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Noteworthy graduates: Jelani Cobb, professor and journalist

New York Teacher
Jelani Cobb

Jelani Cobb, a graduate of Jamaica HS in the class of 1987, has constructed a life at the nexus of academia and journalism. You might find him one day discussing the Watts riots of 1965 with his history class at the University of Connecticut, Storrs — and the next day writing about this summer’s fatal police shooting and its aftermath in Ferguson, Missouri, for The New Yorker.

Cobb’s books include “The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama & the Paradox of Progress” (Bloomsbury, 2010) and “The Break of Dawn: A Freestyle on the Hip Hop Aesthetic” (NYU Press, 2007). He’s also a savvy user of Twitter, where he weighs in on the news of the day and tweets the links to his journalism. In addition to The New Yorker, he has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and National Public Radio, among other places.

Cobb says his high school experience gave him the confidence to pursue his dreams. “Jamaica HS set me in good stead academically, intellectually and socially,” he says. After Jamaica, he attended Howard University and in 2003 earned his doctorate in American history at Rutgers University. In addition to being an associate professor of history, Cobb is the director of the Africana Studies Institute at the University of Connecticut, Storrs. His newest book, “Antidote to Revolution: African American Anticommunism and the Struggle for Civil Rights, 1931–1957,” is forthcoming from Columbia University Press.

I was born and raised in Queens, in Springfield Gardens and Hollis. I attended PS 134, IS 192 and IS 238 before attending Jamaica HS. I had good teachers at the elementary and middle schools, but my most memorable experience was in high school. When I graduated from Jamaica HS in 1987, I was one of five friends, only one of whom had college-educated parents. Three of us went on to obtain the Ph.D. It was a very enriching environment.

Jamaica had a diverse student body. We had Russian immigrants, students from the Caribbean and South America, Africa. I remember one student from Lithuania explaining what was going on between Russia and Lithuania.

When I think about how important my education at Jamaica has been to the rest of my life, it makes me impatient when people disparage teachers. What I received is far in excess of what they are paid as teachers.

At Jamaica HS, I was in the English and social studies honors classes. Mrs. Drosch was my English teacher. She took us to a reading by the poet Gwendolyn Brooks at St. John’s University — the first author I met. Writing would later become an interest of mine. When I was in grad school I needed money, so I began freelance writing, and later on I didn’t want to give it up.

Mr. McCaskill was my math teacher. I’ve kept in touch with him after running into him in Brooklyn. He was very passionate about teaching and took the potential of his students seriously.

I had a science teacher, Mr. Falcone. I was very interested in science, and I asked him, “What is a quark?” Instead of simply telling me, he asked me to look it up, and of course I found out that it was a subatomic particle. He recommended me to a science honors class. He recognized my curiosity and rewarded it. It was a significant vote of confidence in me, that someone thought I was smart.

Mr. Schein was my biology teacher. He was a character — he had a gruff, sardonic sense of humor. He cultivated our knowledge of the natural world and made biology accessible and relevant to our personal lives.

On Saturdays, a group of us took the train up to City College for enhanced math and science courses as part of Jamaica’s Select Program in Science and Engineering. I didn’t become a scientist, but I developed a lifelong interest in science. The emphasis on rational thought and the pursuit of objectivity informs the work I do today.

— As told to reporter Linda Ocasio

Related Topics: Noteworthy Graduates