John Bowne High School was on the border between Flushing, New York, at the time, the 1960’s, a predominantly white lower to middle income population, and Jamaica, predominantly Afro-American and mostly lower income. (Now, fifty years later, this area is the most ethnically diverse place in North America.) School integration policies in the early sixties mandated that school districts create a racially diverse school population; popularly known as School Integration. The New York City school system experienced then and is still experiencing multiple social traumas, as the public schools were required to remedy the social ills that the general civilization created and continues to maintain. Bussing from one population center to another was the first of many adjustments that every effected child and every teacher and every school system experienced to make up for the prejudices, exclusions undeserved privileges and inequities visited upon the new generation by the preceding ones. And so John Bowne High School had several hundred mostly Afro-American young men and women bused in from Jamaica and Flushing to the heretofore mostly white neighborhood school. There were some tensions and dicey moments, but for the most part the youths and their teachers and the administrators were far superior in creating a more perfect union of all members of their school community than the general population has ever had the will and the skills to realize in the community at large. Far better. The various accounts of this pivotal and tumultuous period of public educational reforms make up key components of the Civil Rights movement in America. The many partisans of these conflicts and the varied stories they tell comprise a great phase of American history and its lessons and literature are still unfolding. This modest in scale story comes from one of the many boiling pots of that era and entails the appearance of a young Afro-American woman in the school and more precisely, in my basic art class. I’ll call her Colleen Singely-Telay. As I have written elsewhere, since this was a start-up school, all art classes, including my own, no matter their titles; Introductory, Intermediate or Advanced, were in fact all introductory and all for beginners. As a consequence everyone was relatively new to the game, which created an open democracy of sorts throughout the school. In my case, being near to mortally inexperienced and untutored, this allowed for a very febrile style of class management. Management is not quite the correct word; open, experimental, tentative, awkward, ineffectual, might be more exact. It was not only my inexperience as a teacher, nor my lack of pedagogical training that contributed to this state of affairs, I really did believe in a democratic style of classroom management, one in which both students and teachers were involved in the decision making, even the conduct and teaching of the course. I still believe in this perspective, but have now coupled this understanding of peer equality with the equally valid observation that the students in their role as my students, and myself in my role as their teacher, were indeed not peers. We each came to the arena with different kinds and degrees of pertinent knowledge and skills, and we each had different responsibilities to each other and to the educational system that invited us to be distinct members. But it was the sixties and I was in my early twenties, and the students were children of the sixties, and so my classes, as much of the rest of America, were a bit more chaotic than anyone liked, especially me.
In this particular basic art class- for beginners- came a host of students not one of whom knew what to expect, and a similarly prepared art teacher.
The holiday season was approaching and I introduced the next art project by opening a discussion with the class about gifts; their meaning, the rewards
of receiving and giving. Since at the moment the topic
seemingly had nothing to do with art or school, but something that they
actually were interested in and had given a lot of thought to, the discussion was
quite animated and even searching. It was clear that the general
consensus was that contrary to popular opinion, it was better to receive than
|By Peter London|
“That’s bullshit” said Colleen. “Y’all just saying that to be smart. You know, that’s what us kids are suppose to be saying. But you know that’s just bullshit.” Commotion; the rest of the class yelling and laughing and banging about.
“Oh yeah? It is the truth, Colleen, so don’t you go acting as if you are different and you so high and mighty!”
“I aint saying I’m high and mighty and nothing like that, big mouth.” Class falls silent. “All I’m saying is, and you all know it the same, that giving to folks who need something is better than getting all kinds a shit that you don’t need or even want.”
“What are you talking bout? I know you like stuff like everyone else here, Colleen, so getting stuff is good. Giving stuff is good too, only not as good!” Lots of laughter and banging about.
“Here’s what I’m talking about, meat head! I know this here family, real poor. Lots of kids, and they got nothing. Just nothing but shitty clothes and stuff. So one day I’m walking down the street, and a couple of these kids is playing outside wearing crappy cloths and such, playing with sticks or somthing in the street. And as I walk by, one of them, a little girl about four or five looks up at me and says, “Hello misses, you’re pretty.”
Lots of laughter from the class and more banging about- but not as much as before.
“Well you know what she mean, she aint saying that I’m actually pretty [although you know I am.]”
Howls of laughter, but the rest of the class knows this is a story being told by a master story teller, so they get back into their listening to that kind of a story behavior.
“What she is saying is you look good and we look like shit. So I say to them, thank you, that’s very nice of you to say that, you made me feel very happy, bye bye. And I went right back home and I got a couple of nice little outfits for both those kids out of our closets and came back to those two children.”
Quiet in the room, no fussing about.
“And I came up to them and said something like, ‘Hey kids, We was just going through some of our stuff the other day that we no longer wear, and I thought it might fit you kids. Here, see if they fit. And right there in the street those two children put on the clothing- a little blouse and skirt. And they looked at each other, and they looked at me, and they said, Thank you miss. And then they ran home laughing and skipping.”
Silence in the class.
“That’s what I’m talking about.”
“OK, OK, Aw right, she be right, that’s the way it is. Sister is right.”
So instead of designing and making things for ourselves for the holidays we made things that were going to be gifts for others. But for whom? The class talked about this for a while, and then one student said, “My brother is in the hospital near by here, and we visit him every day. He’s on a ward for only children, why don’t we go there and give those kids our presents? [The hospital was a Salvation Army hospital in Flushing, New York and her brother was on the pediatric wing, which, at that time, had children’s stay of many more days than subsequent practice.]
Rather than design and make toys or playthings that we thought interesting, we decided to first go to the hospital, meet the children, talk with them about what they miss most being in the hospital and what they might like for the holidays. Then we would design and construct the gifts, then we would go back to the hospital, host a holiday party there and give our presents to the children. A huge undertaking. An enormous undertaking for an art teacher who can barely get through a lesson in lettering without some catastrophe.
Kids, I said, I don’t think we can really do that. We have to get all kinds of permission and get on busses and I don’t think I know how to do all that and…. Aw Mister London, sure we can do it. Sure you can do it. Ask Mr. Beck, he’ll help you out.
So I shared the story with Charlie, and after hearing me out- always seriously, he said “Go to Colleen Singely-Telay, make her the Prime Minister of External Affairs or something, you keep your position as art teacher. She can do everything that needs doing. She will work it all out with the administration. Walter, (the Principal) knows her and loves her. I had her in a class last year. She helped me run the class, did a terrific job. Let her run the show.”
“Charlie! This will involve getting in touch with all sorts of people at the hospital, arraigning bus transportation, permission slips, raising some money for the party, and a million other things, how am I going to let a kid be in charge of all this?
“Peter, Colleen is young. She is a student in your art class; but Peter, you and I both know that Colleen is a rare person, one who deep in her core being was born to high office. Had history been different, had people been different, she and her family would not necessarily be here in Flushing, New York. She and her circle would not be bussed from their own homes and neighborhood to an alien one every day. (Remember, this was the 1960’s and bussing to achieve racial balance in the public schools was a social reform that achieved whatever good it most certainly did achieve by way, however, of significant social trauma for all members of society.) Colleen has the character, the bearing, the quiet and not so quiet dignity of one who people respect. When she speaks, people know she is speaking the truth, they listen to her, they take her counsel. They trust her. Peter, let’s face it, they don’t trust us, and why should they, it’s clear that most kids do not. (Again, remember, this was the 60’s.)
“Charlie! Are you saying that I should...?”
“Peter, I’ll find the funds for the project. Put Colleen in charge.”
Everything worked out fine.
~ Peter London
~ Peter London