Original Text – The Primary Source Is Me

I found the journal/notes I kept the entire time I was in the Urban Teaching Program. So as I work through this writing, I’ll connect to some of this original work as it seems appropriate or illuminating. It is interesting to see my perspective while I was going through it all. I had varying perspectives on my embeddedness across the breadth of the program. Translation: sometimes I had perspective on what was going on for me; other times, not much. Just getting by, day to day.

Urban Education


Chapter ___.

Urban Teaching, Urban Education

Memory possesses authority for the fearful self in a world where it necessary to claim authority in order to Question Authority. Their may be no more pressing intellectual need in our culture than for people to become sophisticated about the function of memory. The political implications of the loss of memory are obvious. The authority of memory is a personal confirmation of selfhood, and therefore the first step toward ethical development.

Patricia Hampel, p36.

America refused to be an idea. It was a country, and its national self – that personality Whitman tried so valiantly to identify – was emerging as national identity always does: out of history, out of circumstance and experience. Ibid, 59.

We are a new breed – a bunch of social reconstructionists which is the new place of education in the world. Are we to become a director of what is, or a director of what ought to be? The change-agent philosophy is interesting – get into the conventional system and be ome a friend. Then, influence change through your friendships. …The educational revolution will be accomplished only by work from within. We must lead our teachers, and not reflect them. (UTTP Journal, 7/23/64)

America refused to be an idea. It was a country, and its national self – that personality Whitman tried so valiantly to identify – was emerging as national identity always does: out of history, out of circumstance and experience. Ibid, 59.

If my time in Syracuse and the Urban Teaching Preparation Program were surely the moments of my life that I began to learn my craft (I still am, by the way), they were also the moments where I learned first hand that there were many America’s. I was late in life coming to this idea that many realities describe instants of time. But I came to it head on in Professor Lindsey’s historiography of American history seminar my senior year at college. James Beard’s An Economic Interpretation of the American Revolution revolutionized my thinking. Somehow, I’d always believed there was a “real” reality and deviations from it were just that, deviations. Now it wasn’t that I didn’t know there were multiple realities running around in this world. I’d see that first hand in abnormal psychology. But the deviance strand was large there – “abnormal” to be exact. Beard, and others, opened up for me the idea that real life events could have many webs of causation and that causation could be a cultural, sociological phenomenon as well as an historical event.

Huge events swirled around me in the 1960s. During my upperclass years at Rochester and my years teaching in Syracuse, America’s historical register numbered at least the following. And every image came into every American home that owned a television. Black and white flickering images of an America increasingly at war with itself. An America struggling to put down insistent voices. An America of fear. An America that was finally dealing with its issues of privilege and power. An American that was defining for itself just who were the people that Lincoln meant. And an American where peoples freely claimed that Lincoln had meant them! Every night on the evening news, evidence in the flickering black and white images told the story of different interpretations of what it meant to live in the “land of the free,” of who was to be included, and who wasn’t. It was ugly. And it inspired both those who wanted things to be as they were in the McKinley era of conservatism, and it inspired those who would destroy the US as we knew it if their voices remained unheeded. These were huge events.

• John Kennedy beats Richard Nixon at the wire.

• Woolworth lunch counters become known for something other than tuna fish sandwiches.

• Greyhound Buses carrying Freedom Riders are stopped and burned by the Klan.

• The Berlin Wall goes up.

• Kennedy and Khrushchev face off over the placement of ICBM’s 90 miles from Florida. Kennedy wins.

• The Klan bombs homes and churches throughout the south. Four little girls die during Sunday morning church school in Montgomery, Alabama.

• Bull Conner runs roughshod over civil rights as his police sic German shepherd police dogs on men and women, adults and children, protesting their lack of political power.

• John Kennedy is shot down in Dallas, Texas.

• America watches Jack Ruby pump two 38-caliber bullets into Lee Harvey Oswald, John Kennedy’s assassin.

• Thousands assemble in Washington to hear Martin Luther King and others marshal support for congressional action related to voting rights.

• Congress passes the civil rights act of 1965 and the voting rights act of 1966.

• Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King sit down to talk.

• Johnson pushes through the Great Society programs. Head Start is born. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act is born. Entitlement programs to end poverty come on line.

• The bodies of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman are dug from an earthen Mississippi dam. Indictments occur only forty years later.

• Cassius Clay changes his name, resists the draft, goes to jail, emerges as Mohammed Ali, and wins the heavyweight championship of the world.

• Pictures of armed militant Black students taking over the administration building at Cornell University flash across newspaper wire services. Higher education is forced to look at its role, not only in terms of minority admissions but also in terms of follow up support for students who believe the kingdom is theirs as well.

• Clarissa Street in Rochester, N.Y. burns in what was the first of many urban riots across the country. Detroit, Watts, Newark, Washington, DC burn. Sol Alinskey works to organize poor urban communities to gain political power in order to stem random violence.

• Malcolm X goes to Saudi Arabia and returns, ready to renounce his brotherhood in the Black Muslims. He meets with King, once.

• Ministers of the Nation of Islam, pump seven shotgun shells into Malcolm X during a speech at the Avalon Ballroom in Harlem. Malcolm dies in the arms of his wife, Betty.

• 350 freedom marchers are tear gassed, beaten, and set upon by horses and police dogs as they cross the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, AL. White supporters, church members of all kinds among them, come to Selma from all over the US and join King in the march for civil rights. Five days later 13000 people gather in Montgomery to hear King and others speak from the Capitol steps. The march passes the Dexter avenue Baptist church where the Montgomery bus boycott had begun ten years before. George Wallace remains inside, sealed behind double and triple ranks of Alabama State police. The National Guard, called out by the President Johnson, protects marchers during the five-day walk for freedom from Selma to Montgomery. Viola Louizzo is murdered during this civil action.

• The Voting Rights Act of 1966 is passed by Congress.

• Police beat demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968.

• Stokely Carmichael and SNCC, Eldridge Cleaver, Bobby Seal, and the Black Panthers, and James Farmer and CORE all move towards outright militancy and sometimes armed confrontation as the seams of civil authority in urban America begins to unravel.

• King broadens his message to include economic injustice and continues to march, often in defiance of America’s expanding role in Viet Nam.

• James Earl Ray ambushes Martin Luther King in Memphis, TN. King takes one high-powered rifle bullet to the neck and dies almost instantly on a second story balcony of the Starlight Motel in Memphis, TN. He was readying himself for his second march with the Memphis sanitation workers.

• Shirley Chisholm is elected to congress, and becomes the first black woman to run for president of the united states.

• Bobby Kennedy takes up his brother’s idealism and becomes the democratic candidate for President. Sirhan Sirhan assassinates him in June, 1968.

• The Ohio national guard murders students during a student anti-war protest at Kent State University.

• The mathematics building at Wisconsin University is bombed by a cell of the Weatherman.

And on and on the list could go. An absolutely amazing and horrifying decade. Jokes remain about the ‘60s: drugs, LSD trips, dropping out and turning on, the Summer of Love in San Francisco, hippies, VW vans, Wavy Gravy, tie died everything, free love. The idea of America as Whitman had written in Leaves of Grass, as Jefferson and others had embodied in the original documents, as Lincoln had summarized in the address at Gettysburg, as Mrs. Ames had wanted us to know in seventh grade. This is what I believed America was. The 60s saw my awakening to the fact that America wasn’t what I thought it was. The lynching I’d fastened upon when I was six now loomed as much more definitive of an America whose reality I didn’t want to acknowledge. But the idea of America was still a good thing to me and I saw my professional efforts as the way to work towards that idea of government of, for and by the people. Only now, “the people” for the first time ever, perhaps, was to include all the people. And America was having a tough time figuring out how to do that.

The reflection back from our national mirror was ugly and at times profane. The transformation of America, the airing of our dirty laundry, the open and very public images were now available to all and could not be avoided. These images still cannot be avoided. Though the issues of inequality and social injustice remain very much before us, our problems are no longer hidden from view. Then the issues were hidden except to those who suffered the repression of underclass citizenship and those who were doing the suppressing. Now that our imperfections are so obviously clear to the entire world, our need is to overcome the insensitivity and outright denial to what is so obviously wrong in Democracy’s fabric.

My part in righting the wrongs as I saw them was small. But my part was very real. And while others were traveling further and putting themselves on the line in ways that were way more dangerous than mine, I have finally come to respect my own actions during this period of time as also important, as also contributing to the improvement of our nation as a whole and the lives of those I came in contact with. Teaching and social justice work was one and the same then. I believe they are one and the same, now. The need is great. The forces of ignorance and repression are strong. The necessity for action is absolute.

All this remains true for me even though I’ve come to understand an important shift in my perspective. In the 60s I was doing it “for them.” Though it pains me to admit it, I did see myself doing my social justice work for others. I, and others like me, had little understanding that we would be made more free by our work back then. Our focus was clearly on making lives better for those with whom we were engaged. Hurray for us and a pat on the back! What I understand now is the absolute necessity of doing social justice work for myself. Freeing myself from the role the structures of institutionalized racism and economic domination defines for me can be done only with my own collusion. The work of social justice, especially where the vetting of racism is the focus, has to be attended to by those who are of privilege. I don’t think we can ever completely root out the racist assumptions that are so much a fabric of social and economic intercourse in this country. The 3/5s compromise saw to that. All we can do is to keep on exposing it for what it is, and then act to eradicate its manifestations. Once we see it, we can refuse it. Seeing it is the issue. But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself here.

The events chronicled in my list defined the national context while I was learning to teach at Madison Junior High School and then later in the City of Syracuse. These events informed my Urban Education. I have come to understand my urban education as the much larger context of which my urban teaching was a part. The process was inductive at the time. My focus was my work with the kids and families I came in contact with within the UTPP. Through it, both in experience and in sensibility, I connected to the place and world beyond. I didn’t much get out of the United States. But at least I got to the United States. One place I got there was through the church.

