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Published in Print: January 1, 1999, as Educating Janet

Educating Janet

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She was a smart black girl from the projects. Her reward: a long bus ride each morning to a white school across town.

Mother, Mr. Mitchell said I'm getting skipped! He gave me this letter!" The parental consent form I'd brought home authorized the school to place me in the 6th grade a year early because of my high score on New York's citywide reading test. "Well, I'll be!" she exclaimed, reading the note. "Like I always say, you got your brains from me. That's my girl!" Then she hesitated. She'd heard that it wasn't good for a child to be skipped, that they could develop mental problems, that the older kids would be jealous and cruel.

I saw my star fading. "I won't get mental! Anyway, Mr. Mitchell said four other kids are getting skipped, too. So I'll be with my friends. Pleeeze! Mr. Mitchell said I'm really smart! Pulleeeze!"

She sucked her teeth. "Mr. Mitchell this, Mr. Mitchell that. Wait and see what your father says. And don't start that whining!"

I got skipped. We were all smart and full of potential--future doctors, executives, and lawyers. But for the moment the five of us were merely new 6th graders whom the older kids called "mad scientist skanks."

Mr. Mitchell would have been my 5th grade teacher had I not been skipped. We had an unusual relationship. Whenever he saw me outside of school, he gave me a dollar, nothing less than a fortune for a little project girl. Even if he saw me three days in a row. My father gave me 25 cents a week, and that was only if I'd done my weekly chores. Which made Mr. Mitchell's act even more incredible to me. It went like this: I would just happen to be walking near the park across the street from school, wearing my holey sneakers. I always wore my sneakers until the cloth tops resembled Swiss cheese. The more holes, the better chance I had of qualifying for a new pair; otherwise, Mother's response was, "Why you need new ones? I don't see hole number one in your old ones!"

Somehow, these little walks always occurred around 5 o'clock. From the corner of my eye, I'd see Mr. Mitchell's white hair and the gray suit he wore daily. One of his shoes had a built-up platform heel, and he walked with a limp. "Why, hello, Janet!"

"Hi, Mr. Mitchell," I'd say, looking at the ground.

"And how are you today?"

"Fine, thank you."

"Well, you have a nice day, young lady."

"Okay."

"Here, I want you to have this."

"No, thank you."

"Really, take it."

"Okay. Thank you. Bye."

Mr. Mitchell's unofficial "allowance" kept me in chocolate cupcakes, potato chips, and Cracker Jacks for weeks.

I'm sure he chuckled each time he saw me just happen to be near school at the end of his workday. Why did he play along with my little game? I always thought it was those worn-out sneakers. But having acted on the same impulse myself, I think it might have been something else. The gesture itself--handing a child money--is perhaps crude. But when I've been back home and looked in the face of some little project kid, knowing what I know about their world and the larger world that awaits them with crossed arms, I've made the same gesture. It's a symbolic but powerful act of generosity, and his touched my heart.

I started junior high school and found it to my liking. Excelling still came easily, and school was more interesting. I took part in a pen-pal program set up with children in Israel. Until then, my entire universe consisted of the three square blocks in Brooklyn called Farragut Houses. When I received a letter bearing a postmark from Jerusalem, I studied it with great puzzlement. My pen pal was a girl my own age named Zippora who wrote about the weather and her school; I did the same. I was fascinated by the foreignness of her life.

Music classes were an integral part of the curriculum. At home, the sounds of Motown filled the children's rooms. Mother hummed to Sam Cooke and Mahalia Jackson, and Daddy, always the maverick, blasted easy-listening music from windows opened wide on the projects. He said the projects needed more "culture" and less "racket."

At school, however, the music teacher ruled. "Today we're going to hear something a little different," she announced one afternoon. As far as I was concerned, any change from corny folk songs and patriotic jingles was welcome. She placed an album on the record player and passed its jacket around. On the cover was a drawing of a tribe of massive women straddling wild-eyed horses. The women had uncombed, snake-like hair and wore cone-shaped steel bras. "Class, you are listening to Richard Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries. Repeat after me. . . ."

Taking full advantage of the loud music, the class shrieked, "Rik-kard Vog-nuss Ride of the Valeries!"

"Val-kir-ees!" she yelled.

Music wasn't the only difference between my teachers' world and my own.

I'd never seen or heard anything like it and was captivated. After that experience, I heard the string section in Ben E. King's "Stand by Me" in an entirely new way. Such music would never replace Martha and the Vandellas or the Four Tops, but I liked it. I recounted music class at dinner that evening, and my sister Ann mocked me for liking "whitey" music.

