My Truth: My Journey Toward Servant Leadership
Completing the third grade at the Louis Prang School in June,1939, was like I had “maxed out” of — that is, completed — a three-year prison sentence. In the fall, I rejoined many my friends at the Dudley School, our neighborhood’s fourth through sixth grade elementary school.
The school’s demographics reflected our Roxbury neighborhood – overwhelmingly white – my “normal” throughout my public school career. The terms “integration” or “desegregation” were non-existent for me and other Black kids in our neighborhood It was simply “school”. Black teachers were a rarity. One day, I had a Black teacher – a substitute. Most of my Black friends never saw a single Black teacher in twelve years.
Going to the Dudley School was like a mini-reunion for me. I was eight years old. Charlie Georgenes, my good friend from Linwood Square and kindergarten, was in my fourth–grade class. So was Billy Reid, a Black kid who was in the choir with me at St. Cyp’s. Billy and I, plus another child whose name I forget (Richard?), were the only Black kids in my class of about 40 students. I also remembered a few white kids from my kindergarten class at the Nathan Hale School.
I felt so comfortable at the Dudley School, I even risked signing up for a bugle-playing class. I got along with almost everyone and I had a good feeling about school, despite my being one of the youngest kids there, my physical awkwardness, my shyness, and my untreated nearsightedness. I was part of the crowd — very important for kids of that age, then and now.
For all my optimism, there was a dark side to the Dudley School: the corporal punishment of students. At the Dudley School, and throughout Boston’s public school system, a child who misbehaved in class was liable to be summarily whipped with a rattan by his teacher. The rattan is a thin, pliable vine-like plant used in making wicker furniture, and it can be wielded like a whip.
Twice, I received such an unforgettable whipping for repeatedly talking to my friends while my teacher was talking. (Not a good idea – then or now.) There was no appeal; no parental notification or pre-approval for these beatings. They were administered at the sole discretion of your classroom teacher.
My teacher, in accordance with Boston’s school policy, always began our class day by sanctimoniously reading Scripture from the Old Testament to our class and then leading us in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. We recited the Pledge by extending our right arm, palm up, in a forward direction – almost identical to Nazi Germany’s “Heil Hitler” greeting. That changed shortly after our entry into World War II.
I couldn’t reconcile the piety of reading Scripture and reciting the phrase “liberty and justice for all” in the Pledge with the brutality of the rattan.
Here’s how the rattan worked: Teacher would tell you that, because of your misbehavior, you would be whipped during the next classroom break. You’re scared stiff as you anticipate the inevitable. I remember my sweating hands. The four-foot rattan sits in a vase of vinegar in a corner of the open-ended cloak room. It seems like a cat-o’-nine–tails.
At the dreaded moment, you are summoned to the cloakroom and told to put out one of your hands. You obediently, but in terror, put your hand out. You dare not pull your hand back as teacher begins the whipping, saying with each swishing stroke, “You…. Must …. Not … Talk!” You dare not pull back your hand, lest she add, “In…. My… Class!”
During my two whippings, I dared not cry. I knew I must not show weakness to my classmates. I would not cry outwardly. But inwardly, I was enraged. At the end of the whipping, I would meekly return to my seat, my stinging hand rolled into my pocket. I could not pay attention to anything for the rest of the day. Learning anything was the furthest thing from my mind. I am eight or nine years–old. I dared not tell my parents that I had misbehaved in school. What then?
I thought that I had put those awful whippings behind me, until about 25 years later when I read Jonathan Kozal’s award-winning “Death at an Early Age” (1967). The book’s subtitle is “The Destruction of the Hearts and Minds of Negro Children in the Boston Public Schools.” It gives a detailed description of what I felt as I was whipped with the rattan at the Dudley School.
He gets the order to hold out his hands. He wouldn’t respond. Again the teacher, standing above him, passed down the order. To no effect. The teacher, now losing patience, ordered it a third time. And still he wouldn’t answer or comply. A fourth time. Still this frozen terror. So the decision is made: he will get it twice as many times.
He can’t hold out forever. Finally he breaks down and stops resisting. The teacher who gives the beating may, in all other instances, seem a decent man. Even in giving this beating he may do it absolutely as he is supposed to. Yet, properly done or not, and whatever the man’s intent, the tears still come, and the welts are formed upon the light-brown hand.
