Thursday, January 1, 2009

I'm an Accidental Activist

While I became known as a citizen advocacy journalist (the high-falutin' name for a political blogger), when it comes down to it I see myself as an average person; a woman living in the Mid-Atlantic South who happens to be black, a lesbian and concerned about my civil rights. I'm not an activist by any sense of the traditional definition, never having worked for an advocacy group, run for political office or been a grassroots organizer. 

While many people now know I'm not one of those "big city gays," I still find myself in conversations with peers and they make an assumption that I must be writing out of DC or New York City since I'm a political blogger. When I say I live in Durham, NC, a number of people have a vague notion that it's located in a relatively progressive area of the state, others don't know where it is or what it's like politically. Many assume I'm not a native of the South since I don't have a very noticeable accent (neither does my brother, we're not sure why).

Anyway, here are the thumbnail facts: I was born in the Bull City back in the stone age of 1963, and moved to New York, specifically first to Hollis, Queens (Run-DMC!) and later Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. That was from 1976-1989. I returned to Durham in 1989 for the pace and quality of life -- all I need now is my civil equality (no small matter).

So this makes me an accidental activist; we could pack up and move to a Blue state where our Canadian marriage was recognized, but my spouse Kate (who hails from Birmingham, AL) and I love Durham, the people here, the interesting political environment, and the fact that we can live a pleasant existence in our progressive bubble as we work to make more of our state Blue and LGBT-friendly. Someone has to do it, we can't all leave the places that need more, even difficult work to move closer to equality.

In retrospect, perhaps I shouldn't be surprised at all that I fell into activism, thinking back to my own family's history during the civil rights movement, a no less-important struggle for equality. The Spauldings have played a role in the rich political history and life of the Bull City and North Carolina -- in electoral politics, education, business, race relations. Notable family members include businessman C.C. Spaulding part of the team that founded what was for a long time the largest black-owned business in America, The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company. Asa Spaulding, Sr. and Elna Spaulding were my late paternal grandparents, and were active in local politics, serving as Durham County Commissioners breaking racial barriers. In particular, my activism in the LGBT rights movement most resembles my grandmother's; she found herself bridging social boundaries, forging communication between groups -- black and white women -- who did not interact politically, but drew together to ensure Durham did not descend into violence during the stress points of the civil rights movement. 

A civic leader in her own right, Elna Spaulding founded and served as president of Women-In-Action for the Prevention of Violence and Its Causes, a community development and charitable organization in Durham. She was elected to two terms on the Durham County Board of Commissioners, served on numerous boards, and was active in such organizations as the Durham Day Care Council, Lincoln Community Health Center, Duke Medical Center, North Carolina Central Museum of Art, and local chapters of The Links, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, and the National Council of Negro Women. 

What I have learned about myself and my own political awakening as a lesbian of color living here in North Carolina, is that the fight for civil equality often conflicts with the role of religion in the South, specifically the socially conservative black church. It leaves many black gays and lesbians in the position of straddling cultures in a no man's land. Since I have been out for many years, and only tenuously connected to organized religion as a non-practicing Episcopalian, I did not have the coming-out process that caused a crisis in faith. That is not true for many lesbians down South.

Stuyvesant High School, NYC

I attended Stuyvesant High School in New York City from 1977-1981.

  
Stuy is a New York City public high school that specializes inmathematics and science. It is one of the most competitive public high schools in the United States, sending more students to some of the nation's most prestigious universities than most other public or private schools.[5] The school opened in 1904 on Manhattan's East Side and moved to a new building in Battery Park City in 1992. Stuyvesant is noted for its strong academic programs, having produced many notable alumni including four Nobel laureates.[6] U.S. News & World Report ranked it twenty-third in their 2008 list of America's best "Gold-Medal" high schools.


I went to the Stuy located at 15th Street and First Avenue.











I attended



Stuyvesant High School from



1977-1981. Stuy is one of the specialized high schools in the NYC Public



School system (you had to take a test to get in; the focus of the schools



is math and science).





Stuy is

now located in a new, hi-tech building in the Wall Street area; way

back in the day it was located on 15th Street near 1st Avenue in Manhattan.


***


Me from the 1981 yearbook.











Frank McCourt, from the 1981 yearbook. At least his picture is unflattering too. 






From my



10th HS reunion in 1991.




Frank



McCourt hadn't written Angela's Ashes yet. I don't recall



if he had retired from teaching by this reunion.










Frank with



me and my classmate and best friend Carole Brown.





