Humanities: First Contact, Full Circle

September 9, 2011

Creme Anglaise in a pitcher next to a ladle, the closest thing I could find to represent my foodie image of "creme de la creme," the mantra of Humanities administrators during my six years of travails, September 9, 2011. (Source/

It’s been thirty years exactly since I made the most horrible set of first impressions in my forty-one years of life. My first day of seventh grade at A.B. Davis Middle School in Mount Vernon, New York was also my first day in the Humanities Program, a magnet program for the gifted track (and also the way the powers that were decided to desegregate the school district in ’76).

But it was so much more than that, for better and certainly for worse, at least for me. It was the flip side of a coin that represented the worst six years of my life (the coin’s other side being my life at 616 with what can only be loosely called my family). But it was also the six years of my life that made the past three decades of success, struggle, more success, and more struggles possible.

After putting together Boy @ The Window — in which a large measure of text was devoted to what occurred with and around me during my time in Humanities, one question still remains. Did my time in Humanities, with my classmates, teachers, counselors and principals have to be as difficult as they were — and not just for me? There’s no real way to answer that question, because “of course” is a cold and callous answer, while “of course not” belies the important psychological changes that made me a better thinker, student, writer and person as a result. But if I could, I’d build a time machine, jump into my eleven-year-old version of myself, and make sure to have my dumb ass take my kufi off for my first day of school in 7S. At least then, I would’ve been normal-weird, instead of standoff-ish weird.

My main problem, though, was that I arrogantly believed I was the smartest person in the world. I paid dearly for having that kind of naiveté, to the point where certain classmates still see me as that idiotic preteen, and refuse to see me any other kind of way. Too bad for them, for I know I’ve long since changed.

That day, at least for the past decade, has also reminded me of another beautifully warm, powder-blue sky day that turned tragic. With two days before we reach ten years since 9/11, I think about the way I used to be, and see so many similarities to how we see ourselves as a nation. “We’re #1,” we love to say, even though we’ve long since stopped being #1 in so many respects. We have the largest economy and military, the largest debt, make the largest contribution to climate change and pollution, and complain the most about how the rest of the world isn’t like us.

Like me three decades ago, America is naive and arrogant. And unfortunately, it faces competitors — some as unfeeling as my more entitled or more unscrupulous classmates — who are clobbering us in education, economic growth, health care, social welfare, even in protecting their citizens and their citizen’s freedoms. It’s sad, because there are millions of people now experiencing the severe fall into poverty — and all of the pressures that places on marriages, parenting and children — that I faced, very unsuccessfully at first, thirty years ago.

I’ve come full circle. Between the struggle to find a home for Boy @ The Window and my struggle to continue to do meaningful work as a writer and educator, I find that even on my worst days, my best days thirty years ago were a thousand times worse.  My first contact with academic competition, Whiteness and diversity, racial strife, religious differences and straight-up elitism is what has given me a greater appreciation for who I’ve become since that sunny day so many years ago. As well as how much I’ve gained.

Cream on the Brain

December 12, 2010

A Brain Floating in the Heavy Cream of Obsession with Academic Excellence, December 13, 2010. Donald Earl Collins

A quarter-century ago, education scholar and Ford Foundation education program director Jeanne Oakes published Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality. Oakes’ groundbreaking, definitive work on the educational inequalities created or reinforced by ability grouping has led a whole generation of scholars to examine the viability of tracking in K-12 education. In a 2005 edition of her book, Oakes wrote that “through tracking, schools continue to replicate existing inequality along lines of race and social class and contribute to the intergenerational transmission of social and economic inequality.”

I picked up Oakes’ Keeping Track for the first time in ’90. By then, I already knew from experience how true her words and research were. Six years in Mount Vernon, New York’s public schools via the Humanities Program had taught me all I’d need to know about the tensions between creating a class of students whose level of academic performance was par excellence while simultaneously addressing segregation and diversity in the school district. The magnet program and the district failed at one and succeeded at the other, which in turn reinforced its failure.

I worked on a paper some twenty years ago for the late Barbara Sizemore, my professor at the University of Pittsburgh my senior year (and a former superintendent of DC Public Schools) looking at how magnet school programs actually created resegregation in individual schools and Pittsburgh Public Schools because of the exclusivity that comes with tracking or ability grouping. It was an easy paper for me to do, guided in no small part by my experiences in Humanities at Davis Middle and Mount Vernon High School. Easy, but not easy to get a handle on beyond the obvious demographics of race, class and test scores.

I managed to wiggle myself into the culture wars of the early ’90s and the debate around multiculturalism and K-12 education soon after that paper. It seems obvious now that the unacknowledged diversity of Humanities was what enabled me to takes sides in favor of multiculturalism. That led to my dissertation looking at the historical development of multiculturalism among Blacks in Washington, DC (“A Substance of Things Hoped For,” Carnegie Mellon University, 1997 for those who want more information), and eventually, my first book, Fear of a “Black” America from six years ago.

But it took my memoir Boy @ The Window to bring me back to square one. I realized about a year ago that I’d done nearly thirty interviews of former classmates, teachers and administrators for the manuscript. There was much more material to mine beyond their impressions of me and how to shape their descriptions of themselves — and my memories of them — into characters for Boy @ The Window. I decided to work on an academic piece that looked at the benefits and pitfalls of high-stakes schooling — not just testing — in the form of a history lesson via magnet schools, specifically my Humanities experience.

After a quick rejection, I redoubled my efforts a few months ago. I decided to look at the education psychology and sociology literature, as well as Oakes again, to see how these interviews and my experiences could be useful in our testing-obsessed times. I finally realized what had troubled me about Humanities for the past three decades. It was the reality that all involved with Humanities had taken on the e pluribus unum identity of an academic superstar (much more than just a nerd, by the way). Beyond Black or White, and ignoring the realities of poverty in our district and (at least for me) in our program, Humanities was all about sharpening our academic personas above all else.

This fueled the major success of Humanities during its existence between ’76 and ’93, which in turn would define its failures. In successfully nurturing the idea of academic excellence as identity, as evidenced by so many of us attending and graduating from college, this magnet program failed in its other major educational functions. It failed to embrace diversity, to help its students understand the diversity that was Humanities, to nurture creativity and imagination beyond A’s and college acceptances. It failed to develop the whole student, which aside from its charge to help desegregate Mount Vernon public schools, was its original mission.

Humanities failed because its teachers, administrators (including the former superintendent of schools) and many of the most vocal parents (mostly affluent and White) refused to deal with diversity seriously. Academic excellence without significant parental engagement or the humility necessary to discuss issues of race, gender, class, sexual orientation led to a severe overemphasis on calling us the “creme de la creme.” All of this would have a negative impact on our development as students, and as emerging adults.

I don’t think that it’s asking too much of parents, administrators and teachers to work together in both striving for academic excellence while building programs that embrace difference and nurture creativity and imagination, and not just an addiction to A’s. Or is it?


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