Grace Episcopal Church was a hundred yards south of Madison Junior High School. My apartment at the time was the first building just north of Grace, right on University Avenue. 410, to be exact. I’d heard Carl and Moses and Queen and Ruth talking about the fun they’d had the night before. Goofin’ on each other. The kind of banter kids brought into homeroom with them every morning. The kind of chatter they let you hear, chatter that was home talk, uncensored, and full of the events of their out of school lives. The boys were talking about who’d done what to whom playing pool and the girls were talking about how good their singing had sounded, that they’d be sure to win the next singing contest at school. I knew that if I started asking a lot of questions, they’d maybe get silent. I wasn’t sure whether to reveal to them that I had ears for this talk as well. But I found out from Doris that the church down the road had a neighborhood program going on and that I might want to check it out. She gave me a number to call and a name, Esther Green. I thought that heck, the church was near and if I could help out, I’d get to know my kids in a place outside of school. I knew that taking a bigger step in our relationship could only help my teaching. The kids could get to know me in a different way. I figured that would be a good thing because I knew from experience they knew nothing about what my life was like outside MJHS. I did my laundry once a week at a neighborhood launderette. Early in the fall, some of my kids had walked in to use the candy machine and they spotted me transferring my undies from the washer to the drier. They were stunned. Mr. Ratbone! You do laundry here? I couldn’t figure out if they were more stunned that I had dirty laundry or that I did my own laundry or that I did my own laundry there in that neighborhood gathering place? But that revelation clearly had been important to them because I heard from one of the other teachers at school that I’d been spotted by the kids over the weekend. They were going on and on about me and that launderette. So I figured hey, why not show them a few more moves outside of school as well. It all fit. Anything I could do to enhance my credibility with them was fair game at that point.

So I called Esther and we set a time to meet. She said just come in the side door of the church and ask for her. Anyone I’d find would know where she was. So I did.

Grace Episcopal Church was a fascinating microcosm of what happened to white churches that showed sympathy to the black movement of the time. Grace was a small stone edifice, in need of paint and repair here and there, but absolutely beautiful. It’s interior was filled with dark wooden benches and wainscoting. A stunning mostly blue and red stain glass rose window over looked the rear of the sanctuary, and the alter had been brought forward as much as it could to face God’s people. Father Walter Welsh was the priest who directed what was happening at Grace. He was a tall, slightly grey, thin man with a view of Christ on earth that I’d not found anywhere else. Grace had been a predominantly white and wealthy enclave on the edge of an encroaching black ghetto when James Farmer and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) came to Syracuse to test the rental market. CORE would bookend a black couple with white couples as a strategy to see if discrimination was present in the real estate market. When Farmer came to give his first community wide address, no venue would open their doors to him. Not even the black churches further down Madison Street. Welsh invited Farmer to use the Grace sanctuary for his meeting. By the next month, white attendance at Grace had dropped precipitously. By the time I met Esther Green, Grace Episcopal was for all in tents and purposes, a poor Black church. If memory serves me right, two white communicant families remained active. That’s all. Father Welsh was the first minister I ever knew who lived out a ministry to the poor and dispossessed. I’d thought I’d found a Presbyterian Church in Rochester that did so, but it was all words and money and not direct, face-to-face action. Though the existence of Grace was fragile and vulnerable, Father Welsh taught me what Christian love was really all about.

So I started meeting a group of kids once a week in the evening in the basement of Grace Episcopal Church. I didn’t have to do much with them. My presence assured their entry to the building. I was basically there to keep an eye on things and that was fine by me. Beyond the occasional homework help I was able to provide, I was the chief learner here. We had lots of fun together in what was usually, a pretty raucous gathering of ten or eleven high-energy young adolescents. The girls sure did sing. I can still sing the words of Mr. Postman just as if they were right next to me. I never got to the pool table although I did show them a few wrestling moves. Very few.

One Thursday night I’d forgotten to pick up the key. A few early arrivals and I were standing out in front of Grace wondering what our next move should be. I really didn’t want to call Father Welsh. That man worked long, long days and I knew this was one of his few nights at home. I didn’t think much about it when one of the smaller boys said, “Don’t worry Mr. Ratbone. I’ll get us in,” and off he took like a flash. The next thing I knew he was up a tree, on the roof, through a window and to the front door. He opened it with a big proud smile for the rest us and in we went. It was a usual kind of evening. Lots of noise, lots of laughs, lots of banter. Then, one of the girls came and got me. She had a bit of a worried look on her face. Said there was someone at the door making a big racket. I got a little worried myself as I could hear the banging now all the way downstairs. So I went upstairs and without pausing, opened half of the large, heavy, dark oak, arched church door. As I unlocked the door and started to slowly open it, it pushed in upon me and I was flung back against the wall with the almost explosive force of the entry. Four fully armed policemen burst through the portal, weapons drawn, pinning me against the wall. Then the floor. A passing taxi driver had seen my young lad disappear over the rooftop and had notified the police of a robbery in progress. It was the first and only time I’d had a gun trained on me and I was scared out of my mind. After some explaining, they gathered all the kids together while I phoned first Esther, and then Father Welsh. When they found out I knew Willie Gilbert, Doris’ husband, the tension eased and they agreed to let me remain that evening while assuring me that if I ever pulled such a stunt again, I’d end up downtown. After they left the kids almost burst apart with cop stories. They figured we were pretty lucky that some heads hadn’t gotten busted and I thanked them for not provoking a larger confrontation. I was frightened and shaken and could not get out of my mind for weeks afterwards, the feeling of that moment when the door rushed in on me. But the stories I heard at school the next day brought some laughter to the situation. Now, not only did Mr. Ratbone do his underwear at the local launderette, Mr. Ratbone had made friends with the local police department.

I don’t know if Father Welsh and his work at Grace Episcopal Church went unrecognized in the larger community. He had the support of his Bishop. In fact, Bishop Higley confirmed me on the day I became a member of Grace. The congregation grew back in size although it was slow work. The church became a gathering place for those interested in living out the social justice mission that is Christianity and each Sunday would see a very mixed group of worshipers. Father Welsh was a luminescent figure in my life. His faith and the challenges it lay before him took a toll on his health but he continued to provide a place of hope for anyone who walked through those beautiful oaken doors as long as I knew him. He also started to build networks across other congregations in Syracuse, congregations who could provide resources for places like Grace and congregations that were in need of resources like Grace. The place I saw this networking work most effectively was after King’s marchers had been beaten at the Edmund Pettis Bridge.

Father Welsh and other ministers within the coalition decided to charter a flight to Montgomery and join the Selma to Montgomery march for its final day, the day the speeches would be made on the steps of George Wallace’s capitol building, the home town of Rosa Parks, the place where some people said it had all begun, ten years before. Esther called me and encouraged me to go. I was hesitant. But I signed up, paid my money, and got ready to go. It was my first trip to the deep South.

Why was I hesitant. I’m embarrassed to say, even now, what my feelings were. I knew my parents would object to this direct action on my part. And growing up the way I did, I couldn’t or didn’t have a direct conversation with them about my plans. My Mom would worry. And she’d express that worry. And I didn’t want to add to her worry list, especially since I knew Dad’s alcohol consumption had been worse lately. She didn’t need me to be concerned about as well. But I felt in my heart that she’d want me to do what I thought was right. Dad was another concern altogether. I knew he’d not like it. I think he had little sympathy for the movement. As far as I could surmise, because we never talked about such things, he considered African Americans to be beneath him in circumstance. He was, despite the monkey on his back, a private, dignified individual with his own sense of order about the way the world worked. I think he was troubled by the disorder he saw in life. He thought these people had a place, their place, and that those who believed that place should change were nothing but troublemakers. If I went, then I was joining the troublemakers. He would now support my wish or my reasoning. His use of the word “absurd” echoed in my mind as I fantasized about the conversation that never came. So I was hesitant to go because I didn’t want my parents to find out I was doing something that was disobeying their wishes. I was still caught in that authoritarian relationship with my Dad particularly, a relationship sealed in the miasma of alcohol, a relationship I felt I could only change by going ahead and doing what I wanted which I was pretty much doing by the choice of my career. I imagined he would say what I’d heard him say over and over again to my mother through the heating ducts on the interminably long nights in bed, that I “should be ashamed of myself” for doing what I was about to do. So even though it was an amazing trip, I spent lots of time ducking TV cameras just in case my parents tuned in to the evening news to see their youngest son marching with King and his people in Montgomery in 1965. Old Shame was there, even then.

We flew out of Syracuse at 4am in the morning aboard a twin engine Mohawk Airlines DC-3 (maybe?). About forty-five of us headed to the Montgomery Airport with a stop in North Carolina to refuel on the way. First time I’d been in North Carolina as well. We were scheduled to join the march around ten in the morning. Buses would pick us up at the airport and ferry us to the place where we’d rendevous with the main body of marchers. I wore a white shirt, a necktie, a sports coat, and a London fog raincoat.

The rendevous site was a large athletic field surrounded by a chain link fence on the outskirts of Montgomery. Patrolling outside the fence were full armed national guard units. Jeeps and weaponry were readily apparent. The gathering of people was massive, at least to me. It was thrilling to see clusters of marchers holding signs from all over the United States. I was stunned by the number of clergy gathered in that one place. In that one day, my respect for collared prelates increased substantially. The march was incredibly well organized. We were told where we would march, how we were to march, to follow the orders of the organizers and marshals and that we’d be protected by national guard along the way. We were told to march an arms length distance from marchers either side of us until we were given the signal to close ranks. When we got that signal, we were to move together shoulder to shoulder. If trouble was to occur, it would happen as we moved in to the downtown area and they marshals wanted as much space between us and the sidewalk crowds as possible.

The first hours of this final day of the march was through black neighborhoods. Local residents watched, clapped, waved, posted welcome signs, and just generally witnessed this massive turnout of people. At this point the march stretched on for miles. I wondered then what it must have meant to have all these people walking past your home for hours on end. The few people I spoke with expressed thanks that I’d come. It was hard to explain that I hadn’t done much. That they were the people to thank. One woman said none of that made any difference. We were all there and that was what mattered. She was right.

By the time my section of the march reached the capitol, the speeches had begun. Walking slowed after we closed ranks. There were no incidents. Some predictable gestures, some shouting at us, some name calling, some waving of the confederate flag, but no gunshots and no rifles. State troopers sealed off the capitol doors from King and others. All this had been negotiated I’m sure. A podium was set up in front of the lines of troopers and it was from there that the speeches were made. The capitol was very far away from where I was standing and the whole ceremony is now a blur to me. What remains is feeling of what it was like to stand with such a large, mixed crowd of people from all over this country who gathered on that one day to bare witness to the fact that this country need to bring everyone into the voting process and that poll taxes, constitutional examinations, reading tests, and whatever else was used to deny poor people the right vote would no longer be tolerated in this country. Some people say they say George Wallace looking out from a window of the statehouse. I’m not sure it happened. It didn’t have to.