***


Meeting

Frank in 2000:





Frank

McCourt
was in Durham, NC in January 2000 to promote 'Tis.

I was asked, as a former student of his, by a local bookstore to introduce

him before a crowd of 2500 people who turned up to hear Frank speak

at a fundraiser for one of our magnet high schools.



It was

great to see him; I went backstage before he went on, and of course

he didn't recognize me from the last reunion, but I brought my trusty

'81 Indicator (he recognized me in that context), the pix you see above

from the 10th reunion, and my copies of Angela's Ashes and 'Tis

for him to sign. I didn't get any decent pix from the event, or I'd

have posted them! He was a real tale spinner and was mobbed like a true

celebrity after the event!



Here is

the introduction I gave that evening:



Good

evening. Frank McCourt was one of the most popular teachers at Stuyvesant.

Everyone I knew hoped that they would see his name on their program

card at some point during our four years there. By the luck of the draw,

in the fall of 1980 I had the pleasure of being in his Creative Writing

class. Why was he popular? Aside from his charm, ability to spin a good

yarn (and sing), he engaged us in feisty discussion. He encouraged us

to read (oh, Hamlet!), to write and to share those written experiences,

dreams and flights of fancy. We had to keep a journal, and on each Friday,

a few of us would be called to read journal entries aloud. What I most

remember, as I look back now, was the loving, constructive criticism

he gave our work, and the open, unstructured environment he created

for us to excel in. By the way, I received a 93 in his class, so I guess

I was actually paying attention. When Angela's Ashes came out to much

acclaim, some of my classmates and I discussed Frank's amazing journey

into the limelight and we all thought how success must embarrass and

dismay this humble man, and how he must think he doesn't deserve any

of it. But of course he's bonkers. We're glad you decided not to stick

that manuscript in a drawer, because you saved your most truly amazing

yarns for publication to share with the world. And now Frank McCourt...






































































The Urban Setting
(lots to do at lunchtime and after school outside on 15th St. Now I feel sorry for all those folks who actually lived around there!)



















Stuy's wonderful



auditorium, a place for meeting and chatting before classes. Study halls



were often held here.







An empty hallway at the old Stuy. A rare sight. Everyone must be at the infamous, non-existent pool on the top floor.

Good God! What in the world am I wearing? My friend and home room mate  Marghiee and I are waiting outside before class on 15th St. Here I am out on 15th again with Carole, Tasia, and Marghiee.




 










My



Motley Homeroom Crew




















Gym class.
Oh the horror! I never got to be a squad leader -- they got the red leader shirts like the Beastie Boys wore in their early days. Anyway,

NO ONE liked gym. Remember the gymnastics rotation? I nearly killed myself on the uneven parallel bars. One semester, I convinced one of the teachers to let me bring in a jump rope so that I could teach folks double dutch.










Memorable



Teachers I Had At Stuy --




in more ways than one...





























One



of the gym teachers that inflicted humiliation on us. He always



seemed sadistic, but maybe it was me.
I



barely passed Physics, but I was very entertained during my my tenure



with Mr. Birke. One time a student slipped outof class without his



knowledge and returned much later with McDonalds and ate it in class



and he never noticed.
Another



gym terrorist, although he was funny to watch while he ordered folks



around.
























Mr



Crosby made French classes fun. I had a 97 average. Woo-hoo!
Yet



another gym terrorist. Really, I am sure that out of the school,



Mrs. Houlihan was a nice person, but little did she know how we



had nightmares of final "tests."
I



did well in Miss Lorenzo's French class as well, though what I remember



most about her is that she wore black almost every day for a long



time; she was in mourning for a family member, her father, I believe.


















Anna Mutnick











My



French classes with Mr. Mayorkas were unbelievable. His eccentricities



were legendary. It was amazing what went on in class without his



knowledge.
I



loved Mrs. Mutnick. She was my English teacher one semester, and



I always sat in the front row. I felt sorry for her sometimes, because



some of the folks in my class were extremely inattentive and kind



of rowdy by Stuy standards.
I



took several art classes with Mr. Rosen. He was acerbic with a lot



of the kids that thought art period was for kicking back. He and



I got along very well, because I was always interested in what he



had to say, and he spent a great deal of time cultivating my talents,



limited though they were.












 



 

 









 








Pulitzer Prize-winning author, storyteller, and my teacher at Stuy, Frank McCourt, passes on

The author of Angela's Ashes, 'Tis, and Teacher Man, Frank McCourt, passed away yesterday at the age of 78. Long-time Blenders know that Frank McCourt was one of my teachers my teachers at Stuyvesant High School in NYC (class of 1981). These photos were taken at my 10th high school reunion.