In homeroom, where attendance was taken, I discovered that music wasn't the only difference between my teachers' world and my own. It was the last day of class. Our homeroom teacher was wishing us all good luck when she suddenly burst into tears. "I . . . I feel so bad for . . . your people," she stammered.

I was troubled. School was over, summer beckoned, and everyone had been promoted to the next grade. Did she know something I didn't? You bet she did. I have often felt the same sadness when I'm home, hanging out with my young nieces, who are all bright and potentially "College Material." Yet they are already single mothers, already dependent on public assistance.

Junior high passed in much the same way as elementary school--painlessly. I was placed in a program for gifted students and selected for the math team. The special program offered language study; I chose French because most of the kids had signed up for Spanish, which was widely spoken in our neighborhood. I wanted to be different.

I n 1896, the Flatbush Dutch Reform Church donated to the city Erasmus Hall Academy, a private parochial school for boys which subsequently became Erasmus Hall High School. Erasmus Hall, New York state's first public high school, was considered the best in Brooklyn. The school's neo-Gothic quadrangle enclosed a college-like campus. For decades, Erasmians won national scholarships, flowed into colleges, and grew into celebrity alumni, such as Earl Graves, publisher of Black Enterprise; author Bernard Malamud; Barbara McClintock, a Nobel laureate in medicine; and last, and perhaps least, actor Donny Most from television's Happy Days. The school also produced track stars, governors, and the first black Miss Universe.

Of all the celebrity names from Erasmus' alumni rolls, one resounded from generation to generation: Barbra Streisand ('58), the school's own private national treasure. Each new generation of Erasmians claimed her as its own. On vacation in Florence last year, I was standing in a museum line behind an American couple whose distinct accents sang "Brooklyn." The sound so recalled home that I couldn't resist talking to them. They were retired high school teachers and asked where I'd gone to school. When I said, as I always did, "Erasmus, the same high school as Barbra Streisand," the woman shouted, "I tawt huh! Nice girl." The singer demonstrated her own loyalty to her alma mater in 1994, when she donated $50,000 to the school. It wasn't enough, unfortunately, to keep Erasmus, which had long been in decline, off the list of the city's worst high schools.

But in 1968, there was no doubt about the good fortune that Erasmus represented. The best high school in Brooklyn had accepted me. There was only one problem--it was in a middle-class Jewish neighborhood clear on the other side of town. Erasmus was out of my school district and should have been out of reach. But I was able to attend the famed school thanks to the New York City Board of Education's Open Schools program, which opened Brooklyn's top academic high schools to a limited number of promising ghetto students. I didn't have to go to a school so terribly far away from home; there were other choices. None of my junior high school friends had signed up for Erasmus Hall. I, too, could have attended one of the predominantly black neighborhood schools that offered courses of study in nursing, printing, and mechanics. But not one of these "trade schools," which recruited students presumed to lack college potential, could match the reputation and promise of Erasmus Hall. The presuming was done by the Board of Education, and the students in question were typically black and Puerto Rican. I had to attend Erasmus; I was College Material.

My reward for being smart and possibly college-bound was an early-morning, hourlong bus ride to a white school where I knew no one. It felt more like punishment than reward. And it gave me my first taste of the blessing and curse of academic achievement. The journey to Erasmus carried me across lines of race, class, and culture at a time when I was struggling to patch together some semblance of an adolescent self. Recently recovered from the onslaught of breasts, blemishes, and sanitary napkins, I was suddenly confronted with the first major challenge to my identity as a project girl. The school lent me its very name and, in naming, transformed me. I wouldn't simply attend Erasmus, I would become an Erasmian.

Most Erasmians lived in Flatbush, close to school, and didn't hide their suspicions about my origins. "Where, exactly, in downtown Brooklyn are you from? The Heights?" they asked, referring to the tree-lined neighborhood of brownstones and sidewalk cafes at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge.

"Uh, no, more like toward the Navy Yard. Do you know where the world headquarters of Jehovah's Witnesses is?"

"No," came the answer in a tone that sounded almost like pride. The previous year, my junior high class had voted me "Most Popular." It was clear that would not be the case at Erasmus.

