No High School Diploma for Me

Benjamin B. Ferencz

The first and must important thing I learned at Townsend Harris High School was that if I wanted to pass my courses I had to study. I never knew that before, so it came as a complete surprise when I promptly flunked Algebra and French. Eventually, I passed those, and also geometry, calculus, and advanced trigonometry. If, as they said, the study of mathematics was good for the brain, I never noticed it. To this day, I do not know what a logarithm is, and frankly, I don’t care. I only became interested in French when I reached fourteen and fell in love with Danielle Darrieux. She was an Ingrid-Bergman-type movie star whose films were shown “in living sound” in a nearby arts theater. While listening to her mellifluous French voice, I kept one eye glued on her and one on the large English subtitles. I left the theater looking a bit cockeyed but it was better than hearing my French professor’s incomprehensible explanation of how he had fought the battle of the Marne. Despite my slow linguistic start, during my own later war years, in Normandy, I was a valued interpreter. After the war, I even translated for Rene Cassin, the French Nobel Prize author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, when he visited the United States. My high school professors deserve some praise for my ability to speak almost like a Parisian. But frankly, most of the credit belongs to Danielle.

As I was busy studying and working, I didn’t have much time or inclination for romance. I met my buddy Lou regularly and we had long walks and talks together. ”Goils,” as they were called in my neighborhood, were not in our repertoire. A new Hungarian in town moved in with Lou’s family. Gizi, whose name was Americanized as Gertrude, and pronounced Goity, did not impress me. “She sure looks like a greenhorn!” Her reaction to me was, “A silly kid!” Hardly enough to distract me from my studies.

Going to Townsend Harris presented more than a scholastic challenge. There was a nice cafeteria in the building, but it did me little good since I had no money to buy lunch. I devised a method to overcome the financial handicap. I set myself up in business as a promoter of a game of chance that might earn my sustenance. For an investment of ten cents I could buy a punch card that had 100 holes. Each hole contained a slip of rolled-up paper that contained a prediction of things to come - usually favorable. It also indicated whether you were the lucky winner of cash. Winnings could range from one to ten cents. The total of the lucky punches amounted to ninety cents. Using my newly discovered knowledge of calculus, I figured out that by hawking “A penny a punch!” in the locker room, I could collect a maximum of one dollar—which would only allow me to break even. Without a profit I would still go hungry. Recalling that necessity is the mother of invention, and that starvation is unhealthy, I used my creative imagination to solve the problem in ways that would have made my Hell’s Kitchen gang proud.

If I carefully sliced off the top layer of the punchboard, I could remove some of the wining numbers before pasting the top back again. All I needed was a fifteen cent surplus that would buy a hamburger and some mashed potatoes for lunch. Even if I removed some of the “winners,” that would still leave my eager customers with the excitement of the game and the paper prediction of good fortune as consolation for not picking one of the larger prizes. After all, the buyer was only risking a penny and all profits went to feed the poor. As in many borderline business ventures, and as I should have learned as a childhood vendor of old newspapers, there may be unanticipated consequences. The building custodian, noting the slips of paper dropped all over the floor, turned me in. I was summoned to the office of the Dean, a bully named Dr. Chastney. I guess he was respected as a strict disciplinarian. Quivering before him, I was immediately accosted with a fierce demand, “Don’t say a word! I want your father here tomorrow morning! One more word out of you and you’re expelled!” I hadn’t said anything. I didn’t dare mention that I hadn’t seen my father for about a year. I ran for a phone.

I managed to reach my father and begged him to come to the rescue. The last time I had been to school with him they wouldn’t admit me to kindergarten. I explained that I was in danger of being expelled. “What means expelled?” he asked. I explained that it was sort of like being shot. “For what?” I answered that I was only trying to earn my lunch money. “For this they want to shoot you?” Anyway, he came. Dr. Chastney began to work him over in an uninterrupted tirade: he was not running a school for gamblers and crooks! Gambling was illegal! Fathers should train their children to obey the law! He would give me one last chance! God bless America! My bewildered Dad, on my advice, listened quietly and simply nodded. He wondered what the burly man was raving about. We were dismissed by the Dean with the repeated sharp warning that this was my last chance! My father never understood what all the fuss and fuming was about. In times of adversity, people might do things they would later be ashamed of. That was not so clear to me when I was 14 but I concluded nonetheless that it would be prudent to retire from the gaming business and seek my fortune via more lawful pursuits.

