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`We Were All Americans Then'

A SCHOOL can give focus to an entire community. A single class, just one teacher, can help direct and energize an individual's life. More than 200 members of the Pershing High School class of 1954 met for our 35th reunion the other night. Only a very few still lived in their old northeast Detroit neighborhood. Many came from afar: California, Florida, Maryland, Ohio, and various points in Michigan. They included designers, engineers, doctors, teachers, musicians, company presidents - probably reflecting a somewhat larger measure of success than might have been expected from the graduates of an inner-city Detroit high school.

All evening my old friends, many of whom I'd known as long ago as kindergarten, and I kept asking: Were the early 1950s as wonderful a time as we remembered?

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There was plenty of violence around us. Many childhood acquaintances went to jail, not to college. These classmates presumably stayed home from the reunion, the first for the entire class. Still, we had the definite feeling our time had been exceptional.

The faculty: Theodore Baruch, the debate coach, scheming and erudite; Kenneth Jewell, choir director, a powerful bass singer himself and director of important city choruses; Dr. Florence Jacques, math teacher, elegant and brilliant, with a piercing stare and fondness for philosophy, who became the city's assistant superintendent of schools; Mike Haddad, a brutal but effective football coach, who took Pershing to the state championship in the fall of our senior year. This mature faculty could coach the abler students for the top city and state music, forensics, and sports competitions.

The times: We believed in the melting pot ideal. We could kid about our racial and ethnic differences - but slurs were not allowed. Marriages across church or ethnic lines were at times opposed by parents, although they became common.

Friends: We worked, studied, and played hard. Time flew by. We're still close.

Those of us who went on to universities found that our peers who had attended private schools had an advantage in the amount of writing they had been compelled to do. But we had a compensating energy. We believed that education united us - a familiar American theme.

``We were all Americans then,'' says classmate Charles Griffen, now living in Oxford, Michigan. ``We weren't black, and white, and hillbilly.''

We sang, ``This is God's country, land of the free.''

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Once, during the 1970s, when racial tensions had built up again the way they had in Detroit during World War II, I slipped into the school for a brief talk with a teacher. Black faculty and white faculty were at odds. Black students and white students could not socialize. Those tensions have eased, but the sense of progress toward racial harmony we once shared has been disappointed.

From the day it opened in 1931, some 40 of my relatives, including aunts, uncles, cousins, sisters, and my mother, have gone to Pershing. So have hundreds of neighbors. The first children I knew outside my own family graduated with me.

The school has moved on to another era. The community remains a staging ground for relatively marginal social advancement. One senses less of the hopes, for ourselves and our community, that we shared in the '50s. In the suburban schools, in the urban magnet schools that draw off the best students, perhaps high expectations flourish. But not in the city schools, the Pershings for the masses.

Crime is the staple Detroit topic for outsiders. And today's Pershing principal, Dr. Emeral Crosby, has stopped reading the city newspapers and rarely watches the local news: ``The names change, but not the stories - rapes, drugs, and murder.''

But crime is the reverse side of something missing: A vigorous and spirited school life, animated by the ideal of a time, such as sped many of us to useful careers and relationships. The vitality of a great city and a nation does begin in one community, with one teacher, and one school.

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