Here I was, reading that book – 35–years–old, a husband and father of two children, a graduate social worker, a highly-respected member of our community, a community activist. Twenty-five years had passed since those vicious beatings. I was alone in the living room of our hi-rise apartment at 309 Lafayette Avenue in Brooklyn, New York. I suffered a visceral reaction to this passage as my stomach tightened. It took me several minutes to recover my composure. I didn’t know that I was experiencing PTSD at the time.
Today, I cannot take seriously the romanticized claims of some of my well-intentioned friends who assert that the “switch” benefited them. These whipping were a residue of the well-documented practice of Southern whites enslavers exercising control over enslaved Black persons who “got out of their place.”
I was nine years old and in the fifth grade when my class was discussing World War II heroes and, when I brought up Dorie Miller, my teacher dismissed him, a Black sailor, and his heroism at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 with a brusque flip of her hand. And my classmates laughed at me. They laughed at a Black man who was a hero on the USS West Virginia. They laughed at a Black man who shot down several Japanese planes even though he had no training as a gunner. They laughed at a Black man who earned the Navy Cross, America’s second highest medal.
Hearing my classmates’ reaction to Dorie Miller, I even criticized myself for raising my hand to tell about him in the first place. I should have known better – I was one of only three Black kids in that class.
But I didn’t know better until that laughter changed things for me.
After that experience, I seemed to alternate between retreating into a shell or acting up in class. I have no doubt that this experience, my worsening eyesight, and my confrontation with a bully of my own race were additional contributing factors to my poor classroom performance at the Dudley School.
EYEGLASSES AND HEALTH CARE
Health care, as we know it today, was virtually nonexistent during my childhood. Routine annual physical or dental examinations were unheard of in our circle. If you didn’t feel well, you treated yourself with home remedies and tolerated any discomfort until the complaint passed. You went to the doctor or dentist only as a last resort.
I couldn’t see the writing on the blackboard as a child. Even after a teacher moved me to the front row in the classroom, I still couldn’t see and yet, I didn’t get glasses for a long time. The effect of the medical system in the 1930s and ‘40s and my bad vision had a profound effect on me as a child. Before my sight was corrected by glasses, I felt that something was wrong with me intellectually, rather than physically.
Myopia, or near-sightedness, hadn’t happened to me overnight. It was a gradual, insidious process that I noticed in early grade school as I had to sit closer to the blackboard and closer to the very front row at the movie theater. I also had trouble reading what the teachers wrote on the blackboard. I assumed that that’s the way it was with everyone else and so I never complained about it.
Boston’s schools were more progressive than many school systems around the country and provided annual vision and hearing screenings for students and required annual dental clearances. That school-based screening program was my salvation – we knew my vision was impaired. For some time — I’m uncertain how long — school personnel had advised my parents that I needed eyeglasses, but for reasons unknown me, they failed to purchase them. I now suspect that they simply didn’t have the money to buy me glasses. Whatever the reason, my visual problems contributed to my early learning issues: I was unable to perform simple arithmetic, written on the blackboard
It was a life changing experience when I got my first pair of eyeglasses. With my new wire-rimmed glasses, I could now sit with everyone else in the movies. I could read easier. I could read my teachers’ writing on the blackboard, especially arithmetic tables. I could even see my teachers’ eyes. It was like an instantaneous miracle.
Dental care was still another challenge for all Americans, especially Black people. Today the presence of fluoride in our water system has markedly reduced the occurrence of cavities. But in the 1940s, there was no fluoride in the water and dental insurance was unheard of. Folks avoided going to the dentist until they absolutely needed to do so. Some complained it was an undue governmental interference in their personal liberty. Sound familiar?
Because the school system required annual dental clearances, Eleanor and I made annual visits to the nearby Whittier Street Health Clinic where dental students filled cavities and performed extractions and cleanings. With no high-speed drills, so common today, those dental visits were bitterly painful experiences. There was no orthodontic treatment or specialized oral surgical services at the time, and I live with the results of these limited services today.
These days, with the availability of highly advanced medical and dental treatment, I’m outraged by our present-day health disparities and the overall poor health of Blacks and Latinos in Georgia, where I now live. The recent Covid-19 pandemic has hit Black and Latino people especially hard due, in part, simply to the inaccessibility of proper health care.
