The Me Nobody Knew Then

The Re-education of Me Table of Contents

  1. What we investigate is linked to who we are
  2. The Me nobody knew then
  3. Mrs. Jefferson’s “Sympathetic Touch” meets Mrs. Masterman’s Philanthropy
  4. Discovering Masterman, discovering myself
  5. The electronic music lab at Masterman School
  6. The Interactive Journalism Institute for Middle Schoolers and the quest for computing diversity

“When I first get up in the morning I feel fresh and it feels like it would be a good day to me. But after I get in school, things change and they seem to turn into problems for me. And by the end of the day I don’t even feel like I’m young. I feel tired.”

John, 13

The Me Nobody Knows: Children’s Voices From the Ghetto, Stephen M. Joseph, ed.  (first printed in 1970, reprinted in 2003)

The word that I had been admitted to Masterman, a public school for gifted children, came not a moment too soon. It was April, 1967, I was 10 years old,  I was considered one of the top students at Kearny Elementary School, but socially and emotionally, I was failing badly. Had I not been transferred to Masterman when I was, I am not sure how I would have coped with my growing sense of loneliness and isolation. Reflecting upon these experiences leads me to think about how a child’s interactions with home, school, neighborhood and the larger environment affects her perceptions of her place in the world, and her chances of overcoming its obstacles and seizing its opportunities.

In recent years, psychologists have advocated for models of child development that give central consideration to the role of culture and socio-economic status in shaping the way a child views the world and functions within it. Yvette Harris and James Graham, author of the 2007 book: The African American Child: Development and Challenges (Springer Publishing Company, New York, NY.) argue that this is especially important for understanding children of color.

I had never been accepted in Penn Town, the neighborhood in which I had lived since moving to Philadelphia from Camden, New Jersey at the age of six. To begin with, I soon learned that only a few of my peers had ever been to New Jersey, so I was something of a foreigner. Even though Camden was only a few minutes away by car, and we lived fairly close to the Benjamin Franklin bridge, not many families owned a car, and the public transportation services that shuttle between the two cities now hadn’t yet been built. I must have talked about Camden too much, because I remember a boy telling me that he had been to New Jersey once, and it wasn’t so special, so there!

My  father’s second-hand Chevy and my outsider origins weren’t the only problems. I lacked the social qualities that would have given me some currency among my peers. I was a slow, awkward runner, I couldn’t fight, and I had left Camden before I learned to jump double-dutch. Worse yet, I was double-handed, which meant that I couldn’t turn the ropes with a sufficiently reliable rhythm. To make matters worse, I was an only child, so I had no natural allies, and I had my own room. My father and stepmother wore second-hand clothes, but I had a new school wardrobe from Sears every year, and the latest toys. Worst of all, I was the teachers; pet.

I might as well have had a kick me sign tattooed on my forehead. As is true in every neighborhood, we had our designated bullies, and I was a favorite target for teasing and occasional beat-downs. For the longest time, I didn’t fight back; I’m not sure why. Nor did I know how to play the dozens, the ritual game of  insults built on race, class and gender stereotypes. I also had the annoying habit of questioning the logic of the taunts directed at me and others during an argument. It was common, for example, for a girl to say that she would “beat the black off” another girl. I couldn’t help wondering about that, because they also went around saying there was something wrong with looking too black. Following that logic, wouldn’t they consider it an improvement to have some of the “black” removed? Like the robot in “Lost in Space,” I spent a lot of time saying, “That does not compute.”

Eventually, there was a girl who declared that she would beat me up after school that day. She had been threatening to fight me since summer camp, and now the weather was cold enough for a coat. She had been a constant menacing presence. We met at the appointed hour, and, thinking that I would stand up for myself for once, I took a swing at her. She pulled my coat over my head and pulled my hair out  An excited crowd ringed around us and made enough noise that eventually some neighbor heard and got my stepmother to come rescue me.

