Perhaps it was the times we lived in; the 1960s were special to almost everyone. Or perhaps it had more to do with the unique place we found ourselves sharing. Our junior high school, in the heart of Miami's Little Havana, is legendary.
No one can really explain what made Ada Merritt Junior High School so special or why it had such a huge impact in our lives. But we all know it did. No one can explain why we still carry that school with us, but we do.
Anyone who went to Ada Merritt in the 1960s can tell you at least a dozen anecdotes about life-changing experiences there. Some of them were pleasant; some were tough; some still are hilarious; and some we would rather forget. But they were all very valuable lessons.
No one can explain why Ada Merritt still draws its former students together like a powerful magnet, but we know it does. We are an unofficial fraternity, a brotherhood of men and women who are bonded by some magical code we don't really understand.
Perhaps it was because most of us were recently-arrived Cuban refugees, and together we struggled to learn the English language, adapt to American foods, dance to rock 'n' roll music, and play American sports. We became as close as siblings because the circumstances made us depend on each other. Or, perhaps, we are all possessed by the spirit of Ada Merritt.
Named after a pioneer Miami educator and built in 1923, this was the first junior high school in South Florida. But in the 1960s, Ada Merritt was in the heart of an inner city plagued with social and economic problems.
If you went to school there, you were likely to be poor and living in a drug, gang and crime-ridden neighborhood. Remember the kind of eccentric, unconventional teachers you only see in the movies?
Whenever I see a movie about a troubled school and the inspirational teachers who take them on, I say to myself, "I went there. That's Ada Merritt."
After all, my teachers were tough-love educators, just like Sidney Poitier in "To Sir, with Love" or Edward James Olmos in "Stand and Deliver" or Nick Nolte in "Teachers" or Hilary Swank in "Freedom Writers" or Morgan Freeman in "Lean on Me."
Many of these actors represented real-life teachers. "So why aren't they making a movie about Ada Merritt?" I've been asking myself that for many years.
Seeking an answer to that question, when I became a reporter for The Miami Herald in the mid 1970s, I looked up the newspaper clippings for my alma mater, and what I discovered was fascinating — an even better movie than I expected.
I found that many of our teachers had gone there voluntarily, seeking the challenge of educating inner city immigrant students, committed to leveling the education playing field. If I admired them before, the Herald archives made me appreciate them even more.
To teach at Ada Merritt, they had to be tough, strict disciplinarians and frankly, a little crazy.
And they were!
Ada Merritt was the kind of school where students who wanted to fight were handed boxing gloves and allowed to release their anxieties, where the vice principal wielded a huge paddle, where corporal punishment for unruly boys was almost a daily occurrence, where the cops would bring you back to school if you were out in the neighborhood skipping classes.
But it also was the kind of school where the teachers gave up on no one, where they cared enough to show up at your home uninvited, at dinnertime, when they knew they could address your discipline problems in front of your parents.
Each one of them was a perfect movie character, eccentric and inspirational at the same time. There was the science teacher who apparently thought we understood English better when it was shouted; the history teacher who thought he was still a general in the U.S. Army; the Spanish teacher who called everyone "an animal;" the geography teacher who made more sense when he consulted the bottle of gin he kept in his desk drawer; and the woodshop teacher who engaged in rubber-band battles with his entire class. There was also the frequent substitute teacher who was strict about handing out assignments, but once encouraged to sing, he would end up standing on top of the teacher's desk and crooning like Frank Sinatra. I don't remember his name, but I do remember that we knew him as "Frankie."
There was the physical education teacher who also played third base for the old minor league Miami Marlins, and another teacher who was considered mean in school but a guardian angel when we got in trouble on the street while he was moonlighting as a cop. We looked forward to their stories about their outside jobs, especially from the civics teacher who also worked as a drummer at The Playboy Club. They gave us an unconventional education, but it worked!
Back then, there were fears that the children of refugees would not be able to make it past the factories and hotels that had provided jobs for our parents when we first arrived. There was fear that we would never join the American mainstream because Little Havana was going to shield us from the rest of the world. But it didn't turn out that way for my classmates. My immediate buddies went on to become a judge, an IRS prosecutor, a hospital director, a doctor, a stockbroker, the president of a chain of restaurants, real estate developers, brokers, bankers, computer system engineers, and firefighters. Needless to say, they reached the mainstream and became contributing members of American society.
Yet the school was closed in the 1970s — finally defeated by many ailments. The building was used as a Job Corps center until it was demolished and a replica of the Spanish colonial-style structure was rebuilt in 2003 — still with its impressive main entrance guarded by two lion statues.
The replica was then incorporated into an even larger structure that became the new Ada Merritt — now an elementary "magnet" school, designed for commuters to drop off their children on their way to work in downtown Miami.
But the magnet has always been there. Ada Merritt alumni have gone in different directions, but the bonds of friendship that were fused there always keep pulling us together.
I went to that school from 1964 to 1967, and yet when I visit Miami, the friends I still seek are my Ada Merritt classmates. We may be scattered all over the country — dispersed by careers, families and responsibilities — but the spirit of Ada Merritt is unbreakable. We still are the best of friends.
Even if I don't see my Ada Merritt friends for a few years, I always feel I can count on them for anything, like you do with familia. And when I hear that a former classmate is doing well, bursting with pride but quietly, without having to boast, I simply say to myself, "Que Viva el Ada Merritt."
And now, through the magic of Facebook, the Ada Merritt family is growing again. Stranded alumni are locating each other, sharing photos from the 1960s and taking the spirit of Ada Merritt to a whole new level.
"Why is it that we feel so close even on FB?" one of my former classmates asked, rhetorically, in a Facebook posting. "Amazing!"
I understood perfectly. A couple of week ago, when I discovered the Ada Merritt Junior High School Facebook page, thanks to an old classmate who sent me an invitation, I joined the group immediately. But there was so much I wanted to say in my first posting, so many emotions I wanted to share, that it took a whole column to express it.
To find out more about Miguel Perez and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.