A Brief But Spectacular Conversation with Steve Goldbloom, Flossie Lewis and Mahogany L. Browne

After Brief But Spectacular creator Steve Goldbloom filmed 94-year-old retired English teacher Flossie Lewis and “Black Girl Magic” poet activist Mahogany L. Browne, their short segments on PBS NewsHour went unexpectedly viral. Although they come from entirely different backgrounds, the two women share a deep passion for language and an appreciation of its power to heal and to harm. Join our live conversation, recorded at the Commonwealth Club to learn how, despite our differences, we can find connections that bring us together.

TRANSCRIPT

Lauren Schiller:                  From KALW and PRX, this is Inflection Point, stories of how women rise up. I'm Lauren Schiller. I've always believed that when you share the story of great women, everyone wins. So that's why I want you to know about a new podcast called Great Women of Business. They focus on the little-known details of the well-know women you're always hearing about, classics like Coco Chanel, Martha Stewart, and Julia Child.

Lauren Schiller:                  Great Women in Business explains how Debbi Fields started her empire at age 20. Plus, you may never look at tupperware the same way again. With captivating and well-researched stories, each episode takes you through the harrowing journeys and struggles that led these women to greatness, as well as the business principles she utilized. Find the 12-episode series of Great Women of Business on your favorite podcatcher, or visit parcast.com/business to start listening, that's parcast, P-A-R-C-A-S-T.com/business.

Lauren Schiller:                  Just as we are kicking off the summer and I was thinking about the next season, the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco called me up to ask if I would moderate an upcoming panel. They are the nation's oldest and largest public affairs forum and every year present hundreds of forums on topics ranging across politics, culture, society, and the economy. The forum they called me about would feature the creator of Brief but Spectacular that airs on PBS NewsHour and of which I am a great fan.

Lauren Schiller:                  Steve Goldbloom and two of his most popular guests, Flossie Lewis, age 94, reminded me of my grandmother and all my brilliant great aunts, and award-winning poet Mahogany Browne, who wrote the sensational poem Black Girl Magic. They asked if I'd be available to moderate a live conversation between these seemingly different people about how despite our differences, we can find connections that bring us together.

Lauren Schiller:                  Obviously I agreed immediately. The evening finally arrived this August at her beautiful venue on the Embarcadero in San Francisco and began with a 15-minute excerpt from a film about Flossie Lewis by Steve Goldbloom and his team. So without further ado, I present a special episode of Inflection Point featuring this conversation at the Commonwealth Club of California. So we just watched this excerpt from a short documentary about you, Flossie. How does it feel to see your name in lights?

Flossie Lewis:                      It makes me feel like a fraud.

Lauren Schiller:                  Why?

Flossie Lewis:                      Because there were teachers who made me a teacher and colleagues who kept me honest. And I'd like to mention their names wherever they are.

Lauren Schiller:                  Okay.

Flossie Lewis:                      At Lincoln High School Marian Shepherd, at Lincoln High School, Genie A. Ecloff* at Lincoln High School ... Oh, I'm trying to think of a few more people, but they escape me now. At Lowell High School, Joanne Stewart*, who is still with me, and we still talk about teaching and books. At Lowell High School there was Maurice Anglenda* , there was Barbara Bates*. Thank you, Leanne Torlikson*. Thank you, Gwen Fuller. And I've left out so many. *Spellings may not be correct

Lauren Schiller:                  Always.

Flossie Lewis:                      But for me to receive all the credit when I know that every name I mentioned was as good as I shall ever be, and I still hear the sound of Genie A. Ecloff's middle English. Her middle English was better than any prof that I ever had. She taught me this sound of Chaucer. And I'm thinking of Joanne Stewart, who was littler than I am, but had as great a wallop. And I'm eternally grateful for what they taught me.

Flossie Lewis:                      And I'm grateful to this company because there is such a thing as teachers who aren't recognized. And there is such a thing as teaching. And I beg your pardon, there is such a thing as good books that deserve to be taught. I'm a little bit disenchanted with the Internet. And of course I don't like anything about Twitter.

