Public Thoughts & Private Schools (Part 2 of 4)

(Continued from January 3, 2012)

I was introduced to private school without ever having to concern myself with the differences between public and private. My father was bought on to teach a Black History class in the upper school. If he wasn’t the first Black teacher he was among the first. Dad really had a love for young folk and their energy. He had started and maintained a viable and noteworthy Youth ministry at the Heritage United Church of Christ in Baltimore, Maryland where he was the founding pastor, so working with or teaching teenagers was not foreign to him, especially not on that subject, and he loved it. What was new to Dad was working with upper middle to upper class white teenagers. The trouble was rarely with the youngster though navigating through the garbage they had been fed at home proved to be more than a slight impediment to the academic learning process.

I remember Dad telling the story of the young white student who stepped reluctantly into his classroom, head down and clearly bothered he slumped in his seat and was silent for the entire Black History class. Sensing something was obviously wrong Dad approached the boy and asked what was wrong. The youngster said that he liked learning about Black history and loved having Dad as a teacher but he would no longer be able to continue with the class. When Dad asked why, the boy replied, “I can’t … well I don’t want to say it”. After Dad reassuraned him that he was free to say whatever he needed to say, the boy said, “My dad says a nigger can’t teach me anything”. By this time the boy’s eyes were filled with tears. In full pastoral mode, Dad consoled him and told him not to worry. Headmaster Finney’s office was the next stop for Dad.

Redmond C.S. Finney was a warm, likeable and fair minded guy. He was visible, accessible and genuinely concerned about the well-being of each boy on that campus. It was not uncommon for Mr. Finney to show up on the playground at recess and toss a ball, or borrow some kid’s lacrosse stick to play catch with another. He may even pop up in your classroom and perform his legendary headstand. I remember being less impressed that he could do it and more impressed that he, as Headmaster of the entire school, would do it!

Finney was comfortable with a lacrosse stick or football in his hand. After all, he was an athlete’s athlete with a bowlegged, heel-to-toe gait that allowed him to be identified a mile away. His head rolled from side to side when he spoke in much the same way as any John Wayne impersonator. Putting all that together made it look as if he moved on wobbly wheels rather than feet. But none of that seemed to get in the way of his academic or athletic prowess. In fact, to this day there are only two people in the history of the NCAA to be first team All – American in two sports in the same academic year – Redmond C.S. Finney and James Nathaniel “Jim” Brown – yeah, that Jim Brown.

Mr. Finney and my father had a great relationship replete with a tremendous mutual respect. Finney was a change agent for Gilman. He and Dad had many conversations and Dad recognized that “Reddy” Finney “got” it. If that were not the case … if Dad did not believe in Finney’s willingness to do the heavy lifting that all institutionalized culture change requires, he would never have agreed to teach there and I, with absolute certainty, would not have been enrolled in the school.

Finney cared about all of the boys in that school and his concern was both genuine and palpable. He was a great internal and external ambassador for the school. Having graduated in 1947, Finney was a product of the school and had been raised with the exclusionary traditions he was now seeking to broaden to include those who were never meant to be there at the school’s inception. Yet, there was no question that Reddy bled “Blue & Gray”. Stalwart alumni and supporters knew this and where they may have hurled pejoratives at someone else in the face of perceived threats to tradition, they believed in Finney even if they didn’t necessarily believe in the change he was championing.

In spite of the mutual respect, Dad knew his primary responsibility was to the God he was called to serve and the congregation of the young church he pastored. He viewed the instance with the young student as more of a preview of coming attractions and, in all honesty, didn’t have the patience to wage these small battles when he was already engaged in the war for equality and justice on a much larger scale that impacted many more people. Both men knew and expected to muddle through uncomfortable moments, for all parties involved were in unchartered waters: administration, faculty, student and parent.

Dad knew that fighting the proverbial good fight , while important, was no more important than knowing when the fight isn’t yours – doesn’t mean the fight is not worthy … it’s just not yours. Fighting with those who would fight against Gilman’s culture change was both a good and worthy fight but it wasn’t Dad’s fight. More poignantly, it was Finney’s fight and with the tenacity of an All-American football center, he was up to the challenge. He was passionate about the changes he was ushering in but that doesn’t mean there weren’t setbacks and hiccups – like the situation Dad endured – along the way.

Dad left Gilman’s faculty around ’71 or ’72, when I was in the second grade. Because he taught in the upper school and the schedules were so different from the lower school schedules, our paths never crossed so I never missed the fact that Dad wasn’t there. I continued through lower and middle school without ever knowing that incident with the young white student ever occurred. It was never brought up or discussed around me. While I was one of only two Blacks through the first, second and third grades (with no more than five or six in the entire lower school at that time) life in the lower school, for the most part, was pretty cool. Things didn’t begin to become “different” until the fourth grade.

(Continued January 16, 2012)

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