WARNING: URBAN LANGUAGE AHEAD
William Wordsworth wrote in his famous poem, The Rainbow, “The child is the father of the man.” It sure applies to me.
I went to kindergarten in PS 96, the Bronx. At the time it was in the mostly Jewish Pelham Parkway area. I wasn’t there long. My mom and I had to move out of our nice digs to my grandmother’s place in the south (at the time misnamed east) Bronx. It turns out that we were evicted for lack of rent. Dad did not pay his obligated monthly child support and alimony payments and mom’s job in the garment district as a former model turned “Gal Friday” paid her slave wages. She had no union. So, like little red riding hood, it was off to grandmother’s (Mom’s mom) I went, and PS 61, on Boston Road and Charlotte Street to finish kindergarten.
You might know grandma’s place. President Jimmy Carter visited the area. She lived on Minford Place and Charlotte Street. Somehow we were able to move to our own place a few blocks away on Longfellow Ave. and 172nd street, not far from Grandma and a block from my new scholastic and athletic home, PS 66. It was there that I endured Mrs. Witch in class 1-3. I have one class picture of me in a cowboy outfit. I was smiling; it must have been Halloween. It was probably the only time. I smiled in first grade. What I do remember is getting yelled out for putting my feet in the aisle because I didn’t fit under those screwed in wooden desks.
My second grade teacher spoiled me. Actually after 2nd grade, there wasn’t much in school I was interested in except playing ball in the schoolyard with my mostly black and Puerto Rican buddies. The other Jewish kids were doing their homework. Actually, I don’t remember much of 3rd, 4th, or 6th grades. I skipped 5th grade. I guess I really was gifted. I only remember 6th grade because of my most embarrassing moment in school. You know the one when you want to hide, not only under the screwed to the floor desks, but under the floor they were screwed into.
PS 66 was on Jennings Street and Longfellow Ave, in the part of the south Bronx that was changing rapidly. It was a place where white (mostly Jewish) flight was already happening. What is with my people? Why do they always have an exodus when “those” people move in? PS 66 was a well “integrated” school with fewer and fewer white students annually. Black, Puerto Rican and white kids just played together and went to classes together. We were all the same to each other, although I do remember my mom saying that all although all people deserve equal rights, I still couldn’t bring a “colored” into the house. Perplexed, I believed the first statement and was forced to follow the second.
That takes me back to 2nd grade. Miss Stafford was our teacher. She must have been the ripe old age of 23. We had no idea. We were 7. To us she was ancient. She was also incredible. When she passed away in 2009 several of us from her 2nd grade class were at her memorial service. This is who she was to the world.
“Dr. Rita Dunn, an authority on learning styles, a professor in the Division of Administrative and Instructional Leadership and the director of the Center for the Study of Learning and Teaching Styles became an inspiring, internationally renowned professor of higher education; prolific author of 32 textbooks and more than 450 manuscripts and research papers; the recipient of 31 professional research awards, and expert on using individual learning styles to improve teaching. During her career at St. Johns, Dr. Dunn mentored more than 160 doctoral students, many of whom now occupy positions of leadership throughout the world.”
Little did we know as 7 year olds entering Rita Stafford’s class 2-1 in PS 66, Bx. in September of 1956, that we were to become happy guinea pigs. People marvel when they are told of what Rita did for us. They marvel at our advanced work. They marvel at our activities. They marvel at our reunions every Christmas time for 12 years, and at our last reunion, twelve years ago and 44 years after our second grade class.
I can’t count the number of times I have told people how we learned about Little Rock and Civil Rights by reading the newspapers and actually writing letters of advice to President Eisenhower. We all got along and couldn’t figure out what was going on down there. (We even received a reply and were quoted in the New York Times. (Go look. Second Grade Bronx Pupils Query President On Bias In The South 4/19/57). When I taught at Scarsdale High School, Terrence Roberts, one of the Little Rock Nine, was honored and I showed him the article. Tears welled up in his eyes as he thanked me. Through the letter writing experience we learned that in the right atmosphere, kids from all ethnicities could live, work, and play together while even becoming civil rights activists while still in second grade.
