Good evening, everyone, it's a pleasure to see you all here and share this slice of history that's being written tonight. It's my privilege to be the one to close out the first half of our program. It's actually a wonderful irony that I am up on this stage in white tie tonight. The last time I was at Carnegie formally I wasn't permitted up on stage. It was for the Stuyvesant High School Commencement exercise, and the year was 1970. A group of us were protesting the killings at Kent State and the invasion of Cambodia. In an act of defiance we came to graduate dressed in our gym shorts. The administration was not amused and refused to let us up on stage accept our diplomas. It's amazing what a change in style can do for one's reputation.
When John Gatto asked me to speak here, he said, "You know, Roland, you're going to have to write a speech! I protested, saying that I'd never written a speech before in my life. "Don't worry," he said, "Just condense your entire educational experience to fifteen minutes, and make it as personal and intimate as possible, while still being relevant to everyone in the audience." So here goes...
First a bit about myself: I was born and raised here on Manhattan's upper West Side. I was an only child, and my parents were European immigrants. My mother, a fashion model and jetsetter before there were jets, settled down when I was born and devoted herself to raising me. My father, a foreign correspondent during the second world war, had a restless intellect and changed careers as often as I changed diapers.
During my childhood he worked as a translator, a journalist, a private eye, a chef in an Italian restaurant and a puppeteer in a marionette theater. We never had much money, but I never really felt poor.
I attended public school in my neighborhood from kindergarten on.
I remember my first year at school quite well. The classroom was big and well lit. There were maybe 20 or 25 of us in class. School only went till noon, and we had two teachers, Miss Parker and Miss Smith. I don't remember being taught very much formally. But we had lots of crayons, paints, construction paper, clay, wooden blocks, and musical instruments. Our teachers read us stories and took us on class trips to Central Park and the Museum of Natural History. The class was a rainbow mix of cultures, and my two teachers were young, full of energy and cared about us.
I can remember learning three big lessons that year. The first was a lesson about death and responsibility. We had a goldfish bowl in class, and each day I'd watch Miss Parker feed the fish until one day I decided to feed them myself. Being of Italian/Jewish background I naturally wanted them to eat more. Well, that afternoon one of the fish was found floating, bellyup. I'd emptied half a can of fish food into the bowl... The teachers handled it with sensitivity but I remember crying bitterly in class and feeling sad for a long time.
The second lesson came at the hands of the class bully. He took great pleasure each day in knocking over my wooden block buildings. One day I grabbed him, threw him to the floor and punched him in the eye. He came to school the next morning with a black eye and his mother. I was scolded for hitting him, but he never bothered anyone again.
The third lesson, in the art of romance, came from my mother. It's a piece of wisdom that to this day I believe is in practice universally and is probably the source of most of the trouble in relationships. I was having problems with two girls in class, Maria and Barbara. Maria it seemed liked me very much, too much, and I didn't like her. She wasn't convinced by my rejection and chased me around the classroom every chance she had. Barbara on the other hand didn't seem to know I was alive, and was not at all impressed by my gifts of finger paintings and snack pretzels. I explained the situation to my mother and the advice she offered was revelatory to say the least. She suggested I start chasing Maria whenever she came close to me and that I completely ignore Barbara. In disbelief, I followed my mother's instructions and inside of a week, Maria, repulsed by my advances had found a new beau, and Barbara was pushing other girls aside to hold my hand on class trips. All in all, kindergarten was a positive experience.
Something strange began to happen in first grade. The school was starting to sort us out. I wasn't really aware of what it meant then, but I re-member my mother telling me that I was being put into a special class for bright children. They called it an IGC class back then. That meant Intellectually Gifted Children. My mother seemed proud and pleased that I was in this class, but I remember her telling my father about how she hated going to the PTA meetings with all those "pushy, aggressive" mothers and how it was a "clique" of parents who decided the makeup of these special classes.
School started, and I liked my new teacher. Her name was Mrs. Cohen, and she was very warm and a grandmother to all of us. She told us all that we were her special children and that she was going to teach us how to read and write and do arithmetic. My mother, bless her anally retentive soul, saved all my exercise books, and looking through them the other day I noticed a few interesting things. The first is that I received lots of red checks and stars which seemed to indicate that I was doing well. These little marks were my first experiences with being graded. But sprinkled in with those red checks and stars of excellence were a stream of brief comments: Roland is taking too much time, Roland interferes with other children during the work, Roland was slow today, all the other children finished before him... Roland seems to be interested in other things during his exercises. So here's this 6 1/2 year-old boy with terminally messy hair and a shirt that would never stay tucked in anywhere, being told that he's too slow at doing an exercise, not focusing, disrupting the class and yet, I also seemed to be getting plenty of those red checks and stars. Hold this image in your mind for a while, and let's move on.
In second grade, the checks and stars were replaced with numbers from one to ten, and we started having little tests in class. We were given report cards with grades ranging from unsatisfactory to excellent, and there was space on the report cards for the teachers to write brief comments.
My second grade teacher was nicknamed Mrs. Dynamite; she was strict and harsh, and I filled ten notebooks that year with classroom exercises and homework. She even gave us homework over the Christmas and Easter holidays. I was still getting those checks and stars and tens for a perfect com-ments were the same too. Roland does not seem interested in his class work. By junior high school the ratings had been replaced with numerical averages and teachers' comments were eliminated. Finally, when I attended high school my grades were com-puted numerically to three decimal points. I knew exactly where I stood in a class of 750 hormonally charged 15-year-old males each day of the year. I was told that my goal in life was to attend the college of my choice, and that the surest way to achieve that goal was to get the highest grades possible. The ef-fect on me and my peers was electric. We became our grades.
