Sheepshead Bay High School: In The Beginning
The students, teachers and administrators who studied, taught, and worked at Sheepshead Bay High School during its first few years of existence experienced a certain specialty, even a very real kind of primacy. One of the entity's unique features for all of us -- unique not in educational history, but specifically to us as participants -- was that it was a brand-new high school embarking on its very first year as an institution of learning.
Thusly, those students who began their high school years at Sheepshead were logically destined to be in the school's first graduating classes -- and, by extension, with no seniors ahead of us, we also had the rare logistical distinction of being the perpetual upper classmen during our entire tenure at the school.
The Sheepshead building wasn't ready for its students at the start of the school year that September in 1958. When it opened officially months later, in the spring of 1959, most of the students who came to the school (mainly from various junior high schools) had gone to high school elsewhere for that first semester.
Roughly half the student body slated for SBHS attended Abraham Lincoln High School on Ocean Parkway near Coney Island; the remainder went to James Madison High School on Bedford Avenue near Kings Highway. Both were already long-established schools well before the very idea of a place called Sheepshead Bay High School was even a synapse in the collective mind of those at the Board of Education.
One would presume those students would have temporarily gone to schools closest to their homes. Paradoxically, this was not the case. As just one example, the experience of Marilyn Shattls (Class of 1961) shows that she had been assigned to Lincoln -- while her older sister had been sent to Madison.
Parenthetically, Lincoln was where Edward Bernstein had taught English for decades, taking special pride in his child, "my son, Elmer, the composer in Hollywood" (who wrote the music for classics like The Magnificent Seven, To Kill A Mockingbird, Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments, and countless other films). The Bernsteins lived at that time at 157 Ocean Avenue, across from Prospect Park. Madison was the Alma Mater of, among others, a young girl named Judith Blum, a year ahead of us who finished at 17, and whose father was a local dentist, Dr. Murray Blum; his residence and practice was at 2420 Ocean Avenue, between Avenues S & T. She would eventually graduate first in her class from the New York Law School and ultimately become a now-well-known judge, The Honorable Judith Sheindlin.
Some of the students attending those two schools enjoyed them, others hated them, and yet others were ambivalent; ask ten different people and you'll wind up with twelve different views.
All the students, however, seemed pleased to be now attending Sheepshead.
Most of the teachers instructing the Sheepshead students at both Lincoln and Madison also moved with them, by pre-arrangement of course, to the new building when the time was right for it. One of them at Madison (where I had gone during that first semester) was a teacher of English, Doris Lesser (now Doris Meehan of Florida), who remains in my memory as a special lady who stimulated my young imagination so long ago. Even the sight of her provided pleasure, then as now: the delight I had in spending an afternoon with her in March of 2005 was, in a word, exquisite.
One should be mindful that in those early years of the school's life the ambiance seemed more like that of a country club than a school. There are those who would look askance at this, but we should also be mindful that a positive, satisfying, and enjoyable atmosphere can have positive, satisfying and even fulfilling results for students and teachers alike -- at any level and in any venue. People can best perform well when they're offered the conditions under which good performance is possible, a concept from which many corporate employers might learn.
While I'm unable to personally document it, I was in fact the first student to walk through the front doors of the school on the very day it opened. I was also the only student to have walked through the doors at that moment. This happened not by chance but by design. Not being sure, at that tender age, if I'd ever be fated to achieve any real "distinction," my decision to be "first in" was a conscious one: I wanted to have the simple but personal satisfaction of being the first student to officially enter the school. Hindsight it easy, so in retrospect this in itself is not the kind of accomplishment on which a grown man would pride himself -- but it's a given that I, like most of my fellow-students, was then in a formative twilight-zone: no longer a child, but not yet an adult.
I personally benefitted from my time at Sheepshead -- and in ways I realized only later. When I started there, at times I thought my father could be embarrassingly dense. By graduation, though, I was amazed at how much he had learned in the intervening three years.
I don't recall the exact date, but I certainly remember that opening day. The assistant principal, August Gold (who passed away in 2002 at the age of 92), approached me to say, kindly, "The school is scheduled to open at 10-o'clock. It is now 8-o'clock." He seemed puzzled by my solitary presence, but also seemed satisfied with my explanation of the rationale behind it. He also asked me if I'd give him a hand moving a few tables in the cafeteria. The principal, William Friedman, also arrived well before the school officially opened that day.
The ground-breaking ceremonies for the new high school had been held a few years earlier in the enormous lot across the street from Shellbank Junior High School (today, in our politically correct times, called Intermediate School 14), where I was then a student. That lot would in a relatively short time bear Sheepshead Bay High School as the first permanent structure on it that would be destined to last more than thirty years.
