I Still Have My Souvenir

Out of the shadows of #StopAndFrisk, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and so many others who have been swallowed up by darkness; a young man, Vidal Chastanet, stepped forward to remind us that all it takes is a little light to lead our children out of darkness. Vidal Chastanet, an eighth grader at Mott Hall Bridges Academy, Brooklyn, New York, credited his middle school principal, Nadia Lopez with lighting the way for him.  Actually, Chastanet says that Principal Lopez is the greatest influence on his life.

Like most people who have heard the story of Vidal Chastanet, I was intrigued and wanted to know more. So, I looked for information on Mott Hall Bridges Academy and its principal, Ms. Lopez.  Mott Hall is a small, public school in Brooklyn, with approximately 200 students in grades 6 through 8.  The school is located in a high crime area.  Based on the most recent data available from the National Center for Education Statistics, more than 84% of the students at Mott Hall Bridges Academy are African-American, 15% are Hispanic and 1% are American Indian/Alaska Native.  The majority of these students are eligible for free or reduced price lunch.

Luckily for the student/scholars at Mott Hall Bridges Academy, Principal Nadia Lopez is a beacon, pointing the way to a future beyond the streets of Brooklyn. Apparently, Nadia Lopez has the knack of making her children know that their lives matter, and that they can choose to pursue a different path than the one they see daily.  Luckily, the student/scholars at Mott Hall Bridges Academy have a principal who knows that your worth is not weighted by your zip code, nor by the value of your parents portfolio.

Principal Lopez, with the help of Humans of New York Blogger Brandon Stanton, has raised more than a $1,127.905 to send the Mott Hall students on annual school visits to Harvard University through the Let’s Send Kids to Harvard: Vidal Scholarship Fund Website.

Some people are asking, “Why Harvard?”  I am sure that Principal Lopez has a good answer for that question; but, it occurs to me that Harvard is the perfect place to inspire minority students to reach for the moon.  It is the perfect place because our nations first black president attended Harvard University.  He did not, merely, take up space at Harvard University.  He became president of the Harvard Law Review.  Barack Obama graduated from Harvard and plotted a course that led him to the White House.  In a world where minority students are often told that they do not matter, that they are thugs who will never amount to anything; a visit to one of the top schools in the country, a school where President Obama once walked the halls, seems like just what the doctor ordered.

When I was an eighth grader, the United States had a president who, like President Obama, was a “first.”  President John F. Kennedy was the first Catholic to be elected to the highest office in the land.  He was young, had an elegant wife, was full of ambitious ideas, was an eloquent speaker who sparked our imaginations and gave us reason to hope for an end to racial segregation throughout this country.  It was President Kennedy who, in 1961, ordered the Interstate Commerce Commission to desegregate buses and take down the “white” and “colored” signs displayed prominently over drinking fountains, bathrooms and lunch counters in bus terminals throughout this country.

My classmates and I were in love with our president and his wife.  Although, I must admit that prior to Kennedy’s election, I had taken on the role of Richard Nixon in my school’s mock presidential election, because it was obvious to me that we needed to keep a Republican in office to protect us from the Russians.  (They said so on the news.)  But, after the election, I was won over by our young, dynamic president and his beautiful wife. We wanted to know everything about him. We wanted to know about the history of our country.  We wanted to understand the political process, and we wanted to know what Washington, D.C. was like. We wanted to learn. So, in the spring of 1962, three of our teachers (Mrs. Grey, Mrs. Boldens and Mr. Lawrence) took the 7th and 8th grade classes from Efland-Cheeks Elementary School on a field trip to Washington, D.C.

