The Childhood Joys of Ceaseless Racism
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because out of the mouths of babes comes, well, just about anything.
The ’60s were heavy, even if you were a kid, and the early ’70s weren’t much different. Family friends got maced by cops for being hippies. Neo-Nazi sympathizers were weirdly finding common cause with the Nation of Islam. And the war back home continued full force with vets returning with heads full of hate, PTSD and veins sometimes full of heroin, since junkies were a common feature of the cityscape back then.
And if you lived in a city that was a media center, you got both barrels, with the TV and the newspapers aflame with signs of the apocalypse, if not now, then very soon. But you know kids are kids and never more so than at one tony Park Slope private school in Brooklyn, the Montessori School of New York International. And that’s where I was in the early ’70s, when it was just called the Montessori Academy.
The building, post a school scandal that shut it down 35 years later, went on the real estate market in 2012 for $25 million, if you could buy it, or an easy $65,000 a month to rent. The 50-foot-wide 1912 limestone-fronted mansion sported an 8-foot-high Italian marble fireplace, a marble entry hall with bronze doors and Corinthian columns at the entrance.
Days of playing in the streets after school but before homework flowed seamlessly into days learning Hindi or taking field trips to the Whitney.
This is where I went to elementary school. Taught by some of Maria Montessori’s actual students, most of my teachers were from India, as was the principal. My classmates were from Vietnam, Puerto Rico, Portugal, India, the U.K. Their parents were doctors, engineers, architects, lawyers, celebrities, teachers, bank presidents. We were Jews, Christians, Hindus, Black, White. We lived in the neighborhood there in Park Slope or the more working-class Sheepshead Bay.
I lived in Flatbush in a neighborhood of brownstones with neighbors who were probably 98 percent of a thriving Black middle class. To say it was “normal” would be an understatement. It was extraordinarily normal. And the days of playing in the streets after school but before homework flowed seamlessly into days learning Hindi or taking field trips to the Whitney Museum.
It was a grand time. Even on dull days. Like in the early spring of what would have been 5th grade. We had a high-walled backyard, speckled with moss along the top, and it’s where we had our recess. Time that was spent running, making believe, playing tag or, on one day in particular, having a game of soccer.
I was a team captain. My friend Michael was what would be the opposing team’s captain. But how to divide the teams? This was in the days before “everyone must play,” but we’d already been lectured in choosing with a sensitivity to not making people feel bad.
Then an idea: “Blacks against the Whites!”
I thought it was a great idea. It meant I got David, Billy and Kirk. Michael got Josh, Todd and Gary. We split the Latinos. Michael got Miguel. I got Quirondongo, also known as Shrimpy. We went to school with plenty of girls, but girls, in general, wanted nothing to do with us.
So with our teams decided, we flipped to start the game and play got underway.
The intensity with which you compete at that age dies out for most people after college, but this was still a life-and-death high point. We were all playing to win because there’s no way we could stand losing. Especially being the social scientists we were. Our heads were full of Black sports heroes at the time. Pelé for soccer, Walt “Clyde” Frazier and Earl Monroe for basketball. Reggie Jackson for baseball. Jim Brown for football.
But everyone was playing hard, and fair. We were ahead on points and every goal on either side was met by raucous cheers. Nearing the end of the game, one of our teachers came out, Mrs. Kumar.
“It’s almost time to go,” she said. She was tall and thin, wore glasses and carried herself with a certain amount of what we felt was something like elegance. “How did you make the teams?”
I said, with some organizational pride: “It’s the Blacks versus the Whites!” And we all laughed because it just seemed like such a good idea.
But cue the teacher flip-out.
The game screeched to a halt while Mrs. Kumar screamed at us to stop IMMEDIATELY. We were confused and actually sort of shocked.
She screamed at us to get inside and we groused but mostly because we couldn’t figure out why and what we had done to warrant this kind of notice.
Back in the classroom, a roundabout lecture began and winded into a finer point before some of us (me, Michael) got sent to the principal’s office. But the gist of it was, here at the Montessori Academy, we “celebrated” our differences and that racism was serious and a bunch of other stuff that I stopped listening to except to say one thing.
“We were just playing a game.”
Mrs. Sinha, the principal, reiterated very much the same thing but she had always liked me and so she did so without much enthusiasm. The sense I got at the time was that they were terrified that it would filter back to our parents, who were paying lots of money for an education that was supposed to be as removed from the zeitgeist of life outside the walls as possible.
We went back to class. We never mentioned it to our parents and in fact never talked about it again, until this writing. And now that I’m the father of three, and we’re years removed from then, can’t I see how wrong that was? Really?
Nah. Not really. I mean, we were winning. And that counts for a lot in America.