(L>R) “Nappy Hair,” Prof. Carolivia Herron, Prof. Kay E. Vandergrift, Bushwick, NY, Hillary Swank, Sandy Dennis, Sidney Portier
I’m not much for going to movies, and to this venue, I’m rarely current. I did see the biopic drama FREEDOM WRITERS not long ago, mainly because I like Hillary Swank, but I’ve seen this movie before in UP THE DOWN STAIRCASE, and TO SIR WITH LOVE. These are all pretty much the same, and here’s my logline for all three; “Idealistic young teacher knowingly accepts assignment in tough neighborhood/situation determined to make a difference, gets frustrated with intolerable conditions, motivates largely apathetic students amid setbacks and cynicism of others.” Two big name Hollywood reporter’s critical reviews of “Freedom Writers” offer readers a slant not only on the movie, but where we are today with our own melodrama rekindled by the now famous, “Nappy Headed Hos” line.
Kirk Honeycutt of THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER said of FREEDOM; “Unfocused urban drama is a real missed opportunity,” and James Berardinelli of ReelViews said; “Refreshingly different.” Polarized reviews, as opinions often are, and the same was said of TO SIR and UP (Both films aired 1n 1967 – a quick 40 years ago) Without imagination, Hollywood either remakes or offers new spin on the “deja-vu” because, aside from the box gross, they know in the long run, we cave to success stories, which is, of course the end product of all three films here. To the Imus-Sharpton thing, clearly there is an “unfocused real missed opportunity.” If, however, your take is, “refreshingly different,” you are like me with the movies, not current, and have missed opportunities presented in our own earlier real biopics. There are a bunch of true-life stories I could splice here, but what follows is, without doubt, the most ironic and best, “history repeats itself” drama I know. And really, it wasn’t that long ago.
It’s December, 1998 and fresh-faced, recently engaged to be married, 27 year old Ruth Sherman, a new third grade teacher, has aspirations to teach the world. The setting has Ruth living in Inwood, New York, a small town of mostly white middle-class families in suburban Long Island. Ruth drew her dream teaching assignment in a town nearby, but worlds apart – Bushwick, the Brooklyn “hood,” a gritty black and Hispanic badlands in Brooklyn notorious for it all. For close to thirty years Bushwick leads the city in crime with gang violence, rape, murder, and drugs. Drugs are so rampant, the “shopping” area along Knickerbocker Avenue is known by all the “homeys” as “the well.” Some say graffiti originated in Bushwick. Some say opportunity moved out of Bushwick, others say it moved in. Whatever, Bushwick is not safe – day or night.
Pride also left Bushwick, pushed away by cynicism. Ruth commutes to work, a public elementary school “institution” known uncaring as P.S. #75. “When I first told them, people said to me; ‘Bushwick? Oh my God, why Bushwick?’ ” Ruth said. “But there was something about it. I chose that school because I wanted the neighborhood. I was going to turn things around, really make a difference.”
In just three months at P.S. #75, Ruth Sherman did make a difference, but not what she planned. In less than a week, Ruth was the focus of a small, loud community making it’s uproar heard deep out of “the well.” Things got so bad that Ruth was sent packing, ideals and intentions included, fearing for her life.
Ruth never saw it coming, but her troubles began right away in September with, NAPPY HAIR, a book written by an author born in, the very same district. Ruth chose the story because she thought it would change her students’ lives. She regaled her class with the story of a little black girl with “the nappiest, fuzziest, the most screwed up, squeezed up, knotted hair.” She said they loved it so much that “they clamored for copies to carry with them.” An eager new teacher’s ideals, constrained by an overlooked budget with no tax allocation, led her to the “crime” of paying to have copies made. Poor naive Ruth was Xeroxing her own “best laid plans.”
So, the holidays roll around, but in Bushwick, it’s just another cold month with no thought of celebration. Just before Thanksgiving, a P.S. #75 parent finds a pack of pages from NAPPY HAIR in her daughter’s book bag, and let’s describe the woman as much less than “thankful.” This was the start of it – the books title; NAPPY HAIR, according to Board of Education spokesman J.D. LaRock, who explained that the angry woman and some other parents at the predominantly black and Hispanic P.S. #75 school interpreted NAPPY HAIR as a racial slur.
