The Rev. Deborah Finley-Jackson speaks long and compassionate about education and children. It is the reason we separated her cogent, insightful comments for Our Time Press — on the importance of educating ourselves and our children about our unique histories — into two parts. Last week in the March 7 Our Time Press, Dr. Finley-Jackson shared deep thoughts on genealogy. This week, she offers her views on why we must pay attention to the children, but first we “walk down memory lane” to find out about her young years growing up with conscious, activist parents.
Then: Walking the picket line, crossing the ocean
Our family moved from Orangeburg to Jamaica, NY when I was two years old. It was eight years later that we moved to Lakeview, Long Island. At that time, children went to school in their own neighborhoods, and the Malverne School District was made up of the towns of Malverne, part of Lynbrook and the unincorporated village of Lakeview. Half of Lakeview belonged to the town of Rockville Centre, and the other half belonged to West Hempstead, but all of Lakeview attended Malverne Public Schools.
Lynbrook and Malverne at that time was 100% white. Whites notoriously would not sell homes to people of color. Lakeview was predominantly black, with white families. Children in each of these towns went to the elementary school in their own neighborhood. There was one Junior High, and one High School, where all children attended.
My parents joined the Civil Rights struggle in 1960, shortly after we moved to Lakeview, seeking to integrate the elementary schools. I remember walking on a picket line with my parents, two of my brothers and my baby brother in the stroller. That struggle included picketing, boycotts, community organizing, petitions sent to Albany, trips to Albany, and finally in about 1968 or 9, after many appeals, New York State integrated the schools. White parents were in an uproar. Their motto was, “We don’t want our children crossing the ocean to walk the dark streets of Lakeview”. Ocean Avenue was the street that divided the white areas from the black areas. So the decision was made to close the school in Lakeview, divide the children from our neighborhood and send them “across the ocean” between the two in the white neighborhood.
During this time, the struggle grew to not only integrate the schools but to integrate the school board. My dad was the first black person to sit on the board, after much struggle, after the family receiving phone calls, personal attacks and other threats. Although we lived “upsouth”, our struggle was not much different from the Deep South.
I was away in college by the time any changes were made. My younger brother is proud that he and my dad were arrested together during a sit-in at the high school. At that time the students were fighting for a Black History curriculum. They finally won, and Swahili was even taught in the school.
Nowadays, I hear that all the neighborhoods are well-integrated, although the public schools, like NY City public schools, as a result of white flight, are predominantly black.
They wanted to Shield Us, But Things Changed
When I was in fourth grade, I went to a Lutheran school which had one class per grade. One of the students had a birthday party to which everyone was invited except me. When I asked why I wasn’t invited, the little girl said, “My mother said I can’t invite a Negro to the party”. I replied, “I’m not a Negro”. I had never heard the word before, so I thought I couldn’t be something I never heard of. When I went home, I asked my mom if I was a Negro. She said, “Of course you are”. I wanted to know if she was one, if dad was one, all of us.
Years later, I asked my mother what she thought about my comments that day. She said she was so surprised that I asked. She and my dad had decided that they would not address race with us, in the hopes that we would just be people. Dad was from Mobile, Alabama, and mom from Camden, New Jersey. Both of them had experienced all kinds of prejudice, as it was called then, and wanted to shield us.
But, after my question, things changed. So by the time we moved to Long Island, that’s when the life lessons were taught. We were taught that we were, indeed, Negro, and that we were just as good as anyone else. It was important for us to work together to change the laws of segregation because they were wrong. Our education was important and in segregated schools we were not receiving the same education as the white children. Because we were Americans, we had a right and a responsibility to change laws that were unfair to some. The community decided that the kids needed to know history, so on Saturdays, we went to “Freedom School” and various parents taught us about our history. My parents were fierce advocates for us in school, and because of backlash from teachers, were often in the principal’s office defending and challenging.
So, I guess the responsibility part that I was taught is that when we see injustice, it is our responsibility to change it; that working with community is what can make change; that as Americans, we stand on the Constitution that guarantees the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; and that all people are equal and deserve equal treatment.
Now: After years of fierce advocacy for children, we have allowed our systems to fail them.
These days of standardizing education have reduced our schools to one-dimensional students – those who can pass particular tests on particular days. Because these test scores have the power of educators’ keeping or losing their jobs, the test scores become of most importance. Art, history, science, music, have taken a back seat. And when we think about what we converse about most often as adults, it is those very subjects that are of interest to us. Now, we have raised a couple of generations of people who are lacking in those disciplines.
And for me, the worst thing about that is that parents are unaware of the consequences of this watered-down curriculum. Parents believe that the children must pass the test- because everybody says so. Education is failing because there is no longer any discussion of the developmental stages of learning; that unique individuals learn uniquely; that teachable moments are what makes the classroom exciting; and that if critical/analytical thinking is not taught/encouraged/expected, our children will not be adults who are ready to meet the 21st century.
If public school parents could only know that the private schools that cost $30,000 and above do not take the NYS exams; that they offer rich electives, perhaps they’d be better equipped to ask the right questions.
Is it too late? That I really don’t know. This Goliath is huge. I know that educational philosophy swings like a pendulum, but it’s been swinging this way for quite a while. (As told to Bernice Elizabeth Green)
Publisher’s note: Dr. Finley-Jackson returns to the pages of Our Time Press later this Spring to talk about her Sea Star humanitarian project in Haiti. She leaves this weekend for a few days to check on the orphanage she and her husband founded. Since 2010, they have sent barrels of food and clothing. She told us: “And we want to see what else we can do…”
Dr. Finley-Jackson, an educator, scholar, AME minister and education activist, is President of the National Association of University Women – Brooklyn Branch.