Your NewsMag asked several student alumni from Calhoun, Kennedy and Mepham High Schools just what it was like when they were going to school, who were their favorite teachers and why, and other events of interest that made their high school memories among the most precious they have today. Here’s what we learned:
Valerie Skelly, Mepham Class of 1956: Her favorite teacher during her years in high school was Julie Boken, an English teacher she had during both her junior and senior years.
“She was very dramatic, and when she read to the class parts of books we were reading in class she had such a flare,” Skelly remembers. But mostly, she recalls an act of kindness Boken showed Skelly that has lived with her into this era, an act that perhaps showed to Skelly the essence of what it means to be a teacher to give all their students the opportunities to overcome their vulnerabilities in positive ways.
Mepham High School, opened in 1936
“I remember I had to hand in a school paper one time and, while I was good at handing them in and doing the work to get them in, I didn’t really do my ‘homework’ on this particular paper. I don’t remember why, but I just didn’t,” she said. “It was a very sloppy job that I actually, once turned in, didn’t expect to get much of a grade on.”
What Skelly got back from Ms. Boken when the papers were returned shocked her. “She gave me a B- and I was shocked,” she remarked. She hadn’t done anything to deserve as high a mark as Boken was giving her, and she knew it. But, it was the simplest of comments that Boken wrote on the paper giving her that B- that has stayed with Skelly since.
“She wrote that “This is not the Valerie Priger I know.” That was it, nothing more, nothing less. Skelly was given a B- on a poorly handed in piece of work because Boken knew Skelly was a much better student than she showed on that paper that day.
“I knew what she meant when she wrote that simple line, she was saying she knew that I was capable of doing a whole lot better” and that perhaps she should do better from here on in. Indeed, Skelly said that from that moment on, where she had been given a second chance, a benefit of the doubt, she worked to do all her homework and turn her papers in on time – and get much better grades, too.
Skelly also remembers an assignment she got from Boken in which the class had to write a review of a favorite TV show they watched at home. “I didn’t have a TV at home,” Skelly laughed. So, she went into to see Boken and told her matter-of-factly, if a little embarrassed, that she didn’t have a TV at home.
“That’s ok, Val,” Skelly remembers Boken answering. “You’re a good reader so just write a review of a story you read and liked.”
Skelly also remembered social studies teacher Mr. Jacoby. “He would bring in his guitar and play to the class.”
Regarding the social scene when she was in high school, she admitted to being a shy girl. Even though there were plenty of high school dances and sock-hops to go to, she didn’t really attend any of them because “I was shy.” “We all hung out in a couple of soda parlors and North Bellmore and in Merrick,” she said.
To Skelly, there appears no comparison between the dress code she had to live with coming up through Mepham and the dress code in place today. “I can’t believe the clothes that girls can where today when going to school,” she said.
“If it was a cold day in winter outside, we could wear slacks underneath our skirts or dresses walking to school but once we got to school, we had to take those slacks off and wear our dresses and skirts,” she said.
Of the digital age, she summed it up in this anecdote: “I was at the doctor one day reading the long poem The Song of Hiawatha by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow when a young girl, no older than in her late teens-to-early 20s and reading something on her kindle, turned to me and asked me what I was reading that was so interesting. I told her I was reading a poem, and she suddenly looked very surprised that a poem could actually be the length of book, and actually be a book.”
Marc Bromberg, Kennedy, Class of 1977: “I remember Mr. Crouch best,” said Bromberg, who says he also had to endure the era of the disco beat as a tried-and true rock and roller, and at a time when cliques came to more strongly define who people were.
Mr. Crouch was a biology teacher who was of average height, had slicked-back silvery-grey hair, and always wore a white lab coat. “It’s not like were dissecting anything,” Bromberg said with a straight face.
What Bromberg says he liked about Crouch was that he was ‘engaging to the students, and entertaining,” and always made things interesting in class to keep the class interested.
Kennedy High School, opened in 1966
What he vividly remembers of Crouch, however, was that on certain days he would slowly, steadily walk into the classroom at the beginning of class, with hands behind his back, walk with slow deliberation to the front of the room, as though there was something heavy on his mind, quickly look up at the class and say: “Adapt, Migrate … or Die,” dragging the word die out for seconds longer – all for effect.
Of the social scene, Bromberg remembers the disco era being ushered in, depriving the rock scene of what he believed was its entitlement to be the premiere music style of his class’s generation. “We had cliques for sportsmen, for long hairs and the hippies) and for the disco crowd.” as he called them. “These were the smartly dressed girls who were dancing to the beat of the disco,” he said. Of the guys that were into disco, he called them “Ken Dolls,” smartly dressed boys with suits and tidy haircuts.
