Harlem Knights

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With their Ivy League degrees and golden résumés, Ivan and Hans Hageman could have built dream careers. Instead, they opened a school in the rough-and-tumble neighborhood where they grew up.

As boys, Ivan and Hans Hageman would leave their home on East 103rd Street in East Harlem each morning and head out for school a world away. Home was an apartment above Exodus House, a drug rehabilitation center run by their parents. Here, the brothers hung out with recovering addicts and heard tales of the city's mean streets. School was the prestigious Collegiate School on Manhattan's trendy Upper West Side, just blocks from Lincoln Center. At Collegiate, an all-boys school, they walked the halls with classmates who lived in cavernous apartments on Fifth Avenue, vacationed in Europe, and spent weekends in country homes upstate or in Connecticut.

The shocking contrast between home and school life was a key element in Ivan's and Hans' educations. "You cross 96th Street, and your definition of humanity switches," Ivan says now, some 25 years later. The disparity angered him. It produced what he calls a "cognitive dissonance" that would stay with the brothers through their college years and finally lead them back to East Harlem. The drug rehabilitation center that their parents ran closed years ago, but in its place, in the very building where they grew up, these African American brothers have established a private middle school for neighborhood children. They hope that the East Harlem School at Exodus House will give students the kind of intellectual foundation, discipline, and strength of character their parents and Collegiate gave them.

Hans, 40, is the school's executive director. He is responsible for fund raising and community outreach. Ivan, one year younger than Hans, is the principal. He is in charge of the school's day-to-day operations, oversees the academic program, and works with the teachers on the curriculum. Ivan is the educator, Hans the entrepreneur.

"They're powerful personalities," says Mark Tashjian, who left a multimillion dollar consulting firm to teach math and science at the school. "They make the difference between this place and other schools. They're powerful intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, and physically."

Paul Brill, director of development, says the brothers complement each other. "They work well together," he says, "and then they have their 'brother stuff.' The energy that is combusted is what stokes the school."

At first glance, Ivan and Hans look strikingly alike-both are light-skinned and powerfully built, with shaved or nearly shaved heads and wire-rimmed glasses. Both are athletic, study the martial arts of judo, jujitsu, and shing-i, and relish mental and physical challenges.

On closer look, differences emerge. Ivan is taller and has a reddish goatee. He tends to be tougher with the students; he is, after all, the principal. In one of my early conversations with Ivan, he talked easily about any number of topics, including the Hindu holy book, the difference between the terms African American and black, the importance of rites of passage, the orchids he raises, and the woman with whom he is romantically involved, a gynecological oncologist.

Hans has a wide stripe of a mustache. He's broader than his brother and looks as if he will have no problem with the 200-pound sled he will pull on the Arctic expedition he's planned as a fund-raiser next year. He is married and has a daughter; the family lives in an apartment right above the school. The students see a lot of him, but he doesn't teach, and his fundraising activities often take him away from the school. Ivan calls him "a visionary" but also says he can be "very stubborn." One staff member refers to him as "the Wizard of Oz," the behind-the-scenes guy; adding to his mystique is the fact that he follows his own schedule and is hard to pin down.

As caring and demanding men, Ivan and Hans are important figures in their students' lives. Many of the youngsters are being raised by women and don't have positive male role models at home. During one of my visits to Exodus House, I saw four or five students drape themselves over Ivan as he sat at a computer in the small cubicle that serves as the school's main office. And I watched as Hans, seated with elbows on knees, talked intimately with some kids. The students were completely at ease, one hanging on Hans' arm, another rubbing his head affectionately.

The East Harlem School may be the creation of Ivan and Hans, but it owes a lot to their parents, the Reverend Lynn Hageman and his wife, Leola. The couple, now aged and infirm, still live in an apartment in the building, but they don't get around much.

Lynn Hageman, a Methodist minister, met Leola Johnson at a Paul Robeson concert in Chicago in the early 1950s. The two soon fell in love and married. But according to Ivan, the Methodist church opposed their union because Hageman was white and Johnson black. The church hierarchy, Ivan says, offered a deal: Hageman could have his choice of assignments if he would call off the marriage. He refused.

Both Hans and Ivan were standouts at Collegiate, winning in successive years the school's top honors for academic, athletic, and personal excellence.

As a result, the couple was assigned to an East Harlem parish, where they established the residential drug rehabilitation program at Exodus House in 1968. They ran it until 1984. "People ask me what it was like growing up in a drug rehab center," Ivan says, leaning back on a metal chair in the small asphalt recreation area behind the school. "But this is what I knew. I guess it was a bizarre experience, but it was my reality. It was a lot like having a lot of big brothers, hanging out with people who had experience in the world. I felt totally safe in this neighborhood."

The Reverend Hageman was a commanding presence and had enormous influence on his sons. "He was an Old Testament figure," Ivan says, "a peaceful warrior with a beard and a powerful stentorian voice. He lifted weights and was the most widely read person I've ever encountered."

The boys' mother, who cared for them day to day more than their father, pushed them to read and learn. "If we did well in school," Ivan says, "she would take us to Doubledays to buy books. She gave us a real love of books and connected success to reading.

"When things got tough for my father, she was a real strong person. She was the one who was the vocal promoter and engineer for academic success. She was the most visible person to push us to want to excel."

Both Hans and Ivan were standouts at Collegiate, winning in successive years the school's top honors for academic, athletic, and personal excellence. Hans went off to Princeton and later attended Columbia Law School. Ivan graduated from Harvard in three years, magna cum laude.

After college, Ivan bummed around for a time. He worked in a gym as a personal trainer and as a bouncer at a bar. He rode his motorcycle across the country. Later, while a janitor at the Harvard school of education, he found himself one day in a long conversation with the dean, whose office he was cleaning. By the end of their talk, the dean had persuaded Ivan to enroll in a graduate program at the school of education.

Returning to New York City with his Harvard master's degree, Ivan worked for a year at a large public high school in Manhattan and then for three years at University Heights High School, a public school in the Bronx affiliated with the Coalition of Essential Schools, a national reform network.

Hans, meanwhile, was moving through a series of impressive but somewhat discouraging law jobs, doing stints with the Manhattan district attorney's office, a U.S. Senate subcommittee, and as chief counsel to the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem. Along the way, however, he began to question the legal system and his chosen career.

At one point, Hans taught a law class at a local junior high school. He saw right off that the kids were as eager to talk about teenage pregnancy and other personal problems as they were to discuss their legal rights. He began to look with more interest at what his brother was doing as a teacher. "I had seen all of the law I had wanted to see," Hans says. "People were put into the system, but what happened to them once they were there? I was tired of seeing the same people come across the bar of justice."

He hit on the idea of starting a school in their East Harlem neighborhood, and the first person he discussed it with, of course, was his brother. Ivan's response was tepid, at best. "I didn't think it was feasible," he recalls. "I didn't think we could get the financial support." What's more, he says, "it was too close to home."

Gradually, though, Ivan came around. The idea of creating a school they could mold and run appealed to him, and he realized that their experience with both the city's elite and its poor would help. "I also thought it would be fun," he says. "We loved African American and Latino kids. We loved our history, the struggles and how they shaped characters."

Vol. 10, Issue 2, Pages 30-34

Published in Print: October 1, 1998, as Harlem Knights
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