Fame can come in unexpected ways. Since only males were admitted as students to Townsend Harris, all users of the High School pool were required to swim in the nude. We also had to pass a Red Cross lifesaving test. I had no problem until the instructor came to test my floating skills. I had to prove that I could float motionless for one minute. I knew I couldn’t do it. When I explained my disability, the instructor assured me that the human body was naturally buoyant and he would prove it. If I would clasp my knees to my chest and roll over face down into the water I would float like a cork. I did as I was told. As I had warned, I sank slowly to the bottom, head first. It was as though I had rocks in my head—an observation I had often heard. The lifeguard signaled me frantically to come up from the deep. He confessed that never before had he encountered such a phenomenon. He was, nevertheless, a man after my own heart. He found a way to turn adversity into opportunity.

He asked me if I liked bananas. Upon receiving a positive response, he explained that we were going to put on a water show at the end of the term and that I could play an unforgettable role. All I had to do was jump into the pool waving a banana, then sink to the bottom, as I had just demonstrated, and there peel the banana, stuff it into my mouth, blow out the chlorinated water, swallow the banana and rise to the surface flaunting the empty banana peel while wearing only a happy smile. At the gala, I performed the impossible stunt and earned the plaudits of the amazed crowd. The impact of my unusual feat was brought home to me about 20 years later as I was having lunch in a little bistro in Paris. A man of about my age, sitting at the other side of the cafe, came up to me and inquired cautiously, “Is your name Benny?” When I answered in the affirmative, he slapped me on the back, saying, “The last time I saw you, you were stark naked, under eight feet of water, eating a banana.” It’s amazing what can make a man memorable.

In addition to spending time in the pool, I spent much time in the gymnasium—almost leading to my downfall. I was an excellent tumbler and could shinny up a rope faster than a monkey. For my stunts on the rings I was known as “The man on the flying trapeze.” Weighing not much more than 100 pounds, I was also much sought after to be top man on the human pyramid. But that wasn’t good enough for Dr. Chastney. Once again, I was summoned to the Dean’s office. He had not forgotten me. He informed me that I had not been attending my gym classes. I explained that my gym classes were scheduled during the only time I had for lunch. I made up for my absences by going to the gym at other times. I assured him that the teachers would all confirm my regular attendance. The bureaucrat Chastney gave me an ultimatum: either I attended the scheduled classes, or I would not graduate and not be allowed to enter City College. And that was that! I didn’t like ultimatums, and I didn’t like bureaucrats. In fact, I didn’t like Chastney either. The wrath of Ferencz was upon him!

The next day, I went up to the City College main campus and asked to speak to the Dean in charge of admissions. I was greeted by a jolly Irishman who asked me my name. “Ferencz,” I replied. “Well, Terrence m’boy” he said, putting his arm around my shoulder, “what can I do for you?” I asked whether I could be admitted from Townsend Harris without having passed gym. “Why, of course, we would admit you Terrence m’boy. We’d be glad to have you.” I thanked him profusely and scooted away before he could discover that my name was Benny and I wasn’t Irish. Then I headed back downtown to confront my Nemesis on 23rd Street. “Sir,” I said, “I have just come from City College and they will admit me without having passed gym. You lied to me!” He turned red, gripped his teeth and snapped, “You’ll get no diploma from this school!” And so it came to pass that I never formally graduated from Townsend Harris. I learned that if you meet an insurmountable obstacle, with a little determination, and justice on your side, you can find ways to walk around it. I was off to City College and later to the greatest law school in the world without ever having received a High School diploma.