My birthday story

Last week I turned 57. And in class, I told kids a meandering story. It started with my birthday, but it went other places. And it had a Big Point, which I got to at the end, though it took a while to get there.

Growing up I listened to a Thanksgiving song. It began on Thanksgiving, but it meandered. And it had a Big Point at the end, though it took a while to get there.

Now I’m not good enough to copy Alice’s Restaurant. Not even a pale imitation. I certainly can’t sing, though Arlo to be perfectly honest doesn’t really sing his song either. But I think my Big Point was a good Big Point (so was Arlo’s) and hope that makes up for my overlong story.

Anyhow, here’s the story I told, some full text, some outline… meandering freely and widely… until I get to Freedom Day.

Born 2/4/64 – kind of cool, all powers of 2. $2^1/2^2/2^6$ – does that predict me being a math teacher? Nah. There were a lot of people born that day, and most are probably not math teachers. (Kid looked it up, 385,000 each day. I calculated, population was under 4 billion when I was born, under 8 billion today, so maybe half that number – 200,000?)

I was born in Grace-New Haven Hospital (my mom won’t see this, but if she did she would quickly object that it was Yale-New Haven, but I have my baby book, and in her handwriting it says Grace-New Haven). Yale didn’t get its name on the place for another year. I did hold up my baby book as a prop, and marvel at all the details my mother recorded. All the presents I got for being born. First foods, first words. When I held my head up, turned over, crawled… Even a little chart that tracked my sleeping and eating and other bodily functions. That happens with a first child. My sister’s baby book starts when she was born, but the next entry a year later is a short sentence: “Rebecca turned one today”…

So New Haven, Connecticut. But it used to be just New Haven. New Haven was its own colony, separate from Connecticut (which my students learned about a couple years back, but, to be honest, most forgot.)  New Haven was founded by some serious puritans – all religion and business. We think of hard-core religion going along with rightwing politics, but at the time they were the radicals, sort of, or they had been.

After the restoration of the monarchy in England puritans were on their heels. The new king was Charles II. Not Charles I. Charles I had been executed. Tried and executed. Dozens of people signed his death warrant. And Charles II when he came to power, went after them. The most prominent, Oliver Cromwell, was already dead. Charles dug him up and hung the corpse. Others fled to the Netherlands.

Charles I’s Death Warrant. Cromwell and Whalley signed at the bottom of the first column

And some fled to the North American colonies. When Massachusetts couldn’t protect regicides (king killers) New Model Army General Edward Whalley and his son-in-law Colonel William Goffe, they joined another regicide, John Dixwell, who was already in New Haven, where the hardcore puritans were deeply anti-monarchist, and gladly sheltered them. When British agents came close, they hid in a jumble of rocks on a hill in the northwest of New Haven – the hill is called West Rock. While at the cave they were brought food by locals, including Richard Sperry.

Today the trail on West Rock is the Regicides Trail. The rock jumble is called Three Judges Cave. The short Broadway in New Haven branches into Whalley Avenue, Goffe Street, and Dixwell Avenue. And I went to school with Susan Sperry, whose great-great-great…

But the New Haven I was born in was not a puritan bastion. There had been huge Irish immigration in the middle of the 19th Century.

In the later part of 19th Century and the start of the 20th Century there was a huge Italian immigration. But that’s not fully right. It wasn’t immigrants from every corner of Italy – immigration came largely from one region in the south – Calabria. And then I talked about the language/dialect/accent. We say “Galabrayze”. I showed the kids a sign from Sally’s Appiza, and made them guess which letter is silent (the second A, no one got it). I told them about Bob, who pointed at a menu in a restaurant when he was a kid, and asked his mother what “Manicotti” was. “Bobby, that’s manigot!”

At the same time there was Jewish immigration from eastern Europe. Also not fair. Not really all of eastern Europe – but focused on the Polish governates of the Russian empire, and on part of the Ukraine. That’s where my family came in – one side from each of those regions. But we are still not ready to fast forward to me being born.

At the start of the 20th Century there was Black migration from the South. Well, we can be more accurate.  Black migration to New Haven was mostly from North Carolina.

And then in the 50s and 60s people moved to New Haven from Puerto Rico (I don’t know if the immigration was primarily from a single region or district).

1940’s neighborhoods, left, and population drop in the second half of the 20th C, right

Now, we are in New York. New York City is much bigger. People, in the same immigrant waves, came from different regions in their places of origin. But at first they lived with people from their particular district or region or country. And over time they blended with others… except, for the most part, Blacks. That’s not really a choice – but was imposed by the government – through whites-only suburbs, Blacks-only public housing, redlining and other restrictions on mortgages.  We will come back to this.

Redlining, NYC

The 1960s were a tumultuous decade. But one year stands out – you could teach a whole course about it. (My students knew – 1968). We listed some big events. Assassination of MLK. Assassination of Bobby Kennedy. Mexico City (showed off my laptop’s wallpaper – Tommy Smith and John Carlos and Peter Norman). Prague. French May. But 1964 was a pretty interesting year too. The March on Washington had just occurred (I showed photos, talked about the organizer Bayard Rustin). One quarter of a million people converged on DC. That’s huge. The Civil Rights Act. I talked about “One Night in Miami” and pointed out that while the conversations were fictional, most of the events they (Malcolm X, Cassius Clay, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke) referred to happened a few weeks before or after I was born.

Before the tyranny of zip codes and 2 letter state codes, this is how we abbreviated Pennsylvania

So here we are. 1964. March on Washington has just happened. Housing has been segregated by government policy. And schools in NYC, following housing patterns are segregated. Separate. And unequal. There are vocational and academic high schools in NYC. There are no academic high schools in Black neighborhoods. When there are cutbacks, they don’t hit academic high schools. Double sessions. The physical condition of Black schools is inferior. Not enough bathrooms in some. Repairs not made. Legally enforced segregation had been made illegal – but northern segregation was not written in law books, and was exempt.

And half a year after the March on Washington, Bayard Rustin and others in New York City organized Freedom Day. Students boycotted New York City schools, one day, February 3, one day before I was born. A one-day boycott for school integration. And while the March on Washington had a quarter of a million, Freedom Day had almost half a million. Not in the history books, but it happened. 480,000 students.

Half a million at an action for Civil Rights? That is tremendous. An amazing success! Not really. What happened? Studies. Thinking. Commissions. Almost three generations later, segregation remains in NYC, maybe the worst in the country.

So here it is. Maybe you’ll remember my powers of two birthday. But I’m hoping some of you remember the day before, February 3, 1964. Freedom Day in New York City.

And one more: After three generations, are we being patient? Why? If someone asks you to be patient, but they really are asking you to be quiet because they don’t plan on doing anything…

On the day, I went on long, but I allowed quite a bit of back and forth. In some classes there were other tangents – they come so naturally to me. It was too much to take all of it in. This is not the stuff I know how to teach. But Freedom Day? I think most kids got that. And I got some requests for more information. And some thank yous. I got this one five minutes after my first class:

Happy Birthday! Thank you for being such a great math teacher and thank you for taking the time to teach us about Freedom Day. I always look forward to your classes and I am really happy to be your student. I hope you have a great day :)

And, having read that note, I did.

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