Lauren Schiller:                  Does anyone?

Flossie Lewis:                      And not because our president is such a practitioner.

Steve Goldbloom:             Of course she went viral.

Flossie Lewis:                      But to think that we have come to the point where we accept Twitter as a form of composition is moving in the direction of duck speak in 1984. Thank you very much for the moment.

Lauren Schiller:                  A cautionary tale. Well, Steve, will you tell us a bit about how Brief But Spectacular got started? What is it that you're hoping for when people see these glimpses into other people's lives?

Steve Goldbloom:             Sure. Well, first I have to pick up on a theme, which is, Flossie, about collaboration and credit. I'm up here, but there's other people I have to mention. Zach Land-Miller, I don't know where he is, but where is he? There he is, my long-time producing partner from episode #1 makes Brief with me, and he does about 15 different jobs in one; Melissa Williams who runs my production company Second Peninsula, and she helped produce this event and countless others; and lastly is PBS NewsHour because if it was not for PBS NewsHour, nobody's up here. And two people I want to call out. Mike Rancilio is the general manager. He's here. And Sara Just is the executive producer of NewsHour, and she commissioned and greenlit this show over three years ago, and I'm eternally grateful to you for doing that. So thank you.

Steve Goldbloom:             But the intention, as you said, was always to invite viewers to walk in somebody else's shoes. And we in the beginning felt a lot of pressure to book these big guests. So we went after Alec Baldwin, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Marina Abramović. And people were pretty excited to see them. But what has been heartwarming to learn from doing the series is to see the audience's overwhelming response to people that they didn't know. And the two best examples of that are Flossie and Mahogany, by the way, the two best names we've ever had on the show, Flossie and Mahogany.

Steve Goldbloom:             And all the accident involved in how we met also melts my heart. I met Flossie completely at random in her retirement home. We were shooting a movie with Rita Moreno, and we literally bumped into her and just knew she was an original force of nature. And I said, "Will you talk to me?" And she said, "Sure, I'll talk to you."

Lauren Schiller:                  My understanding is she said, "Now, what are you doing here?" 

Steve Goldbloom:             Yeah, "Who are you? Why are you here?" So I explained myself, and then I had always wanted to interview somebody about life in their 90s. That had been something I'd wanted to do. And as we were talking with Flossie, Zach and I got this rush of adrenaline that you know as a journalist too, and I got the same feeling with Mahogany, which is, "Oh my God, people are going to see this. People are really going to see this."

Steve Goldbloom:             And it was halfway through the interview we just looked at each other and said, "We have to get out of the way, and we have to go home, and we have to represent this person's story." And we just had a hunch that people were really going to spread this thing around. And they both reached millions within a day. And that just doesn't happen with everyone. I'd like it if it did, but it doesn't, so that's what they have in common: They're both truly original voices.

Lauren Schiller:                  I wanted to ask you, Flossie, I mean, you have a platform now. You have a platform about growing old with grace. So now that you have millions of people viewing you and hundreds in this room, is there anything ... not to put you on the spot. What do we all need to know? What is it you would like us to be aware of that we should talk about? Because nobody wants to talk about getting old.

Flossie Lewis:                      I want us to be aware of how tyranny asserts itself, how it comes to be. And I'm thinking now of a book by Professor Stephen Greenblatt, who was one of my profs. The name of the book is Tyranny. It came out in 2018. There were lots of authorities on Shakespeare, but he's outstanding. Sometimes he's a little bit ... he sells too many books, so that makes people suspicious, but he's worth the read. And in Tyranny he takes the great tragedies that Shakespeare has written and shows that the tyrant doesn't make himself. He needs enablers. He needs agitators. He needs people to push him. He needs people who whisper things in his ear. It may be a Steve Bannon. It may be a bunch of witches. The witch is in the eye of the beholder, the witches in the self as well.

