Remembering the heroes of Harlem

I found an article I had written back in 1982 among some documents from my days as literary editor and TV critic on The Australian. I thought I’d publish it on my blog as it still has some validity (and it wasn’t published back then). And sure enough, halfway through my revision, I discovered that two of the main participants were still alive and still contributing to the education of children. Here is how the story began in 1982:
Education is alive and well in Harlem. If you had told me six weeks ago that I was going to write that about the famous black community in New York City, I would have said: “You are out of your mind.”
But it’s true. I saw it myself: black and white teachers working together so black children can make it in the outside world, still run by white people; parents and administrators pooling their resources to help kids get an education in a city that is by no means financially secure; and, most important, the children themselves, learning despite the disadvantages they have inherited from society.
It happened at Wadleigh Junior High School 88, just off Seventh Avenue and 114th Street in west Harlem, which is overwhelmingly black – east, or Spanish Harlem, is predominantly Hispanic. The reason I chose this school? Twelve years ago in 1970, I was a teacher there, an experience I have never forgotten [and still haven’t 44 years later!].
I taught there in there in 1968-69 and 1970, during teachers’ strikes, Cambodia and Richard Nixon, the killing of student protestors by national guardsmen at Kent State University in Ohio and myriad protests against the Vietnam War and the draft.
Conscription and idealism were the two main factors in teaching in Harlem. One sure way of avoiding the draft and, almost inevitably, Vietnam, was to teach in a so-called disadvantaged area. It seemed to me, and I’ve said it many times since, much more preferable – and reasonable – to be teaching black kids in Harlem than to be killing Vietnamese kids in Vietnam in a war I didn’t believe in. It was an opinion shared by most of my generation.
As a relatively young and inexperienced teacher, I had my quota of bad days at Wadleigh – when the only thing that kept me going was the thought that I was contributing to society. And to be honest, that the day would come when I would turn 26 and no longer be eligible for the draft: April 30, 1970 was a day of freedom. Ironically, five years later on that same date, Saigon fell and the war was over.
During this time, my best mate, James McCausland, used to say: “Every time I pick up a newspaper, I expect to see your name in the headlines: either saying you killed a kid or a kid killed you.”
He was referring to the violence in the schools and on the sometimes mean streets of Harlem. Among the incidents which stand out in my memory are: a sixth-grade pupil of mine waiting outside a classroom with a broken bottle in his hand to pay back a teacher who had slapped him earlier in the day (fortunately, he gave the bottle up to me without a struggle); another student spitting in my face which prompted me to chase him down the stairs, out the door, and down several streets, before I realised I was a white man running after a black child in Harlem; and getting mugged for 35 cents as I walked across Morningside Park after school to climb the stairs to Cathedral Parkway and my bank. I was in more danger from the elderly white resident screaming “help” from the top of the steps. There was a fleeting smile from one of the young black guys as I explained I only had 35 cents to my name. It was not an easy gig teaching in Harlem.
In hindsight, I can see that many of the confrontations were due to my inexperience in the classroom, but there was a lot going on outside the school. The society was tearing itself apart in the late sixties and it was reflected in the classrooms and the corridors. Toward the end of the 1970 school year, dozens of children were roaming the five-storey building. False alarms were being pulled so often, the deputy principal had to resort to the PA system several times to announce: “This is a real fire, I repeat, this is a real fire. Everybody out of the building.”
But it wasn’t all doom and gloom. There was the Faculty Follies, whose proceeds went to the ABC (A Better Chance) scholarship program, helping Wadleigh graduates get into prestigious prep schools and high schools and on to university. The program was (and still is) run by Edouard E. Plummer, mathematics teacher, and it was supported by many of his celebrity friends, including the late singer and actress, Lena Horne, and the famous author, James Baldwin.
The teachers were special, and I always considered them heroes because they stayed in Harlem – while many of us left when we turned 26. (I mentioned this to the Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott when he was the Shadow Aboriginal Minister and wrote about it in a previous post http://wp.me/p1Ytmx-24.) When I returned to Wadleigh to see if the school had changed during my 12-year absence, it was the teachers I talked to first – colleagues like Ed Plummer, Doris Brunson, Ken Chevers, Carmen Matthew and Jim McGann. They had more than 100 years of experience, all of it at Wadleigh Junior High School. Ed Plummer put it best: “I was teaching blacks before it was fashionable to teach blacks.”
