Between now and next Monday, when confirmation hearings begin in the Senate on the nomination of Elena Kagan  for the U.S. Supreme Court, many in the nation will be watching: law schools, pundits across the spectrum, high-powered attorneys planning to appeal to the Court. But none, perhaps, will watch more avidly than alumnae of Kagan’s New York City high school, Hunter College High School.

Founded in the 1890s, HCHS has ever since offered a college-prep course of study to students from the five boroughs of New York City. And on Sunday, June 6, the building was crammed with women and men who, at age ten or eleven, passed a highly competitive entrance exam to become Hunter High students. Until 1973, all those students were girls, making Hunter High a singular place for girls to turn into women. Barbara Krumsiek (class of 1963), CEO of the Calvert Group, recently told the New York Times that “I think it really drove home that girls could do anything.”

That Sunday, Hunter graduates flooded into its current building on East 94th Street. Inside, it looks like countless New York City schools, with dropped ceilings and blue floors. But next to the Alumni Weekend welcome signs,  a framed collage of Kagan’s yearbook photo and clippings saluted the 1977 graduate.

Kagan wasn’t at the reunion; neither was the other currently-most-famous graduate, actor Cynthia Nixon (class of 1984), on screen in this summer’s Sex and the City 2. A few other notable alums  were there, including Civil War historian Martha Hodes (’75), author of The Sea Captain’s Wife and journalist Donna Minkowitz (’81), author of Ferocious Romance.

But the event wasn’t about the boldface names associated with the school. “We are all in paroxysms of joy about Kagan,” Alumni Association vice president Kelly Washburn said that Sunday. “But there are a lot of heroes here.” Washburn added that she is still learning about their stories. “It took me a long time to feel this way, but I’ve come to realize—we really are a tribe,” she said.

That morning, members from classes spanning 1936-2005 crowded into classrooms that suddenly felt small. Women’s Voices for Change decided to check in with some of the tribe’s elders: women who graduated Hunter High before 1950, before it was even legal, in some places, for women to wear trousers in public.

“The most interesting thing I remember about our class,” educator Phyllis Kavett told us, “is that at our 50th reunion, no one talked about their marriages. No mention of husbands—we didn’t even talk about our grandchildren! We talked about who became department chair, who made vice president—that sort of thing.”

They did share memories, though. One was the end-of-semester between Kavett and classmate Elaine Kooperstein: “Our idea of something exciting at the end of the semester? Whoever got the highest score on the math Regents exam got taken to a French restaurant. That was it…. I rarely got taken out,” she added, pointing to Kooperstein, who was hired after college to teach math— at an all-boys school.

Throughout her subsequent career teaching math in Union City, New Jersey, Kooperstein told her students what she’d first learned at Hunter:  ” ‘In the real world, no one gives you the equation and asks you to solve for X. Life is a series of word problems.’ ”

Asked about Kagan, the class of ’45 seemed to see a younger sister of sorts in the Supreme Court nominee.“When I heard, I was very happy to know my school was called prestigious” by the outside world, said Kavett. “The article mentioned that she put it in her resume—same as I’ve been doing all my life!” She pointed out that the pre-1950 classes had brought the first women to math and engineering departments at colleges like Cornell University (from which Kavett  graduated in 1948) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At MIT, she recalled, one Hunter friend attended a lecture only to find that “all the rows behind her and in front of her were empty—the men refused to sit there!”

Kavett herself (left) eventually joined the faculty at New Jersey’s Kean University, developing innovative curricula in mathematics education. She also co-founded the New Jersey Association for Elected Women Officials. “Hunter High empowered us to run the women’s movement, you know. When we saw a need, we started an organization.”

So did the oldest alum in the room that morning, Norma Alexander Abdullah, whose name is listed in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hall of Fame for her work in helping to launch the United Federation of Teachers, the Freedom Now Party in Harlem, and the Labor Party of New York City.

Also breaking multiple barriers during those years was a classmate who decided to crack open the banking industry, after discovering that—unlike classmates Kavett and Kooperstein—she hated teaching. “I started at the Bank of New York, and they had do make some adjustments,” she told WVFC. “I was the first African-American employee they had, and one of the first women.”  She eventually became a banker at Merrill Lynch.

After an hour of swapping stories, the group moved to the school auditorium, where representatives of each class waited to share highlights. The class of 1960, which appeared to have brought all 300 of their members, sang to the school’s venerable Latin teacher, Irving Kizner. They cheered Kagan on while proudly noting that Hunter gave her a head start, citing an oft-repeated line among alumni: “We got a college education in high school, and a high school education in college.”

Members of the class of 1970 spoke of school strikes after the invasion of Cambodia, while others shared vivid memories of the school’s near-elimination in the fierce New York City budget battles of that decade. That peril, Washburn and others noted, was what bred the Hunter alumni association in the first place, formalizing an often-fractious family.

Elena Kagan likely knows she doesn’t needs to lobby for their support, nor would it make much of a difference in the upcoming hearings. But she might take comfort in the vision of the Class of ’45 standing guard at her shoulder, daring senators and pundits to cross a Hunter girl.

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