day, since then lived in CA for 29 yrs. and the last 2 in FL. I want to try to get or see a copy of yearbook from 1979 🙂

      Comment by Martha | June 1, 2014 | Reply


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