Flossie Lewis:                      And to think about that book and remembering Shakespeare the way I taught it is to make me a better teacher and is to make me able to say, look at what we have today. Who are or who were his enablers? Who were his agitators? Why did they push him into the position he now occupies, and what's the answer to getting rid of him with some degree of our dignity? So I hope that answers the question.

Lauren Schiller:                  So that is actually a great setup for Mahogany because the role of poetry in telling the stories of the tyrants, and the saviors, and the angels, and the devils, and the truth, just telling the truth, as a poet I'm wondering for you, Mahogany, can you feel a poem coming on? How do you know when it's time to tell something through poetry?

Mahogany Browne:         I no longer write from inspiration only. For the past I guess 10 years I've been practicing every day writing and just what does that mean to exercise the muscle as a writer. I mean, I write every day about everything. I'm writing about the cigarette lady in Brooklyn. I'm writing about the fact that it cost $15 to get to Staten Island and who wants to go there on purpose. I'm writing ... That's just like one way.

Lauren Schiller:                  It's not 25 cents anymore?

Mahogany Browne:         No.

Lauren Schiller:                  What happened? All right.

Mahogany Browne:         So I have these just like everyday moments. Like it's you're talking about you're writing history as it's happening because the poets and the writers, those are the first historians. So the poem really happens when I read it into the space with other people and I see how it affects them. And then I think, okay, so I've worked on the craft of it, and I know that it needs to be said, and now I know like I have to like finesse it and make sure that it can stand alone whether I'm here or not. So usually it takes two different settings--the writing is one, which I do every day for an hour a day, even on Twitter. And I-

Flossie Lewis:                      I knew it. I saw your face. I knew it. I knew it.

Lauren Schiller:                  Okay, I will just say you're the one redeeming quality on Twitter.

Mahogany Browne:         I love it, but I can admit that like if you have a bad timeline, it could be trash. You just have a moment where you're like, "Who gave you Internet access? Net neutrality for everyone but you." So, yeah, I think when the poem hits the air, that's when I realize this poem is super necessary. Also when I'm scared, I'm realizing that a poem is happening.

Flossie Lewis:                      So, Mahogany, you and I are going to get together, and you are going to show me your Twitter fold.

Mahogany Browne:         Done.

Flossie Lewis:                      Okay?

Mahogany Browne:         Yes.

Flossie Lewis:                      That's a deal.

Mahogany Browne:         We're going to record it. That too will go viral. It's going to be good too.

Steve Goldbloom:             Yeah. Perfect. That's our next episode.

Lauren Schiller:                  There you go, a promise.

Steve Goldbloom:             We'll be there.

Lauren Schiller:                  It's that Brooklyn-Oakland thing, I'm telling you. So we want to show the clip of you reading or speaking, I should say--I'm reading Black Girl Magic, you're speaking Black Girl Magic--this poem that you wrote, which I would say actually reads two different ways. When I read it on the page and when I hear you say it, the power in your voice is so incredible, and everyone is going to get to experience this in a moment. Is there anything that you want to say about that poem before we show it, which is a weird thing to say, before we show your poem?

Mahogany Browne:         It speaks for itself.

Lauren Schiller:                  Okay. I agree.

Steve Goldbloom:             I agree.

Lauren Schiller:                  Okay. Can we play that?

Mahogany Browne:         https://www.pbs.org/newshour/brief/172844/mahogany-l-browne

Lauren Schiller:                  it's brilliant.

Mahogany Browne:         Thank you. That day was funny because I was late, and we did it in this library in Brooklyn at Pride Institute.

Steve Goldbloom:             We were going to JFK.

Mahogany Browne:         Yes.

Steve Goldbloom:             And we almost didn't make it in time. And you gave us one take and said, "That's it."

Mahogany Browne:         Yes.

Steve Goldbloom:             I hoped ... I looked at Zach. I said, "Did you get it all?" And he said, "Yeah," because that's all we have.

Mahogany Browne:         He was like, "Do you want to do the other thing?" I was like, "No. We're done."

Steve Goldbloom:             Yeah. You left it on the floor.