I was fascinated and overwhelmed. My musical tastes were re-educated to accommodate Jimi, Janis, and Joni. I was so enraptured by Laura Nyro that I wept as only a high school girl can, listening to her sing at my first concert ever. James Brown, my mother's favorite, had plunged in status, along with Elvis--decidedly not cool. For the first time, schoolwork was difficult and the other students intimidatingly sharp. I had met the competition, and they were fierce. Words tumbled from their fast-moving lips about issues I had never before heard discussed. My 14- and 15-year-old classmates stridently extolled the virtues of socialism and condemned the evils of capitalism, the Vietnam War, and something we were all supposed to fight against called the "military-industrial complex." I had never even heard of a military-industrial complex, let alone how to battle it. At home, my parents rarely talked politics; an occasional barbed reference to "the white man" was as close as they came to political discourse. They admired Martin Luther King Jr. and had scraped together enough money to send my brother Luke, then barely 16, to the March on Washington. Malcolm X stirred more mixed emotions. As Southerners who had grown up in the Klan- dominated South of the '20s and '30s, they preferred education and integration to more militant and, to them, dangerous forms of activism. Obviously, the awareness was there; it was the discussion that was absent. Erasmus found me permanently at a loss for words.

Eager to learn, I silently hovered at the edges of chatty groups of high schoolers. People said, "Janet, you never talk! Why don't you ever talk!" I felt ashamed. "I don't have anything to say." In truth, I was intimidated into silence by my sense of utter inadequacy. I preferred listening, especially to Indigo, an art student and self-proclaimed Black Panther who was always decked out in a black leather jacket and beret. He had plenty to say and enthralled me with predictions about the imminent armed revolution. My heroine, Angela Davis, was on the FBI's "Most Wanted" list, and my Afro and wire-rimmed glasses attracted curious glances. I heard so often "You kinda look like that sister they looking for" that I was stunned when years later I attended one of her lectures and got a close-up look at her light-colored eyes and fair complexion, so unlike my own.

The white teachers seemed concerned primarily with the progress of the white students. I was stung by their lack of interest in me and started skipping classes. I faltered academically, failed gym, and was dropped from the math team. Madame Guerrier kicked me out of French class because of three latenesses and was indifferent to my explanation that I lived on the other side of Brooklyn. With typical French fanaticism, she accused me of disrespecting the language and warned me never to take French again. But the most humiliating blow was landed by my drama teacher, who informed me, in an accent rivaled only by Robert De Niro's in Raging Bull, that I had no future in acting because of my Southern accent, a sound I associated with dewy-eyed stupidity and dimwitted hospitality. What Southern accent? I wasn't even Southern! At that moment, I vowed never ever to utter such Southern expressions as "Well, knock me down and fan me with a brick!" or Daddy's incomprehensible favorite, "A hard head makes a soft dinghy." I blamed my Southern parents, the obvious culprits. Oh, how they had failed me! No piano lessons, no dance classes, no summer camp in the Poconos mountains. But what do they give me? A Southern accent! It was the final insult in a school career that had gone sour. My only success was in English class, where the teacher liked my compositions. Small compensation for someone nicknamed College Material.

M y grades were so poor when I finished at Erasmus in 1970 that I had to attend summer school to qualify for a basic general diploma. It took me an additional semester of evening classes at Washington Irving High School to upgrade to an academic diploma, a necessity for college. There was also another problem. Neither I nor my parents knew that I should have applied to colleges before the end of high school, so I had missed every admissions deadline. I was a 16-year-old high school graduate with no plans for my life. I had grown up being told I was destined for college, but with neither direction nor guidance, my future looked blank. Parental advice--the type of advice that could come only from a mother who was cleaning houses for food while her daughter was still a little girl-- left much to be desired. "Why don't you get a job in the phone company like your little friend Sandy? They pay good money."

"But I'm too young to work!" I protested. Besides, I didn't know how or where to look for a job, so I dawdled around the house, immobilized by anxiety, and filled the vacuum with my usual pastime--reading. I read English literature and psychology and memorized Sigmund Freud's defense mechanisms and Erik Erikson's seven stages of development. Roller Derby and beauty pageants became my most-watched television programs, a bizarre but effective distraction from my predicament.

One night, Ann and I were amusing ourselves poking fun at the contestants in a Miss Universe pageant when I recognized one of them. "Look at the black girl! I know her--she was at Erasmus!" I gasped proudly, crawling closer to the television for a better look. "It's Rochelle!" Two richly gowned contestants were standing side by side, holding hands.

