A most astonishing and delightful surprise! A student I taught in seventh grade English class at Julia Ward Howe Junior School in Harlem in the 1950’s has just surfaced and written to thank me. She loved English so she, too, became an English teacher and a writer and, retired now, she writes screenplays. She tracked me down through my daughter who does medical columns for the New York Times.
Her letter transported me back six decades – evoking clear, vivid memories even though my current memories are often muddy puddles.
In 1951 when I returned to New York with an MFA after two years in the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, I desperately sought a job. I got one – teaching English in an all-girls junior high school in Harlem, and I spent the next six years there. The job was incredibly difficult, challenging, and exciting. The students, all black, were a lively urban mix.
Many of my teaching colleagues became my lifelong friends; happily, one friend lives just across the street from me now. An impressive number of those young teachers, like myself, were putting their husbands who were war veterans, through college. We were working for an incompetent, petty, white principal and her administrators whose aim was to run a “tight” school — more like a penal colony. Absolutely no talking in the halls during change of classes! Endless detention. Mindless punishments. From early on, I heartily hated the whole racist school system.
I bought my first pair of orthopedic shoes after a few months on that job. I was young – twenty-four years old – but the principal insisted that a good teacher never sat down in the classroom, so I was footsore all the time. I literally could not stand the mindless discipline.
The Harlem streets were rough in the 1950’s; it was an era of street gangs. Many afternoons as we teachers left the building we had to intervene in brutal fights; a favorite ploy of gang members was to pull an earring through an opponent’s earlobe. Too many afternoons I went home with blood on my hands.
For the many “problem” kids in our classes, there were no viable solutions thus the title of my first published novel: COME BACK ON MONDAY, Abelard Schuman –1960. The words were a stall when a teacher couldn’t – or wouldn’t – do anything for a student with a real problem. Thus any meaningful action was postponed. I was convinced that once I’d exposed the injustices and irregularities of the New York City schools, things would change. The novel got good reviews but did not sell many copies and, of course, the school system did not improve for decades. It is better now though not great.
Over the years whenever I ran into my old colleagues we wondered together about what happened to various students; we knew so many who were memorable, troubled – or talented and promising. So when this amazing letter came, I immediately wrote back telling my student how happy she’d made me. Then I hastened across the street, letter in hand, to show my old friend and together we enjoyed the student’s triumph. She had beaten the odds. In a Harlem slum school she had chosen to do what she loved, and pursued it and done well, and she was generous enough to remember her old seventh grade English teacher and share her success. I am so glad!