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Mahler: Now It’s My Old High School That’s Going to Disappear Forever

It’s been called ‘“the Castle on the Parkway” — a reference to the imposing structure of DeWitt Clinton High School and its proximity to the Mosholu Parkway in the Bronx. I just called it Clinton. In a couple of weeks, the city of New York may just call it closed.

According to a letter I just received from the school’s alumni organization, the city’s Department of Education Progress Report has given Clinton a grade of F for the past two years and will vote later this month on whether to shutter the school that first opened in 1897. Clinton has, in recent years, been inundated by high-need students moving from failing smaller schools.

The result, the letter explained, was an increase in discipline problems and a decrease in graduation rates. So now, the Department of Education, which foisted these problems on Clinton, is poised to close the school because of those same issues.

This kind of bad news seems to follow me around like an evil twin. The college that gave me a life, Canaan College, has closed; the synagogue that gave me tradition, Kingsbridge Heights Jewish Center, has closed, and, now, the high school that gave me the world is about to close.

How would you feel if your high school was about to be eliminated by some bureaucratic eraser with no sense of heart or history? It seems as though the city that raised me is now turning its back on me and on all of those 200,000 other grads who passed through Clinton’s doors over the years.

If Yankee Stadium is a baseball cathedral, then DeWitt Clinton High is an educational coliseum. They just don’t build schools like it anymore. The place is huge: It has three floors of classroom space and at one time held 12,000 students, making it the largest high school in the world. Its cafeteria is the size of a small cruise ship.

What a sight it was each morning to see students arriving by the thousands from all compass points — off buses, subways, out of cars or on foot — all descending on that building right off the parkway for another day of school and life. That building, which opened in 1929, was like a second home. And in an all-boys school, you had lots — 6,000 at the time I attended — of big and little brothers, either watching your back or crawling all over it. On any given day, it was both a Bronx zoo and sanctuary — as well as a brick monument dedicated to the pursuit of learning.

I walked a mile each way every day, no matter the weather or time. At Clinton I was taught to speak Spanish, thought math was a foreign language, took chemistry class at 6 in the morning and found an aptitude for writing.

So many Clinton moments are etched in my memory. On Nov. 22, 1963, I was coming out of gym class when the announcement came that President Kennedy had been shot. I recall the lights going out in the school on the night of the 1965 New York blackout and all the subways being shut down. (I was really bummed out the next morning because I lived within walking distance and couldn’t use the non-functioning subway system as an excuse for missing school.)

You could get a hot meal everyday. If you needed utensils you had to purchase a token. No token no fork, no fork ... well, you get the idea. And if you didn’t turn in your utensils, you lost your deposit. I remember the social studies teacher who, whenever I asked permission to visit the boys room, insisted I take what seemed to be a 50-pound rock — just to make sure I didn’t venture too far. It was a quick lesson in bladder control.

While there were no girls at our school, there was an all-girls high school three subway stops away. The love boat had nothing on those steel trains. At least once a week someone would pull the emergency cord, forcing the train into a sudden stop with bodies getting up close and personal all over the place. Just our version of speed dating, I guess.

Looking for an outlet for nervous energy? There was always Bronx High School of Science, just a short walk across the football field. Harassing the smart kids was part of the code.

I went to Madison Square Garden as a sophomore for the city basketball championship against Boys High. We lost. The next year we played Erasmus Hall — “The Hall Must Fall” — but lost again. The next year we won it all, putting on a full court press in the fourth quarter to close an undefeated season and finally beat the Hall. Our backcourt that year had a left-handed guard you may have heard of: Nate Archibald. Working on the school newspaper, I got to watch the best basketball in the city almost every afternoon.

Graduation was something to behold. Up here, you graduate in an auditorium, maybe outside on the football field or in a gym. Not us. With a class of more than 1,500, we graduated in a Manhattan movie theater. And we had to move it right along because they had an afternoon double feature coming behind us.

I’m sure we all share similar memories of those long-ago high school days — all those experiences that went into making us who we are today. I’m just telling you that when you went to Clinton, you lived and breathed a school with a bit more history than most. And you just hoped that some of that greatness would rub off on you.

When you walked those halls, sat in those seats, played on those fields, you were following in the paths of some of the city’s most accomplished and most famous. Those graduates had a hand in shaping the world we live in today.

Let’s just take a fast stroll through Clinton’s glorious alumni history:

There’s author James Baldwin, the voice of racial conscience; lawyer William Kunstler, defender of the defenseless; newsman Daniel Schorr who called out a president; playwrights Paddy Chayefsky and Neil Simon; entertainers such as Burt Lancaster, Don Adams and Judd Hirsch; Hollywood luminaries like George Cukor and Stanley Kramer, and composers such as Richard Rogers.

More? How about photographer Richard Avedon, fashion designer Ralph Lauren, comic book creators Stan Lee and Bob Kane, or rock impresario Bill Graham?

In athletics, there can be no high school in the country to compare with Clinton. Name me another that has two players selected to the NBA’s All-Time top-50 players list — Archibald and Dolph Schayes. In boxing, Clinton boasts perhaps the greatest fighter of all time in Sugar Ray Robinson. Add to the list graduate Willie Worsley who, as a dunking 5-foot-6 guard, started for the all-black Texas Western starting team that defeated an all-white Kentucky team in 1966 for the NCAA championship, later to be immortalized in the movie Glory Road.

And what New York list would be complete without adding a New England icon — Johnny Most, the voice of the Boston Celtics for nearly 40 years.

Just names to you, but gods to us. Clinton graduates have won the Congressional Medal of Honor, Oscars, Tony and Emmy awards, Nobel and Pulitzer prizes and Olympic gold medals. And now, the holy place that housed their memory and celebrated their accomplishments is going to close its doors.

What will happen to all the pictures on the wall, the hardware in the trophy cases, the uniforms or the musical instruments? Don’t these New York City educators understand that this is more than just a building of brick and glass that they threaten to close?

It’s an empty feeling to be an educational orphan.

Donald Mahler, Clinton class of 1966, is the Valley News sports editor.