Mentioning the Bronx (the New York City borough that sits atop Manhattan, for those who may not know this city) can conjure up Fort Apache the Bronx, the film from 1981 (with Paul Newman and Danny Aiello) that portrayed the danger and desperation that then boiled in sections of the Bronx. I grew up in this borough, named after a Dutchman (Jonas Bronck) when the City was settled centuries ago, and indeed there were some pretty sketchy places. But there was another form of danger -- one among youth that made it fearsome to be smart or wear glasses or tote a lot of books. My junior high school, PS 113, was like that, and I learned to sneak in and out to avoid the boys who were looking to bully and shame.
I took a citywide exam in the ninth grade (the last year of "junior high" -- then the interval between elementary and high school) and, to my surprise, received notice that I was accepted into the Bronx High School of Science. Me and about 900 other New Yorkers. "Science" was one of several "exam schools" (like Stuyvesant and the LaGuardia High School of Music and Art) where smart city kids could go for free to a high school that surely rivaled the private schools that served the rich and privileged. My first reaction to getting in was that I didn't want to go because my best friends were not accepted (though I knew others who were); that's what I said to my parents, who -- remarkably -- did not fight me, letting me come around to accepting. That was 1959. That was when Jews, Italians, Irish and a few other "minorities" chiefly inhabited the Bronx and northern Manhattan. The vast diaspora of American immigrants, then as it is so today, sought to create a place in society that birth and connection did not provide. Education was the means then, as it can be today for aspiring generations.
Just recently, I attended my 50th (!) Science reunion. Badges showed our photos from the graduation yearbook, since these were the images that formed the emotional basis for knowing each other. Some 200 alumni, spouses and friends crowded into a Chelsea restaurant for an evening of dining on memories and realities. Drink in hand, I braved walking into the crowd. Start a conversation with someone, anyone, my wife said, and I did. There were only a handful of people I knew, but they all were my people, my classmates, my vintage, New Yorkers everyone, no matter where they live today.
Reunions select out two groups: those who do not want to put their lives on display and those who have died. A third group, those who did not want to or could not attend, are more of a mystery -- take me, for example, since I had only attended one other reunion (the 25th). Seventy-one "Class of '62" graduates were listed "In Memoriam" in the evening's program. There were only a few I knew personally, but the sheer number of those who had passed and the homage paid to them by friends who commented during the program was a reminder of how thin is the thread of life as we know it.
One fellow I knew well when we both were young had died over a decade ago. We were in the same junior high school class before we went to Science: He was my first startling experience with true genius, with his capacity to rapidly solve complex problems that, try as I might, took me forever; he left Science after one year to go to an Ivy League college, which he soon quit to develop his own (over time, successful) business. But he was gone, but by some grace I was not.
There was a show of hands when the emcee asked how many had artificial joints or stents? How many had taken LSD? Not that many, in answer to all three questions, though more positive responses to the first two questions. An online survey (after all, this is Science High) of the class taken before the reunion had 232 respondents and revealed that 83 percent were currently married (many more than once) and 81 percent had children; over 80 percent had graduate degrees (masters and doctorates); over 40 percent had career changes; over 40 percent were now retired, many said they never planned to retire, and one said he would retire 10 years after he died. An overwhelming number of alums felt very positive about the school, endorsing that it made a "consequential difference" in their lives. I could observe and consider that evening, when I listened to this information and looked around, what are the ingredients of successful aging: being smart, from families that valued assimilation, well-educated, and fortunate to have lived in a culture of meritocracy. We were the winners of the precious commodities of dignity, prosperity and community.
Bronx Science's graduating class of 2013 will be substantially Asian. This reflects the changing demographics of New York and its ever-revitalizing immigrant communities. Whoever goes to Bronx Science today, or tomorrow, will discover that it is safe to be smart. They will see that learning, mastering knowledge and valuing thinking is a gift that keeps on giving. Imagine if that experience were one that could happen in any school in New York City, or other community in this vast country? Imagine if there were many more places like Science where it's safe to be smart, and not just for the best students with the most intact and engaged of families. Now, that would be something to be proud of.
Dr. Sederer's book for families who have a member with a mental illness, The Family Guide to Mental Health Care, will be published by WW Norton in the spring of 2013.
The opinions expressed here are solely mine as a psychiatrist and public health advocate. I receive no support from any pharmaceutical or device company.
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