Yet, many of our elected officials want to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act or, as it is nicknamed, Obamacare. Why should I be able to be receive a $350,000 kidney transplant, paying only $500 out-of-pocket, as I did in 2009, while hundreds of similarly-situated people die each day awaiting such a procedure? What’s wrong with this picture?
OLLY SANDERS, BULLY
While the Dudley School saw me get my much-needed eyeglasses and grow old enough to start recognizing racism, the school provided me with one more lesson before I moved on: Olly Sanders.
Remember I said that I got along with almost everyone at the Dudley School? Olly Sanders was the exception. Olly, one of the few Black kids at the school, was two years older than me and a bully, pure and simple. Perhaps because I was shy, younger than my classmates, husky, awkward, and a bit immature, Olly decided that I was his to pick on. He was the alpha – king of the hill; I was the omega – bottom of the heap.
Like today, the most dangerous time of the school day at the Dudley School was when school let out and everyone was in the schoolyard and on the way home. There was no adult monitoring there.
It began when I was eight or nine years old, when I was in either the fourth or fifth grade. I’m not sure which.
Olly would push me, shove me, mimic me at the drop of a hat. Others seemed intimidated by Olly and didn’t come to my aid, perhaps fearful that Olly might turn on them. Although Olly never hurt me physically, the mental hurt was unspeakable. I felt isolated and as if I was the lowest of the low in class. The term bullying wasn’t even a part of our lexicon in those days.
Dad wasn’t sympathetic to my plight. He seemed disappointed in my passivity, in contrast to his own stand-up value system. Never give up. Always fight back. His response to my plight was to say, simplistically, “Fight back.” Teachers said the bullying wasn’t a school matter, because it took place off school property. It wasn’t their responsibility.
It was fight or flight for me. I chose flight. On more than one occasion, I feigned sickness to avoid going to school and facing Olly Sanders. Like my Dad, other kids told me to “just” fight back. I was immobilized,
The bullying came to end with a sad event in my life.
In the fall of 1942, when I was ten–years–old and about to go into the sixth grade, Ma told me that we would soon be moving, but that it was a “secret.” I wasn’t to tell anyone about our forthcoming move. Not even my best friends Don and Juke Shelton. She gave me no reason for the forthcoming move and couldn’t even tell me where we’d be going, except that we’d be “camping” in another place nearby.
I felt awful. I was fearful of what the future held, but somewhat soothed by the assurance that we would all be together in the same neighborhood and still nearby to Don and Juke.
On the day of our move, when I finally told Mrs. Shelton, Don and Juke’s mother, that we were moving in a matter of hours, she was devastated, hurt and flabbergasted. She was my other mom. I think she wanted to cry as she said, “Oh, Al (my nickname). Why didn’t you tell me?” I was speechless and ashamed.
Mrs. Shelton had treated me as one of her own children ever since Don and I met in kindergarten. I ate meals and slept over their home regularly. She was another mother for me, just as Ma was another mother for Don and Juke.
We moved to a small apartment on nearby Highland Street. I was able to maintain my Linwood Square friendships and continue to attend the Dudley School. My other mother, Mrs. Shelton, treated me as she always had – like her third child – to her dying day in the 1980s.
I later learned from Ma that we were forced to move because the bank had foreclosed on the only home I’d known, supposedly because of Dad’s excessive gambling. Whether other factors were involved in our precipitous move from Linwood Square, I never knew.
A month or so later, my parents purchased a triple-decker apartment house at 61 Walnut Park in the nearby Hill section of Roxbury, near the Egleston Square transit hub. I have no idea how they managed to do so, given the recent foreclosure on our Linwood Square home.
The good news? I never saw or heard from or about Olly Sanders again.
In the years since we lost my cherished childhood home, I’ve wondered countless times whether either of my parents appreciated my sense of loss as a 10-year-old child. I was hurt, not only by the suddenness of our move, but by the overly secretive manner in which it was conducted. I also cannot forget the anguish and hurt of my other mother, Mrs. Shelton, when plaintively said, “Oh, Al….”
It was as if she had been thrown under a bus by one of her own children. And that’s exactly what I felt I’d done to my other mother.
TAGS: Corporal punishment, bullying, health, Dorie Miller
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