Her response to the incident is telling. She brought me and the other girl into our apartment and told us that we were letting down the race by fighting like dogs in the street. She extracted apologies from us, and a promise to try to get along. I think a conversation with the girl’s mother followed, or at least attempted – that would have been the norm.  I think it was not long after that when my birthday coincided with the date of our regular Girl Scout meeting and she decided to host it at our place, complete with cake and ice cream. My tormentors were part of the troop. I can’t say we became friends after that, but I don’t recall any more beat-downs.

But by then, I carried the terror inside of me. Not just the fear of the neighborhood bullies, but the spectre of even worse violence. There were the tales of the tackheads, dark–skinned black girls with (snap fingers) that much hair who would supposedly grab girls, beat them, and carve up their faces to make them ugly. There were the gangs – in our neighborhood, there was 12th and Wallace and the Valley – gang geography was a required survival course in in everyone’s curriculum. During my childhood, the gangs went from zip guns to real guns, and before I left high school, some of my childhood neighbors, schoolmates and relatives were dead, or had suffered near-fatal injuries.

These dangers were mostly visited on boys, of course. In her book, Getting Played: African American Girls, Urban Inequality and Gendered Violence (NYU Press, 2010), sociologist Jody Miller described the violence and threats of violence routinely visited up African American girls and women in urban neigbborhoods.

Without going into detail, I will say that by the time I was ten years old, I witnessed or experienced actions that I now recognize as acts of assault and sexual harassment, and coercion, and I know that I was not alone. One did not talk about having been the victim of such experiences, although it was not unusual to hear a boy brag about having “felt somebody up,” or to hear that some group of boys, “ran a train” (gang-raped) a girl. That was usually told without sympathy for the girl, who was thought to have allowed herself to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Layered on top of all of this was the violence in the adult world – the real and rumored incidents of police brutality, the arrest of a neighbor’s father for killing someone in a bar fight, the occasional sight of a violent domestic argument that spilled out into the street.

I write of these things now because I recognize them as experiences that could have derailed me, and that did, over time, derail some of my peers. I also recognize that today, I could easily have met with the fate that befell Derrion Albert, the  16-year-old Chicago honor student who was stomped to death in September, 2009 as he was trying to escape a street fight that erupted as he was leaving school.

If we are serious about getting more young people from under-represented backgrounds into computing-dependent professions, our interventions must be sensitive the lived reality of children’s lives.

In another section of this work, I will explore these culturally sensitive models of child development and their implications in more detail. For now, I want to close with a presentation by Dr. John Rich, a trauma physician who heads the Center for Nonviolence and Social Justice at Drexel University. Dr. Rich’s work focuses on young black men who are victims and perpetrators of violence. Using an ethnographic approach, he tries to help us see and understand the human hurt at the heart of behavior that is beyond the comprehension of most people.

Mrs. Jefferson’s “Sympathetic Touch” Meets Mrs. Masterman’s Philanthropy

The Re-education of Me Table of Contents

  1. What we investigate is linked to who we are
  2. The Me nobody knew then
  3. Mrs. Jefferson’s “Sympathetic Touch” meets Mrs. Masterman’s Philanthropy
  4. Discovering Masterman, discovering myself
  5. The electronic music lab at Masterman School
  6. The Interactive Journalism Institute for Middle Schoolers and the quest for computing diversity

“The proper education of any people includes sympathetic touch between teacher and pupil, knowledge on the part of the teacher, not simply of the individual taught, but of his surroundings and background, and the history of his class and group; and contact between pupils, and between teachers and pupil, on the basis of social equality, as will increase this sympathy and knowledge; facilities for education, equipment and housing, and the promotion of such social and extra-curricular activities as will tend to induct the child into life.”

WEB Du Bois

Does the Negro Need Separate Schools?” (1935)

 

One day during second grade at Kearny Elementary School, I was called out of class to go to the office. This would have been sometime during the 1964-5 school year.  I was introduced to a white man in a dark suit and told to sit at at table. I don’t remember what the man looked like or what he said – only that he gave some games to play and puzzles to complete. Some of them were on paper, and others involved blocks and other manipulatives. I think it was afterward that my parents told me that I had been given an IQ test, that I had scored well, and that I was now being placed on the waiting list for admission to a special school called Masterman. Masterman was described to me as a special school for children like me – children who liked to think, read and ask questions about the world. While the previous post in this series was intended as a broad sketch of those factors in my early life that laid the groundwork for my interest in writing, this post focuses more on the barriers to equal educational opportunity that existed in Philadelphia in the early 1960s, and reflects on one particular intervention in my own early schooling that I suspect was crucial to my future academic progress.

