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Voices: A Street Of Their Own

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As Feynman's mother obviously knew, knowing how to ask questions is essential to learning. But it presumes that there is someone available to listen and respond. As a teacher at Mary McLeod Bethune School in Central Harlem, I've learned a lot about the value of listening. One experience stands out.

It began in 1992 as I was leading my 2nd grade students through a geography lesson. Using a map of Harlem and greater New York City to teach basic map skills, I pointed out how many of the streets in our neighborhood are named after famous African Americans: Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Adam Clayton Powell Jr., and Frederick Douglass could all be found on our map. Right in the middle of my lesson, a 7-year-old boy popped the big question: "Why are all of the streets named after men? Why aren't there any named after women?''

I didn't know it at the time, but his simple question was to change the course of my entire teaching agenda for the school year, plunging us from geography into a tempestuous lesson in Big City politics. Fifteen months later, not only had we all learned a lesson, but we'd also made history.

I initiated the new project by seeking out detailed maps of Harlem and copying them so that the children could study the streets in pairs. I helped them in their search for a street named after a woman, but there was not one to be found. We wrote the mayor and our local community board, requesting information. The response: Not only was there no street in Harlem named after an African-American woman, but there also wasn't one in all of Manhattan.

Time for action! I showed the children how to research a subject, and we began a study of famous African-American women. Each child chose one woman to study and write about for the class. After all the reports were presented, the children nominated three candidates. Their choices were Mary McLeod Bethune, Rosa Parks, and Harriet Tubman. We chose streets for each of these women and engaged in further discussion about her accomplishments before it was time to narrow the field to one. This time, the class elected Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of Bethune-Cookman College and the National Council of Negro Women; Bethune had dedicated her life to helping young people. The street we chose for her was the one our school was on--134th Street.

After making countless calls to city offices, I discovered that the next step was to apply to the neighborhood community board. Under my supervision, the children drafted a letter requesting information about naming a street. A response was long in coming--four months to be exact. But even that was a lesson to us. A little tiresome, true, but apparently intrinsic to city politics.

When the board's answer arrived, our real work began. My students and I were determined to fulfill all the requirements, and there were many. We wrote another letter to the board, citing Bethune and the street to be named after her and requesting a hearing before the transportation committee. While waiting for a date, I helped the children draw up a petition. And one afternoon, we stomped up and down West 134th Street seeking signatures.

I wanted the children involved in every step of the process, so, even though the community board did not actually require their presence, I insisted that a number of children appear before it as representatives. For several weeks during lunch hour and after school, I worked with these students, helping them draft, edit, and practice the speeches they would give before the committee.

The community board ultimately passed the resolution, and it was submitted to our city councilwoman, who, in turn, introduced it as legislation in the City Council. The bill then was referred to the council's committee on parks, recreation, and cultural affairs for a public hearing.

By this time, summer had come and gone, and my 2nd grade class had begun the 3rd grade. But these students had worked too hard on the project to miss out on its final stages. So I gathered my old class back together, calling nearly 30 households at night to enlist the parents' support. I wanted to make sure my children would attend the council hearing. Working once again during lunch time and after school, the students prepared testimony for the committee.

On the day of the hearing, the children were wonderful. The committee passed the bill, and I came close to tears of joy--and relief. Ten days later, when the full City Council unanimously approved the measure, we were there. And on Nov. 22, 1993, we were there again--this time to meet the mayor at an official New York City bill-signing ceremony.

And so, nearly 15 months after a small boy asked a question, there was finally a street in Harlem named after an African-American woman. It's there for everybody to see: the children, their parents, neighbors, and friends. It's Mary McLeod Bethune Place. I pass it every morning on my way to work--a tangible sign of accomplishment.--Syma Solovitch

The author teaches 2nd grade at Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School (P.S. 92) in New York City.

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