When people think or talk about formative experiences, they are usually from high school, college, or maybe the early childhood years. For some, junior high school turns out to be the most crucial time in terms of events that define what we become.
While still in elementary school, I remember thinking about the departmental classes of junior high school. We would not have to sit in the same room and seat the entire day! This seemed very exciting to me. We would meet many more students. This expanded socialization may have been at the core of my anticipation of going to junior high school.
Growing up in Queens Village, we could and did walk to our elementary school, P.S. 33. On the way, at the corner of Winchester Boulevard and Braddock Avenue, was a candy store that sold penny candies from an old wood and glass cabinet. Even our meager allowances allowed us to buy a few of the choices, little candy dots on strips of paper, mini Tootsie Rolls, bubble gum, and various kinds of licorice. But this was the only excitement during the walk.
While I was no lover of public transportation, taking the bus to J.H.S. 109, was still a bigger world than going to elementary school. So even these bus rides were an adventure.
Junior High School meant more serious school assignments and a meeting of my love of going to Manhattan coupled with emerging research skills. These challenges and doing the work opened new worlds. More advanced assignments had me using the Queens Borough and New York Public Libraries, going to museums, and being exposed to broader cultural experiences.
I can’t say I knew what a mentor was when I was 14 years old. Regardless, one of my greatest influences in those years was an outstanding English teacher named Mr. Lipman. The initial impression was not overwhelming, he was a nerdy looking guy, pressed white shirt, tie, glasses, but, very straight about how we could do well in his class. The key thing Mr. Lipman drove was a broader look at the world, and this tied in very well to my idea of what junior high school was about.
Within his discipline, Mr. Lipman liked to emphasize reading, and he knew how to incent students to do extra work. His formula was simple, for each book you read outside the regular course work, he would give you ¼ point on your final grade if you turned in a 4” x 6” card with a short book review. He insisted that the heading on the card show the complete bibliographic citation for the book, in proper “library catalog card” format.
This was not my first experience with library related formats, as I was an avid user of the Queens Borough Public Library (now Queens Library). We could take our bikes to two branches of the Queens Library, the Queens Village Branch on 217th Street, and the Glen Oaks Branch on Union Turnpike. In those days, there was still a traditional card catalog in each library. These wood cabinets held thousands of 3” x 5” cards, with the location and bibliographic information (title, author, subject terms, Dewey Decimal Number, etc) for each book in the local collection. It would be years until online card catalogs existed, which could immediately show the holdings of the entire system and beyond.
I’ll get back to the library experience in New York, but first let’s talk about why Mr. Lipman was so special. In addition to his love of books, Lipman was passionate about theater and debate. Lipman would take his classes on school trips to Manhattan to see Broadway plays and impactful movies. This was truly incredible, so far beyond what all other school trips were about, including the typical outings to the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, and many of the New York museums. Not that this was bad. My friends and I really loved the Museum of Natural History. Definitely more than the art museums. But Broadway plays were on another level.
In 1962, Mr. Lipman took us to Manhattan to see the Broadway stage production of “The Sound of Music,” and the film version of “West Side Story,” which won 10 Academy Awards in 1961. These trips included a bus ride into Manhattan and a meal in a nice NYC restaurant, usually Italian (of course), making the experience extra special. There is no doubt these early adventures increased my awareness and appreciation of broader culture. Next time we will talk about Mr. Lipman as mentor of the Debate Team. We could sure use someone like him today…