At the time that my entry into Julia Reynolds Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School was first discussed, the school was only five years old. It was named for the  founder and first leader of the Philadelphia Home and School Council,  and according to a brief New York Times article announcing her death in 1958, she left the School District of Philadelphia a $10,000 trust fund “to help bright pupils finish high school.” Masterman School opened its doors the next year. (Masterman obit)

Mrs. Masterman’s gift appears to have been made necessary in part because of the miserliness of Add Anderson, the District’s business manager from the 1920s until 1962. Reportedly, Anderson’s first priority was to keep taxes down, and as a result, schools throughout the city were poorly staffed and maintained. More than one scholar quoted Peter Binzen’s description of Anderson as, “a penny pincher all his life…a ruthless man filled with contempt for ‘educators.'” Anderson presided over the school district at a time when the number of black children in the district increased substantially because of the Great Migration. Wealthier whites abandoned the schools and the city in droves, and white working-class ethnics were made to feel as if they had been left holding the bag, fomenting a resentment that would spark the rise of tough cop mayor Frank Rizzo.

Structural disparities.Although the district schools had been legally integrated since since 1881, they were functionally segregated: black students were consistently assigned to the most dilapidated schools and fewer resources were directed to those schools. Tracking systems within schools led to black students being disproportionately assigned to “RE” (retarded educable) classes. (References) Scholar Lisa Levenstein recalls a 1960 Philadelphia Bulletin series entitled, “The Slow Learners,”  in which schools superintendent Allen Wetter blamed black children for their plight, calling the children of the Great Migration “culturally deprived slow learners.” The series referred to these “slow learners” as “unlovable characters” responsible for “a tragic deterioration of our schools.” (Levenstein)

In December, 1966, when I was in fourth grade, change came to the Philadelphia schools in the form of a new superintendent named Dr. Mark R. Shedd. According to a New York Times story announcing his appointment, (Reference) Shedd was the 40-year-old Harvard-trained superintendent of the Englewood, New Jersey public schools. He had won praise for negotiating the integration of the public schools there after years of sit-ins and marches. Shedd would bring experimentation to the Philadelphia schools, and become an advocate for disadvantaged students.

Ever since the release of the 1966 study on Equality of Educational Opportunity by sociologist James Coleman, education researchers have been debating the degree to which these kinds of racial disparate investments and attitudes matter. Coleman’s study pioneered the use of regression analysis of large-scale data sets in order to understand the multiplicity of factors that affect school performance. Coleman found family dynamics and the opportunity to attend an integrated school were stronger determinants of success for students of lower socio-economic status than the state of school facilities or teacher training.   Subsequent analysis of the data from that study, as well as subsequent research,  yielded more nuanced conclusions. Among those conclusions was the view that smaller classes (which presumably allow more teacher attention to students) and particular kinds of resource investments can positively affect educational outcomes, especially for African American children. I am reminded of this as I recall a small intervention by one of my teachers at Kearny that was, I suspect, crucial to my subsequent academic success. It was the moment that I still recall with some emotion, nearly half a century later.

Mrs. Jefferson’s “sympathetic touch”

My recollection was that I was enthusiastic about the idea of going to a new school. Although I had warm memories of first grade at Kearny, by second grade I was already feeling out of place. I had started first grade in Mrs. Hayes’ class, where I remembered a lot of picture books and finger painting. After a few weeks, I was moved down the hall to Mrs. Marie Jefferson’s class, where the children were already reading Dick and Jane books. I could sound out letters, but I did not know how to read words yet. (Sonia Manzano, the actress and writer who plays the character Maria on Sesame Street, bears such an uncanny and poignant resemblance to Mrs. Jefferson as I remember her.)

