Mendel Letters 53 — 13th Grade at CCNY
November 13, 2021
Even though you barely completed high school, or maybe because of it, you always told Warren and me that we were college material. We grew up with this image of the City College of New York, CCNY, as an almost magical place where people learned about the world, prepared for careers, and thought deep-thoughts, kind of like a real world Hogwarts. It was also free, a very important side benefit because we didn’t have any money.
At Bronx Science, a college counselor met with you and asked about your college plans. When you said CCNY because it was free, you never saw a college counselor again. City College admission required a combination of high school grade point average and SAT scores. If you passed the test to get into Bronx Science, you were pretty much guaranteed admission to CCNY. CCNY in the 1960s had a very good reputation. A 1965 article in the New York Times magazine described it as the “proletarian Harvard.”
CCNY in September 1967 was definitely proletarian, but it certainly was no Harvard. Any illusions of what it would be like were quickly dashed. It started with a humiliating physical exam and registration for classes in a large and chaotic hall. Every seat in every class was represented by an index card. You had to run from table to table hoping to find a class that still had seats. Because incoming freshman registered last, there were few desirable classes or time slots left. I ended up taking French three days a week at 8 AM in the morning and Freshman English Composition the same three days at 4 in the afternoon. In the middle I squeezed in gym, boxing and football, and political science and calculus classes with professors no one appeared to want to take. Math was in an auditorium that must have seated over two hundred people and the professor either spoke to the wall or the floor when he wasn’t writing indecipherable notes on the chalkboard. The political science teacher was a chain smoker in love with structural-functionalism theory, I still don’t know what that is, who never bothered to cover the subject of the class, which was supposed to be American government. The French teacher wasn’t bad, it’s just that I was terrible. The one class I looked forward to was English. It was an adjunct professor who led a lively group and we all shared what we wrote. I took ROTC for about two weeks because you were worried I would be drafted and sent to Vietnam, but Vietnam sounded better than what my friends and I were going through so I dropped the class.
CCNY felt like an extension of high school, 13th grade. I was still living at home in the Bronx and I took the subway to the Harlem campus. It was just a different line in a different direction. I was still working with you on Saturdays at the Astoria luncheonette. The one thing that was different from high school is that I could spend free time with my friends hanging out in the cafeteria or playing football on the South Campus lawn. In my freshman year, I didn’t have a girlfriend and started smoking weed during the day and drinking at night to escape loneliness, sexual frustration, and oppressive tedium. CCNY was no “Harvard.”
Four things finally made a big difference. In no particular order they were girls, moving out, becoming a history major, and political activism. In high school I was a “schlep” with bedraggled hair and sloppy clothes. In college, with the same bedraggled hair and sloppy clothes, I transformed into a hippie and became more attractive to young women. In our sophomore year, my friend Kenny and I were able to rent an apartment for $64 a month in a 5th floor walk-up in a deteriorating Bronx building with a dribble of water on a good day. I started to feel like I was becoming an independent adult. In my sophomore year I also committed myself to being a political activists and a history major, two lifetime endeavors that gave purpose to going to school and learning.
In his “Theses on Feuerbach,” Karl Marx wrote, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” At the age of 19, I committed to study, interpret, teach, and changing the world. My grades went up and I eventually became a teacher, but I can’t claim to have had much of an impact on world events. If you see Marx, wherever you are, don’t mention it.
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.
Follow Alan Singer on twitter at https://twitter.com/AlanJSinger1