Ben Mendoza ’52

Ben Mendoza, Class of 1952
I’ll always remember Miss Ruth Forsyth, chemistry teacher at Oakland Tech. Miss Forsyth always wore a “grannie” dress and her glasses had very thick lens. When I was the object of her attention I could barely speak. I was transfixed with looking at her eyes that completely filled the lens of her large glasses. I, and other students said that all we could say to end any conversation with her and to get away from those huge eyes was, “Yes, Miss Forsyth.” I spent 40 years in the field of chemistry and I am sad to say that Miss Forsyth had no bearing on my eventual choice of chemistry as an occupation. The occupation chose me. My father, Antonio, also went to Oakland Tech in the 1920s. He wrote a term paper titled “Concrete,” for this same Miss Ruth Forsyth.

Mr. John Mortaratti was a music teacher and orchestra conductor at Oakland Tech. In the 10th grade I started to play in the second violin section of the orchestra. A year later, I had worked hard to be the 1st chair of the section. At the end of my junior year (June 1951), I was looking forward to being promoted to play in the first violin section. However, just before the semester ended, Mr. Mortaratti took me aside and told me that I was a “strong player” and that he wanted me to remain playing 1st chair second violin section during my senior year. I was devastated and extremely sad. I so wanted to play in the section that always played the melody of the music piece. He left the decision up to me. I ended my music career at Tech playing first chair second violin section in the orchestra.

Marian Trehan was a librarian in the Youth Library of the new Oakland Public Library on 14th Street. I and other Tech students went to her for assistance when we had to write a term paper for our history or English college-prep courses. Marian taught us how to mine the card catalog system to obtain the information we needed. She introduced us to other sources of information such as the UC Berkeley Dow Library and the US Government’s information pamphlets. She showed us where specific information books were located in the library on subjects as varied as medicine, literature, history, and famous and infamous people. If your term paper topic was California history, she got us permission to use the closed stack of books located in the California Room of the library. In some respects, research on my term paper topic became a joy rather than a chore. I considered Marian a valuable extension of the great teachers we had at Oakland Technical High School!

I found this vignette written 25 years ago in my journal:In September the teacher in the history (?) class I was in at Oakland Tech gave an assignment to write a term paper due in January. The topic of our paper was our choice. At the time I was selling newspapers, The Oakland Tribune and The Post Enquirer, at the corner of 40th Street and Broadway in front of Mullen’s Drugstore. After selling papers for my assigned time at the corner, after school from 3:30 to 6:30, I would go into the drugstore to pick out and read a comic book, the St. Louis Sporting News, the latest 10c sci-fi magazine, or any of the many crime/police magazines on display. At the time there were many stories on drugs and crime appearing in the crime magazines and in the local newspapers. After reading a story in one of these crime/police magazines, I decided that I had found my term paper topic. I would write about the drugs that appeared in the news stories: heroin, cocaine, morphine, and marijuana. I researched and wrote about the history of the drugs: where/how they were made, the effects on an individual taking the drugs, the uses of the drugs in legitimate medicine, and the illegal use of the drugs and their connection to crime. My sources were magazines, books in the Oakland and UC Berkeley libraries (thanks to Marian Trehan, librarian at the Oakland Library), and information from US government pamphlets about the subject. I even went to the Oakland Police Department to ask for any local information on drugs and crime that I could write about. A very skeptical police officer asked me for my name, address, school, and teacher’s name, and told me he would get in touch with me, which he never did.

I liberally illustrated my term paper with many pictures of crime scenes, police officers with individuals in custody, pictures of confiscated drugs and its attendant violence, cut from the crime magazines that I bought at the drugstore. I turned in my term paper and a week later the class was told what grade each of us had received for our effort. The teacher also announced that we could pick up our term paper after school. I went to the closet where the papers were placed and went through the stack. I did not find my term paper. I informed the teacher of my missing paper the next morning and he said that he would look to see if my paper had just been misplaced.

After a week of asking I got an unspoken disclosure from the teacher that I should just accept my grade “A” effort, and that the term paper would probably never be (found?) returned! I still have all of the term papers that I wrote in junior high school (Woodrow Wilson), and Oakland Tech. The one I really wanted to have, my first effort at Tech, is the one that for reasons unknown to me was never returned! Why? Looking back on this story today, I believe it was probably due to the political dogma and racial climate of that period of time in this country (1949-52). It was also a time when authority (police, teachers, politicians) was not questioned, especially by minorities!