‘He Was A Complete Nonconformist’: A Throwback On Bernie Sanders’ Teenage Years

What was a teenage Bernie Sanders like?

The Vermont senator, who spent his early years in Brooklyn, is back in New York City, campaigning to become the next president of the United States. He has embedded himself into the public imagination with his anti-establishment, pro-people campaign, but about six decades earlier, Sanders was at the forefront of another presidential candidacy.

As a 17-year-old, Bernie contested for the post of the president at Brooklyn’s James Madison High School. Even back then, his classmates recall, Sanders was a nonconformist and while his rivals were talking of issues like cafeteria food and baseball tickets, he was campaigning on a promise to raise money for Korean War orphans, reports New York Daily News.

Steve Slavin, 76, who was Bernie’s classmate at school, remembers how Sanders raised issues that defined his identification of a larger social order even as a student. Not confining his campaign to petty student demands, Bernie attempted to undertake responsibilities which belied his young years.

“The candidates usually talked about these mundane things that mattered to the students — have better food at the cafeteria, make it easier to get basketball tickets.

“Not Bernie. He was a complete nonconformist.”

Friends said that Sanders made such a convincing case for Korean War orphans that even though he eventually lost the election, Bernie’s promises were not made in vain. The elected president adopted the cause and the students of James Madison went on to collect as much as they could for a charity working with South Korean children.

As is evident with his U.S. presidential campaign, so even during his early years, Sanders was moved by the plight of the oppressed, or people who did not constitute the mainstream. His decision to take the cause of Korean War orphans was driven as much by his knowledge of world affairs and America’s position in it, as it was by his commitment to seeing a society where no one was excluded. This was the time when Bernie’s socialist ideals began to inform his political understanding, something which would stay with him throughout his political career.

The son of a Polish paint salesman and a homemaker, Sanders’ modest upbringing in a working-class Brooklyn neighborhood, coupled with the fact that he grew up in post-war America, instilled in him a sense of sensitivity towards his fellow citizens that has only evolved with time. The then-American president’s, Dwight Eisenhower’s, explicit warning of the military-industrial complex becoming a strong force in Washington’s political circles struck a chord with a young Bernie, and as an energetic, hardworking, and conscious political subject, Sanders took it upon himself to fight corporate and military lobbying to the best of his ability.

Mark Ruffalo, who campaigned with Sanders in the shadow of his old six-story, brick building at 1525 E. 26th St. in Midwood, told a crowd of a few hundred excited supporters that New York City helped Bernie in molding his political ideas.

“This guy used to live in Brooklyn. He learned how to be a politician here.

Now what do we do in New York? We come here with dreams and we see those dreams are realized here. Bernie’s our man.”

But Bernie was not just interested in politics during his early years. A strong athlete, he excelled at basketball and running track. When he was in the ninth-grade, he was the best runner in the city. According to a clip from the Madison High School newspaper, Sanders broke the record for the mile-run at a meet in Flatbush, before going on to involve himself with presidency again. In 1959, Bernie was elected the president of his senior class owing to his huge popularity in the school.

A classmate from Sanders’ senior class, Walter Block, said Bernie “was a sweetie pie, whom everybody liked” and that he was drawn towards “very left wing politics” already.

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June 1959: Bernie graduates James Madison High School in Brooklyn, NY, where he captained the track team. #TBT

A photo posted by Bernie Sanders (@berniesanders) on

While on the one hand he got accepted to the prestigious University of Chicago, his mother’s health seriously deteriorated on the other.

“His mother’s health had a tremendous impact on him,” a friend said. “He had a chance to go to an elite college in the Midwest, but he didn’t want to leave, which is a very decent thing.”

But Sanders did not find either the teachers or the students at Brooklyn College to be intellectually stimulating. “‘He would complain that the teachers were dumb and the students didn’t really care,” Block said.

In 1960, Sanders’ mother died. Following the tragedy, he transferred to University of Chicago. His father passed away soon too. His siblings moved away from Brooklyn, meaning Bernie’s ties with the borough all but snapped. He would never return to stay in Brooklyn.

But the accent remained. Now Bernie Sanders is back finally at the place where it all began, and this time he would be hoping that he does not have to see another president adopt his cause.

[Photo by Eric Thayer/Getty Images]