“The first I knew of the problem, was when this parent came into my classroom and said she was surprised she didn’t see a white hood on my desk,” Ruth said.
After blowing out Ruth, the offended parent, whose name school officials refused to reveal, put pages of the book with protests in neighborhood mailboxes. Almost immediately, Ruth was summoned from class in the middle of a morning lesson. Ruth knew a meeting was in progress to choose a new assistant principal, and her presence had been requested. Knowing she had been a “hit” with her students, Ruth scurried down the hall to the principals office thinking, “could it be me?” Ruth was a “hit,” alright.
Ruth Sherman smiles when she’s nervous, just a clumsy shy tic. And she smiled on her way to the meeting. As she neared, Ruth heard angry shouting and stopped to phone her fiance, telling him she had the feeling something was wrong, and bad things were about to happen.
Ruth entered the meeting, assembled by some 50 parents, most not of her students, and was “greeted” with what she and school officials called abusive language. More nervous than ever, Ruth kept smiling. “I couldn’t stop, and I think that made them madder,” Ruth said. “They started getting in my face, asking me who I thought I was reading that book, calling me a cracker. Nobody would let me or the principal or the librarian, who was waving good reviews of NAPPY HAIR from off the Internet, talk.”
A woman stood up and told Ruth, she “better watch out.”
“I asked her if she was threatening me, and she said it was no threat – it was a promise,” Ruth said.
She left the meeting, reduced to nothing but tears, and was sent home by school district Superintendent Felix Vazquez, who too was present for the meeting, albeit arriving midway through.
“Felix Vazquez told me he heard people saying they wanted to do me bodily harm,” she said. “And that was it. I never saw my students again.”
After a day of review, with cooler heads, the school backed Ruth Sherman and NAPPY HAIR, which has been critically praised as a positive lesson for children. The most outspoken proponent for the book has been Kay E. Vandergrift, Rutgers University Professor – School of Communication, Information and Library Studies, renowned author, international consultant, champion of civil and women’s rights, and principal architect of The Eclipse Project, from Rutgers, home of the very “Scarlet Knights.” (Small world, indeed) We are nearing completion of part two of this story, including Kay’s interest here, a truly remarkable person, and fascinating story.
Carolivia Herron, the author of NAPPY HAIR, said Ruth Sherman’s students were exactly the audience for whom she intended the book. “I wrote it delighting in nappy hair,” said Herron. “I love my own nappy hair and the stories my uncle used to tell me about it. It was a celebration, and I had no idea it would be political. I am a ’60s person and thought we had already dealt with this problem of being ashamed of our hair.” (Wow)
The book itself grew out of a novel. When Herron, an assistant professor of English at California State University at Chico, visited the Anacostia Museum to read from her work in progress, the listeners focused on the vignette about hair.
“The reaction here was wonderful,” museum educator Joanna Banks said. “The story was part of a novel she was working on and was hilarious. I encouraged her to get it published as a children’s book. I thought it would be something for African American children to celebrate.”
A school-wide meeting was called the day after Ruth Sherman left. Only a handful of parents out of the 60 or so gathered, complained about Ruth or NAPPY HAIR. Offers were extended Ruth by the district school board, with promises of extra security and an escort from her car to the school doors. Chancellor Rudy Crew wrote her a letter over Thanksgiving commending her performance and pleading she return to P.S. #75. Ruth declined the offer.
“I miss my kids,” she said. “I wanted to go back for them, but I’m scared. I listened to the idea of someone walking me to my car, and all I could think was, that’s ridiculous. What do I tell the kids about that, after everything I was trying to teach them about getting along and loving each other, no matter what color your skin was?”
What would I tell them Ruth? LIVE, AND IF YOU DO NOTHING ELSE IN LIFE – LEARN.
“EVERYBODY IS UP TO SOMETHING” sm
TO SIR WITH LOVE ~ “LADIES CHOICE” 1967