It was difficult finding a bus back to the airport after the rally ended. Somehow I got separated from my group and I had to walk the streets of Montgomery a bit searching for a ride. The shoe was on the other foot. I was so frightened I was sick to my stomach. I didn’t know who was friend, who wasn’t. I stood out like a sore thumb. So this was what it was like to live under the repression of a white majority? My imagination was having the better time of it as I saw the Klan waiting for me as I rounded around every corner looking for a bus. A car pulled up next to me and a Black man and his partner called out, “You need a ride, boy. Goin’ to the airport? Hop in. We’ll take you there.” On their dashboard was a handlettered sign that said “Airport Taxi: Free rides today.” They told me that churches (Black) all over Montgomery were providing free rides back to the airport all that afternoon and into the evening. They said they were glad they saw me and what was I doing walking alone like that? I muttered something stupid, I’m sure. I told them they weren’t half as glad as I was that they’d stopped to pick me up. They dropped me at the airport, I gave them $10 for their collection plate, we bid each other good-bye and God Bless and I was ready to be back on my airplane. My stomach was feeling better. My impressions of the march had more to do with the people I’d met than from the pavement I’d walked. From my journal: “the died in the wool racists as well as the Negroes who have succumbed to the racists will never change. The real hope is in the kids – they shout and are working for “freedom.” I don’t think they will be stopped…it is with this generation that the work must be done.”

But the events of this trip were not over yet. The airport was jammed packed with people inside and out. The charter aircraft had to take off in between the normal arrivals and departures so it was slow going. I found a patch of grass near the main tarmak walkway and sat down to rest for the first time since we’d gotten off the bus earlier that day. Again, I was just amazed at all the priests and nuns in the crowd. I guess I’d never imagined the Catholic church as a place of social activism. Despite the encyclicals of Pope John XXIII. I must had dozed off because I remember waking up to a buzz in the people around me. Word was out that Dr. King was leaving and would pass by right in front of us and sure enough, within moments, a group of me surrounding a rather small, hatless individual came down the path, slowly moving through the crowd. They were given their space and instead of pressing forward, the crowd moved apart as they came by. King looked desperately tired. Yet still, he managed to say thank you to those nearest to him as he moved through the crowd. I don’t know whether it was him, or whether it was one of the small entourage that accompanied him, but one of them touched my outstretched hand and squeezed it ever so gently as they passed by. Simple thank-yous were exchanged and then it was over. They passed on by. He left to continue a struggle that was becoming increasingly contentious and divided. We left to return to a Syracuse that remained contentious and divided. Daylight was dawning when we touched down once again at Hancock Field. I was depressed for days after he was killed. Even now, my eyes swim with tears as I write these words. This work remains incredibly important, and incredibly complex, and incredibly difficult. But if I learned one thing from this trip, it was this. Every act counts. Every witnessing. Every voice raised. It was needed then to urge a recalcitrant congress onward. It’s needed now.

My urban education was personalized in many more ways. Washing Steve’s light green Volkswagen after it had carried him back from his work in the Mississippi Freedom schools with bullet holes in it; Suzanne’s lecture on writing curriculum for the Freedom schools, curriculum that included the likes of Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglas, Rosa Parks, and Mary McCloed Bethune; my own refusal to attend a rally in Syracuse where members of SDS were going to chain themselves to bulldozers scheduled to carry out another act of urban renewal; Robert Kennedy’s visit to and stroll through MJHS; listening to Daniel Berrigan organize resistence to the war effort; becoming one of the kids in the balance of powers role playing task as I started to work as a staff assistant in the UTPP; telling my father I’d been south and hearing him say, “Oh No. That was not a good thing to do,” Period; getting dizzy in disbelief and crying with my wife the moments after I’d heard Robert Kennedy had been shot; living through a 2am fight with my good friend, a Marine, that nearly came to blows over our involvement in Viet Nam; and listening to Mario Fantini’s farewell speech after control of the Madison Area Project had been transferred to City Hall.

No series of events since has affected me in the way these events did. At the time, I was unaware of their cumulative effect. I was aware that for the first time, secrets long held and long avoided could not be avoided again. Technology, in the form of television, had ended our cloak of innocence. We could no longer as a nation avoid the injustices that we all knew were a part of our fabric. In retrospect, the social convulsions of the 60s, the see-saw of justice and injustice played out between a government and its people, the right to march protected by law through country that days earlier was laying in wait to lynch, torture, and murder citizens whose only crime was to speak the truth and ask for what was rightfully theirs, was the inevitable result of a country refining its core purpose and mission.

To this day, it is hard to separate my learning to teach from the times in which I learned to teach. In this urban education program, teaching was an act of social justice. Though we talked about this very little, the very fabric of the program was to make a difference in how schools operated for those most in need. Memory is useless if it serves no purpose. Mine has fed both a spiritual and political end. These memories fire my passion for teaching and keep me wanting to connect. King was so right. Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere! I expect my students to make a difference for the children that are most in need in their classrooms. I want them to know the effects their power and privilege have on those with out it. And I expect them to know all sides of their teaching role. Back then, I believed that schooling was the answer. Now, I no longer know. Teachers need to see themselves as agents of social change. Can they? And teachers need to know how to swim against the currents that serve to keep our society from moving ahead. Can they? The democratic vision is what we have to guide us. It remains and it remains much more than a myth. It is, perhaps, the only thing we have left.

Urban Teaching


Chapter ___

Urban Teaching, Urban Education

The task calls for creative innovation all along the line. No society has as yet made the most of the potential of their children. Yet, the increasing role of technology in our society, combined with the ideal of optimal development for all youth, demands that we do better than others have done or than we have done in the past. …To commitment to help the culturally deprived needs to be accompanied by an appropriate strategy that frees teaching from unrealistic assumptions, expectations, and sacred cows regarding what subject matter must be covered when and how. (Taba and Elkins, 1966, p.16.)

I play it cool

And dig all jive.

That’s the way I stay alive.

My motto as I live and learn,

Is dig and be dug in return.

Motto by Langston Hughes

I learned about teaching in a program that was especially designed to produce teachers for urban schools. Most of us thirteen were graduates of liberal arts programs. We were fairly balanced gender wise. We were fully white save Annie. We hailed from a variety of large and small colleges and universities. And had all made it through the interview process.

I had wanted to stay at Rochester and do graduate work there. I’d graduated with a major in Psychology and a minor in American History. I had been fairly active on campus playing one sport (football), participating my freshman year in the last year of Quilting Club, a riotous all male musical review called One If By Land, Two If You’re Lucky, a spoof of Paul Revere and his famous ride. I played Paul Sigafoos, the goofy, hapless hero and my good friend John Denison played Agatha Warlump, a barmaid for whom I was smitten and ultimately betrayed. I think this was the only time I ever received a standing ovation and we did that three nights running. Heady stuff for a first year student. Interesting in retrospect that I was so successful playing a dolt!

I’d been really scared by the Missile Crisis and unlike some of my good buddies, felt no particular desire to put my life on the line for my country. If we’d have been attacked on our home territory, I’d have been there in a flash, but somehow Cuba, or Viet Nam, for that matter, seemed hardly home territory to me. The problems we needed to be confronting and that needed my direct attention seemed much more immediate and much more local. So when graduation time rolled around, I was actively seeking ways to stay at home and make a contribution to the larger good.

My officer candidate school assessments had identified electronics communication and teaching as occupations for which I had special skills. I had applied to OCS in the Air Force reasoning that bad eyes would keep me out of direct combat. But pursuing electronics communication would have meant eighteen months of training in Biloxi, Mississippi and the images of bombed churches, Bull Connor’s police dogs, and the disappearances of Schwerner, Goodman, and Cheney were enough to sway me away from prolonged residency in the American south in the summer of ’64. I decided to investigate teaching on my home turf.

Rochester, Cornell Univ., Syracuse Univ., and Buffalo State worked collaboratively on a fifth year teaching program that would enable me to teach social studies (I’d loved American history – oh, those Landmark Books) and coach football, another occupation I thought I’d be good at. And if I entered the program at Rochester, I’d be near my college sweetheart and whatever future that might bring. Seemed like a good plan to me. There was even some talk that teachers might be granted a draft exemption, just in case we got to that point. So I was crushed when Dean Corrigan, the Director of Project 1 at Rochester, told me I was ineligible for admission to their post baccalaureate teacher education program. My cumulative average was too low.

I’d had a disastrous first semester, my sophomore year. I don’t know what was really going through my head when I’d thought about college. I think after the Harvard debacle, I just didn’t care very much. Rochester was a bit familiar (my brother had gone there), it had a great academic reputation, the campus lay-out was striking to me (even then), and Coach Bitgood was very anxious to have me come and play football for them. And that seemed all good to me. I didn’t have the slightest idea what I’d wanted to do academically. I’d done well in high school but clearly my passions (and talents) were music and athletics. I’d liked my history courses and my earth science course. Those teachers had really made that content live for me. My history teacher seemed just had a passion for history and that, combined with her uncompromisingly high standards meant as a student, I got some of the ways history connected to my life although like college, it was about as non-multicultural as you could get. In seventh grade, I’d done a big study of medicine as part of an occupations unit. When I showed it to my family, my Dad was remarkably discouraging about my pursuit of that field. He’d remarked it was no fun any more and you couldn’t be the kind of doctor you wanted to be anymore because of the meddling influence of insurance companies in the profession. That put medicine on the back burner for me although I continued to flirt with the idea of it over the next twenty years. I think I’d have been a pretty good doc. Outside of school, I amused myself with fossil digging and collecting. I lived in a glacially active portion of New York State and I was forever looking for and finding ancient crinoids, fantails, and sandstone bivalves. I don’t know why I didn’t select music or geology as a major field of interest. I suppose I didn’t know how anyone could earn a living pursuing those fields and certainly, no one had ever told me. It seem so, well, stupid, now that I didn’t have that all figured out way back then. But, I didn’t and no one helped me with it, so when I went to Rochester, I selected industrial management as a major because I’d figured out that’s the way you came out of college ready for the world of work and that’s what college ultimately was all about. I can’t believe I’m writing this now but in fact, that’s the way my first career choice happened for me. IM was awful. I couldn’t understand anything about economics, calculus was likewise a mystery to me, and my industrial design course was so disconnected from the reality towards which I thought I should head (personnel work) that my motivation plummeted. I studied hard and was totally unable to get any big picture of any of these courses. I stumbled on memorization and got something like a 1.3 that semester. UofR took my honorary scholarship away from me and two years later, I paid the price for reaching my academic nadir.

