Unlike my brothers, I was able to go outside of Tompkins Projects and Bed-Stuy quite often. I regularly accompanied Bunyan to the Exposition Press office in Manhattan on the weekends to help clean. I accompanied my mom out to the suburbs to help her clean homes.
Everyday I traveled outside of Bed-Stuy to go to school in the Flushing area suburbs, initially by school bus, and then via subway when I reached junior high school. I was among the first group of black and Puerto Rican children chosen to integrate Brooklyn schools outside of the segregated, overcrowded, and severely underfunded education facilities in Bed-Stuy, and other economically distressed areas such as Brownsville, and Fort Greene.
Bed-Stuy experienced substantial white flight to the suburbs of New York City and Long Island, New York beginning in the 1950’s as blacks migrated to Bed-Stuy from less desirable New York locales like Harlem, and from the South, still in the throes of Jim Crow. As a result Bed-Stuy schools became victims of de facto segregation, deteriorated, and experienced similar “separate and unequal” consequences that schools operating under legislated segregation in the South faced: outdated books, under-resourced supplies and equipment, crumbling physical plants, and neglect by the Board of Education.
In the sixties, a rising tide of activism by African-American families, bolstered by the Brooklyn chapter of the NAACP, pushed for improvements in their children’s education system. One contingent, motivated by black nationalistic pride and community control, had little interest in desegregation of neighborhood schools; they wanted improvements to existing schools and new construction of educational facilities in neglected neighborhoods. Another contingent, influenced by the nationwide movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., espoused integration of neighborhood schools as a means to draw the care and funding they would not get as predominantly black schools. One way to enable this was for white children to be bussed into places like Bed-Stuy from white neighborhoods. This solution was anathema to white parents whose children would be riding those buses. Conversely, black children could be bussed to schools in white neighborhoods. That tactic to achieve some semblance of integration of Brooklyn schools did little for improvement of schools in Bed-Stuy; nevertheless, when I was selected to attend Public School 230 on Albemarle Road in the all white neighborhood of Prospect Park, my parents reacted like they won a lottery (back then it would have been called “hittin’ the number”).
From the second grade until the sixth grade I got the opportunity to experience life outside of Bed-Stuy. Through the fifth grade, every weekday I rode on a bus full of African-American and Puerto Rican children to P.S. 230. The students who were brought to the school on buses were the only non-white students to attend P.S. 230. In total, we comprised a small percentage of the school’s enrollment. Accordingly, very few of us were in classes together, and in fifth grade my classmates were all white. Other than being surrounded by classmates who did not look like me, for the most part it was unremarkable. My teachers were white, just as they were when I attended P.S. 297 in Bed-Stuy. I was too young and had not experienced enough of P.S. 297 to notice much of a difference in facilities or quality of education. Besides the bus ride and my white classmates, both of which lost their novelty fairly quickly, it wasn’t until the fifth grade that I was made to feel different; not from my classmates but from my teacher.
Sometime during the summer after completing fourth grade, my parents received notification that I was promoted to the fifth grade class: 5 IGC, and my teacher was listed as Ms. Levine. Of course, school was the last thing on the mind of this 10-year old on summer break; if I was told any of this I did not retain it, understand its significance, nor cared about it until the first day of school that fall when I needed to know what classroom to report to. Two things struck me on that first day. First, not a single person from my bus was in my class; nor were there any students from any of the other buses coming from black and Puerto Rican neighborhoods in my class. In other words, I was the only person of color in class 5-IGC. The second thing that caught my eye was the imposing figure cut by Ms. Levine: she was one of the tallest women I had ever seen, and her height was accentuated by her big blonde bouffant hairdo. Ms. Levine was very heavily made up, impeccably dressed, and accessorized with gaudjewelry. She looked like at some point many years earlier she could have been a model; now she just looked imposing, wrinkled and intimidating. She had a permanent scowl etched on her face as if to signal that she did not suffer fools.
Ms. Levine welcomed the class to the first day of 5-IGC, took attendance, provided some details regarding expectations, homework and the like, and wasted no time getting us started on our first in-class assignment. We were directed to write an essay about our undertakings over the summer. I excitedly embarked on my task, as I enjoyed creative writing and according to the feedback I had received in prior school years, I was fairly good at it. Except there was one problem: I did not know what “undertaking” meant. My only conception of the word stemmed from undertakers at funerals; knowing what an undertaker does, I wrote what I thought was a humorous, spooky, clever parable. Of course, that wasn’t the context in which Ms. Levine was using the word, and in no uncertain terms she let me know it.
After lunch, the class had a break for recess. As we excitedly filed out for a respite on what had been an exhausting first day of school, Ms. Levine gently but firmly placed her hand on my shoulder and signaled for me to stay behind. When we were alone in the classroom, she walked from the doorway to her desk without saying a word; I dutifully followed. Ms. Levine held up my composition I had proudly turned in that morning—I recognized my chicken scratch. I also noticed that the first paragraph or so was full of red markings, corrections, but then the markings stopped abruptly, as if Ms. Levine just quit trying to decipher my writing.
“What is this?” she said. Stilled puzzled as to why Ms. Levine stopped me from accompanying the class to the playground for recess, I was now even more confused by her question. I searched for words to respond, but before I could think of an answer to a question I could not comprehend, Ms. Levine continued, “You are the first Negro ever admitted to IGC.”