Only the intrepid and foolhardy (at times I was both) would go traipsing around in those primordial badlands, which contained remnants of the stanchions that supported the bleachers of the old Sheepshead Bay Race Track, which existed only from 1880 until 1910 but which in its enormity accommodated 175,000 people -- a veritable Brooklyn counterpart of the venerable Roman Colosseum.
It may be hard to believe, but residual portions of the girder supports, as truncated obelisks, for the track's grandstands also still existed fifty years later, on the then-empty lot where a near-block-long row of stores and a gas station now face Nostrand Avenue, on the east side of the street, between Avenues X and Y. When Sheepshead was built, the only structures on that entire block were that still-extant gas station on Avenue Y and the building on the south-east corner of Avenue X and Nostrand. It is now a Dunkin' Donuts, but was then the Moon Gate Restaurant, bursting at the seams five days a week every lunchtime with students mainly from Shellbank but also from Sheepshead. "Competing" with the restaurant for this clientele was a pizzeria just a few doors down on Avenue X, and just about midway between Nostrand Avenue and Haring Street. They had a lunchtime special for the students: an entire pizza for $1, or a half-pie for half that price. At that time, a single slice of pizza was 15 cents, a soda a dime. If anyone can recall the name of that particular pizzeria, the undersigned would be in his or her debt.
In the lot where the new high school would be built, the field mice bothered no-one, but they shared the place with black-widow spiders, which I remember seeing. After the school was already in operation, one of the custodians found a live field mouse inside the building and, holding it in his hand, showed it to Veronica Maray, one of my teachers of Spanish. With no visible trace of fear or revulsion (perhaps wishing to set a positive example in courage for the students witnessing this incident), she politely but firmly declined the custodian's invitation to pet the tiny rodent. She also left the area forthwith.
I recall the day of the actual ground-breaking ceremonies in that lot. I witnessed only a portion of them, during my lunch-hour. Debatably the most significant dignitary in attendance -- certainly the most well-known -- was then-Mayor Robert F. Wagner.
That ground-breaking event remains in my memory because of a keen disappointment I experienced that day. By way of explanation: we were not able to hold our regularly-scheduled Shellbank orchestra rehearsal. The band ensemble (of Midwood High School, as I recall) playing at the ceremonies in the lot that day had the audacity to borrow Shellbank's music stands and thusly rob me and others of our rehearsal period. The conductor of the Shellbank orchestra, Leo Sevush, was overheard telling one of the teachers that there would be no orchestra period that day, ". . . because of this shindig outside." I felt that Midwood High School had a lot of nerve depriving me of my orchestra period on that occasion. To this day I tend to resent ceremonial band ensembles, with no strings attached. . . .
It might be reasonable to presume the conductor of the Shellbank "Philharmonic" had no inkling at that moment that he would eventually be teaching and conducting the orchestra at the new high school across the street; that some of his students would ultimately, and maybe even inevitably, pursue music as a life because of his influence on us as a musician and teacher; that he would ultimately become Director of Music at the Board of Education for schools citywide; and that he would be heartily greeted by many of his former students at a milestone reunion more than forty years later, in June, 2002.
Leo Sevush himself was also the composer of Sheepshead's school song. Though many of us might have by now forgotten some of the words, most SBHS alumni still remember the melody. He had also written the Shellbank song, and in both cases the words were by Herbert Rahinsky, another teacher who had moved with us from Shellbank to Sheepshead. At this time occurred my first personal association (though it would not be my last) with a "world premiére" performance of a new work by a living composer: I was in the ensemble for the first orchestral rehearsals of the school song.
Mr. Sevush had first sketched the piece in piano score, on two staves; he then orchestrated the work (a far more laborious, time-consuming, and solitary process than most people realize); and when the orchestral score was ready he gave the manuscript to the concertmaster, David Assael, and asked him to insert the bowings for the string instruments. This was of course the most sensible choice, since David was even then the orchestra's best violinist -- certainly far more accomplished than I could ever have been as a cellist. I also recall the special efforts I gave when we were rehearsing the piece. After all, the composer was conducting.
At the 2002 reunion, most of the students certainly recognized most of their former teachers -- but some of the teachers didn't remember many of their own former students. When we consider the matter from a student standpoint, the reason becomes clear: there were infinitely more of us in a teacher's professional life than there were teachers in ours.
Sheepshead was finished at a then-staggering cost of $6 million -- even now a considerable amount that I'd not want to lose out of my pocket (we should all live so long). It's anyone's guess who might have thought that four decades later, the Sheepshead Bay High School Founders' Organization would be formed, begun by and composed of alumni from the school's first three graduating classes of 1961, 1962 and 1963.
SBHS Class of 1961