On the way out of Dean Corrigan’s office, one of the most seredipitous events of my life occurred. I was shocked and in despair. My head hung low and because of that physical stance, the contents of Corrigan’s waste paper basket came into view. An orange and blue brochure for Syracuse University’s Urban Teacher Preparation Program topped the pile of discards. I paused, thought for a millisecond, bent over and plucked it out of its ignominious receptacle. Here was another way I could pursue my major interest in staying alive through the next several years and pursue my still nacient curiosities about teaching and doing something about the awful situations of race relations portrayed constantly now in the news media. I was still thinking the problems with race were a southern issue but wherever they were, taking them on and doing something about them now moved to my radar screen as something I could do. And something I probably should do. Maybe teaching could be the way I showed my Black brothers and sisters that though I was white, I was not one of the whites in that awful picture from so long ago. I was not one of the white devils I’d begun to hear a Black minister named Malcolm X give speeches about.

The interview process was a big clue about what was to come for me. I arrived at 410 Comstock Avenue probably a week or two after graduation. I was greeted by a smiling face and informed that there were two parts to the interview: one would be a brief conversation with the Directors of the Urban Teaching Preparation Program, and the other would be a teaching situation. We’d do the teaching first. I was handed a college oriented political science text and told to prepare a fifteen-minute lesson on the system of checks and balances. They gave me a pad of paper, a pencil, that book, and a desk, and said in fifteen minutes, I’d be taken into a small seminar room and there would be four staff members playing urban 8th graders. I was teaching them social studies and I was to teach them about the system of checks and balances built into our federal system of government. And then the staff member left me alone to plan. I hadn’t ever formally taught anyone anything before in my life.

At least I knew the content. My college minor and my high school history teacher had made sure I knew that very cornerstone of our democratic process. What I wasn’t prepared for was the four adults who seemed like an entire class of twenty. Or thirty. They did everything to get me off topic. They chewed gum, they got out of their seats, they asked me if I was married, they wondered why they had to learn this stuff, two of them even started to get into a fight, one flirted openly with me, a fact noted just as openly by another. Well, I was able to stop the fight and I was able to make a connection between the idea of checks and balances and something one of them said about the priest in his church but the rest of it was chaotic and strange. My suit coat was soaked through with sweat by the time I left the building on that sun soaked very late Spring day and as my Mom’s ’53 Packard sputtered away from that Comstock Avenue residence/office building, I was certain I’d just earned a one-way ticket to Viet Nam. Three days later my acceptance letter came in the mail. I was an MEd. Candidate in Syracuse University’s Urban Teacher Preparation Program (UTPP), a program designed to prepare a new generation of teachers for America’s schools.

The UTPP was one part of a multiple front effort to address the existence and effects of grinding poverty for people mired in the inner-city core of Syracuse, NY. Most who lived there were African Americans living in the projects of the Third Ward, two story brick row houses, shoebox after shoebox wedged between downtown Syracuse and the University Hill, sealed off from the Hill by Interstate 87, an elevated highway that cut through the eastern edge of the Black ghetto. On the edges of the ghetto were other poverty based ethnic groups, most notably the descendents of the Onondaga Iroquois who lived on the western edges and the poor Irish who lived on the northern edge. The Madison Area Project was an interdisciplinary community organizing effort to enable residents of the third ward to gain political control of their own lives so as to begin to affect their own futures in ways that could break the cycle of poverty. The UTPP was one part of these efforts. So at the time, I was aware that my learning to be a teacher was part of a much larger set of strategies that were put in place to address social justice issues, among them issues of housing quality and availability, political participation and power, street care, health care, early pregnancy, juvenile crime, high school dropout rates, integrating the police, fire, and public works departments, educational resource allocations within the Syracuse School District, and teacher education for urban schools. My learning to be a teacher was also learning to be a change agent. This is quite clear from the way we were asked to approach our relationship with our mentors. The following quote is from UTPP seminar notes I took on June 30, 1964.

“The seminar session resulted in a long discussion [related to] teacher-intern authority lines and the roles we must play. Basically, it seems that we have three roles: 1. A subordinate role to the teacher in whose eyes we are a green, inexperienced threat (if such is possible); 2. A responsibility to our own self to size up our teachers and extract from their discussions, comments expressions, and other such things which will be useful to ourselves in evaluating our roles as future urban teachers; 3. A role to be played before our counselors as frank, honest, critical individuals who have the ability to dissect the good and bad spots of #1 our teachers, and #2 ourselves. These roles require the intern to possess the ability to disagree internally, agree externally, and not be ambitious enough to force any decision upon a teacher – do not alienate. Important point: throw out an idea – don’t press it, and see if it later reappears under someone else’s brainstorm.”

The advice was useful. Clearly, Gerry and Mario wanted us to be in the schools but not “of the schools.” Good thing. I’m not sure which of my two mentor math teachers surprised me the most; Mr. C. when he called one of the kids “a little black bastard who was responsible for the condition his race was in” or Mr. L. who said he couldn’t wait to get out of school and “rough up some broads.” Having the seminar to process the change process being played out in the school was incredibly helpful. Making our way, learning how to be effective with the kids while at the same time not alienating some of the teachers at the school was to be tricky business. My education as a change agent was also enlivened university coursework and by living in the Madison Project area and participating in some of the community organizing actions taking place there. But mostly, I learned it working with the kids and teachers at Madison Junior High School and then reflecting on that experience-in-action in the program seminars.

The kids who attended the Madison Area schools were second generation children of Blacks who’d moved north from the American South during the years after World War One and Two. MJHS had become a de facto segregated JHS as white flight took hold in Syracuse. By the time I’d arrived there, the student population was largely poor and largely Black. The teaching staff was in its third or fourth year of working with MAP consultants and my year was the first year new teachers were brought into the school. The school had interdisciplinary teams headed by Bob Cullivan, a native Irish Syracusan who’d made his reputation with the kids by splitting the top of an inch think hardwood maple school desk when he banged on it for attention in his first day in the school as a substitute teacher. (He told us the desk was cracked but I don’t think he ever told the kids that.) Like a lot of the teachers at Madison, Bob was direct, he was friendly, he was street smart, knew these kids could learn because not too many years before, he’d been one of them, and he knew the key was to make intentional connections between what we had to teach and what the kids knew about. He was curriculum director in the school when I got there. He met with interdisciplinary teams of teachers a couple of times a week to plan curriculum and to make sure the teachers knew what each other was doing. He would give us lots of advice and clues about how to make our work interesting and he was a great resource for us coming off our intense summer of practice teaching in the district’s summer school. He also made sure we were able to make relationships with the other veteran teachers in the school. We were spread across all the teams so we also got to know them that way.

The principal at the school was Joe Bongo, an ex-Navy prize fighter who was like Bob, a long time resident of Syracuse only Joe hailed from Syracuse’s Italian enclave. Joe was passionate about what education could do for “these kids” and though a little rough around the edges – there were lots of rough but very human edges at that school – Joe was convinced “every bird could sing its own song” and he was damn sure he was going to make it happen in his school. He didn’t tolerate brutality of any form in the corridors, classrooms, and closets of MJHS. Once when a group of boys attacked another group of boys in the lavatory and held their heads in a flushing urinal, Joe called an all school assembly in the middle of the day, made the kids tell what happened and why it happened. He then addressed everyone in a voice shaking with his won concern and said in no uncertain terms that behavior like this was unbecoming a school who’s motto was “wings of the future” and that it simply would not happen ever again while he was principal. It never did. He also made sure that both groups of kids had follow up visits to his office over the next several weeks and that the school social worker was on the case immediately to follow up in the larger community. That’s the way lots of things happened at MJHS. Whatever happened within, got taken out and whatever happened outside, almost always seemed to come in.

MJHS had floor to ceiling bulletin boards with huge black and white pictures of kids learning in classrooms, kids in the hallways, kids smiling. These weren’t just any kids, they were Madison kids and you’d see lots of kids bring their parents and brothers and sisters into school just to see the pictures. MJHS one year had an 18-Wheeler trailer filled with kids work, pictures of kids doing the work, and interpretive posters that described what was going on at school parked at different places in the Third Ward. If families didn’t come to school, then the school tried to go to the families. Harvey met with the gymnasics club at 630 am, the only time they could get the gym during the day. Frank met with a drawing club after school several days a week. Tom helped teach in the unwed mothers program, housed at Washington Irving Elementary School, just three blocks down the street. (That program was so good there were kids from the suburbs trying to get in.) And Mrs. Gilbert’s husband Willie helped every now and then put together the stage props for yet another play she would do with her social studies classes. It didn’t hurt that he’d show up in his full police regalia. Willie was one of the first black cops in the Syracuse Police Department. They were great people and she was constantly learning over our team meeting table saying how she’d go after a particularly knotty instructional problem with which we’d hit the wall.

Every Thursday night we’d all gather for our support seminar back at Comstock Avenue. Half of us were teaching then, the other half were taking a full load of University coursework but we’d all show up for seminar. (I ended up teaching both semesters along with my coursework. A reading teacher had taken sick and I was asked to be a long term sub.) These Thursday night sessions were intense. We’d put some of those knotty problems on the table. People’s frustrations would just fly. Frustrations with kids, frustrations with mentor teachers, anger at our own inability to change things, embarrassment at failed lessons, failed discipline, disrespect, long hours and little reward, the hard work of it all. Gerry and Mario, Program directors, and Bob and Dee, program graduate students would help to a degree. But they also wanted us to take hold of the systemic issues we faced. It seemed like every Thursday night was year long course in gender, race, politics, and culture. Frank Reissman’s The Disadvantaged Child was our grounding text and although criticized for it’s ethnocentric assumptions just a few years after publication, it was a ground breaking and eye-opening introduction to how cultures, communities, and school program inevitably clashed in the moment to moment interactions we faced as interns. We read Reissman cover to cover. We also read Charles Wiley, Kenneth Clark, Fritz Pearls, Harry Passow, Hilda Taba, Jerome Bruner, and John Dewey. We struggled to connect the abstractions of educational and sociological theory with the kids who showed up in our classrooms every day asking us, “What you gonna teach us today, Mr. Ratbone?” We’d end every Thursday night at one of the local watering holes, exhausted and wrung out, wondering what we were going to do to meet our kids on Friday. We always met ‘em. One way or another.

