Updated: Aug 21, 2021
In 1958 I was in the 9th grade at Marina Jr. High when Lowell fought its first war with the city, the war to become a college preparatory school, to admit kids from the entire city, to admit kids based on merit. Those then opposed argued that Lowell catered too much to San Francisco’s Jews, that admitted students would only be the rich and privileged kids, scions of the wealthy, children of the connected and those with legacies.
I was fourteen then and even though I paid little attention, the racism, the anti-Semitism, burned through the headlines. Galileo was where my friends would be going for 10th grade, and it was where I was going, and my parents were just glad I wasn’t dropping out. My dad had barely graduated from high school; my mom had not.
Halfway through first semester at Galileo I realized my scores and grades were all ridiculously perfect — as in, pretty much all ‘A’s. In my heart of hearts, I knew I was not an ‘A’ student. For some reason it bothered me, that my grades were what they were, and I began shopping for a better school, interviewing at SI, SH, Riordan, even Lick — but they all wanted money, and they were all way, way out of my parents’ price range. I didn’t bother to tell them what I was doing. By Christmas break I’d all but given up. But one evening, a friend suggested Lowell.
Early the next morning, I took three buses to that Old Red Brick building at Hayes and Masonic — the Old Lowell — and found a registrar to talk to. A kindly woman, she told me what I needed from Galileo, to go back and get it. Three bus rides to Galileo, three bus rides back to Lowell. With my transcripts in hand and after a short conference with my new best friend, she told me I was gaining on it. Next, I needed a short note from a 9th grade teacher at Marina saying I was a good kid. Three bus rides to Marina and I found my science teacher in the faculty lounge. Three bus rides back to Lowell. My kindly registrar lady said I was in but needed one thing more from Galileo. Sign offs. Proof of no overdue library books and gym stuff all turned in. Three bus rides to Galileo, three bus rides back to Lowell. My registrar buddy smiled broadly as I walked up to her table and handed her the last of the records. I was in. I thought about giving her a hug, after she gave the date to register for classes. But I was fifteen then, and it wouldn’t have been seemly.
It was dark when I got off the last of my three bus rides home, wondering how to tell my parents.
I was among the last graduating class from the Old Lowell, 1962. I went on to college and then to law school and then to a bit of an eclectic law practice. I suppose the highlight of my time as a lawyer was my argument before the United States Supreme Court. I firmly believe that but for Lowell I would never have had that opportunity. (I was going to wear a Lowell lapel pin, for Breyer who graduated a scant few years before me, but thought better of it.)
Now, the purpose of all this rambling of mine is this: Back in the day, in my day, the critics and the school board and the racists of that time argued, mostly, that only the Jews, only the rich Jews, would benefit from an elite, academic and merit-based public school. Since I was neither rich nor Jewish, and in attendance at Lowell, I thought at the time I was a very lucky exception to be there.
The fact is, I was not an exception, I was one of many. Over the years I have come to know my former classmates actually better than I knew them at Lowell. Sure, lots us were from the Avenues, Twin Peaks, Saint Francis Wood, Sea Cliff and Presidio Heights. But we came from Chinatown, the Mission District, the Fillmore and North Beach too.
Many of my peers, I learned, were very much like me. They had parents who had not been to college, who had not graduated from high school. Their fathers worked on the docks when San Francisco was a port city, they waited on tables in the Financial District, they were clerks at Macy’s and tended bar in the Tenderloin. More than a few parents did not speak English. Like me, more than a few classmates had transferred to Lowell from other schools.
My guess is, and I could be wrong, Lowell’s current and recent student body is not much different. How many of the fifty-some percent of Asians call Chinatown home? Talk about ghettos. They don’t come much bigger than Chinatown. How many current or recent Lowell graduates will be the first in their families to graduate from high school, to go on to college? How many speak something other than English at home? Yeah, there are the rich kids, the connected kids, but are there more of them, really, than there were during my years, or Breyer’s years? I doubt it.
For us oldsters, the ones like me, Lowell got us to where we are. We believe that in our hearts. We do not want to see Lowell and all that it is disappear. We just don’t. The kids who are there now, all of them, should be there, they deserve to be there, and they will continue to make the rest of us proud to have graduated from Lowell.