One-stop classes are fun but not as productive as return visits
Last Friday after driving back from Strathmore in the wee hours of the morning, I got up at 7, ironed and went to Isaac Newton Middle School for Math and Science in Harlem. It was a great day, because I enjoyed speaking to a class of 7th graders there last October and returning means that Principal Lisa Nelson approved of my overall vibration and way of teaching. I love the school and the communal feeling that she, the faculty, and staff strive to establish and maintain. It’s not easy.
This morning I’m traveling uptown with James Bryant. James has been driving me on special occasions since 1985 when he brought the great New Orleanian, Reginald ‘Swing Doom’ Veal from Kennedy Airport to my New York apartment, which was then on 46th Street and 10th Avenue. We stopped on 100 and something Street and got a couple of good egg sandwiches (we were looking for fish to be honest) and some strong coffee.
I love to come back to a school. One-stop classes are fun but not as productive as return visits. You get to know the teachers, develop a better feel for the school and have more meaningful interactions with students. My contact for this visit is Jacqueline Schoninger. She is a member of City Year New York which brings a diversity of young people from 17-24 years old together to tutor, mentor and just generally serve as positive role models for kids. This is a fantastic idea. It inspires young adults and college-aged kids to be leaders and helps them to expand their horizon of aspiration through service. I find that it’s more impactful when younger kids are mentored by slightly older kids. It’s closer to an organic family dynamic with older siblings. Jacqueline and other City Year youngsters add to the positivity and progressive nature of Isaac Newton’s environment. And her affirmative dedication and resilience is a source of personal inspiration. All of these mentors are very graceful and engaging.
Soon, I am talking to a class of 6th graders about Black History month. We talk about practical aspects history and why it’s important to know what has happened: so you don’t repeat the dumb things that have been done and you do continue to develop the intelligent things. We talk about how everything we do is affected by what came before, from practical matters like the sidewalks we walk on and the lights in a room to more abstract things like ways of talking, eating and listening to music.
We discussed American History in personal terms: the Declaration of Independence means I’m telling you, I am free from you! The Bill of Rights tells you what you can and cannot do to me because I’m free. And the Constitution provides an overall framework to level the playing field and enable the political possibility for equality.
We discussed the word “black” and learn that a color is not a culture. We understood that all people have at least two heritages, their ethnic heritage and their human heritage. And we discussed the differences between the two. They explained to me that everyone feels sad, everyone has thoughts and emotions, but not everyone worships the same God or takes the same holidays. They observed that our human heritage was more fundamental to being alive.
We concluded that there are prejudices and hatreds between different types of people because people erroneously think that insulting ‘others’ will make their condition better, but it won’t. The greater someone else is, the greater you are, or we all will be on a lower level together. We decided it was better to rise.
We talked about the Afro American experience in very general terms, and then, I requested a talented student come up and sing. After some deliberation, the students elected Ms. Fatoumata Diallo, an 11 year old first generation straight-A student whose parents are from Guinea. She shyly sang John Legend’s “All of Me” poignantly, and with intensity of emotion and intention. I loved the honesty of her delivery. She is special and is going to make us all very proud. After answering some wonderful questions from the class, we reviewed everything we had talked about and they remembered a lot.
We then re-convened in the gym to play some ball. Fatoumata is trying to make the basketball team coached by Jacqueline, Denzil Davis and Emilio Ramos. I showed her how to attack the front foot and how to line up her shot. We played and she had the nerve to beat me 5-3. Then Jacqui and I played 2 on 2 against Denzil and Emilio. Man, she could play! She kept us in the game. But because I told Denzil he looked like a soccer player not a baller, he and Emilio took it out on us. Still, Jacqui kept us in the game and we almost won. She was a ringer, but couldn’t overcome playing with a teammate whose game was petrified. A poor shooting decision on my part cost us a straight up 10-9 game.
I’m officially sticking to playing the anthem from now on. These pictures make it painfully clear that it’s past that time. I want to thank everyone at the school for being so hospitable and gracious and especially the students. They were a joy to work with.
Today, I am in Chicago at the great Orchestra Hall, about to conduct a class in Buntrock Hall. I’m ironing now and would probably be late.