By the look on my face, Ms. Levine presumed I had no idea what she was talking about; and she was correct. “IGC, Intellectually Gifted Children,” she snapped. I could not tell from Ms. Levine’s tone if informing me of this milestone was supposed to be motivating and instill pride; or, her way of saying that she did not want, or believe a black child belonged in the IGC program; or, perhaps it was that she was glad a black child made it but based on first impressions I had a lot of work to do to justify my existence in the program.
On the bus ride home that day, most of the students were buzzing with activity: excited about whom their classmates were; potential new friendships; their new teachers. I, on the other hand was in deep thought, reflecting on my duel embarrassments of the day: totally missing the mark on my first assignment, and then not knowing what IGC meant. I was anxious to get home to look up the word undertaking; and, I could not wait to tell my parents I was an intellectually gifted child, whatever that meant (but all during the ensuing school year I would try my hardest not to let my friends know.)
Of course the information about my fifth grade class assignment was in the letter that was sent home that summer informing my parents of my teacher’s name. Maybe it was mentioned to me at the time the letter was received but at that point school was the last thing on my mind.
Nevertheless I proudly announced it to my mother like it was brand new information. Mom, who only reached the seventh grade in her own education, seemed happy for me but it was nothing like the day I got accepted to be bused out of the neighborhood to P.S. 230. That was truly a joyous occasion, and was part of a much bigger movement. My dad’s reaction was typically understated: “Oh yea?” I’m sure he bragged to everyone at work the next day though.
Dad likewise had failed to finish school; he was going to night school to earn a high school equivalency diploma. He studied hard and was a voracious reader of the dictionary. In fact, besides listening to records, discussing and learning new words was one of the few things I remember enjoying with dad as a kid. Those sessions were the beginning of my developing a strong vocabulary. That’s why I was especially mad at myself for misunderstanding Ms. Levine’s assignment. After I looked up undertaking in dad’s dictionary, I could understand why Ms. Levine reacted in the way that she did. If I was the teacher and a student handed me that, I likewise would have looked at the student with an expression on my face of “what is this shit!”
Fifth grade with Ms. Levine turned out to be demanding but fulfilling as I was exposed to a whole new world of insights, knowledge, and experiences. On a class trip I attended my first opera, Madame Butterfly at the Rockefeller Center Music Hall. The class toured Carnegie Hall, twenty minutes, yet a world away from Bed-Stuy. We studied the world that existed beyond America, and fifth grade ignited in me what would become a passion for governmental affairs, politics, and social justice. Ms. Levine never did warm up to me, although I do not think her distance was directed at me personally; she maintained a dispassionate air with virtually everyone in the class, with the exception of a couple of star pupils. I do not ever remember seeing her smile. I suspect I did please Ms. Levine once I’m sure, even though she never
acknowledged it to me. I came one word away from advancing P.S. 230 to the next step in the New York Spelling Bee (the word I tripped up on was g-n-o-m-e). I never did solve the riddle of Ms. Levine’s motivation in informing me about being the first black child placed in the IGC program; her interactions with me during that year gave me no clue as to whether it was to push me, or to disparage me; encourage me or discourage me. I did well enough; I was promoted to the sixth grade in what was known as the Enrichment Program. Junior high school commenced in the sixth grade in the New York public school system, and the Enrichment Program was the gifted program at the junior high school level.
As with P.S.230, P.S. 223 Montauk Junior High School was worlds away from Bed-Stuy. It was located in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, a predominantly Jewish community with one of the largest concentrations of Orthodox Jews outside of Israel. Unlike with elementary school, once a student reaches intermediate school, busing for the purpose of school desegregation was effectuated via public transportation: the subway system, and transit authority buses. Again, none of my friends from P.S. 230 were in the 6-Enrichment class with me, although there were a couple of other non-white students in the class. While in fifth grade I was able to hide from my friends the fact that I was in a class for “Intellectually Gifted Children”, once I moved to P.S. 223 the charade was up and my friends took to calling me “Genius”, a nickname I didn’t like but was stuck with; these were not the kind of guys you could just demand stop referring to you by a name you did not like.
That first year in junior high school went well. It was nice to get out from under the stern gaze of Ms. Levine. In junior high, you weren’t stuck with a single teacher all day, as you rotated to various classrooms depending on the subject studied. Being in the Enrichment Program provided me a special incentive to look forward to; known as Special Progress, students who fared well in the Enrichment Program earned the opportunity to skip a grade of junior high school, being promoted at the end of the school year from the sixth grade to the eighth grade.
At the same time, I was able to spend time on the playground with my friends from elementary school, and I met many more new schoolmates. We were able to spend some time trying the local Jewish proprietor’s neighborhood delicacies such as knishes and egg creams. Riding the subway to school was a memorable, uniquely New York experience; rival school fights on the subway; once walking on the tracks with other passengers when the train broke down between stations; playing an odd, somewhat dangerous version of hand ball on the subway platform—hitting the ball against the wall on the other side of the tracks between trains. How many American sixth graders can say their travels to school rival that experience? P.S. 223 was only six subway stops from Coney Island, New York City’s iconic amusement park; quite a draw for truant teens. Yes it was quite a year. Alas, my time at P.S. 223 was short-lived.
Dr. Paul Thornton is currently a university administrator. In the past he has been a professor, small business owner, and corporate executive.