Most of the literature of the time referred to our kids as the “culturally deprived.” The texts acknowledged that while kids coming from economically depressed urban areas brought a unique life style and language with them into the schools, their modes of coping with life and communication were at odds with the rituals, requirements, rules, and regimens of public school life. While some texts admonished teachers to firm up their discipline, be explicit about the orderliness of their classrooms, and break their curriculum down into manageable bites, that was not the tact Gerry and Mario took with us. From their point of view, curriculum was useless unless it made “contact” with the kids, and contact took on experiential, affective, and cognitive dimensions. It was later in the year that I finally did my first reading of Dewey. I noted at the time that Dewey might be a philosopher to read more extensively because he echoed so much of what I was learning in the program. My awareness came later that I was being steeped in rich, progressive doctrine, urban style. After reading Dewey (Schools of the Future), Montessori (The Absorbent Mind), and Rugg and Schumaker (The Child Centered School), I knew we were standing on shoulders of giants.

Discipline was a matter of being real, of being clear, and of working with firm and fair boundaries. Successful teaching was characterized by a blend of strength and sensitivity. That’s what the balance of powers interview task had been all about. Our responses to the cues the “kids” threw our way were actually tracking how we performed across these dimensions of strength and sensitivity. We were taught to teach to the person, to make contact with kids as individuals and as people with definite cultures, to allow them to connect with us, to show interest in their everyday lives, and to hold them to high standards. Our path to an instructional goal might be way different than a traditional teacher’s, but the ends were to be the same. School was seen as a major avenue out of poverty and the limitations (?) of circumstance at least as far as becoming successful in the world of privilege. While there was much to their world that was to be valued, they also had to learn the codes of successfully negotiating the worlds of those who held power. At least that was the way it was supposed to be. Reissman and others were soon to be criticized for their assumptions about culture. “Deprived” was a culturally loaded term although to us at the time, it connoted that our job as teachers was to teach the kids the keys to the kingdom so they could go on and successfully operate in a variety of power structures. And it was clear that institutionalized racism across the power structures would accede power stubbornly if at all. America would continue down the long hard difficult road of acknowledging its multicultural base and racist practices across the next quarter century to this very day. We are a long way from success. Economic circumstance is still the best predictor of negotiating schools successfully. But is isn’t as if we don’t know how to do it now. What we lack as a culture is the necessary political capital to force it to happen. With all that still before us, Reissman’s analysis of urban life and admonishments for educators were helpful to our little band of urban pioneers. At least that’s what it felt like to us.

Probably the best unit I taught during that period of time was called “What’s Good Money.” I’d overheard Moses and Ruthie and others arguing on day about good money, you know, the kind of money you’d need in your pocket to make it through the day, through life, in a way that was comfortable. I asked them how much they thought good money was and the answers I got ranged from $5 to $5million. “Enough” would have been the best answer, probably. They really didn’t know. And there was my “contact.” Straight from the kids’ mouths came these varied perspectives on money and living the good life! So I put together this unit of study that ran through two separate classes.

I was teaching math at the time. It wasn’t necessarily my area of expertise but we were paired as interns so we could fill one full position at the school. One on my UTPP mates was a math major during his undergraduate years. I was second on the list in terms of math credits so I was asked to team with Stan and lead off the year as a 7th and 8th grade math teacher. In January, we’d switch. I’d take the bulk of my University coursework then and Stan would be the full time teacher. The study I conceived involved taking the kids from a brainstorm about what was good money through a guided fantasy of themselves sometime in the future. Who were they, where were they, what were they doing. What was around them? What did they need to live? What did they want to live? They made lists. I subscribed to the local paper for two weeks and we searched out advertisements and read the classifieds to gain a sense of how much things cost. They began to shape a budget for food, clothing, shelter, car. They began to assemble costs per week, costs per month, costs per year. We did lots of good work with fractions and for some of the more advanced kids, decimal fractions. When we drew blanks for item costs we made a list of those, had phones installed in the room and did some phone calls during class time to see if we could find out actual costs in Syracuse.

Then we took a field trip to E. W. Edwards, a local Department store, to see how stores sold things and to complete our lists of wants, needs, and costs. The kids rarely got a chance to go on a field trip. Folks just expected them to misbehave and when store owners inquired about the sending school, there always seemed to be a reason the tip wouldn’t work out. Of course I was concerned. This was my first field trip. Again from my UTPP journal (January 11, 1965): “I am a little apprehensive about the trip. It could be a complete bust. We went over rules of politeness – the kinds know what is right, it’s only a question of whether or not they’ll act that way! Details: Class of 21 organized into three groups of seven per group. Groups will look for 1) prices of men’s clothing, 2) prices of women’s clothing, 3) prices of household appliances. Each group will be accompanied by one teacher and one salesman.”

How did it go? From my journal on January 12: “The trip was fabulous! The kids behaved, were intent and professed to “learn something.” The store was most helpful – they supplied Negro (sic) salesmen to take the groups around (something I’d requested) and this was important for contact. Also, the kids could touch and fell different weves and inspect the various sewing jobs to actually experience why some clothes were more expensive. They were dog tired from walking when they got back.”

I finished up the unit by having a teacher in the home economics program come by to help us with budgeting for the first year out of school. A car salesman came in to share how to buy a car. When we were done, the kids created tables, graphs, and charts to put in a visual display (along with pictures, of course) of what good money was to them and what it would do for them upon graduation from high school. The writing teachers gave us a couple of class days to help the kids write their unit up. Then finally, we investigated what kind of jobs would earn us the kind of good money we figured out we needed. I remember the kids talking about their conversation with Manny Breland, one of the science teachers at the school. He must have been right at the kids level, talking to them about how you get to be a scientist, what a scientist was, how you got to teach science if that were something you wanted to do.

We were schooled to organize our teaching around three affective concerns during this eighteen month experience: power, connection, and identity. We had to keep these concerns in mind with very lesson we taught, every unit we planned, whether it was in mathematics, social studies, language arts, english, or home economics! I had to make sure the unit on good money addressed a world that held an actual familiarity with my kids. Not some kind of hypothetical authenticity but actual, personalized curriculum. To put it another way, I had to be sure that what I was portraying in the pages and books and activities and pictures of my good money curriculum had an honest, apparent and pragmatic connection for these kids. Most of the time, the media and visual world that surrounded their lives portrayed a way of life way beyond the dreams of someone coming out the third ward. The history they read about in school was someone else’s history, until Madison, that is. Our work had to connect.

I had to make sure that once the unit on good money was over, my kids felt more in control of their lives, that they understood how life worked better than before, that they had strategies and explanations and roadmaps to get from a place that they were to a place that they wanted to be. I had to make sure that what I taught them was empowering, that it assured them more control over their lives. Most of these kids lived lives where people – usually white people – did things to them, especially the bureaucrats who worked the offices and front desks of the agencies that my kids parents were increasingly dependent upon. The Madison Area Project was trying to counter that dynamic in the lives of my kids and my curriculum had to do its part.

Finally, I had to make sure that one the unit on good money was over, that my kids could identify with what they had been learning. I had to make sure that I taught in such as way so they could actually see themselves in what they were learning. That’s way Manny Breland was so important. That’s why I made sure the workers they encountered at the department store field trip were African Americans. That’s why I combed newspapers and magazines for pictures of ginger and peach and cocao skinned people so my kids would see that people like them were doing the things portrayed in the lives they were imagining themselves into.

Connection, Power, Identity. They remain with me today as critical hallmarks of making learning live, regardless of the learner. If as a teacher, I can engage my students in activity that makes a connection, enhances power and self control, and communicates that what we are doing is as much yours as anyone else’s, I’ve done a pretty good job. I’ve addressed the affective concerns of being feeling disconnected or alienated from the immediate context. Planning and teaching in this way is not particularly easy. Its even more difficult given my own white, privileged cultural background. But it’s not impossible. What these kids taught me during these years was the importance of relationship as the crucible within which teaching and learning occur. The exchanges that are central to the construction of relationship are all about trust, and trust is built through the affective inclusiveness that is obtained when connectedness, empowerment, and identity are very much a part of the action. What worked so well at Madison, was the relationships that were the wings of the future. It’s what Joe Bongo knew when he intoned every bird must sing its own song because he meant everyone must respect everyone else’s song. It’s what Gerry and Mario meant when they told us our curriculum should be guided by the kids’ affective concerns, not interests, and that it was a “concern that contained more durable potential for a relevant curriculum .” Every child there had something to say and to give and to share. Every teacher there had something to say and to give and to share. And in the coming together of teacher and child, content transferred from the page to the person. I was transformed as a new educator in that place and for me, our work together remains the purpose of schooling.

Madison Junior High School closed one year after I graduated from the Program. Internal politics with the school district meant that the amazing staff of teachers were dispersed throughout the Syracuse system. All the communcal power of the MJHS faculty disappeared in an instant. Joe Bongo moved on to Newark, New Jersey and as part of his job was ferried from school to school in a bullet proof limousine. Control of the Madison Area Project had passed from an independent community board to Syracuse’s City Hall. Things were working a little too well. A year later, both Gerry and Mario were gone, one to a city superintendancy and one to a college faculty. I was teaching at Roosevelt Junior High, a three story rectangular brick monolith on Syracuse’s South Side. This was a place where the Irish and the Blacks barely existed together without conflict on any given day and where the scolding Principal’s corkscrew path through the hallways of the school foretold not much good would happen for anyone, any time soon.


Haven’t entered things in a while. CIanya has been very sick and I’ve loved my care for her. But it’s gotten me behind a bit.

I’ve been writing and focused on the post college years in Syracuse. That’s why I’ve called both chapters, Urban Teaching, Urban Education, first teaching, then education. Education what happened to me because of the context of the times. What writing about those years has done for me is to permit me to see them as a whole. It’s definitely interesting. Prior to this, I kind of saw those years in a sequential way. You know, one year I did this and that happened and the next year I went on and did that. It was all about what I was doing. Writing has really required that I look at what I did in a much larger context; the context of the 60s. I was pretty serious during the 60s. I know sex, love, drugs, and rock and roll was going on around me but mostly I worked pretty hard to get through college and then I worked pretty hard in my first job. Sex and love were the same and were focused on marriage (not a good thing in retrospect but hey, that’s where I was then), drugs were purely alcohol, and r&r was well, just that. Motown was big, Ray Charles was the Man, jazz was cool and that was it.

But listing just some of what happened during that decade brought a catch to my throat. I mean I felt all those things going on but I was living through it, not analyzing it from afar. My focus was clearly on my education, my teaching, my young family, and getting my first real job. Had I not been so family oriented or so oriented towards that first relationship, who knows where I might have gone and what I might have done. But, this is where I went and what I did. Responsibility was a heavy thing as was staying safe and putting food on the table. In some ways, I was replicating what my Mom and Dad had done for me as the right thing to do.

