When I was ready to enter high school, my mom got the idea in her head that I had to go to Cass Tech. Cass Technical High School was the best school in the city, but my grades were borderline.
The school required an admissions exam and you had to have a B average to get in. Now Southeastern High School was the eastside ghetto school and Northwestern High School was the west side ghetto school. Northwestern was where the folks at Cass would send you if your grades fell below a C. For me, going to either ghetto school meant giving up my lunch money every day, possibly getting my butt kicked after school everyday and not learning anything useful unless I joined one of the gangs.
So, there was Cass. Of the more than 50,000 students graduated from it, some of the more distinguished students were comedians Lily Tomlin and David Alan Greer, auto executive John DeLorean, violinist Regina Carter, jazz musician Donald Byrd, and of course Diana Ross. Aviator Charles Lindbergh’s mother, Evangeline Lindbergh, taught chemistry at Cass from 1922 until 1942.
It was essentially a college-prep high school where the top scholar was more honored than the star quarterback of the football team. Cass served kids from all over Detroit. Some kids would have a ninety minute bus ride just to get there.
There were stories about Cass students who went away to college and found college easier than what they had in high school.
Cass Tech was connected to the High School of Commerce by the Victory Memorial Arch, a second-floor Gothic-style bridge that crossed Vernor Highway. Therefore, the combined capacity of both schools was around four thousand eight-hundred and twenty pupils. However, both schools shared Cass Tech’s cafeteria. Some Cass teachers also taught classes at Commerce.
The first floor of Cass was home to a gymnasium with an indoor track along a mezzanine, the teacher’s lounge (complete with fireplace) and a three-thousand-seat auditorium that was said to be near acoustically perfect and was complete with a balcony. The ground level also had pharmacy and physics laboratories; the second floor had a machine shop and chemistry and bacteriology labs; the third floor held the library; the fourth floor was home to cooking and mechanical drawing classrooms and art classes; the fifth floor had sewing labs and other shops; the sixth floor was the home of the music and textile programs; and the seventh floor had a foundry, baking and kitchen classrooms and the school’s original lunchroom, which could feed up to 1,000 students at a time.
Well, I got into Cass by the skin on my neck. But the bus ride from our old neighborhood was complicated and long, so my mom decided to move to a better neighborhood on the west side. Moving to the brownstone on Carter Street, right off of Dexter Boulevard, meant I could take a single bus to and from school. The Dexter bus also went down West Grand Boulevard for a while and right past the Motown or Hitsville, USA recording studios.
By this time, I had become a full blown beatnik. Jack Kerouac’s book “The Dharma Bums” was like my bible and Kerouac’s “On The Road” was my inspiration. I dabbled in Zen buddhism, took to wearing a black beret, dark sunglasses, and used my mom’s mascara to darken my mustache.
Before school started each morning, a lot of us students would gather in the auditorium to do the homework we should have done the night before, but it was also a gathering of disciplines. The performing arts students would be going through their dance routines on the stage, the music students would be practicing their instruments, and we beatniks would be reading our poetry.
Cass Tech had a strict dress code. Boys were required to wear slacks and shirts had to be tucked in, but not me. Art students at Cass were allowed to wear jeans because we worked with paints and stuff. There were several of us “cool cats” that formed our own little group, although the other guys were music students.
We didn’t eat lunch in the lunchroom like the normal kids, instead we spread our mats just outside of the main room where we played our flutes and bongo drums, read poetry and drank green tea. Needless to say, we really stood out, but because the so called “beat generation” was so cool at that time, I think the other kids either admired us or just ignored us. Remember Dobie Gillis and Maynard G. Krebbs? Peter Gunn?
Down the street from Cass was a burger, soda fountain joint called “Buddies”. Buddies was a hangout for the Cass Tech elite, meaning that freshmen almost never went to Buddies.
So, during my first year of high school, I had begun noticing how pretty the girls looked and how differently they acted from my junior high school days, but I was still pretty naïve when it came to the opposite sex. When my classmate Louise caught me in between classes in an empty class room, threw me over a desk and shoved her tongue down my throat, I was confused, but pleasantly surprised.
Just as surprised when this skinny little girl with big eyes came up to me on the school elevator and introduced herself. Yes, Cass Tech had student elevators. She said her name was Diana and we talked a bit before going to our separate classes. A few days later, we ran into each other in the lunchroom and she invited me to go with her for a burger at Buddies. Freshmen didn’t go to Buddies, I thought, what an honor, and my head began to swell. Now, I wasn’t that well heeled to be taking a girl to lunch, but I did have a few bills my mom gave me for art supplies and bus fare, so maybe this skinny little chick won’t go crazy with the menu. It would be a long walk home.
Anyways, we get to Buddies and the typical crowd of loudmouth sophomores and seniors. I was in unfamiliar territory. We grabbed an empty table and placed our order for two burgers and cokes. Not much conversation since I’m also a quiet kind of guy, and not experienced enough with women to even know where to start. She was a year ahead of me, so talking school stuff was definitely out, she wasn’t interested in art or jazz. I did manage to find out that her full name was Diana Ross.
When the waitress delivered our burgers, Diana picked up her plate and moved to a table with much older kids. I was crushed. But later, I was told that Diana made a habit of teasing freshmen and coercing burgers out of them. I left and went back to school. The next time I saw Miss Ross was in study hall when she walked over to my table and handed me one of those little fifty cent photo booth photos and apologized. Diana liked to date the older guys and she hung out with some of the thugs from Northwestern High School.
We never developed a lasting relationship since we hardly saw each other in school. I was an art student and my classes were mostly on the fourth floor. The last time I saw her was on a trip home from school. My buddies and I would get off the bus in front of the Hitsville studio and peek into the basement windows to see who was recording. We caught Mary Wells and Smokey Robinson a few times, but this day, I saw Miss Ross going into the building.
I held on to that photograph she gave me for several years until losing it when I joined the navy.
Fredric Durrette served one tour in Vietnam, retired as E8 in the navy submarine service after 23 years. Major hobbies are collecting old stuff from the 20s and restoring old racing bicycles. Worked as a commercial photographer at JL Hudsons in Detroit and continue photography as a hobby. Love Sade, sixties soul, seventies rock, and all jazz. Attended Woodstock in 69!