Mendel Letters 51 — AP Bio at Bronx Science
October 16, 2021
Today, any high school student can take as many advanced placement classes as they want, or that the school pressures them to take, because schools are rated based on how many AP classes and students they have, no matter how the students perform on advanced placement tests. When I was at Bronx Science in the 1960s, you had to apply for a limited number of AP seats. I really wanted to take AP U.S. but lost out because I didn’t have a high enough grade in 10th grade European history because of Mr. Karp. Karp gave extra credit on his ridiculous 10 question daily quizzes if you cut pictures out of magazines to use in your reports and donated magazines to his collection. Once in exasperation, I told him, to no avail, that the library didn’t let you cut pictures out of their magazines. This was before copy machines.
If you didn’t get into an AP class you were a Bronx Science “loser.” In desperation I applied for AP Bio and made the cut. By now, I already new I wasn’t going to cure cancer while in high school, but I was still considering medical research or medicine as a career option and I didn’t want to be a non-AP “loser.”
Things went down hill from the start. I had the same bio teacher I had in 10th grade and we didn’t get along then, although he must have given me a recommendation. Mr. Gottlieb had a tendency to talk to the wall, the board, and the floor, as if the class wasn’t there and what you learned you learned on your own.
Everyone in the class had to wear a white lab coat. Students with parents, neighbors, or other relatives in the medical profession had lab coats labeled Mount Sinai, Montefiore, or Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital. You got me a white “lab coat” from a friend who was a butcher. The label on my lab coat said Key Food.
By April when we had our fetal pig lab practicum I had a bad case of the I-Don’t-Care senior blues. While Gottlieb was walking from station-to-station quizzing students, I switched the brain and the liver in my pig. When he came to me, he peered at the brain case of my fetal pig with a puzzled expression. He asked, “What’s that?” With an equally puzzled expression a quizzically responded, “I think it’s the liver.”
Although I knew my pig parts, that stunt earned me an “F” on the practicum and a 65 on my third marking period report card. I appealed to the department chair because we were promised a minimum grade of 85 if we took the class. He offered a deal, I would get my 85 if I received a minimum of 3 out of 5 on the AP test. With little choice I agreed and the day before the test I actually studied for a bit while sitting under a tree in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. I got my 3 and my 85 but I later realized that he cleverly played me to get me to stop fooling around in Gottlieb’s class. The AP scores didn’t arrive until after final grades were submitted.
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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