The moment the commentator named the first runner-up, Rochelle's hands flew to her face. "And the winner is . . . Miss Jamaica, Rochelle Pershing!" I couldn't believe it--my former classmate was standing there graciously crying beneath a sparkling crown. My brief flutter of pride was instantly trampled under a rampage of envy. I was still in the projects.

"I don't remember her being all that pretty," I snorted. "Oh, who cares! Beauty pageants degrade women. Who would even enter one? But still . . . That shoulda been me up there sobbing instead of stuck here in the projects." Ann was supportive, as always. "Don't worry--you'll get your chance at the Miss Pissy pageant," she said, falling backward, laughing. I felt as if I were a total failure and had to do something quick if things were going to change. But all I could hear was Mother's voice directing me to the telephone company. That is, until I heard that other voice on the soul-music radio station.

The voice--black, male, and smooth--was soothing. "Listen up, brothers and sisters. If you think you have what it takes to go to college but don't have a high school diploma, come on uptown to Harlem Prep. Pass the test, and they'll do the rest." It wasn't quite God informing me I'd been adopted, but it sure came close. The problem was, not only did I already have a high school diploma, I had two: one general and one academic. I hoped they'd take me anyway and help me find my way to college. I ran to the kitchen, where Mother was washing dishes. "Guess what? I heard on the radio that there's a school in Harlem that'll help you get into college."

"Oh, black folk don't know how to run no school," she responded, her Old South upbringing showing.

I needed money for transportation. "Can I have subway money?"

"No. You don't have no business going all the way up there to Harlem."

"Please!"

"No."

Maybe she was right, but maybe not. This could be my chance to get into college--I wasn't about to let a subway token stop me. Without a word, I left the apartment.

Harlem Prep was founded in the late '60s by Ed and Ann Carpenter, edu-cators from Teaneck, New Jersey. I was impressed before I'd even met them because everyone said they knew the Isley Brothers, singers also from Teaneck. Their titles were headmaster and headmistress, but everyone called them by their first names. The primary aim of the one-year preparatory program was to give high school dropouts the skills necessary to obtain a General Educational Development diploma and enter college. Funding came from any source available, including private donations, corporate grants, and celebrity fund-raisers. Sammy Davis Jr. performed at Carnegie Hall to raise money for the school. Grateful alums sent checks. Representatives from Standard Oil, our largest donor, visited the school periodically, and we were forewarned to be on our best behavior.

The Prep was a hybrid institution--a private school that charged no tuition--and money was always in short supply. The school refused funding from the Board of Education, Ed said, because of the rules and regulations that went along with the money. The faculty was racially mixed and gender balanced. Some of our teachers held doctorates; others, bachelor's degrees. Few had formal teaching certificates, a Board of Education requirement. They were all inspired professionals committed to getting each of the approximately 200 students accepted at a college. The curriculum differed markedly from that of Erasmus; there was instruction in traditional high school topics like biology, math, and English, but also classes in Buddhism, African history, poetry, and anthropology. It was as though I had switched from shopping at a standard A&P supermarket to d'Agostino's gourmet shop.

From the very first day, I loved the supportive, familial atmosphere of Harlem Prep. There was a pleasant camaraderie among the students that was new to me. Respect was the value the Carpenters emphasized most, respect for ourselves and for each other. The couple emphasized the unity of the student body and encouraged us to view every student's success--or failure--as our own. Ann said each of us was both teacher and student. Ed held weekly community meetings at which he discussed the school's troubled finances, railed against absenteeism, and condemned drug abuse. His discourses were impassioned. "The white country's eyes are turned toward Harlem Prep. They're all watching us, to see if black folk can pull off this experiment. We're showing the world that our young people, you, are not lost, that you can find your way back into the education system and excel. We have students from the Prep in the best schools in the country. You're at Harvard, you're at City College, you're at Vassar, you're at Howard. But I'll tell you something--if the man from Standard Oil walks in here and sees half these seats empty, he's going to cut our money. I'm counting on you to be here and be clean. Anyone caught using or selling drugs is out! Remember, you are young, gifted, and black. And we love each and every one of you." His passion and love for us filled me with emotion. I felt his anguish for the Prep's future and his commitment to the students.

