September 16, 2007

The Legend of Thug School


It took me awhile after moving to this neighborhood to figure out what the deal was with John Jay High School. No matter what time of day I walked past the school—which is just a block away from my apartment—hundreds of teenagers could be found hanging out on the street, blocking the sidewalk and harassing local storekeepers. None of them ever seemed to enter the school itself.

      A few of them must have, though, because it seemed every time there was a news report about a stabbing in a classroom or a shooting in a school cafeteria, they were talking about John Jay.

      As the years passed, the streets slowly grew quieter during school hours, but come two-thirty, look out—the doors flew open and an endless screaming, rampaging mob of unusually large students came pouring out, once again taking complete control of the sidewalks until about four. Fights were commonplace, as were purse snatchings and assaults on random passers-by. Things were so bad that every afternoon, the NYPD began posting cops on all the corners outside the school in a vain effort to try and control the mayhem and keep the “youngsters” moving. Only trouble with keeping them moving was that it meant the cops were actually dispersing them throughout the neighborhood to prey on the general population. Having been caught in the middle of the after school frenzy one too many times, Morgan and I came to think of John Jay simply as “Thug School.”

      Turns out we were pretty much on the mark. See, I was under the impression that every public high school in the country was like this nowadays, that all of them (to a greater or lesser degree) were thug schools—but John Jay was special. A website aimed at fresh-faced, idealistic young teachers described John Jay as a school for those students no other school could handle. Once every other school in New York had expelled them, they were sent to John Jay. It seemed both odd and funny that such a place would be smack dab in the middle of uptight, liberal Park Slope, but there you go. That it was named after John Jay was even funnier.

      A couple of years ago, John Jay began to slowly transform itself from Thug School into “The High School for Law, Journalism and Research” (whatever they mean by “research”).

      “It’s not the first time they changed the name,” my landlord told me a few weeks ago.

      She told me that her sister went there right after the last name change, and that the school had always had a tough reputation.

      “I don’t remember the old name,” she said, “Ignatius or something like that. But they changed it to John Jay because this movie came out about the delinquents there. The movie was really popular, and the school didn’t want to be associated with it anymore.”

      It sounded like an intriguing story, so having very little else to do, I started looking into it.

      I couldn’t find any immediate references to John Jay being known as something else. Nor could I find any references to a “St. Ignatius High School” in Park Slope.

      As far as the damning movie was concerned, the obvious choice was of course The Blackboard Jungle. The 1955 movie starring Glenn Ford and Vic Morrow (along with Richard Kiley, Sidney Poitier and Jamie Farr) was based on a 1954 novel by Evan Hunter (aka Ed McBain), who was writing about his own teaching experiences. It certainly seemed possible—but somehow too obvious. I dismissed it almost immediately.

      I started looking into some other obvious possibilities—High School Confidential, The Delinquents, City Across the River—but with no luck.

      The less I found, the more obsessed I became. I started asking around—neighbors, bartenders, friends—anyone who knew both movies and Brooklyn history. Given that this was the first time I’d heard about this, I was surprised to learn that every last one of them knew the story, but nobody could provide any further details. All they knew was that the school used to have a different name, and that it had been changed on account of a JD film—most likely Blackboard Jungle, they agreed.

      It still seemed too easy.

      Then a Brooklyn native was able to tell me that the original name of the school wasn’t Ignatius, but did contain the word “Manual” or “Manuel.” And my friend Don, who used to live across the street and now lives upstate, took on the challenge himself and began doing his own research.

      With that “Manual/Manuel” lead, in short order Don learned that John Jay’s original name had been “The Manual Training High School,” founded in 1890. The name was changed to “John Jay” around 1960. He also found a self-published memoir written by a Vietnam vet that comes right out and says that Manual Training High School provided the direct inspiration for Blackboard Jungle.

      So that was the story, just like everyone had guessed, And with those bits of information, it was easy to find several other references to the Blackboard Jungle story. None of them were official, of course—no news stories or city documents, Mostly they were on personal blog sites written by people who’d gone to school in the fifties, who thought it was really cool that they’d gone to the toughest school in Brooklyn.

      There’s a little problem with that, though.

      It seems that while Evan Hunter did indeed teach at a vocational high school (for a total of seventeen days), he wasn’t at Manual Training High School. He wasn’t even in Brooklyn. No, he taught at Bronx Vocational High School in the South Bronx. Plus, I never found the tiniest shred of evidence that the school changed its name in order to distance itself from any movie.

      So in short, it’s sounding more and more like an urban legend—a story everyone in the neighborhood seems to know and repeat, citing it as a point of pride (“Blackboard Jungle was based on my school, daddy-o!”). Until, of course, you start pushing them for details.

      It’s too bad, really. It would’ve explained a lot about John Jay.

      It also leaves me wondering how many other neighborhoods and high schools in the city are making the same claim for themselves.

      I decided to start looking into it.


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