Classroom

James Van Der Zee Dignified Classroom

The cafeteria is percolating with lunch time fifth graders eating, laughing, chatting and sitting at tables like diners do. It all would all look comfy-cozy except for the backs of students who line the walls and ring the room, with noses pressed firmly into cold, sterile concrete block, policed by two adult males. For the offense of speaking too loudly, they must now assume the position of statues or prisoners from an old Jimmy Cagney jailhouse movie. On punishment, they probably won’t be fed this day unless it is covertly by the kitchen ladies. The administrators, who established this “consequence” as standard protocol, have flown to Boston for a celebratory meeting with their national, school reform cohorts. What a waste of plane, hotel and restaurant fare but so it goes for the do-gooders. Instead of the big front lawn sign celebrating this fine institution of learning with a phony rating proclamation, maybe they should call it what it really is, education defamation. It gives everybody involved in the profession a bad name.
I point this out to them upon their return which, of course, they deeply do not appreciate. I suggest that should there be a spot-check by any unscheduled foundation officer, the J-Block image just might burn a bit too brightly as a summary memory. Clearly, I have not caught on to how things are done in the lucrative world of philanthropy. But it turns out that I am not that slow a study. I get the picture pretty quickly. First, it is all about the money. Any charade, any atrocity, any act antithetical to the loving development of creative human beings is tolerated as long as the finances keep flowing. Naturally, the Potemkim Village must be erected within an impoverished community but the mistake here is that this really is a community, an old one dating back to the early 1900’s. Citizens own their small homes, maintain productive gardens, operate businesses just down the block and pay attention to the school that sits right across from several front doors. One day a boy walks in and asks me if I like homemade cabbage rolls. I stare at him in pleased astonishment and assure him that it is one of my all time favorite meals. The next day I am presented a foil covered plate loaded down with cabbage rolls, pinto beans and cornbread. Heaven on earth is my reaction. I am also visited by a grandfather who thanks me for signaling “Science” by installing an outdoor display of rock and mineral collection, pine cones, acorns, potted mint, chives and assorted bird nests, He assures me that everyone wanted me to know that they’d be “keeping an eye” on things. I concluded that the individuals looking out for the intellectual welfare of these children were large and in charge but not employed by the on site bureaucracy.
Although Black children filled the corridors of this school, Black History Month was ignored by the majority of White teachers, who later would prove quite adept at turning the place Green in anticipation of St. Patrick’s Day. Suspecting this in advance, I summoned the ghost of James Van Der Zee with a postcard exhibition of his Harlem photographs which resulted in a tearful mother hugging me in thanks for the dignified portraits of her “people”. What kind of improvement society ignores the most empowering achievements of those they are supposedly in service to? One that benefits from things not improving.

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