The other right thing to do was to be involved righting some of the wrongs in my world. That was pretty clear. I came at it I’m afraid like the Lone Ranger, riding in to rescue and then Hi Ho Silver, Away. Now I see much more clearly had I truly engaged families and people, I’d have had a different, deeper experience. I was engaging kids through the parameters of my job and work.

It was emotionally powerful writing. I couldn’t read it to Ann without totally choking up. Writing the section about Montgomery brought tears to my eyes. What were the tears? A realization of the importance and need of those moments. A sadness that this very great man was shot dead. No one else could have led us to the places he was leading. With King (and Malcolm X) gone, the nation had no conscience. Bobby K. would have replaced them. And he was killed, too. It was crazy times.

Check out this partial list of what I experienced… . Phew.

• John Kennedy beats Richard Nixon at the wire.

• Woolworth lunch counters become known for something other than tuna fish sandwiches.

• Greyhound Buses carrying Freedom Riders are stopped and burned by the Klan.

• The Berlin Wall goes up.

• Kennedy and Khrushchev face off over the placement of ICBM’s 90 miles from Florida. Kennedy wins. I witness my big, strong, jock frat brothers crying during the TV reports as we watched the Russian ships, missiles on their decks, headed for Cuba.

• The Klan bombs homes and churches throughout the south. Four little girls die during Sunday morning church school in Montgomery, Alabama.

• Bull Conner runs roughshod over civil rights as his police sic German shepherd police dogs on men and women, adults and children, protesting their lack of political power.

• John Kennedy is shot down in Dallas, Texas.

• America watches Jack Ruby pump two 38-caliber bullets into Lee Harvey Oswald, John Kennedy’s assassin.

• Thousands assemble in Washington to hear Martin Luther King and others marshal support for congressional action related to voting rights.

• Congress passes the civil rights act of 1965 and the voting rights act of 1966.

• Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King sit down to talk.

• Johnson pushes through the Great Society programs. Head Start is born. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act is born. Entitlement programs to end poverty come on line.

• The bodies of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman are dug from an earthen Mississippi dam. Indictments occur only forty years later.

• Cassius Clay changes his name, resists the draft, goes to jail, emerges as Mohammed Ali, and wins the heavyweight championship of the world.

• Pictures of armed militant Black students taking over the administration building at Cornell University flash across newspaper wire services. Higher education is forced to look at its role, not only in terms of minority admissions but also in terms of follow up support for students who believe the kingdom is theirs as well.

• Clarissa Street in Rochester, N.Y. burns in what was the first of many urban riots across the country. Detroit, Watts, Newark, Washington, DC burn. Sol Alinskey works to organize poor urban communities to gain political power in order to stem random violence.

• Malcolm X goes to Saudi Arabia and returns, ready to renounce his brotherhood in the Black Muslims. He meets with King, once.

• Ministers of the Nation of Islam, pump seven shotgun shells into Malcolm X during a speech at the Avalon Ballroom in Harlem. Malcolm dies in the arms of his wife, Betty.

• 350 freedom marchers are tear gassed, beaten, and set upon by horses and police dogs as they cross the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, AL. White supporters, church members of all kinds among them, come to Selma from all over the US and join King in the march for civil rights. Five days later 13000 people gather in Montgomery to hear King and others speak from the Capitol steps. The march passes the Dexter avenue Baptist church where the Montgomery bus boycott had begun ten years before. George Wallace remains inside, sealed behind double and triple ranks of Alabama State police. The National Guard, called out by the President Johnson, protects marchers during the five-day walk for freedom from Selma to Montgomery. Viola Louizzo is murdered during this civil action.

• The Voting Rights Act of 1966 is passed by Congress.

• Police beat demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968.

• Stokely Carmichael and SNCC, Eldridge Cleaver, Bobby Seal, and the Black Panthers, and James Farmer and CORE all move towards outright militancy and sometimes armed confrontation as the seams of civil authority in urban America begins to unravel.

• King broadens his message to include economic injustice and continues to march, often in defiance of America’s expanding role in Viet Nam.

• James Earl Ray ambushes Martin Luther King in Memphis, TN. King takes one high-powered rifle bullet to the neck and dies almost instantly on a second story balcony of the Starlight Motel in Memphis, TN. He was readying himself for his second march with the Memphis sanitation workers.

• Shirley Chisholm is elected to congress, and becomes the first black woman to run for president of the united states.

• Bobby Kennedy takes up his brother’s idealism and becomes the democratic candidate for President. Sirhan Sirhan assassinates him in June, 1968.

• The Ohio national guard murders students during a student anti-war protest at Kent State University.

• The mathematics building at Wisconsin University is bombed by a cell of the Weatherman.

Day Three Ci Rotation An Observation

I’ve spent the last three days watching Suzanne do a ci rotation on area and perimeter with her children, fourth graders. (It is amazing how big these kids seem. I noticed them as second graders a couple of years ago when the Ed10 class was working in her room during after lunch recess. They have grown so much.)

Suzanne’s rotation is around four rather complex math problems involving area and perimeter in very real life (authentic) situations. One problem has to do with creating a pan size such that the largest number of brownies can be created given a perimeter of 14 inches. ANother problem has to do with creating a border around a mirror that has uneven measurements thus creating a situation where kids have to move back and forth between fractions and decimals with uneven numbers. A third problem has to do with another kind of border calculation involving all kinds of transformations of numbers. The problems are rich in that there are more than a few ways to approach them, in fact, even to understand the problem. The kids can use graph paper to figure out solutions – drawings, formulas, diagrams, and so on.

In watching this, I was struck with several feelings and observations.

First the feelings. At the end of the hour, after the children had shared, there was a palpable tension in the room. In fact I rubbed Suzanne’s shoulders a bit as if to emphasize that the session had been a tense one to watch much less a tense one to actually participate in. Two groups ground to a halt over iron-willed conflicting opinions of how to do the problems: one child saying to it this way, another saying do it my way, neither child willing to give in to the other. A real contest of wills. Me vs. you. Not how can we go about this for the good of the group. There were children in the two groups who did appeal to the collaborative necessities of the work, the need to suspend your own forceful will in order to be able to move ahead but in both cases, none of the protagonists bought it. So it was only the five minute warning for wrap-up that actually forced whatever forward movement was left to be squeezed out from the work. Suzanne commented that in both cases, it was probably a good thing for at least two of the people to not get their way. They are people who are very used to forcing their will on others and the groupwork was not allowing that to happen. My perspective is that it looked painful. Painful it was but its occurrence was not necessarily a bad thing. Here are some actual comments from children within the groups that were at loggerheads. (In one case, one of the children had pushed his/her chair back from the group and was being spoken to – almost counseled – by another group member.

“I just want us to get it done. That’s why I want to do it my way, so we can finish.”

“It’s a stupid topic to be arguing about.” – It was. It was whether or not to express a measurement in fraction form or in decimal form. The same was true with the other group argument. It was all around a small point.

“I’m not saying you should change your opinion. No, I’m not. I”m just saying we should try it this way.”

“You always get what you want to do. Whatever… .”

“Everyone’s a helper. Everyone’s a teacher.”

“If we were all leaders, we could do what we wanted to do, couldn’t we.?”

“They are always disagreeing with me. I just feel so different from the entire group.”

“Take a deep breath and pretend that it never happened.”

“I just want the easiest way that would make us most successful/”

“No body likes me, that’s what it feels like. Nobody likes me in this room.”

“I like you ____. You are my friend.”

I got pretty heavy. When Suz. did the wrap-up, she asked for a few moments of quiet. Asked people to take a deep breath or two, asked people to relax, and recognized with all of them that they had worked hard and that some groups had had a difficult time of it. You could have heard a pin drop during that period of time. I felt that everyone knew it had been an emotional hour.

When it was all over, she asked the groups to process with each other

What worked well? What did you do to make it go well? What will you do tomorrow to make it go well? And,

What worked poorly? What did people do to make it work poorly? What will you do tomorrow to make it go getter?

Here are some behaviors I noted that made things go poorly.

When spoken to by another child in the group in an attempt to redirect obstinate behavior, this particular child stuck his fingers in her ears so he could not hear the feedback. Other ways this go poorly include sliding or pushing one of the cards back and forth across the surface of a table so you distract and even hit other kids in your group. Also, physically pulling out of the group, digging in your opinion and refusing to change just to show you are more powerful than the person who’s asking you to do what they want to do.

These are some feelings I saw that went unexpressed. I know kids were sweating. Some were feeling hot and red faced. Teary. Confused with a noise in my head, kind of like rushing water. Angry. THese feelings should probably be processed.

And observing all this gets me back to the whole “nice” behaviors we tend to impose on kids. This work is tough and sometimes what happens isn’t nice, but it is quite real. And the real part of it needs to be acknowledged as a normal part of group vwork. Kids might be a whole lot more accepting of the fractiousness that can occur if it was recognized for what it was and made just another part of the possible things that can happen. Even with fractiousness, kids were learning.

Suzanne was going over what it looks like when someone needs help but they don’t know they need help. What might it sound and look like?

Sound like: I don’t get it. Say that again. What are you talking about.

Look like: quizzical look; floating off task, looking away; fooling around and sabotaging the group’ breaking or taking materials and holding on to them. putting your head on the desk.

These were the multiple abilities that were noted during the session. Notice the use of very distinctive math language. You have to know math to recognize these abilities in what the kids were doing.

recognize and calculate area

recognize and calculate perimeter

use a calculator

use all your math skills (look at it from another point of view)

breaking problem down into smaller parts

paraphrasing, use of synonyms

measuring accurately

evaluate and reassess results

making a diagram

using the properties of numbers

use formulas

verifying results

converting units from decimals to fractions

My favorite observation (makes me wonder what’s going on big time – a fun inquiry coming up) during this third day’s events happened during the wrap up. I’ve got a couple of things going here. One, I’m seeing the kids use pretty sophisticated math and I’m thinking they are learning a lot of new stuff or applying old stuff in new ways, or clarifying just what old stuff means. All these are “learnings” to me. Two, I’ve done some analysis of the learning stations using the standard ci observation format and even the groups that were arguing had minimally 33% talking and working behavior. Three, they just looked so damned engaged. Several times, I glanced around at the groups and they were everyone of them fully engaged. Every child bent to the task. I think they are all learning something. I’ve already calculated the average talk and work behavior across all groups of three sweeps as being 54%. Research wise, they are learning. Do they think they are learning? So, I slip a note to Suzanne asking her to ask the kids to raise their hands to indicate if they had learned something new today or clarified something they thought they knew. I expected half the class at least to raise their hands. One boy raised is hand. Period. Just one kid. I am amazed. One??!