I left Longfellow Avenue in 1960 after “graduating” elementary school. I moved 3 blocks away to Vyse Ave and 173rd street. I went to (the soon to be “notorious”) Herman Ridder JHS until 1963. During that 3-year period of time, the pace at which the neighborhood changed increased geometrically. Mom got more and more worried. When I went to Ridder it was still integrated, but maybe 70-30 with white kids being the minority. Then as I stayed there, “we” became more of a minority. There were very few white kids by the time I graduated. I guess I was a White Shadow. I became friends with Ron Ingram, Walter Jones, and Clarence Thomas who became a well-known musician in the Jimmy Castor and Fatback Bands in the 70s. – – All black guys.
One conversation that I remember was with my friend, Walter. He said you know I really feel sorry for you. I said why? And he said, because all white girls are ugly and black girls are really much more attractive. Remember, he’s like a year and a half older then me, so I’m like, who cares? And then I would look around and I would realize that he was right, but at the time I didn’t care enough to do anything about it.
One time. This friend of mine, Fred, who was the only white kid I became friendly with, and I were walking home from school down 173rd Street, when three black kids we didn’t know, mugged us because we weren’t the toughest looking kids in the neighborhood. We were younger, and we were a little pudgy at the time. We were easy targets. That was the only time I ever had a negative experience when I lived there.
Of course my mother freaked. So in the middle of ninth grade we “had to” move somewhere else. Again, because of my mom’s lack of money we could not afford to move to the mostly white northern Bronx or the virtually all white part of the Bronx called Riverdale. People in Riverdale never said that they were from the Bronx. They tried to convince people that they lived in a separate place called Riverdale.
We did move to the Roosevelt Gardens on 171st and the Grand Concourse. But at the time, the Concourse was also rapidly changing. The Roosevelt Gardens had once been a very famous building. A full city block, it was named after Theodore Roosevelt. Built in 1903, it was a huge complex of apartments – – buildings that opened up into this huge courtyard. It was probably beautiful at one time, before I moved in, but it was already deteriorating when I got there.
As I said, I went to the Bronx High School Of Science. Interestingly enough Walter went and Ron also did. They were two of the very few black males there. We took a test and got in. I hated it and the commute. I wanted just cross the Concourse and go to my local high school, Taft. I wasn’t very studious, especially compared to the other students. I did poorly. Out of a class of 950, I ranked 903rd with an average of roughly 80. Part of the reason was that I spent more time playing basketball, softball and football at Taft every afternoon and all weekend. Taft had this huge schoolyard where we could actually play full games of softball, full games of tackle football, even though it was asphalt. And so I would go to the other (“dark”) side of the Concourse, therefore coming in contact and making friends with more guys of color. I played ball with them well into my adult years. They had a great influence on my views on people, race, and bigotry.
When once asked if I made any connections between what was going on in the country in terms of Civil Rights, and my life in Bronx, I responded, yes. Because of my experience back in second grade and growing up as I did, I was always aware of civil rights and race issues. You know, as a kid, I didn’t want to read the newspaper, but there it was, and on occasion I would read the newspaper, and see stuff that was on TV, and I remember being very interested and intrigued with the 1963 March on Washington, and what was I? 12-13 years old?
Martin Luther King fascinated me, and for some reason I got very intrigued with Adam Clayton Powell, because I liked his hat. He was standing behind Martin Luther King, and had that hat on, and I said who is that guy? And then I found out who he was, and I was like, oh wow he’s from here; he’s from New York. And so I continued trying to figure out why civil rights was an issue 7 years after my second grade experience.
I was shocked by what I saw on TV in Mississippi and Alabama and it became a growing interest, although at some points I do remember wishing I was older so that I could do some of the things like, going down to Mississippi, but that was a little later on in 1964-5. I was still too young.
