Mendel Letters 38 — Caste System at Bronx Science

The main entrance to Bronx Science. “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate” (Abandon all hope, ye who enter here).

Dear Mendel,

We passed their test and were punished for the next three years.

There were about 900 kids in my class, about 3,000 in the school. I figure about 100 students in each class were the sons and daughters of professionals, doctors, lawyers, and academics. The rest of us were working-class kids, mostly from the Bronx, who filled out the roster because they couldn’t just run a school for the offspring of the privileged. We spent weekends and summers working while they traveled to Europe.

There were a couple of super-smart kids, but must of us were just good at tests. The teachers piled on homework that prevented us from playing ball with our friends. I think the most interesting parts of the day were mornings before classes, lunch, and the subway ride home when we could talk together without teacher interference. My friends invented a religion called Zoolium, imagined we were part of Doctor Savage’s crew, and occasionally argued about the war in Vietnam, whether there was a God, or if there was life on other planets.

Let me give you three examples of the “caste system.” In tenth grade you met with a counselor who asked where you wanted to go to college. Now almost all of us were going to go to the City University because in those days it was free and our families didn’t have money. If you answered CCNY or one of the other free municipal colleges, you never saw a counselor again. They were only interested in those applying to elite private schools.

In tenth grade my social studies teacher gave extra credit if you included magazine pictures in your reports. I told him once I didn’t have pictures because the library doesn’t let you cut up the magazines. The few points extra credit kept me out of advanced placement American history.

If you didn’t take at least one AP class you were a “loser” so I took AP Biology in my senior year, which was a mistake. I did enough to get by, but I hated the class. You had to wear a white lab coat in class to show you were really serious. Other students had lab coats from various hospitals where family members worked, Columbia Presbyterian, Mount Sinai, Montefiore, etc. You got me a white “lab coat” from one of your friends, a butcher. My coat label said “Key Food.”

I did have one teacher at Bronx Science I really liked. His name was Ernie Strom and he taught American history and economics. He considered the Declaration of Independence the greatest document even written and challenged the class to find any fault or vague point in it. I submitted a short essay arguing that the founders were intentionally vague when they wrote, “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.” They didn’t call for a unanimous vote of the people or even support from a majority of the people because they knew there was considerable opposition to a war for independence. Mr. Strom rewarded me with a copy of The Declaration of Independence by Carl Becker where Becker made the same point. He also helped me decide to major in history in college. So you should blame him!

Your son

Hard copies of these typed letters were discovered in an old camp trunk in the basement storage facility of one of the few buildings that remain standing in this Brooklyn neighborhood. The building is quite decrepit and is scheduled for demolition. The letters were found in November 2048 by a teenager who believes they were written by his great-grandfather. The letters are addressed to Mendel, the letter writer’s father, who appears to have been dead for at least six years when his son, whose name we are unsure of, started to write him. The son appears very agitated in some of the letters. With permission from the family, we are publishing them on the date they were written, only 28 years later.

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