Harris Sarney taught at Midwood High School in Brooklyn for 22 years, watching thousands of students stream in and out of its arched doorways. One of them was Lisa Napoli, class of 1980.
An “average student” by her own admission, she bonded with Sarney, also a Midwood grad, over their shared love of theater. Long after she graduated, she’d remember him as a mentor and a friend. “There was just something about him you trusted,” she says. “I felt like he got me.”
What she didn’t know until many years later was that he remembered her, too. “Lisa was bright and alert,” he recalls now. “And personally charming.”
In the 1990s, Napoli was working as a reporter for the New York Times and came across Sarney’s name in an article about Bayside High School, in Queens, where he was principal. She reached out to him and he responded right away, inviting her to come speak at his school.
“I remember a lot of [my former students],” he explains. “Do I remember them the way I remember Lisa? Mostly not.”
Chalkbeat caught up with them recently at Midwood’s 75th Anniversary Jubilee and asked them to recall their time at Midwood, and how they first crossed paths. Their interviews have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Chalkbeat: What was Midwood like when you were a student there?
Harris Sarney: It was heaven on earth. The people, the teachers, my classmates were all bright. Well, I can’t say they were all bright. There was a healthy supply of very bright students.
There were great extracurricular activities. The chorus was known citywide and performed at Carnegie Hall. The student government was modeled on the government of New York. We had a mayor and commissioners and a board of estimates. It was a living lesson in civics. Many of the people who were active in the city of Midwood went on to careers in government.
We were a different generation, very school-spirited. It was nothing to do with intellectual gifts as much as spirit. Like the tradition of “SING!” [a school-wide competition originated at Midwood in the 1940s].
Was it considered a good school?
HS: It was the sought-after school. Students from outside the zone would come. We had kids from Eastern Parkway and those people were probably zoned for Erasmus Hall, which no longer exists. Erasmus at the time was our rival.
Most of the large, comprehensive high schools have been shut down and the real estate is being used to house several smaller schools. Midwood is one of the survivors.
Lisa, you attended the school roughly 20 years after Harris.
Lisa Napoli: It was a different city then. People were leaving the city in droves. There were all these beautiful houses fringed by not so beautiful neighborhoods.
In hindsight, it’s really interesting to think that we were all part of this clan of people who made a commitment to the city. I see people wearing Brooklyn T-shirts and naming their children “Brooklyn” and it’s funny to think that I was embarrassed when I was in college to tell people I was from Brooklyn.
What was Midwood like then?
LN: It was just a little city unto itself. It wasn’t just a place that we went and then went home. All of my friends were involved in everything and we had keys to things. And we just felt connected to school.
I remember when our friend Jesse got a car and he drove us there, and that was a big thrill. There was a room behind the theater and Jesse had the keys to it and when we were doing SING!, we would hang out in the prop room.
How were you as a student?
HS: I was a good student, I wasn’t stellar. I graduated cum laude with an 89.1 average.
You still remember that.
HS: My parents were teachers – these things mattered.
LN: I wasn’t a great student, especially up against my best friends. But I always spoke pretty well, so teachers reacted to me because I had this grown-up personality. I wasn’t a bad student; I was an average student.
When it was time to apply to college, I was kind of casting about because my parents hadn’t gone away to school. Others of my peers had parents who were very involved in the college selection process. Many of them knew where they wanted to go. I knew I didn’t want to stay in Brooklyn, though my Italian father would have loved it.
Harris was your college counselor?
LN: He was the college guidance counselor as well as the AP English teacher, and he knew that I was a smart kid that wasn’t getting stellar SATs.
My friends were all on this doctor/lawyer professional track and he could sort of see that it wasn’t for me and helped nudge me in the right direction.
You suggested Hampshire College.
HS: I had been doing my homework about types of schools and everything that I had learned about Hampshire seemed tailor-made for Lisa. It was kind of like an alternative program, more geared to the student than the curriculum.
She was a very good student, very smart. We found just the right school for Lisa.
Did you always want to be a teacher?
HS: No. I wanted to be an actor, but my parents were very conservative. They said, “Fine, but get your teaching license so you’ll have something to fall back on.”
I was in Brooklyn College for teaching, and part of the training was student teaching and I was assigned to Midwood High School. At the end of the year of student teaching, the English chair offered me a job.
It was like I’d died and went to heaven as a teacher. I was there for 22 years.
You’ve taught countless students. What made Lisa memorable?
HS: She was interested, she was interesting, she sat up front. She was accessible. It just happens. There’s something about the student and the spark.
Lisa, why do you think Harris made such an impression on you?
LS: He was just incredibly warm. He had this incredible sense of authority about him, but not in a stern or foreboding way. There was no question that he was the adult and he was in a mentoring role. He just had this ease and command.
He, like us, was part of the school. He was just such a presence there. He was a piece of the school.
Harris Sarney retired in 2001 and still lives in Brooklyn. Lisa Napoli lives in Los Angeles. Her second book is due out next month.