Flossie Lewis:                      You know, this kid and I could have hit it off.

Lauren Schiller:                  So I, in Poetry Magazine, which a poet pointed me to, you called this poem a triumphant and explosive war cry.

Mahogany Browne:         Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Lauren Schiller:                  And in it you're directly addressing black girls. But yet I am clearly not a black girl, but I also feel like you're talking to me so that I can understand how it might feel. And I wonder as you ... Let's talk about that poem specifically. Are you thinking in both those terms? Is it about 'I want other people to understand where I'm coming from'? Or is it about 'I want you to know I know where you're coming from too'?

Mahogany Browne:         I wrote that poem, when I said "war cry" in the Poetry Magazine essay, I was really speaking about how the poem came to be, which was going to these community rallies and seeing the mothers of the slain victims of police brutality stand up and be there for everyone. And they asked poets all the time to share a poem. And a lot of heart-wrenching poems happened, but I just wanted a moment of redemption to say that I see you, and also I see myself, and also I see my daughter. So when I wrote the poem, I was clear that I just wanted to have a moment of joy even though we are surviving trauma. What does resilience look like?

Mahogany Browne:         And I think when people who are not black find joy in it, that is the moment of humanity. That is when you are seeing someone see themselves, revel in themselves, and that is a joyous moment, and that's where our connection is. The first thing I did wrong was look at the video and then look at the comments section. Oh, it hurt my heart. The first thing I saw was like, "What about white girl magic?" And I was like, "Really?" 

Mahogany Browne:         Like, you have America, mama. You all right. You're good. You're good. We've got two minutes, 15 seconds. Give me this. But really it was just the moment of here we are making space. Here I was trying to make space where it felt like there was none, right? And that's not true. If I'm honest, my pillars are Gwendolyn Brooks, and June Jordan, and Audre Lorde, and  Ntozake Shange. And those black women writers make, made space for me to be able to even say that, to even find the articulation of what it looks like to love yourself when everything around you says don't.

Mahogany Browne:         So when I see people loving that poem and not being a person of African or African-American descent, that is what it's supposed to do. It's supposed to show you what self-love can look like in a time where love is very hard to present itself.

Lauren Schiller:                  Well, it's also interesting just you talking about, both of you talking about people who come before you. And I will say that is one of the things that I do like about Twitter is that it leads you to people you might not otherwise discover. So if I follow who you follow, then I'm going to learn a bit more about where you're coming from.

Lauren Schiller:                  But I guess Twitter leads us to the question of polarization, and difficult conversations, and everyone getting into their own camps. And I wonder--I mean, this is really a question for all of you, and whoever would like to answer it first--how do we have these hard conversations without being at each other's throats? How do we open those doors?

Flossie Lewis:                      You start in the classroom where if the kids are going to tear at one another, you still have some authority to say, "Cool it." You start with a book that dares to touch on some of these issues. You start with a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks called Abortion, where the black mothers says, "I loved every one of you, but I couldn't feed all of you." And that's hard to take in the light of so many stereotypes because black women don't have as many abortions as white women do, and not alone because they can't afford them. So I think you start with the classroom. You start with books that you think not only should be read but that you want to teach because you have something to say about them. And then you fight it out.

Lauren Schiller:                  And how do you do that civilly? Because that's, I feel like, the skill that we all need to learn is how to find the common ground and stick to your point.

Flossie Lewis:                      You fight it out by taking a stand and letting the kid fight back, and you do that not only by office hours, you do it through composition. You do it through writing. And sometimes you have to lose a battle. I think one of the things that I learned early was that some of the kids I was teaching were 10 times smarter than I was. And once I recognized that, half the battle was over.

Mahogany Browne:         I love that idea of it starts in the classroom. I agree. I facilitate poetry workshops around the world, and the one thing I always return to with the young poet is, "I don't believe you. If you're going to write this, be honest. Don't write what you think I want to hear. Write what actually needs to be said." And that's where the hard conversations happen, when you're willing to stand up and say this thing that's super difficult, and it may not be the pleaser for the crowd, but it's necessary to start that pivot in how we deal with each other, and how we change ideas, and how we change movements. So, yeah, I love the classroom.

