35 years ago, better lessons in diversity

June 02, 1998|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The calendar says it's June, holy season of graduations, and the grim, dreaded reality occurs: It is precisely 35 years since they handed me my high school diploma and officially declared me a grown-up. When I walked the halls of my high school as a string-bean adolescent, if someone had pointed to an alumnus and said, "Here's a guy who graduated 35 years ago," I'd have thought, "How is he still alive after all that time?"

Among other things, time gives us a sense of perspective: It is possible to be 53 years old and still be ambulatory. But yesterday, on the anniversary of our graduation, I telephone old City College classmates, seeking wisdom and consolation and, not to be minimized, also seeking to spread the depression around. How does 35 years disappear in such a heartbeat? The last time I looked, my classmates and I had specific plans to remain 18 for the rest of our lives, and this seems not to have taken place.

"Thanks for reminding me," says John "Jake" Oliver. "I knew I could count on you to be the herald of bad news."

"It's what I do for a living," I reply.

So does he. Oliver, an attorney by trade, is publisher of the Afro-American newspaper. He remembers high school graduation as if it were maybe two weeks ago, instead of 35 years.

"I'm trying to understand this," he says. "I haven't used up that much time, have I? Where did the time go?"

We don't exactly know, but I think I have a lead on somebody who might have a clue: another an old classmate, Gus Sitaris - the Rev. Constantine Sitaris, now of Hopewell Junction, N.Y., a parish priest in the Greek Orthodox Church.

"Thirty-five years?" he says.

"Yeah," I say, "and I'm not sure if it feels like 35 years, or 135 years, or 10 minutes."

"In the spectrum of eternity, a grain of sand," Father Gus says. "In God's time, it's no time at all."

He's been a priest for 26 years. For years, working out of the church's national headquarters in New York, he headed its youth office and helped shepherd countless kids through difficult times. This month, his son is graduating high school.

"Thirty-five years," he says now. "You know what I've learned since then? That we're all kids in adult bodies. That's my reality."

So I telephone another old classmate, Lee Raskin. For years, he worked in banking and finance around Baltimore. He's a private entrepreneur. Also, he's president of the board of visitors for City College. Over the years, he's raised a fortune for the old high school and put in countless hours to help maintain its standards.

"Yeah, 35 years," he says softly. "But it feels so compacted. I guess we've been busy trying to do something every day, so the time flew past. When we were at City, and they had the Hall of Fame ceremonies, I remember them bringing in people like Stuart Symington and Reuben Kramer. You know, a U.S. senator and a world-class artist.

"And I thought, these are men of great achievement. We'll never be old enough to achieve great things. I was like everybody else, wondering how to get a date for the weekend. But look where we are now. I guess the kids look at us and see fossils."

He starts rattling off names from our graduating class who are members of the City College Hall of Fame: pediatric surgeon David Tapper, prominent businessman Jim Gilliam, and some guy named Ruppersberger.

"Thirty-five years?" says C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger when the anniversary is mentioned to him yesterday. "We used to think guys 35 years out of high school must be walking on canes."

Ruppersberger, the Baltimore County executive, remembers something touched on by everyone yesterday: In our time, many of the city's public schools were melting pots. And they aren't anymore.

"For me," said Ruppersberger, "going to school with black kids, with Jewish kids, was the great education. And you don't have that anymore the way we did. Even in the county, there's not so much of it. And that's the great loss that's occurred."

The city's public schools are about 90 percent black now - as is City College. That's a loss for all those, black and white, who miss the mix of cultures that's the backbone of our polyglot culture.

"City College," says Jake Oliver, "still belongs to us in our hearts. But it hasn't maintained the diversity that it had. The black kids don't have a chance to see how kids from other backgrounds view the world. That's a problem. They get into the world, and they're thrust into situations they've never experienced before."

"That mix," says Father Gus Sitaris, "was wonderful. It taught me to appreciate the bouquet of humanity. City College taught me to see the soul of the human being, and nothing more."

And, 35 years after the school let us go, that's a pretty good valedictory to its greatest gift.

Pub Date: 6/02/98

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