Most of us were black, from backgrounds similar to my own. Yet there was surprising diversity, especially for a project girl with little exposure to differently raised black people. Demetrius, a handsome high school dropout, had grown up riding horses in Connecticut; Kwame, a native of Harlem, had served time in prison. There were black Muslims, teenagers from New Jersey who owned expensive cars, and students wearing African clothing they had bought in Africa. There were parolees, martial-arts experts, poets, musicians, and painters. Everyone espoused opinions, questioned teachers, and challenged each other's viewpoints, creating an atmosphere that was both exhilarating and intimidating. Early on, I was confronted with my own ignorance by Mtume, a strict vegetarian from a Harlem housing project who meditated twice a day, played African drums, and knew African history in impressive detail. Before the Prep, all I knew about Africa was what I had seen in absurd television movies and on news segments about starvation. As Mtume lectured me about "the white man's willful destruction of the great civilizations of Africa"--not exactly dinner conversation in my home--the gaze of his deep-set, dark eyes grew fierce. I listened silently and signed up for African history class.

There were three white students at the Prep. Their presence inspired a certain ambiguity in me. I knew from Erasmus how isolated one could feel as a minority in an environment such as the Prep's. But I was also aware that, with one step outside, these kids would rejoin the majority and enjoy all the benefits and advantages that white-skin privilege affords. I concluded that whatever momentary discomfort they experienced in an all-black environment was healthy if it sensitized them to how the rest of us felt all the time. Besides, they chose the Prep knowingly, presumably for those very reasons. Once I'd gotten to know them as individuals, however, this internal debate became moot, and our relations were not unlike those I had with everyone else.

My most memorable friend, though, was Joy Carlson, as bold as she was bald. She was very petite, and her head was completely shaved. People called us "the odd couple" because we were so different. Joy was loud, aggressive, and could curse with authoritative ease. I was still stuck in my "good girl" persona, the well-behaved child. What shocked delight I took in Joy's unabashed attacks on anyone who annoyed her or dared look too long at her head. "What the fuck you lookin' at? My bald head look better than that knotty clump of shit on your head, muthafucka!" She was breathtaking! Imitating her, I practiced enunciation and intonation in the bathroom mirror: "Mo-ther-fu-cker. Mutherfucker. Muddafucka." I couldn't muster the same fluidity and conviction Joy had, but I kept practicing. For what, I don't know, since the only place I had courage enough to even say the word was in front of the mirror.

Joy had a dominating personality and could persuade me to do anything. "Janet, you the genius type. You got the highest SAT score in the whole school. You got it made. I ain't never gonna get in no college if I have to take that fuckin' test. I just can't take tests. Would you take it for me? I'll pay you. Please! We gotta help each other; that's what the Prep is all about."

I equivocated.

"Yeah . . . I know . . . but I did bad in math. Anyway, don't they check ID?" Her request aroused significant conflict in me. I didn't want to take the test for her. It just wasn't right. The other students were taking the SAT on their own--why couldn't she? But weren't all standardized tests biased against black people and used to oppress us? Why should Joy be kept out of college because of some arbitrary, racist, biased test that didn't really measure human determination? Besides, uptight, preppie white colleges needed bald, rambunctious black women with big attitudes. Still . . . I was black and had managed to do well, so it couldn't be all that biased. What would Angela Davis do? I hesitated. Joy insisted. "Fuck the math part. The colleges just care about the English score. I'll give you $50. You just go in there with all my ID and shit and sit your skinny ass down." I was proud of my SAT verbal score of 600 out of 800 and flattered by her pleas. Fifty dollars wasn't bad, either. I agreed.

On exam day, I showed up at the test site armed with Joy's birth certificate, gas bill, phone bill, and savings-bank account identification card. The proctor glanced at the documents and ushered me to a desk. I took the exam as Joy Carlson and collected my $50. When the results came out several weeks later, Joy was ecstatic. "We did it!" she cheered, running over to me in school and handing me an envelope. I pulled out the notice and to my horror read "Verbal score--700."

Teachers and classmates shook Joy's hand and slapped her on the back. "I didn't know you had it in you!" "Congratulations, Joy, we knew you could do it!" "Right on, little sister. And the top score in the Prep, damn! I should've had you take mine!" It took me weeks to stop grieving for my lost glory.

At the end of my first semester at the Prep, I had straight A's and a renewed spirit--College Material redux. I hadn't "gotten dumb," as I'd thought after my high school debacle. I still had brains and potential. The Carpenters were right: I was young, gifted, and black--and perfectly happy where I was.

Janet McDonald holds degrees from Vassar College, New York University, and Columbia University. She is one of the few black members of MENSA, a society of individuals with high IQs, and practices law in Paris. This is adapted from her forthcoming book Project Girl (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux). Copyright © 1999 Janet McDonald. All rights reserved.

Vol. 10, Issue 4, Pages 47-50

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