“There was a true war between the rockers and the disco dancers back then,” he said.
He also remembered kids getting into making candles, and also painting the backs of denim and dungaree jackets of their favorite rock bands.
Marsha Gould, Calhoun, Class of 1961: Marsha Gould holds a distinction, along with her classmates, as being part of the first full or complete class to graduate from the newest high school in the Central High School District. Although there were graduations in 1959 and 1960, one and two years after the school opened in 1958, her class entered in 10th grade, and completed the first full three years of any class at that time.
Calhoun High School, opened in 1958
“My favorite teacher was Tal Thayer,” Gould told Your NewsMag. Thayer was the Calhoun choir director for decades who ushered in the careers of many high school vocalists, or at least made them think they were destined for careers as singers, he was that good, she said.
She also liked Gerald Gorman, the English teacher, and remembers very well Harold Crouch, the biology teacher who worked part time at the hematology lab at Sloane-Kettering Memorial Hospital in New York City. “I remember his class because we actually took a field trip to his lab at Sloane-Kettering,” she said.
But he was equally busy in the Damien-Dutton Society for leprosy, she said, and there was a thrift store near Merrick Road in Bellmore where he actually donated items to raise funds for leprosy.
She said she lived during the Eisenhower years, when everything was good. “We were in a brand new school, and would have gone to Mepham if they hadn’t built Calhoun.” As a lifelong resident of Merrick, she remembers going to Chatterton School when it was known as the Smith Street School.
Regarding the digital age, in which students today use iPads and smartphones, among several devices to get their homework and communicate with the world, she says methods of teaching have changed so much from when she was a student, but she also doesn’t doubt the methods being used today, even if it requires students to access teachers’ websites to retrieve homework assignments.
“Kids should know what’s needed today to be able to learn, just as we did back then,” she concluded.
Zach Albahae, Kennedy Class of 1969: Zach Albahae admits to being a sportsman in high school, a tumultuous time to be a male in high school because the U.S. government’s Selective Service system was classifying students on their way out of high school as 1A, meaning they could be drafted into the U.S. Army to serve in Vietnam once they graduated from high school – if they didn’t get a deferment to attend college.
He told Your NewsMag that, while he was involved in several intramural sports such as wrestling, his favorite teachers included Alan Berkowsky, who taught math and algebra, and Patrick Variano, who was a choir teacher. “The district had a lot of good choir teachers, as I remember,” he said, and choir was easily an interest for him in high school.
Besides the Vietnam War, he recalls his years at Kennedy punctuated by the emergence of the hippie generation and culture, in which the guys grew their hair long to emulate the rock stars, and both the girls and the guys wore bell bottom jeans.
But Albahae also told the story of how, in the 1980s, he was in on the ground floor of the IBM Personal Computer revolution when, working at IBM in Boca Raton, Florida, he was part of a team that needed to design new –if not at least facilitate – packaging of PCs to send to customers. IBM’s new personal computer, which brought computing out of the strictly business environment and into the homes and onto the personal desks of average American families, began what is considered by many ground zero for the total revolution in consumer digital electronics.
By the way, Albahae is steering a reunion of Smith Street (Chatterton) “jockmates” that will be held beginning September 18.
Charlie Greco, Calhoun Class of 1974: Charlie Greco’s favorite teachers in high school were Tal Thayer for chorus, and Charlie Lagone for both photography and drafting. He remembers of Lagone that he also embraced the students’ interests wholly and gave much of himself to his students to help them find what may be a creative spark within themselves in which to accel and create lives from those inner feelings.
Greco said that the social scene between 1971 and 1974 had seen a diminution of the influence of the late 60s, though there was still residue from those earlier but nothing he remembered as being class-defining.
Regarding the digital revolution, he strikes a worldly pose, saying that for every positive advancement technology brings, it brings with it new challenges. “You can see where they are attempting to incorporate technology into education,” he said, but he begins to question the overall attention span of students today, asking if in several years they will be able to read large, lengthy books completely.
What he likes about the digital age is that it is enabling friends to continue to communicate with one another where circumstances would otherwise have driven them apart. He cites going to Merrick Avenue Junior High School and then losing the friendships of many classmates he had come up through the grades with, when some went to Kennedy High School while he went to Calhoun.
“Today, if I were in the same situation, I could keep those friends now because we would continue to be in constant contact, and know where each of us is all the time.”
– DOUGLAS FINLAY