Flossie Lewis:                      See, you said, "I don't believe you." And I would say, "Watch out for the passive voice."

Mahogany Browne:         That's why you're the teacher.

Steve Goldbloom:             I have to say-

Lauren Schiller:                  I see a co-teaching collaboration in our future.

Steve Goldbloom:             I have to pick up something Flossie said. There's two books you should all get. First is Black Girl Magic. They should buy your book, and they should also buy a book by Flossie Lewis that I found on Amazon called Getting Engaged: Falling in Love with Your Paper, which you wrote in 1984. I got a copy of it on Amazon. And there's a stretch in the book where she ... By the way, it's all brilliant, but there's a stretch in the book where she talks about falling in love, falling in love with your paper, taking your paper out to dinner, making love to your paper, at one point you said.

Steve Goldbloom:             And here's the line she says, this is directly to the student, "I know you are sometimes stuck. You're tied to a paper you have to finish. You have this act to perform, and you want to get it done as quickly as possible. I repeat, don't. It's so boring. It's so boring to pretend to love. It's such a drag." Those are your words.

Flossie Lewis:                      Yes, it's so boring to pretend to love, yes, indeed.

Lauren Schiller:                  So I want to talk about this point of authenticity and what you really feel because I feel like we are living also in this time of totally curated personalities and that we all feel like we're not people anymore, we're brands. And we have to stand for something, and we have to look a certain way, and we have to be consistent about it or we get yelled at by other people on the Internet.

Lauren Schiller:                  How do you ... This may be a personal advice question, but how does a person stay authentic in the middle of all that pressure to be, I don't know, something they really aren't or that other people expect them to be?

Mahogany Browne:         Have a Flossie in your life. You really need a good tribe, and that means who are your circle of friends? Who do you check and balance with? Sometimes I get caught in the hype, or I could write a poem, and I think, "Oh, this person said it's amazing." And then I'll take it to a friend. I'm like, "What do you think?" And they're like, "Mmm." And I'm like, "Ugh. But he said it was great." But you need the circle of people who want you to push forward and be better. I think that's how you can be your most authentic self.

Mahogany Browne:         And also Instagram I find I feel like you feel about Twitter, I feel about Instagram, which is the curated brand. It's the perfect picture, the perfect filter. There's this filter app now where you can do this and make yourself skinnier. It's bananas, and of course I was like, "I just want to see." Oh my God, I'm a 2. That's insane. I deleted it. Don't worry.

Lauren Schiller:                  Does it work on like ankles?

Mahogany Browne:         It works everywhere.

Lauren Schiller:                  Everywhere.

Mahogany Browne:         But you look kind of like an ocean of a body instead of your actual. It's weird. But that said, I'm looking at those apps now, and I'm thinking the best way to stay authentic is to be honest with like our flaws and how we're changing. And you can love something today and not tomorrow. And you can like support someone and then find out they did something that is less desirable than humans need and say, you know what? Call that out instead of just strong and wrong. It's okay to be wrong. If we say that three times a day, we will feel much better. But then you also have to meet the "It's okay to be wrong" with "What am I going to do to make it better?"

Mahogany Browne:         You can't just walk in the wrong and it's like, "Oh, my flaws are so dope. I'm out here harming people with my flaws. It's all good because I said it three times today, so I'm okay." No.

Lauren Schiller:                  Right. Just live with it?!

Mahogany Browne:         Once you accept that it's a flaw, it's something that can be changed, then you have to accept the responsibility of how to make it better, how to do better.

Lauren Schiller:                  That sounds like good parenting advice too.

Mahogany Browne:         I have a twenty-year old, so we have these conversations often.

Lauren Schiller:                  Steve, through Brief But Spectacular it seems like you also have an opportunity to get past this sort of curated approach. It feels like when I see the stories that you produce, I feel like I'm seeing inside the person that is talking, that they really are presenting their true selves. How do you do that?

