Oakland, CA Lake Merritt view of park along water's edge. Focus

Remembrances of Oakland’s Past: Chapter Four

by Virginia Brown Keyder

Modes of transport around Oakland, leisurely childhood explorations – these stories which I covered in previous newsletters, pale in comparison to what growing up in Oakland really offered – its people. Outgrowing the familiarity of the neighborhood primary school, which basically centered around four square blocks from home, middle school brought lasting treasures of human interaction and expansion hardly dreamed of by a child transitioning (I can still use that word, right?) into teenage years.

Most people remember middle-school years as the worst – being small among the newly big, homework (in California at the time, primary school teachers could not/did not assign homework). Prevailing thought held that children should actually play outside among their peers. Middle school meant six different teachers a day who could no longer focus on YOU. At Westlake Junior High, however, it was different. From the Grand Lake neighborhood where names like Davis, Taylor, Nye, Crosby, Waterman predominated, ‘global’ names and faces suddenly emerged. Somehow, it all worked. Not only were there no mean girls (though there were definitely girls whose experiences had rendered them ‘tough’), there were no mean people. 

For me, two experiences of these years left lasting marks: long-term exposure to the Filipino community and music under the direction of Bennie Gillette. 

An early and intense infatuation (does anyone out there remember the intensity of an adolescent relationship?) with a Filipino boy introduced me, over the course of two to three years, to his relatives and his community. The level of generosity, hospitality, open-mindedness, and simple humanity of this community have stayed with me for my entire life as the standard by which humans can potentially live with each other. It has served to place greed and acquisitiveness firmly in the realm of (a bad) choice. It has colored my definition of “human nature.”

A recent Westlake Middle School music student (from their website)

Secondly, music. We always had music at Lakeview School – every classroom had a piano and every student had compulsory music hours. There was a band where the instruments were distributed free for student use. But nothing prepared me for the scope of music at Westlake. Our choir teacher, Bennie Gillette, was a world star who began her singing career at Berkeley High School and went on to be a renowned opera singer and mentor for the Munich Opera. She placed nothing above the level of excellence that she felt her students could achieve. Under her tutelage, young teenagers from wide variety of backgrounds became one. We learned so much and performed to the absolute top of our ability. This reached a climax in the annual concert given by 1800 middle schoolers in the school’s auditorium, singing in a single choir a breathtaking array of spiritual, Broadway, popular, and traditional international folk compositions. My children are still amazed at the scope of songs that remain in my memory to belted out at the slightest provocation. 

I always say I learned nothing in public school and its environs but singing, humanity, and typing. These were more than enough to propel me into the world in a most satisfactory manner.

Editor’s Note: Chapter 1 is here and Chapter 2, here and Chapter 3 is here. We tried hard to find a picture of Bennie Gillette, to no avail. If you have one, please share!

VBK is a third-generation Oaklander who attended Lakeview School, Westlake Jr. High, Oakland H.S, Merritt College, and UC Berkeley, before leaving for Montreal to do graduate work in Middle Eastern History and then law. After graduation from McGill Law, she worked in NYC and joined the NY Bar. She married her college sweetheart and moved to Istanbul. She taught various law courses in Istanbul and State University of NY, Binghamton. Virginia regularly commutes between Istanbul and NYC, where her two sons reside.