Now what does that say about what’s being learned. Are they learning but don’t recognized that they are learning? What do they think learning is? Is it important for children to know that they are learning something? How do they get to ‘know” it? Does a teacher tell them what they are learning or do you tease it out of them with even a longer kind of discussion. I wonder if a KWL would work here. Even a reverse one. Where you looked at a report out, and then figured out what question it really asked, and then generated a list of what you knew to be able to ask that question. (Anyone ever done that???) A reverse KWL as an assessment of what ‘s been learned?). These are all really good questions. I shudder to think the number of times I’ve walked out of class thinking my God, what a good discussion we’ve just had. I suppose what I just saw in here raises the question, “What you mean we, white man?” (Tonto and Long Ranger joke.) Have we had a great learning experience if I’m the only one who is acknowledging what’s been learned? Think about all the times we make assumptions about what kids are learning without asking them if they think they are learning something. I’m not saying there has to be a one to one correspondence here but at least more than a 1:17 ration would be helpful. (18 kids present today.)

Here’s my data. Three snapshots: 1041, 1050, 1105. 17 kids, ten boys, seven girls.

g1 g2 g3 g4

discuss task 8 0 0 0

talk and work 33 67 50 67 mean=54%

manipulate mats 17 0 17 7

passive engaged 25 0 0 0

disengaged 0 0 8 20

waiting 0 25 0 0

listening 0 0 17 0

other 17 12 8 7

(g1 and g3 were the two groups with the loggerheaded discussions.)

Suzanne said something about this class having discussions at the beginning of the year about what learning was. I’ll have to get back to her about it. It’s an interesting area of inquiry. How do children understand learning? What have they done that will enable them to say they learned something. Maybe from their perspective they really are being honest when they answer, “Nuthin.'” to their parent’s inquiry, “What did you learn in school today, Dear?”

Continue reading Day Three Ci Rotation An Observation

Tom Brady, Team Goals, and CI Success

The Freeps carried a column by Mike Lopresti this am that quoted a few of Tom Brady’s remarks after Sunday’s win.

“…he spoke at length the other day with a clear understanding about what it takes to be a Patriot.

‘Anyone that chooses to play on the Patriots realizes that (winning) supercedes any other individual player goal,’ he said. ‘You have to make decisions as an individual on whether you want to be a member of this team or not. You’re going to make sacrifices like anyone on this team makes sacrifices, in the team’s best interest.’

And so Brady remains as cocky as Mr. Rogers, and Troy Brown gives up some of his receiving capabilities to help on defense, and the locker room stays humble pie. If the empire falls, it will not be by ego.”

” ” is Lopresti. The ‘ ‘ within is Brady. And this young man Tom is only 27 years old. He really gets it. Of course what goes along with this is the fact that the team is balanced. That no one player can do it all and that they realize it. They are aware of, appreciate, and need each other’s individual strengths. And the game calls for many strengths to be successful. Interesting, eh?

Now I think this is exactly what makes CI work. And if schools needed balanced skills and capabilities, it would work in schools. Rich tasks (moving the ball against a balanced opponent). Uncertain tasks (how many ways can you score a touchdown?). Balanced and multiple abilities within the whole team.

The part of this that isn’t often analyzed or talked about with CI because of the political implications with parents of individually strong kids is what it means to “make sacrifices.” Making sacrifices means that at times, you hold back your great strength to help others out so that the team works better. It means you don’t always grab air time and push your point of view that you know is right. The sacrifice here is short term and long term. Short term is you don’t get your recognition for perhaps being right or helping out by providing an answer. The long term sacrifice isn’t really a sacrifice. If the group is working right, and if the task is a rich task, there will be more than just your way of looking at the problem. Someone else will have another slant on the problem, perhaps even a slant you don’t see that may lead to an even more elegant solution. So your short term sacrifice of forgoing praise and recognition as an individual is replaced by a long term outcome of having a better solution and learning a few things that even you didn’t know. You learn to see more, see better, and therefore know more.

Getting a group of kids to talk about a short term sacrifice isn’t easy in the school context that favors reading and writing fluency at the most abstract level. The thinkers (hypothesizers), the builders (I can do anything with my hands), the drawers (look what happens when you switch it this way), the dreamers (what if we imagined the car were a boat, how would this be different?) are all diminished because their capacities aren’t honored in most of the recent curricular actualities. Perhaps rhetorically they are honored, but actually, not really.

There are perspectives emanating from championship sports teams that can be emulated. I think this particular perspective from the winners of sb39 and their genius coach Belichek is more than worth considering.

Why White and Other?

Why White and Other?

I am aware that subtext to my conversation in Chapter One is the fact that I equate social justice with the struggle for racial equity. Privilege and power could be played out on many fronts – economic, choice, gender, preference. Without thought, I naturally play them out in the context of our struggle for racial equality. For a long time, I thought social justice was only about racial equality. Though I am more able to include a whole variety of issues within that general rubric now, when push comes to shove, the most important struggle for me is this one. Why is that? Well, there’s a reason.

My awareness of race as a dividing factor in our democracy first occurred for me when I was young. It was at a time when I wasn’t yet using the tens column to write my age. My awareness was fueled as much by a strong emotional event as it was by an intellectual understanding. In fact, I’d say my emotions led to my thoughts and that has been both a blessing and a burden. Maybe. Still working on that one. (Maybe it doesn’t have to be either or but rather both and. Remember the matrix? It’s all part of the now.)

I have this belief about the raw power of first impressions and the fact that once impressed, future occurrences that trigger the felt reaction of that first impression will be experienced through the emotional energy of that ancient first impression. I think that is the power of the amygdala. The fight/flight response is independent from cerebral processing. It comes from evolutionary times when if you thought about the saber tooth tiger just around the bend for any length of time, you were eaten.

Here’s an example. When I was about ten years old, Dana Walker and I were playing catch in front of Dana’s house. Dana was one of my few playmates growing up. I grew up “in the country” so the only boys I played with were Dana who lived a quarter mile up the dirt road, and Stuart who lived a half mile over the hill. Dana’s Mom was a homemaker, his Dad worked at the local weekly newspaper. I had the impression their family struggled a bit, and the old farmhouse he lived in showed it. He had a great barn though for swinging and jumping and rough-housing. One reason I knew it was great was that my Mom always told me to stay out of it when I left to go up the road! I wasn’t there the day the swinging rope broke for Dana but my Mother didn’t have to say I told you so for that event. I knew. The generally un-mowed portions of his property, replete with ancient climbable apple trees, meant there were great spots for two active boys to play cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians, or whatever American myth we happened to be playing out on that day. This day, it was baseball.

Dana had an old Beagle named Pal. Pal was always kept in the house because he had a bit of a mean streak so I never saw him much until this day. Dana’s younger brother – isn’t it always the younger brother? – let Pal unbeknownst to Dana and I. Dana knocked one past me and as I was bending over to pick it up, Pal charged me from behind and bit me right in my goodie locker. It hurt, I was bleeding, and I was mightily embarrassed when his Mom ordered me to drop my pants so she could see the damage done. There was just enough damage done to scare us all so she called my Mom, my Mom picked me up, and down we went to see my father who was a doctor. He started whistling as he washed me off. I knew to beware whenever I heard that whistle. But that’s a story for another time. The point I’m getting to here is that even today, I don’t like Beagles, especially Beagles with graying whiskers. It could be the gentlest dog in the world but the amygdalic juices that associated that embarrassing dog bite with old beagles still fires today when first I see an older Beagle. I have to consciously stay present because a whole bunch of neural synapses are signaling, “Cover up and get the hell out of there”. The power of first impressions. I think the physiological reality of first impressions stay with us forever. And so it was with my first encounter with race.

Reconstructing Why

I keep coming back to these images. All are experienced. All are “felt.” They effect emotional impact in my heart, my viscera, my breathing, all together at one time.

This picture of police, uniformed and plain clothes, a trained German Shepard, and a “colored man from the South” is one of them. There are many more. Americans beaten, set upon by animals trained to kill, fire hosed, screamed at, gestured to. This was the time of the civil rights movement in the United States. It was my high school and college years. 1955 through 1968. From thirteen years old to twenty six years of age. These were my formative years. My social consciousness, begun by my Mom, provided for by my Dad, augmented by my first church, placed in perspective by Prof. Lindley, was forged by the searing intensity of these images.

This morning I woke up at 339am. And the images started reeling through my head, once again. I lived about a mile and a half from town. We didn’t have a television until somewhat late in my growing up life. Maybe 1957. It was a steel black and white “portable” with a long, slender chrome handle on top. Two tone. Cream and some kind of redish brown. Another thing Dad brought home late one on his return from the biweekly sojourn to his NYC upper west side office. I never saw it enter our home. It was just there when I got up the next day. It sat in the living room protected by its protective plastic wrap for weeks. It was there I watched the flickering images of an unfolding American history that didn’t make sense to me.

There was another source of images in my young life, images that didn’t make sense to me that I cannot forget. One particular image haunts me to this day. That image was in an oversized, illustrated book of American history: pictures, woodcuts, broadsides, and drawings and text from colonial times onward that my parents had on our “library” bookshelf. Lest this word “library” conjure up visions of oak paneled sitting rooms, smoking jackets, and cigars, our library was really a small sitting room that tied the old and new parts of our converted country farmhouse. The room had two easy chairs, a huge window that faced south, and was shelved on the bottom half of the walls and the adjacent walls that framed that window. The oversized red book sat on its side on one of those lower shelves hidden and almost purposely out of the way. I would take it out and leaf through it, reading the text and reading the pictures. It was a surprisingly comprehensive documentary of America’s history. My brother has it now. And though a little jealous, I’m glad it remains within the family. My memory tells me that in that book, somewhere was a picture of a lynching.

This may be the one. As an even younger

child, I kept returning to this picture. Staring at it. Fascinated with the horror of it and wondering, how could this be. How could people do this to one another. What had these black me done. Look at the faces of those white people. How could they be there, do that. They look happy. How was that possible. This is a scene of obscenity, horror. It was awful. I couldn’t stop looking at what they had done. And the evidence of this picture would indicate neither could they.

I remember distinctly having the same feeling that I did later on in life when I would look at what we used to call “scantily clothed women,” a phrase used before Lenny Bruce and the courts began the unfinished journey of defining what we now call “pornography”. I literally felt that I wasn’t supposed to be looking at this. I remember having to remember to breathe while looking at the lynching. I felt guilty. There was something wrong with what I was doing. My mother and father, for that matter, wouldn’t like me leafing through that book. I felt like there were pictures and words in there that I wasn’t supposed to see. They would be angry at me for viewing what must have been something like a secret. A horrible secret. A horrible secret best left shut away in the red oversized book that lay on one of the lower shelves in that small sitting room we called a library.

