Published October 4, 2018 in Warp & Woof
Wasteland vs. Intellectual Ferment
Or, My Parents’ World vs. My World, High School Years
Flint Series, Chapter 4
Flint Central High School was a new adventure. High school then comprised three years: grades ten, eleven, and twelve.
That meant one of my early high school experiences, in Spring 1963, was taking “Drivers’ Ed,” which included behind-the-wheel time at a fancy new road course built on the grounds of Flint’s newest high school, Southwestern. Not satisfied with classroom content and a driver’s test at the local DMV, ours included “real” driving experience on streets with stop signs, traffic lights, and opposing traffic. And, the kicker, it was at the wheel of a choice of brand-new donated Buicks! Yes, this was Flint. Like everything in the city, if GM could figure out a way to encourage future customers, they would do it, including a high school drivers’ education program.
When I was fifteen, that was exciting.
However, I was now embedded with peers who were not so excited about cars and the auto industry. Their parents did not work for the “chrome colossus” of General Motors. They saw themselves as independent of the Flint mainstream; indeed, above it.
Dan, Nathan, Abe and his younger brother Sol (“Manny”), were all children of Holocaust survivors who somehow managed, separately, to find their way to Flint after spending early childhood in New York or Uruguay (in Nate’s case). They were all products of a strong Yiddish/Polish family culture. How did they come to live in Flint, these guys the same age as me?
I was a privileged transplant from Dearborn, whose paternal family were Scandinavians drifting down from the Upper Peninsula, and maternal family solid midwestern Scotch-Irish. My maternal grandfather was a Methodist preacher.
But my crowd was not my dad’s or Uncle Bob’s kind of people. None of my circle were cogs in GM’s wheel! Charles, my Ternstedt friend from earlier days, faded away after elementary school, perhaps due to his family being TOO close to my father’s work life (involving his dad’s performance evaluations from my dad?).
This group had parents who were shopkeepers, house-painters, and CPAs. But everybody in Flint was in some way beholden to General Motors, even if they did not work for “the man.” Success of their businesses indirectly depend upon him. When Flint’s population reached 200,000 in the sixties, that was about as big as a “company town” could get.
While in high school I was unaware of the glorious history of the sit-down strikesin the thirties, or the ultimate surrender of the UAWto corporatismin those post-war boom years. But, I was aware, even in my junior high years, of the acrid smell of stale cigarette smoke and half-emptied Manhattans in the living room on weekend mornings, left from the previous night’s corporate (Ternstedt plant, anyway) bridge parties. I thought to myself, “is this what I want to do for entertainment when I grow up?”
As my cultural affiliations solidified, the answer became clear — no! And, it’s not because bridge isn’t a fascinating card game. But, I perceived a rot in the social fabric of those gatherings. It seemed a wasteland to me.
My friends had one thing in common. They were all uncommonly smart. Why they deigned to hang with me is still baffling, but I was flattered. We developed an understanding. None of us would come back to Flint once we escaped.
If anticipation of refugee status may have been natural for the Holocaust Children, it was not for me. They were well equipped for scraping by in jobs beneath their station – as their immigrant parents had done. I was too privileged to contemplate making huge sacrifices; instead, I hoped for lucky breaks.
In addition to my social circle, there was also something about Flint Central’s location which had an important influence on my intellectual development. It would later be called the “East Village,” home not only to my high school, but the Flint College and Cultural Center. During my time at Central (1962-65), it included the shiny, modern steel and glass public library, a planetarium, art institute, concert hall, and the Flint Community College campus (now Mott College). Adjoining the East Village was the University of Michigan-Flint campus. The entire Cultural Center was developed primarily via the philanthropy of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. C.S. Mott, himself, also lived in his wooded estate, Applewood, adjoining the Center. Mott had been a co-founder of General Motors, and his foundation was primarily dedicated to improving the hometown of the corporation that created his wealth. It’s called “giving back.”
The land for the Cultural Center came from Applewood. But, Mott wasn’t the only notable who maintained a domicile in the East Village. Professors, including the first Dean of UM-Flint, lived there. I once went out with his daughter, my chemistry lab partner on that afternoon in November 1963 when the P.A. announcement told us that President Kennedy had been shot!
In fact, much of Flint’s “old money” lived in the neighborhood. I remember meeting a friend of a friend at his home there — it had a butler’s pantry and dumbwaiter. He didn’t go to Flint Central, but to Georgetown Prep in Maryland!
So, there were the New York Jews, all of them left-wing intellectuals, the College and Cultural Center and East Village neighborhoods, and the C. S. Mott Foundation’s beneficence, all contributing to my evolving state of mind in high school. What else led to this ferment?
My mother. She was very proud of her hard-earned college degree from UM-Flint, after part-time studies as an adult, and a mom! She confidently marched into her high school English classroom in Flushing, a Flint suburb. At first, she felt she was reaching many of her students.
But, after a few years (by the time I was in high school), she had decided to call it quits. Her main complaint was the principal. She felt stifled by him, and generally devalued — apparently a common experience for many teachers.
But, she did successfully tutor my cousin Bob (John’s older brother) in English when he returned to Flint from Tampa. He had a rough time in English. But, after her coaching, he was able to get into college, and from there to graduate school, and ultimately a professorship back in Florida.
Dad was there as well, but somehow didn’t contribute the same burning intellectual desire as Mom. He was an engineer, I would choose a different path.
Among my own teachers at Flint Central, four stand out: John Greenleaf Howe, Dale Kildee, Gayle Heyn, and James Graham Provan. Each played a significant role in shaping my future.
John G. Howe was my 10th grade social studies teacher. Instead of world history, the traditional grade ten social studies curriculum, Flint called it “foreign relations” (probably to appease the local John Birch Society chapter – with their anti-communist agenda). He was a self-styled Republican politico, impressing me with the hard-nosed “realpolitik” behind his course’s topic.
He sponsored an after-school club, called the Reliques Society, which met in students’ homes, including mine. My socially conscious mom was slightly suspicious of the exact nature of this apparent “secret society” – but, she finally decided if it was endorsed by the Flint Community Schools, it must be okay.
Dale Kildeetaught Latin. He also emphasized the political process, especially as practiced in the Roman Empire! A former Catholic seminarian, he left the order to teach in public schools.
After I graduated, he left teaching to pursue politics himself – becoming a 17-term Congressman before announcing his retirement in 2010, to be replaced by his younger nephew, Dan (who still represents Flint in Congress).
Gayle Heyn was my French teacher, who assured me that there was civilization beyond Flint – and it mostly spoke French! She became Gayle Kildee later, accompanying husband Dale to Lansing, then Washington.
Graham Provan was my U.S. history teacher. He taught me that American history wasn’t what I thought, by emphasizing its blemishes — especially relevant in those days of civil rights struggles in the South.
Collectively, they showed me how politics equates with power.
The high school debate team (where I earned a varsity letter) can’t be ignored, either. It taught me about logic, argumentation, and research.
Yet, I pursued none of this after college. I lost something when I left Flint – where did it go?