Seeing my plight, Mrs. Jefferson had me come to her desk at the back of the room when the other children were reading silently. She sat me on her lap, opened a Dick and Jane book, and asked me to read to her. I told her I could only sound out letters. She asked me to do that and pointed to a word. “O-H,” I said. “Not ‘o-h,'” she responded. “Oh. The “H” is silent.” We “read” together in this way for a little while longer, and I went back to my seat with the feeling that I had been let in on an incredible mystery.

After that, there was daily reading at home,  the arrival of a set of Britannica Junior Encyclopedias, and regular exposure to children’s literature alongside the sessions spent reading Shakespeare and Plato aloud with my father. (A conversation with my father about those sessions is forthcoming. Suffice to say that it bore many similarities to Chicago educator Marva Collins’ use of the the Socratic method in urban classrooms.)

So while I attended a school where teachers could give us little more than love, my father and stepmother created an incredibly rich intellectual environment for me. These were the things that, in retrospect, probably prepared me academically for Masterman, even as they made me the odd child out at school. For me, going to Masterman promised that I would finally find other kids like me. Educator Salome Thomas-El, who attended Masterman for 5-8 grade in the late 1970s, recalls his own sense of dislocation as he tried to negotiate between the culture at Masterman and that of his inner-city neighborhood:

“I never felt that I was as good as many of my [Masterman] peers, or that I belonged there, or that I was part of [Masterman.]…The kids I knew and liked were still back in the inner-city.

“Each school day, as they went in one direction, I took the bus and went a different way. By my second year at Masterman, I felt strange. I didn’t feel comfortable at Masterman, and yet I no longer belonged with my old friends.” (Thomas-El)

This feeling of dislocation strikes me as a  natural companion for child sent on a journey across the boundaries inscribed by race, class, gender, age and geography – what the late newspaper publisher Robert Maynard called the “fault lines” of  American culture.  It was a journey made by thousands of black children between the 1950 and 1970s  – children integrating schools with or without federal troops, court orders, or civil rights marches. We did not face dogs, hoses or jeering crowds as we entered schools such as Masterman, and except for one teacher, I don’t recall any instances of racism there, but we were crossing barriers nonetheless. Masterman, and later, Girls’ High, would also teach me that black children weren’t the only ones facing obstacles to academic achievement. It was there that I would begin to be introduced to the frustrations experienced by the white ethnic families in Philadelphia who had, they thought, played by the rules of immigration and assimilation only to see those rules change overnight.

What I would come to understand in later years is that Masterman not only afforded me an opportunity for a superior education – it was an opportunity to be socialized into an intellectual community. Without the sympathetic touch of Mrs. Jefferson and her colleagues at Kearny, and the reinforcement I received at home, it’s very possible that it’s an opportunity that I would have wasted.


Endnotes

  1. “Mrs. John Masterman.” New York Times (1923-Current file); Mar 8, 1958; ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 – 2007) pg. 17
  2. Sources for Peter Binzen’s description of Add Anderson and racial disparities in the Philadelphia school district: Paul Lyons, The people of this generation: The rise and fall of the New Left in Philadelphia. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania press, 2003. p. 15; and Lisa Levenstein, A Movement Without Marches: African American Women and the Politics of Poverty in Postwar Philadelphia UNC Press, April, 2009. p. 125. Levenstein details the policies that shunted black students into inferior schools, and the scapegoating of black families for the subsequent poor performance of black students on pages 126-137.
  3. Levenstein, p. 137
  4. Equality of Educational Opportunity: A 40-Year Retrospective
    Adam Gamoran and Daniel A. Long, WCER Working Paper No. 2006-9 December 2006, 27 p.
  5. Thomas-El, Salome and Cecil Murphrey. I Choose to Stay: A Black Teacher Refuses to Desert the Inner City. New York: Kensington Publishing. 2004, p. 26
  6. “Englewood Educator Named Head of Philadelphia Schools.” New York Times, Dec. 1, 1966. ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 – 2007)
    pg. 77