Janet Yellen, the first woman nominated as Chair of the Federal Reserve, was always the smartest person in the room.
In our case, the room was filled with more than 600 seniors at a public high school, Ft. Hamilton, in Brooklyn with an enrollment of about 3,000 students. Janet was always at the top of the class—she was the very definition of a super nerd, a moniker that wasn’t in our lexicon in the early 1960’s.
But nerds tend to be socially awkward, and Janet was socially astute. We were friends and hung out together when she wasn’t acing her SATs or winning science awards. Unlike the rest of us, Janet had one character trait that we lacked: she was disciplined and knew when to quit playing and get serious about her studies.
Janet and I grew up in Bay Ridge—a mixed community of Irish, Italian, Jewish, Lebanese and “other” ethnic groups. At 2pm on Wednesdays, our grammar schools would be empty because almost all of us headed for various religious training during “released time,” a practice which continues to this day in some schools.
The housing laws back then restricted apartment buildings in to 6 stories, which helped maintain a human scale to the neighborhood. In my apartment on the same boulevard, the rooms were small, and jammed with books, records, games and other stuff. A folding card table served as our dining table, since we didn’t have a dining room or “dinette” in our two-bedroom flat. That same table also saw many a game of mahjongg, canasta, and pinochle—the adult entertainment of that time.
The neighborhood had its social and economic pecking order, organized by how close you lived to the Narrows, a water-ramp of sorts that leads to the Hudson River. Janet lived in an attached two-family home on Ridge Blvd., 4 blocks from the Narrows. I don’t remember the rock collection The Times described in a story about her many high school accomplishments. But I do recall that she and her family traveled to exotic places while I stayed home and developed an interest in politics. I remember rushing home from school to listen to President Kennedy’s many press conferences, which were always timed for the after-school crowd.
Growing up in Bay Ridge was a gift in many ways. New York City benefitted from a wave of educated and talented people who had lost their homes during World War II, many of whom became teachers. At Ft. Hamilton, Ph.D.’s headed many departments, including my favorite--biology. Some even had European accents, which somehow gave them an aura of Einstein-ish authority.
If Janet is confirmed—and I assume she will be—she will bring a little bit of Brooklyn to the Fed. As President Obama said yesterday when he introduced her to the country, "She's a proven leader and she's tough, not just because she's from Brooklyn." Maybe so, but growing up in Brooklyn probably gave Janet a real understanding of the importance of middle class mobility, the necessity of uncompromising high educational standards, and the value of preserving--and even inspiring--the common American dream of individual achievement.
The real gift to teenage girls like Janet and me was the way we were treated by our teachers, our parents and our peers. Somehow, sexual stereotypes weren’t an issue. The editors of all three high school publications—the newspaper, the literary magazine and the yearbook--were all girls. We were expected to take charge, just as our mothers and grandmothers did when men went off to war. You’d be hard-pressed to find a “Stepford Wife” in Bay Ridge or any other part of Brooklyn.
Janet Yellen is Brooklyn strong.