Sen. Charles Schumer returned to his alma mater on March 20 to remind the students of James Madison High School about the illustrious alumni that came before them.
The former valedictorian, who graduated from the Sheepshead Bay high school in 1967, addressed students and staff in the packed auditorium of the 3,043-student school, and said his time at the massive institution prepared him for life after high school. Schumer said he felt like this time at James Madison — both inside and outside of the classroom — gave him an advantage in college.
“Going to a large, large high school, I learned how to navigate the way of the world with diversity, people of every different background — and you had to learn to survive on your own,” said Schumer. “The combination of the good education I got here, as well as learning to grow up in Brooklyn and having street smarts, I think is accountable for why I’m lucky enough to get where I did today.”
After graduation, Schumer attended Harvard College and Harvard Law School. He went into politics immediately afterwards, and was elected to the Assembly at age 23, becoming the youngest New York legislator since Theodore Roosevelt. He later became a congressman before getting elected to the U.S. Senate in 1998.
But Schumer said that before his success he sometimes felt self-conscious about his humble origins. His father was an exterminator and he said the noxious chemicals his father once used became a private joke in his family.
“My sister once said to my father in a birthday card, ‘Dad, we’re the only family that associates the smell of DDT with love,’ ” he said.
But ultimately, he said his humble roots and high school experience taught him how to be independent — and he said today’s students should appreciate the opportunities they have at their school — which has churned out many political powerhouses.
Other distinguished alumni include Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, plus three diverse politicians who served in the Senate simultaneously — Sen. Norm Coleman, a Republican who represented Minnesota from 2003–09, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, an Independent who has represented Vermont since 2007, as well as Schumer, is a Democrat.
“We are the only high school ever — even with all these fancy private schools and everything else — to have three U.S. Senators at the same time,” said Schumer, to a wave of applause.
After the speech, students had a chance to ask questions — and many of their inquires focused on economic concerns, including the nation’s debt and its trade relationship with China.
One 11th-grade student said his classmates’ questions summed up what the students talked about in school.
“It is something that we talk about in class a lot,” said Arean Diaz. “It is on our agenda because it affects every single one of us.”
But even in the midst of the youngsters’ financial concerns about the national debt and the soaring college costs, another 11th-grader said knowing that someone from her school attended one of the most prominent schools in the nation is encouraging.
“To find that someone from Madison went to Harvard … it is really good,” said Katharine Filipovic.