Despite the constant mixed messages and the official policy line that grades were only crude indicators at best of a person's merit, everyone knew that each and every point higher that you scored on a test brought you that much closer to the college of your dreams. An instant hierarchy was created, and everyone jostled everyone else to grab an edge. Kids would argue with their teachers about a test score. Parents would come in demanding that their son's classes be changed to another teacher who was an easy grader. Students started preparing for their SAT's with after school classes in ninth grade. And cheating was a frowned upon but common occur-rence.
I learned how to test well during those years at Stuyvesant High School. I spent 20 percent of my class time taking tests and 50 percent of my study time preparing for them. I learned how to score high. It wasn't hard if you understood the basic principles of testing. I could teach them all to you now in about 20 minutes. I would do it tonight if we had the time. I graduated with highest honors from the city's most respected public high school. And I felt sick inside. I hadn't mastered my subjects. I simply knew how to answer questions.
I remember I had a particularly hard time with Trigonometry - I just didn't get it. My class average over the semester was 32, 65 was passing, and I needed to get at least an 85 in order to save my overall average. I went up to my math teacher one day after class and bet him that I could score over 90 on the State Regents Trig Exam. He laughed, said I was nuts but promised to give me whatever I scored on the exam as my final grade. For two weeks before the test I went to bed at night with my eyes open and the lights on. I had plastered the walls of my room with trig formulas. I scored 91 on the exam. kept his word, and two days later I had forgotten everything.
I remember always feeling rushed in school. The teachers were rushed, the course texts were impossible to cover in one semester, so class work was always abbreviated. You couldn't ask too many questions, there wasn't enough time, and while most of the teachers were willing to answer questions after class, you had only four minutes between between classes. You felt awkward if you asked too many questions. Other kids would accuse you of trying to suck up to the teacher, and surely there were kids who made sucking up their profession. The tension was palpable in the halls, in the lunch room, in the bathrooms and on the stairways. Kids cracked, teachers cracked too. One geometry teacher gave an entire class the square root of 2 as a final grade. A classmate of mine whose father happened to be the student body college advisor - in other words a god - managed to get accepted to Harvard although his grades didn't quite predict such good fortune. His first semester home from the big H for the holidays he jumped out of a twenty-story window rather than tell his father he was failing.
What was I being prepared for back in first grade when my kindly teacher started giving me checks and stars? What strange addiction to some-one else's numerical equivalent of my soul was I being hooked onto as a six-year-old? And what was anyone really learning about me by assigning these numbers? What I learned about myself was clear and painful.
Another perverted lesson that was being taught to me in school was that smart kids seemed invariably to be white. Nothing David Duke is saying in Louisiana tonight, no racist message he ever delivered to his followers was more subtly or effectively inscribed onto the hearts of children than the message of the tracking system. With the single exception of kindergarten, every grade I attended in public school had attached to it some Orwellian acronym symbolizing genetic superiority. IGC: Intellectually Gifted Children, SP: Special Progress, SPE: Special Progress Enriched, Gifted and Talented. Even if you accept the absurd notion that those kinds of distinc-tions between kids can be made, how can you explain that in my twelve years of schooling on Manhattan's upper West Side, where 85 percent of public school kids are non-white, there was never a black or latino in any of my classes. We were taught, without a word ever being said, to fear and despise those kids, and they were taught to loathe themselves and envy us. Tracking continues unabated in schools today. Elite private schools are no better, they just have sharper public relations offices.
But let me pass through my anger and frustra-tion for just a moment now as I believe I was actually invited to speak here tonight about the positive. What events, conditions and people in my life gave me the tools and the strength to recover from the effects of my formal education? (I must be beginning to sound like some crazed member of a new 12-step program: Pupil's Anonymous) But the answer is quite simple: My parents, my friends and my own stubborn streak.
First my parents: I learned from my parents in two ways. By watching them and by their active support. Observation of one's family for the most part is unconscious. You adopt your parents' gestures, the way they speak, walk, stand effortlessly. As you get older you come to understand them as people and you them how they measure themselves, what they see as real success and real failure. This often has nothing to do with what your parents actually say to you about what is right and wrong, good and bad, important or insignificant, but rather is developing a sense of who your parents are as whole people.
My father taught me two great lessons - the first, from his strong side, was that I could do anything I wanted to do. And that I enjoy doing it was the important thing. The second, harder lesson from his weak side was that I needed to finish what I started.
My father also read to me and told me stories almost every night of my childhood. Most of what he read and told me were from Roman and Greek his-tory and mythology. What I think that did was leave me with a sense of place and history and gave me a point of departure from which to measure my own time and culture.
My mother taught me how to laugh - perhaps the most important tool of survival anyone can have. She was also the indulgent and overprotective mother that is the curse of every "only" child. But out of this indulgence, she gave me a great gift: my privacy and the time to use it. Looking back over those old report cards, I realized that I stayed home from school on average 25 percent of every school year, a record 52 days during the reign of Mrs. Dynamite. I wasn't a sickly child, I just didn't like going to school, and my mom obliged by writing an excuse whenever I wanted one. I remember spending a lot of time at home reading and playing with toy soldiers.
From my friends I learned how to live life. And amongst my friends I include my teachers, those rare people who found a way to share their knowledge with me. It's magic when it happens, it's invisible, and it's quite natural. There are many fine teachers in the world. They are people who have a graceful and delicate touch, and their gift is given unconditionally. It can be your lover, who with one small whisper uncouples you from your troublesome ego. Or it can be someone like John Gatto who manages to convince you time and again that you are your own best teacher, and that the world can indeed be changed.
Thank you all. I think it's time now for a well-deserved, if brief, break.
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