There is a fitting piece in the NYT about Frank.

His former students will tell you that Frank McCourt, who died Sunday, was too attuned to the false note to ever declare, once he had become a huge success as an author, that he missed teaching high school. Even so, he spent three decades as a teacher of English and creative writing in New York City’s public schools. And he was the first to say that those years, while depriving him of the time to actually write, were what made a writer out of him. He had long been retired by 1996, when his first book, “Angela’s Ashes,” was published.

...Mr. McCourt began teaching in 1958, when he was 28, at Ralph R. McKee Vocational High School in Staten Island and from 1972 to 1987 taught at Stuyvesant High School, a highly selective school then on East 15th Street in Manhattan. His students learned from him that literature was nothing more — and nothing less — than the telling of stories. Of course, he made his students dip into the canon; they learned to write from reading Swift, Joyce, Hawthorne, Hemingway and Flannery O’Connor. But, as many of them have said, the most inspired and inspiring hours spent in his classroom were devoted to listening to him share experiences from his own life.

“A lot of the class was him telling tales and telling them over and over,” said Alissa Quart, an author and a 2009 Neiman Fellow at Harvard who had Mr. McCourt during her freshman year at Stuyvesant, in 1985-86. “He used to sort of recite from memory the stories that became ‘Angela’s Ashes.’ ”

And that was all true. From time to time Frank's brother Malachy McCourt (a character actor who appeared on many NY-based soaps) would come to class and we would learn and be entertained by their stories (photos from my yearbook follow). After hours, he and Frank would appear at local clubs in a show they wrote, A Couple of Blaguards. It was wonderful to listen to him talk about "the glories" of Catholicism (and sin in particular). Here's a video of him discussing his teaching years.

I last saw Frank McCourt in January 2000. He was in Durham, NC for a local fundraiser while on his 'Tis tour. I was asked by a local bookstore to introduce him before a crowd of 2,500 people at the School of the Arts for his reading and talk. Here is the introduction I gave that evening:

Good evening. Frank McCourt was one of the most popular teachers at Stuyvesant. Everyone I knew hoped that they would see his name on their program card at some point during our four years there. By the luck of the draw, in the fall of 1980 I had the pleasure of being in his Creative Writing class. Why was he popular? Aside from his charm, ability to spin a good yarn (and sing), he engaged us in feisty discussion. He encouraged us to read (oh, Hamlet!), to write and to share those written experiences, dreams and flights of fancy.

We had to keep a journal, and on each Friday, a few of us would be called to read journal entries aloud. What I most remember, as I look back now, was the loving, constructive criticism he gave our work, and the open, unstructured environment he created for us to excel in. By the way, I received a 93 in his class, so I guess I was actually paying attention.

When Angela's Ashes came out to much acclaim, some of my classmates and I discussed Frank's amazing journey into the limelight and we all thought how success must embarrass and dismay this humble man, and how he must think he doesn't deserve any of it. But of course he's bonkers. We're glad you decided not to stick that manuscript in a drawer, because you saved your most truly amazing yarns for publication to share with the world. And now Frank McCourt...

It was great to see him; I went backstage before he went on, and of course he didn't recognize me from the last reunion, but I brought my trusty '81 Indicator yearbook (he recognized me in that context), and my copies of Angela's Ashes and 'Tis for him to sign. He was mobbed like a true celebrity after the event, but he was mobbed as a popular teacher back in the day. Everyone wanted to be in Frank's class.

Goodbye, Frank.

***

He discusses his teaching years, religion, politics, and life in Ireland in this video. It captures his storytelling style.

McCourt records the trials, triumphs, and surprises he faced during his thirty-year teaching career in public high schools in New York City. "Doggedness," he says, is "not as glamorous as ambition or talent or intellect or charm, but still the one thing that got me through the days and nights." Frank McCourt describes his struggle to find his way in the classroom and create a lasting impression on his students. Frank McCourt was born in 1930 in Brooklyn, New York, to Irish immigrant parents, grew up in Limerick, Ireland, and returned to America in 1949. His first book, Angela's Ashes, won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the LA Times Book Award. An introduction to the forum is provided by Kathleen McCartney, Dean and Gerald S. Lesser Professor in Early Childhood Development.



















































The

10th Reunion - 1991







Class of 1981 attendees at the 10th. Click to see it enlarged.

























The
20th Reunion - October 13, 2001, Nell's




At Marghiee's "pad."







































The pix below are
from Matthew Alexander's digital camera.