In 1965 NYC and the northeast US experienced a famous blackout. My friends and I, of various colors, discovered that there was a stuck “D” train on the express track right in the subway station on our corner. We decided to help get people out. So we broke into a storeroom in the basement of my building and brought a few ladders to bring down to the train to help these people. As we approached the corner (with me in front) a cop turned the corner and drew his gun. He accused us of trying to loot or steal and I had to explain our true purpose. I am convinced that if I wasn’t up front AND WHITE, some bad shit would have gone down. Instead he escorted us down to the train where we helped rescue a couple of hundred stranded souls.
Can you imagine if none of us was white? Talk about White Privilege.
Closer to home, Coop City opened up in the northeast Bronx and increased white flight 100 fold and fueled much of the newly “burning” South Bronx. I remember that my family and friends’ families were bitching and moaning about how the neighborhood kept “getting worse”, and I just kept saying, but if you didn’t leave it would be okay. I remember having heated arguments with people in my family and my mother, who wanted to move but couldn’t afford to move, but she defended everybody else who did.
As our building began to deteriorate even more rapidly, I learned my landlord’s name, Weinreb, who had become one of the most infamous slumlords in the nation. I remember my mother having to deal with the heat that didn’t work, the faucets that wouldn’t get fixed, the rats, the roaches, and the paint jobs that wouldn’t get done, and watching this place deteriorate in front of my eyes, and everybody moaning and groaning, and claiming that “it’s the new people moving in”, and I knew it’s not the people moving in! “It’s NOT the people moving in … it’s the landlord!”
And so I started getting angrier with people. Many white or Jewish “friends, family, or acquaintances would ask me, “What are you? The “anti-Jew?” Why don’t stick up for your own people?
I married and moved to the north Bronx in the mid 1970’s and I found my mom an apartment not far from me. The Roosevelt Gardens was condemned and shuttered soon after. It eventually was restored. I go back and visit from time to time.
As an adult, I came to learn that to have grown up working-class poor in an integrated urban setting allowed me to think much more freely about race.
Eventually I got married, had a kid (actually 2) and moved to the suburban town where I now live. I got incredibly frustrated with some of the people with whom I became neighbors. I was teaching in the Bronx, and some of them taught in the Bronx. However, when they got home they felt free to say all of the things they couldn’t say when they were at work. In the safety of their backyards they could talk about the “spics” and the “schvartze” (Yiddish for n—-r). We used to argue, and let’s just say that we never became friends because I was constantly defending the kids I was teaching, the neighbors I grew up with, and my friends of color. I felt like I was in the position of having to defend everything that I thought I was right.
Once I was in a conversation at a school committee on race at the whitest of the 3 high schools I worked. Some teachers on the Race Committee were actually afraid to talk about the subject. The people most afraid to talk about the subject were those who had rarely been in contact with anybody less white than himself or herself. For example the use of the “n-word” came up. Somebody in the conversation stuttered as they asked if it is ever ok to use the “n-word”. And I would say in my opinion, if you were not calling someone a name, but you actually want to talk about the word, you can actually say the word you want to talk about.
So for a little shock therapy I told them that when I was growing up I was called “my nigga” by some of my black friends…. and a “white nigger” by some racist folks I met along the way. When I was playing ball and slinging footballs accurately all around the place, I heard things like, “Damn, that “White Nigga” can throw.” I was proud to have been accepted. But when racist fools told me that I was just a “white nigger” for supporting civil rights, I was offended. Intent matters. Now don’t go getting all offended at those stories. I’m just “keepin it ” 100”.
My experiences in those neighborhoods allowed me to respect my fellow students, my students, my friends and taught me the real meaning of respect. It molded how I saw people and made friends, and how I taught, not just when I taught in my Bronx, but elsewhere where I met kids from varied backgrounds. My experiences allowed me to “code switch” and listen. My experiences allowed me to have the privilege of being able to get the respect of students as well as adults of color as it gave me the ability to respect them. My experiences also allowed me to know first hand how being white is an advantage. I am convinced that if all children had my experiences and grew up in integrated neighborhoods this world would be a better place.