Remembering Al Vann Series
Chancellor David Banks pointed out that a part of the school system is not related to young students' experience, so they lose interest. It reminds me of my experience growing up in Jersey City, NJ and Brooklyn, NY. I too left school at sixteen. When I arrived from Georgia I was eleven years old. I had been an excellent student in Georgia. I loved reading books, magazines, newspapers, I loved going to school. I had two experiences in Jersey City school:
I used to have an old principal named Dr. Bannerman. I will never forget her. She used to come to our class regularly. She seemed to get the greatest joy out of talking about “the darkies”, how the darkies loved to sing and dance for us. She was an old white principal. I hated that woman.
The second experience was even more personally humiliating, we played a game in the classroom with a deck of cards which had pictures on them. The game was to do or perform whatever was on the card you picked – act like whatever it showed. Out of all the cards in the deck I had to pick a little colored boy eating a watermelon. I didn’t know whether to curse everyone out and leave the classroom or focus my anger only at the teacher, or just walk out of the classroom. Mostly white children were looking at me with laughter or smiles. To my self-shame and humiliation, I did what the card required. I left the school and I didn’t go back. I hated everything about the school, teacher, principal, children, etc.
These experiences are forever deeply ingrained in my mind and emotion. It is probably one of the reasons that shaped the kind of ministry I have, particularly as it relates to youth.
Because I refused to go to school in Jersey City. I was sent to Brooklyn to live with my father. My mother and father had remarried. I enrolled in P.S. 28 on Fulton Street in Brooklyn. I only spent a year and then was sent to Junior High school in Brooklyn, already I began to fail my classes. The Brooklyn school system was no different than the Jersey City school system.
On graduation day, I don't ever remember receiving a diploma like other students. I received a medal for my athletic achievements. The principal took a liking to me, and didn't care about my academic levels. When I got in trouble and was sent to his office to be reprimanded, we would spend the time discussing sports. On graduation day when he handed me the medal he said to the audience and the students “..and here was the man that made the impossible possible.” I was as proud as I could be. Looking back, I wish he would’ve taken as much interest in my classroom activities as he did in my athletic endeavors. I was sent to automotive school, which I hated. It wasn’t long before I stopped going.
I thought about my Army days. When I was nineteen, I realized that I was on the path to self-destruction. I joined the Army, as did many youngsters in my situation. Once I was in the Army, I grew to love it. I loved the discipline, order, cleanliness, camaraderie and friendships, we realized we were each other's protection. I loved the toughness and recognition, the Army gave me a sense of self-worth. I was voted the best soldier of the month, in the company of 250 men. To be voted the best soldier of the month meant that your sleeping area had to be spic and span, proficient at weaponry, immaculate in appearance, eagerness to obey and a good student.
I was elected or selected to carry the company's flag. This meant I marched in front of the troops and moved the flag according to the commands of our Captain. He gave verbal commands, which couldn’t be heard in the back of the marching company. As he gave these commands, it was the flag carrier to translate them into the flag motion. It was quite an honor.
Looking back, I excelled in all of my endeavors except the school system in the North - Brooklyn and Jersey City. Except that God was in my life, even when I wasn’t in God’s life but always under God’s protection. Otherwise I would’ve been another one of the millions of young Black, brown and poor white students in a school system that my parents and other parents paid to teach us and prepare us for life. There is a story that I learned from years back: A mother sent her child to school, the teacher sent the child back with a note saying, “Johnny stinks, wash him.” The mother sent the note back to the teacher saying, “Johnny ain’t no rose, don’t smell him - teach him!”
Years later when I gave my life to Jesus Christ, he made me conscious of life in America and abroad. I became angry when I remembered growing up and how smart some of us were. Everything else we wanted to do, we did it with exceptional ability. One of the few of us that made it out of the “hood” was my good friend Fred Willis. Years later he taught calculus at the college level. We called him in the early days, Mr. Education. We recognized that he was a genius, but the school didn’t recognize it until years later.
One of our gambling activities was shooting dice. There was a skill we called padrolling. You can roll the dice in a way that takes out the numbers that cause you to lose, putting them “inside” the dice. So, when you roll the dice all the numbers that come up, none of them would cause you to lose. Hence, shooting dice, the shooter who knew how to padroll could pick up the dice in a way that required experience and skill and rolled them with finesse, which meant that he could win and never lose.
Now for someone to do that they would have to calculate in their mind the numbers on the dice and pick up the dice in a certain way which required skill and experience, when it rolls out of their hand the dice will march like soldiers. Keeping the losing numbers out of the way of the dice and the numbers you wanted inside the way of the numbers you want to win.