I can see it now where I didn’t see it before, my fascination in the images that beamed out of the American south in the late fifties and early sixties was linked to my fascination with that image and that secret and the feelings of a kid who didn’t want to be found out that he was looking at something I would now call America’s dirty pictures.

In these early experiences, I gathered within a visceral fascination to elements of degradation and horror that we would now politely call “social justice.” These words roll so effortlessly off our tongues. Social justice. The impulse to right the wrongs of society, to make our lives better for everyone, equal protection before the law, eqyal opportunity, ensuring high outcomes for all students no exceptions, no excuses. It seems to me now the impulse was so much more primal and basic than that. No more terrorizing and mutilation and killing of human beings and no more police actions that put dogs on people to keep them in line.

This is one of the definitional moments for the beginnings of my social consciousness. It was definitional in the sense that social conscience, social justice, race were fused in that one image. What I understand now is that me predeliction to always define social justice in terms of race relations in this country began with that book and that image of the lynching.

There were other experiences, for sure. Mom was fair and good to most everyone she came in contact with and she expected that from me. Dad the kidney surgeon wasy paid in eggs at the front door or fishing rods for his hobby by patients who couldn’t afford to pay in money. And of course there were the ladies of the First Baptist Church who left no doubt that Christians were to be always good and kind to one, that we yo0ng ones should take up the golden rule (or else???). But these everyday occurrences were just that to me, everyday life. Nothing out of the ordinary. These images of death and celebration were wholly out of the ordinary. My viewing them threw down the glove, challenged by concept of America, brought me back again and again, silently voicing my growing sense of the presence of injustice in America’s history. My mind wanted to proclaim this cannot be, this isn’t right, not in America. This happens elsewhere but not here. And yet, this was here. In seventh grade we’d memorized the preamble to the constitution and the beginning of the bill of rights. These pictures, these images gave lie to those words. It didn’t make sense to me. It wasn’t right.

It’s amazing how clear these images are to me today. They are icons that define to me why I do what I do. Even today, when my focus dims or gets fuzzy, or gets replaced by other inclinations, the luynchings will themselves in times of quiet. I can hear the voices. I hear the screams. They are always there, even now, in my matrix, quietly insistent, urging my attention. Don’t forget. Don’t forget us. Do something about this. Everyone White in America should do something about this. This is what we are trying to tell you. We die in vane if you fail us. This is our burden but your legacy. You have to end this. You.

Why Write?

Why Write

I wish I could make it simple, this desire to write down my narrative about who I am now and how I got here. Immediately, I racialize my intent because who I am is a 62 year old white guy who’s taught mostly teachers to be for thirty five years at the same “predominantly white” institution. My institution is located in the second whitest state in the union. I suppose that’s why I’ve approached and then backed away from this task more times than I’d care to mention.

Knowing that I’ve lived in Vermont since 1970, you’d assume my environment didn’t exactly immerse me in the daily work of confrontation and dialogue, reconciliation and transformation that is the work of social justice. Knowing that I’ve lived in Vermont since 1970, you might be interested to know that I ask myself that same question. How useful is my story of how I’ve come to see myself as a small but important participant in this nation’s continuing journey of social justice, a journey to free ourselves from actions and beliefs that serve to diminish parts of our people while lifting up other parts of the great we. “We the people,” we who are the citizens of this democracy in which we live? What meaning might my story have for anyone other than myself? And why should the “anyone other” question be important to me?

I suppose a quite answer to that question is that well, the story is at the very least interesting to me. Self-knowledge, while at least a double edged sword (what if you don’t like what you come up with?!) can be a good thing. And self knowledge for someone who still breaks out in a sticky sweat that the thought of facing a good intellectual confrontation is more than a good thing, at least to understand the sweat. This isn’t a good trait for someone whose spent a good portion of his life surrounded by folks who relish a good intellectual confrontation. So maybe, just maybe, this story is another way in which I’m growing up.

But if the growing up idea is realized, then all and good. Achieving this feeling of having faced that particular demon in my life would be a byproduct to what might be a more important reason for putting these stories to paper. I think there are a lot of “mes” out there. And here, the “me” gets more interesting.

I can imagine that one way of seeing me is to see the me I’ve identified up front, the older white guy. Some messages go along with that. Messages that have to do with power, position, authority, identity. I imagine that I am seen by some “others” as privileged. That I have access to power, that I use that power to my advantage, that I am in fact blind to some of the power that I enjoy, and that in my blindness, I contribute to a system of domination and oppression that keeps me up, whatever and wherever the “up” is, and them “down.” That I am kind of a typical older white guy who teaches his courses in the safety of a tenured position, that I am protected in what I do by the system of which I am a part, and that I am numb to the really important stuff that makes this world good for some and awful for others. Mostly, that I’m blissfully accepting of who I am and what I do. And in that accepting blindness, I’m another white contributor to the social class structure of this country, that through my efforts, that social class structure is strengthened, and though I might decry its existence, my white privilege and associated blindness to the dynamics that hold the class stucture in place makes me worse than suspect. I am just another numbed contributor to problems that tear with greater force these days at the fragile fabric of our democratic society. Hding in the ivory tower, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Well partially, they are right. If that’s the way I am seen, there are plenty of ways you might bring this kind of interpretation to my daily activities.

And partially, they are wrong. It goes without saying , there is much more that goes on in this head and mind and body and spirit than that stereotypical portrait embodies. But how would you know, unless I told the story. How would you know, unless you saw how I think about myself as a social justice activist. How would you know?

So that is the reason I’m finally sitting to write. Writing about the social construction of who I am might urge others to consider their own such construction. My construction, my stories might urge others to consider their own stories, and then to share them with others. That sharing is really important. If we don’t share our stories, than who we are is left up to others’ imaginations. Who we are becomes the who they want us to be. I’m unsatisfied with that position. I’d much rather at this point in my life offer up to others my thoughts and feelings and definite certainties and uncertainties about the who I am so that together, I might re-construct the reality that exists between myself and any number of others who surround me. It is in this reconstruction that forward and communal movement is possible. It is in this reconstruction that the isolation and alienation of one from another on perhaps misperceived sides of the racial divide can be addressed. It is in this reconstruction that perhaps a little more understanding of how we work together to chip away at the class structure in this country might be achieved.

We have to keep reforming this democracy in which we life. If it is truly to be of, for, and by the people, then this person has to get on with it in a way that other people can grasp and understand and place within a much larger set of dynamics that renew democracy, dynamics like freedom, responsibility, and ethical behavior. This country’s founding principles, imperfect though they are, are our great hope, especially as we continue to more defined and differentiated as groups within the democracy. I hold the differentiation process that makes me look around and see people who look, think, and act differently from myself as the first step in a process that achieves a more informed integration of who we are as a people. We understand our commonality only when we embrace our distinctiveness. Maybe ultimately, that’s what this little set of stories is all about.


My stories are also an effort to construct a larger frame through which I understand myself. And when I think about that frame, two ideas come to mind. These are not new ideas to me. The notion of a pre-destined future and living life in the present moment have surely been explored almost as long as philosophers have written of human experience. But understanding “human experience” and understanding “Charlie Rathbone’s experience” are quite different things. Unless I understand myself as connected to the larger truths of human experience, then the disconnection is in fact an alienation. No man is an island. I take that to mean that I am an island unless I understand how I connect to others and give them the opportunity to experience me.

The first idea is the idea that I am only an accumulation of my life’s experience. My future actions result from my history. That who I am today, the actions I take, the feelings I feel, the rationalizations I construct for what I do are in some way pre-destined by what has happened to me across my life’s span. That at this point in my life, I live out a life history that has be set. That my intentionality is not free. That who I will become has been set by who I’ve been. Well, in my sleep states, the idea of predestination pretty accurately defines my behavior. But in my awake states, I choose to be who I’m supposed to be or I choose to be someone different. These decisions vary in degree of difficulty, but they are nonetheless, decisions. I can alter the life path. I can redefine moments in the past or redirect momentum. I know that any alteration or redirection affects others in the world around me, and often that’s the reason for inaction. But when awake, I face the consequences and decide. Like writing this book.

The second idea has to do with living life in the present moment, more particularly how I literally see and understand life in the present moment. Two metaphors help me understand what I’m getting at here. The first comes from those moments in Matrix where the matrix is penetrated. I am fascinated by the idea that what I saw ahead of me on my walk to work this morning, the sidewalk, South Prospect St., piles of snow, and gritty sidewalks finally mostly clear from a break in the cold that has rendered even salt useless, the colors around me, the sounds of the cars, the bikers, the birds, all these sights are (?) three dimensional in that I’m walking into a world that has height, width, and depth. And yet I can imagine it without depth. That what I am seeing and hearing and feeling against my cheeks exists in two dimensions only. I have only to switch my consciousness of it and step through a hole that I render in that fabric to experience a new reality, a new understanding of what is really going on.

So while all the injunctures of Be Here Now still play out in my 60’s informed mind, I also have this visual image of stepping through into another dimension working in my brain. And the idea is freeing to me. I think it helps me literally reframe how I see the moment. It’s a little like collapsing the layers of my life much like Photoshop allows me to compact several layers of a visual image I’m in the process of constructing. The past magically becomes only a moment. And in this moment, I have greater freedom to decide what the next one will be or even how I will see the next one by stepping through one matrix into another.

So I write to understand my moment better by collapsing the layers of my life into a single layer. I’m writing to see the depth of who I am now, at this very moment, and in doing that, to explain the who that I am to others. In thinking about this work as an act of altering my consciousness of the present, I’m inviting others to do the same. Together, we achieve a richer understanding of our moments, and perhaps a more hopeful rendering of our futures.

24 Fall 2005

February 2, 2005 8:53:11 AM

thoughts for the Fall

Class One

establishing up front the social justice idea before heading into the interactive model

tell the story of the bricks, the walls, the cathedral – sunni story – rasputin (no but something like this)

have students write why I want to be a teacher

brainstorm what it means to teach for social justice

use portions of the i have a dream speech

expand the brainstorm

create a definition from this

homework list from writing those reasons that would fall under the sj category

those reasons that would not

any wish to change – another reflection…tied into a reading…pedagogy of the oppressed selections?

Class two – process

then, the interactive model

take time to develop each of the elements (text, context, learner profile, outcomes)

then use the case study of Maria and the little boy to develop this – read and viewed

then, into content about learning.