One person I’ll never forget is Doris Brunson, who began teaching at Wadleigh in 1957, and refused several better-paying jobs to stay at the school until she retired. She helped found the ABC program with Mr Plummer, and was an award-winning teacher for her contribution to the education of children in schools like Wadleigh. When I went back in 1982, she asked me if I wanted to teach one of her English classes. As you can see from the blackboard in the photo above, I taught a brief lesson about Aboriginal Australians, as their anthology had a story about Evonne Goolagong Cawley and how she became a successful tennis player. The story also gave me the opportunity to talk about Aborigines in Australia and their problems – problems in discrimination similar to ones they faced.
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But Ms Brunson demonstrated why she was a master teacher (1982 photo above). Her lesson to her eighth grade class was based on a teleplay about a blind girl in the same anthology. Miss Brunson read the stage directions and told the children to “put some feeling into your voices.” They did. Nothing is forced and when something in the text needed explanation, she did it … almost automatically. After the reading was over, she had some of the students come to the front of the class, put on blindfolds and try to guess what objects are being handed to them. A simple, but effective follow-up.
Later over coffee, I asked Ms Brunson what kept her at Wadleigh for so long: “Despite all we have against us, we have a nucleus of people, who have hung in there and done their best. There are teachers here who care. That’s one of the beautiful things about Wadleigh. I think that’s the reason I stayed. There were times when I was really ready to chuck it in. When there was pressure on me to produce and make sure that the children get what they are supposed to get, even though your energies are rapidly dwindling. You feel as if the children are pawns in a game and it angers you. Then you see those kids and you compare them to other children getting all the benefits and all the goodies, and you say, ‘I’m going to try another year’.
“I’m glad I did. I have a more positive attitude to the classroom. I made certain personal changes and I really enjoy the children. I felt I was a good teacher and was producing at a satisfactory level. But now I have become even more involved with the children in the classroom in a much more intense way. I feel as if I’m in touch with each child. It’s a very, very thrilling and exciting experience and it carries me on.”
Ms Brunson stopped suddenly and said if there was one person I should mention in my article it was the assistant principal and trades teacher, Ken Chevers: “I want you to be sure and give credit to Ken because without his help, we would have really gone under completely. He did his job and other people’s jobs. You began to think you were seeing him in triplicate. He was on this floor, that floor, he was all over the place.”
Ken Chevers was then a 24-year veteran of Wadleigh, a small man of 60, who didn’t look a day over 40. As tough as they come, he was all heart. The kind of bloke who could silence a school assembly, with one sentence, looking the recalcitrant n the eye, and saying: “If you don’t want to bounce, shut up.” The student shut up. But he could also tell the same eighth-grade assembly: “You’re the cream of the school. You set the example.” He was proud of the kids and they knew it. And whenever I had a problem with the kids in my class, Ken would show up before I called him. It must have been a Chevers triplicate.
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And that’s where I’ll end my 1982 story. It had to be updated when I made contact with Ed Plummer. I was going to transcribe what I had written about this magnificent teacher from my 1982 piece, then I Googled him and up came the “Wadleigh Scholars Program” (http://www.wadleighscholarsprogram.org/). And there he was, pictured with some of the scholarship students, and a photo with a white-haired, but still beautiful, Doris Brunson (see recent photo above). Fifty years on, at the age of 86, Ed Plummer is still working on the scholarship program. I called to find out how he was. It turns out Ed had a stroke in June after the 50th anniversary of the program had been celebrated at a special ceremony at Columbia University. He is still in hospital, but is due to get out in a few weeks. No prizes for guessing what he plans to do: “I can’t wait to get back and work on the program. It’s my legacy.” And what a legacy it is – getting more than 500 students into 108 boarding and prep schools in the past half century. Will it keep going? “Don’t worry, they’re keeping going.” He now has someone working with him on the program, Derek Wallace, “who’s very, very good.”
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Ed tells me to get a copy of a lovely piece by David Gonzalez, which was published in the New York Times on June 8 this year, before the celebrations at Columbia. Gonzales talked to Ed at his office – a small room in the Wadleigh Secondary School (Gonzalez’s photo above) – where he reminisced about some of those 500 students whose photos or clippings are on the wall: “This one went to Lawrenceville, then Yale. This one, Peddie. Hotchkiss, St Paul’s. This one went to Harvard undergrad and Harvard Law. This one’s a doctor. He ran for Congress.” http://nyti.ms/1uSrJmn