Efland-Cheeks Elementary School is located in Efland, North Carolina (Trust me, there is a sign on Interstate 85.).   Although today the student body at Efland-Cheeks Elementary School is racially diverse, in 1962, Efland-Cheeks Elementary School, like Mott Hall Bridges Academy today, was a segregated school with an all Black student body and staff.  So, we experienced something of a cultural shock upon arriving in Washington, D.C., as I am sure will be the case when the Mott Hall students step on to Harvard’s campus.  But, flanked by supportive, nurturing teachers we explored and expanded our view of the world. We toured the White House ( I don’t know why Jackie did not show us the new china.), the Lincoln Memorial, the US Capital Building, the Jefferson Memorial, the Washington Monument.  In addition, my classmates and I stayed in a hotel for the first time in our lives and ate out at a buffet style restaurant, where we dutifully placed our napkins on our laps as our teachers had taught us to do. We stayed up late at night, sharing our adventures of the day (and speculating about what the boys were doing in their rooms).  We browsed in a souvenir shop. And, miraculously, our parents had managed to come up with money for souvenirs, as well as the expenses of the trip. Now that I understand that we were poor, just as the students are at Mott Hall, I marvel at what our parents and teachers did for us. I have no doubt that relatives and neighbors helped to fund our trip to Washington, D.C.  Anyway, I purchased a souvenir — a display with four miniature plates depicting the White House, the Lincoln Memorial, the U.S. Capital and the Jefferson Memorial.  In short, our field trip to Washington, D.C. expanded our knowledge of  the world, encouraged us to dream and to act on our dreams.  But, most importantly, by making our field trip happen,  our parents, neighbors and teachers, showed us that we mattered and that our futures were not limited.

Some of Lopez’ critics have said that Harvard is a racist institution and, for that reason, Lopez should take her students somewhere else.  I feel compelled to note that our nations capital was not and, still, is not a site of racial parity and harmony.  Yet, my 8th grade field trip to Washington, D.C. stands out in my mind as one of the most beneficial trips I have ever taken.  Perhaps that is because our teachers and our parents nurtured our sense of self-worth (an attribute that is necessary for survival in a hostile environment). It occurs to me that Principal Lopez is about the business of nurturing a sense of self-worth in the students at Mott Hall Bridges Academy. That is the brass ring, the souvenir, if you will, that Lopez is aiming for.  It also occurs to me that minorities will have very few places to visit if they eliminate every place where racism exists.

Taylor Anne Gobar, blogging for Medium.com lists 10 things that a Brooklyn 6th grader needs more than a field trip to Harvard. In my opinion, Gobar’s top 10 “needs” list is comprised, mainly, of the needs of adults. In my opinion, children should not have to alter their actions to compensate for the needs of adults in the community. Gobar’s “needs list” is highlighted below, with my comments in parentheses.


1. Cops that don’t think they’re older and guiltier than they really are. (Solution: Eyeglasses and attitude adjustments for police officers. Now, why should correcting the deficiencies of police officers interfere with a middle school field trip?)

2. “Teachers that are paid more.” (Solution: a salary raise for teachers, which will immediately end poverty in Brooklyn.   Brooklyn kids should just wait on that. All learning should stop until the teachers get a raise. Teachers  are only working for the money, after all.  As funds for the Mott Hall students’ field trip were donated for that purpose, I fail to see how teacher salaries factor into the debate.)

3. “To be able to walk down the street without being held at gunpoint.” (Solution: Confiscate all guns from police officers and violent and mentally ill New Yorkers. …and tell the kids not to worry about choke holds and they will have a bright future.)

4. “Dialogue about what it means to be black in America.” (Uh, I’m pretty sure these young people who live in America, and the majority of whom are Black or African-American, have a pretty good idea about what it means to be black in America. Perhaps, Gobar needs to participate in a dialogue with some of these Brooklyn students–just to brush up on the subject.)

Gobar listed 6 more things that she thinks these Brooklyn students need rather than a trip to Harvard; but, after pondering the first four items on her list, I had to click off her site so that I could take 2 aspirin.  Go to medium.com to see her entire list, if you must.

A more credible complaint about the proposed field trip to Harvard comes from some in the Black Community who question why the students are being taken to a predominantly white Ivy League school rather than to an HBCU. For a clear, concise overview of this debate, I recommend Keith Boykin’s commentary on bet.com.

All criticism aside, I applaud Principal Lopez and  Brandon Stanton for shining a light in a dark place and for marrying action to ideology. I was not as smart as Vidal when I was in 8th grade. I do not think that I ever adequately thanked my Efland-Cheeks Elementary School principal, Mr. Joyner, and my teachers for the positive influence that they had on my life. My parents had the greatest influence on my life; but my teachers were a close second.  Thanks to my parents and my teachers, I always knew that I mattered, even when I was in a hostile, racist environment. And, that’s the most valuable souvenir of all.


 Posted by Jannifer English McAdoo, Feb 1, 2015

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