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Being 1 Of 2 White Students
In A Black City High School
By Ted Twietmeyer


I was 17 years old when moving back north to New York state to live with my father, just before my senior year of high school started. To move back to western New York, I was asked to live with my sister in Germantown, PA for a few months. Germantown is a small area of urban homes and row houses in Philadelphia. This area was originally settled by the Germans in the early 1900s.

Originally Germans settled the area which gave it the name. Slowly the Germans moved out and Italians moved in. Spaghetti day was always a certain day each week (Wednesday?) Walking through the neighborhood there was the scent of real spaghetti sauce in the air. It was lovingly cooked all day long until ready.

That was about all the joy I found in Germantown while living in a row house with my sister and her family.

I had moved there in the summer time from Highland Springs, Virginia where I lived for about three years. Enrollment in Germantown high school was easy. Highland Springs high school, where I attended the previous two years, had a comprehensive electrical technology  curriculum which helped start my electrical engineering career. Highland Springs high curriculum was far ahead of Germantown high. When I moved back to New York state, this easy semester at Germantown high put me way behind my 12th grade classmates. I barely graduated on time at 18 years old.

In Germantown high school I went into the 12th grade. However, courses were a year behind at the 11th grade I already went through in Virginia the year before. It was clear to me that later on I would pay for this easy time in school, but there was little I could do about it. More on that later.

But there was much more going on in school than just classes. At least one or more armed Philadelphia police officers (not security guards) patrolled each of the three floors of the school.

On my first day of school I noticed a old style black wall phone in each classroom. These phones were about 40 years old at the time, perhaps dating to around the time when the school was built. To use these phones you would simply pick up the receiver and hold it up to your ear (a potato-masher style receiver) and wait for someone to answer. There was no telephone dial. A microphone was mounted on the phone box to speak into.

As I left my first classroom, I innocently asked the teacher if the phone was used as a intercom. She pulled me aside and with a very hushed voice told me, "That phone was only used to call for help. Gangs would come right into classrooms, pull students out into the hall and beat them up." That was one of the most disturbing things I ever heard a teacher say. How can teaching or learning take place in that environment of fear?

There were stairwells located throughout the school. Being quite old, the school had high ceilings which also made very long staircases. My classes were scattered across all the floors of the school. The worst part of each day wasn't French, History or any other class. It was going down very long stairs between the ground floor and the second floor.

Why was that a problem? Some students freely used that small space under the bottom flight of stairs as a urinal. The idea was to make it down to the ground floor and through the fire-doors before you breathed in again. You took a deep breath before you passed through the second floor fire-doors or second floor landing, and continue to hold your breath as long as possible going down the stairs until you were through the ground floor fire-doors. Going upstairs was exactly the reverse.

It was great exercise for being on the underwater endurance swim team. Excerpt the school had no pool and no swim team.

If you have ever visited a monkey or chimp house in a zoo you know what the stench of urine is like. People are primates, too. Except the stench is much weaker in a zoo. Zoo keepers disinfect and hose down the zoo every day. Apparently the stairwell areas were not cleaned regularly. On a hot day in September that ground floor stairwell area could make your eyes water.

It's difficult for me to understand how anyone could do that in a school with plenty of bathrooms. It proves people can act like animals or even worse. Makes you wonder just how these kids lived at home.

I was grateful when Christmas time came. It was time to pack up and move back to western New York to finish high school where I started three years before. Attending Germantown high forced me to become 1 year behind both Virginia and New York schools. It was time to pay the price for that easy senior semester. It took my best scholastic efforts to graduate from high school on time. Adults of my era and before it always knew there was a real threat of repeating a grade if you did not pass all your finals.

Today rarely are children held back.

Ted Twietmeyer


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