In 1982, I talked to Janice Simpson, then a correspondent for Time Magazine where she worked for three decades. She’s now the co-director of Arts & Culture Reporting at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate School of Journalism, and writes a blog Broadway and Me http://www.broadwayandme.blogspot.com.au/. Janice Simpson was in the first ABC program at Wadleigh, and graduated from Sarah Lawrence College. She told me: “The teachers in the ABC program were very important to us, but they would have been even if there weren’t a program. They were what people think of teachers in the old sense – they cared and they pushed you. At the 15th reunion, we told the teachers what they meant to us, and they thought we were just saying that to make them feel good.” But Ms Simpson said the ABC program was “like another family. There is a community of experience and a real strong concern for the classes that follow. Teachers like Miss Brunson and Mr Plummer are rare today in this era of ‘Me First’.”
In June, David Gonzalez spoke to a program alumnus, Christopher S. Auguste, now a partner at the law firm Kramer Levin in Manhattan, who got into the prestigious Phillips Academy in the early 1970s thanks to the ABC program. He said: “Plummer was way ahead of his time. His focus was on black and Hispanic boys. He was seeing there was an issue brewing, which has become even more of a tragedy now.”
And what’s happening at Wadleigh now is what I feared would happen. Mr Plummer told Gonzalez that fewer children come from the neighbourhood around the school, where new luxury buildings and cafes have forced minority residents to move: “Blacks and Latinos are not going to be helped, they’re going to be pushed out. They can’t afford it. Nobody gives a damn. Most of our students used to come from this area. Now, most don’t.” A study mentioned by Gonzalez confirms Mr Plummer’s assertion: New York City’s public school system is one of the most segregated in the United States: http://bit.ly/1EF9ViI
And yet, I have to say in my five and half years of teaching in the US and Australia, before returning to journalism, I never worked with better teachers than Ed Plummer and Doris Brunson (and I worked with a lot of good ones). They worked their guts out in difficult conditions, never losing their cool and always caring about the kids in their care. Mr Plummer believes one of the reasons for the failure of schools in disadvantaged areas is poor teaching. Thirty-two years ago, he told me: “How can you expect students to live up to standards set by teachers when those same teachers don’t live up to the standards themselves?” I asked him at the weekend if he still believed that, and he said: “Yes.” In 1982, he told me about a young female teacher who came to observe him, and her supervisor asked what she thought. “She said I was like Hitler toward the children. This was the same lady who ran out of the building in tears later in the day,” says Mr Plummer. “The children chased her out of the classroom.” Ed Plummer was a stickler for discipline. His students had to wear a coat and tie, and line up at the door of his classroom (the latter was a tactic I borrowed in my teaching days in Australia). Another graduate of the scholars program, Larry Jennings, told me in 1982: “Mr Plummer was tough. But when I think of him, it wasn’t really fear that he used. He wanted us to succeed and he gave 110 per cent. You did your best and you got his support.”
I’ll leave the last word about teaching in Harlem to Ed Plummer, who told the New York Times what he said to his first class of scholars 50 years ago: “You are as good as anyone else, or better. There will be people who don’t want you there. But you have to go. You are the Jackie Robinsons* of education. If he could do what he did, you can open the doors to those who follow behind you.”
*I’m adding a footnote here because a good friend in the US suggested Australians might not get the reference to Jackie Robinson. He was the first African-American baseballer to play in the major leagues. I have written about Jackie in a previous post when I reviewed a biography of Branch Rickey, the president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who brought him into the majors in 1947. The biography is by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Jimmy Breslin, and it’s a book that says a lot about baseball and racism. http://wp.me/p1Ytmx-3F Highly recommended.

4 thoughts on “Remembering the heroes of Harlem

  1. I had the opportunity go to through the Wadleigh Scholars Program and was taught by Mr. Plummer as well. Words cannot describe my level of gratitude for his wisdom, dedication and love for his students. I consider myself to be extremely blessed to have been one of his students.

    • Hi Sheneen, Thanks for that. Mr Plummer was the best of many excellent teachers at Wadleigh, and his continuing dedication and love for his students and his program will be his legacy. I haven’t heard back from him, so thanks for reminding me. I will try to get an update on how he is. Kind regards, Tom

      • Hello can u give me any info on Edd I have been trading to contack him.a friend in London

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