Now we could do that with ease and yet the school system called us dummies. Just as Dr. Banks found these young children in Rikers Island, school didn’t relate to where we lived and what we were doing. When I grew older and became alert or conscious of the school system, I fought in every battle to make the school system what a school system ought to be.
I’d like to continue with my family and brother’s experience with the school system. My baby brother was cited for lack of attention. In fact, they thought he was moronic. His rebelliousness was constantly looking out of the windows. Lost in thought, apparently paying no attention to what the teacher was teaching.
My mother was wise enough to take him to a psychologist for examination. What they discovered was that he was a genius. They were teaching experiences and lessons that his mind would grasp quickly and then go search for something else that interested him. He needed to be challenged. But he needed more than that. The school system should have recognized and prepared itself for this child. I can cite the same thing with my son. He was not interested in schoolwork, so they sent us notes complaining of his lack of interest. I happened to go to the school – to his class unannounced and it so happened that the teacher was at the blackboard. They had put him in the front seat, I guess so he could be observed. The teacher put up a b word – and she asked what letter is in this word. The class responded, “It’s a d-word.” My son looked up and said, “It’s a b-word” and resumed playing with his imaginary game at his desk. (The reader will note that the letter b and the letter d are similar except for the but the bottom in the letters.)
Afterwards, I talked with the teacher. She commenced by pouring out all of the negatives regarding my son. I informed her that I watched the whole episode. He knew the lesson and his mind went somewhere else. If you challenge him, he’ll be alright. I told her that we would be there to help.
Another family experience is when our eldest daughter Leah registered to school in the first grade. She went with her bookbag, papers, and pencils. My wife and I spent a great deal of time with all of our children preparing them for the school system. It wasn’t long before the experience which the school system had designed/demanded that the children play with dolls and do chore-like duties. My daughter didn’t want to do that. She wanted to talk and to ask about reading books, papers and writing. That’s what she felt she had come to school for. But the school system insisted that she go in to play with dolls and into the kitchen. Every day, I would go to the school and argue with the principal Mr. Winegarten. He said to me “Reverend, your problem is that you want to change the whole school system.” I said, “You got that right”. He said, “I’m going to give her a reading test and see how she does.” When she completed the test, they discovered that she was reading on a third grade level; now they wanted to skip her from the first grade to the third grade. I said, “No. That is too much, she may be intellectually ready, but not physically and emotionally.” So they replied, “What do you want us to do?” I replied, “Skip her to second grade, that would be best.”
We are proud to say that all of our children are college graduates, some are doctors. Our son, Herb Jr. of whom I referred is a graduate of the University of Chicago and a Georgetown Law school graduate. In other words, he’s a lawyer. But, believing that he could do more in education he resigned his law practice and became an educator. A principal in Brooklyn, Assistant Superintendent of schools in one of the largest cities in the country and now a teacher and trainer of educators.
The first born of whom I spoke is a graduate of Dartmouth College and made history when she was asked to be the CEO of the 2008 and 2016 of the Democratic National Convention. In 2008, she did such a marvelous job that the momentum carried President Barack Obama into the White House. He became the first African-American president.
Then in 2016, Hillary Clinton ran for president. She and the democratic party leadership asked Leah to be the CEO. It was the first time that a person had been the CEO of the Democratic National Convention twice. Unfortunately due to Russia’s involvement and other acts of unfairness – she lost the election. Had she won, Leah would’ve been the first CEO for the first Black president and woman president. She was also Chief of Staff for the Democratic Party for six years prior to her CEO experience.
Our youngest daughter, Dawn, is a graduate of Syracuse. She received her Doctorate from Fordham University. She’s a principal and will be retiring next year. Another daughter, Sharon was a teacher, a professional performing artist and now after heading many projects, she is Executive Director of the Downtown Brooklyn Neighborhood Alliance (DBNA). One of our most viable organizations. It is doing great things in the community. She has brought all of her administrative experience and skills coupled with her artistic abilities to the service of DBNA and the community. The point is, all of our children, I or my wife, had to constantly go to the schools they attended because of some violation from the rules of the school.
One thing more, after Leah was tested they placed her in a school for gifted children. Looking back, as I often do and visiting the schools as I often do. I wonder what would’ve happened had my wife and I not been vigilant in demanding for our children and all children quality education. for the school system. We couldn’t change the whole system, but their relation to our children, we could change and many other children as we fought for quality education. As I have stated, a priority in my struggles across the years have been the school system, from segregation, integration to community control.
To be continued…
Look forward to the next article on Thursday, October 6, 2022