Steve Goldbloom:             We're always searching for that answer. That's what we're always looking for. And we were really lucky to meet Flossie and Mahogany. But now we have a science that we're using to find our new subjects. And so one of the things that we're doing right now with Brief but Spectacular is looking at some of the leading issues in the country like misuse of prisons, substance abuse, mental health. And we're going to areas in the country that are most underrepresented.

Steve Goldbloom:             And so to give you an example, last week Zach and I were in Tucson speaking with a young woman whose mother was deported, who raised her siblings and just graduated high school. We were the next day in Navajo Nation speaking with the lone female delegate on the Navajo Council about sexual abuse. The next day we were in Olympia, Washington, speaking to a mother whose son is incarcerated in 23-hour lockdown, has bipolar. He's bipolar.

Flossie Lewis:                      Oh my God.

Steve Goldbloom:             And we talked to her about the criminalization of mental health. By the way, we're only able to do this right now because of the Heising-Simons Foundation, whose mandate has been that we get outside the coast and tell these stories. And so what we're trying to do is plant a seed with people, find these original voices, and then come back to them.

Lauren Schiller:                  So actually on that note we have a question from the audience that says, "How will I know when I have a brief but spectacular moment? I'm in my late 60s and still waiting for it, dear Steve."

Steve Goldbloom:             "Dear Steve?" Okay. I have to say this because my parents are here. My wife is here. My dad's father is the namesake. When I was little, he lives in Nova Scotia, I would sneak out of synagogue, walk around the block, make it look like I'd been there the whole time. When I came back, he would say, "Brief but spectacular." That is the name. And he ... It's true. His name is Dick Goldbloom, and he's the 100th episode. We interviewed him on what it feels like to have memory loss or dementia, which he is experiencing now. So your brief but spectacular moment, the answer is I don't know. Email me, and make your video and make your voice known because we'll know it when we see it.

Lauren Schiller:                  But it feels like inside ourselves we should be able to recognize that too. Do you ever have a moment like that where you're like, "This is it?" Maybe it's black girl magic.

Mahogany Browne:         No. I have the moments when I'm telling the story and someone goes, "What?" And you're like, "Oh, that's odd? That's a lot?" And they're like, "How did you get out?" And I'm like, "I don't know. I just did this thing, and then I wrote this poem." And they're like inspired, and I did not know that it was brief but spectacular. Black Girl Magic wasn't even the poem they asked me for. So that's funny.

Steve Goldbloom:             That's right.

Mahogany Browne:         Yeah. You asked me for something else, and then I said, "Eh, I have this other thing I really feel good about. Can I do that?"

Steve Goldbloom:             Yeah. That's right.

Mahogany Browne:         So in the moment I didn't think of it as like, "This is it." I just thought, "It's just on my heart. I really want to share this, and hopefully it'll change someone's mind." And since it aired, I've received about five that I know of to my person account, five videos from five young girls, all ages 4th grade and lower. I don't know what age that is, but they like this. And they use the poem in oratorical contests now. And I literally am like balling on the side of a freakin' mountain watching someone send me ... And I'm like, "What is she doing?"

Mahogany Browne:         And then she starts this choreography, and she does like the voice. Like, when I say, "You are this," and she does it, and I'm like, "Are you kidding me? This is amazing." I'm going to cry now. Okay.

Steve Goldbloom:             Well, I have to say, we were typing, somebody asked us if Brief was on YouTube. And so we searched it, and we saw a couple of them on YouTube, and then I saw all these other videos called Brief but Spectacular on YouTube, and I was like, "What? What is this?" And I clicked them, and there are hundreds of user-generated videos from people around the country and saying-

Mahogany Browne:         Doing everything.

Steve Goldbloom:             ... everything. And I was like-

Lauren Schiller:                  There you go.

Steve Goldbloom:             ... I even had Sarah Jess, and I was like, "I don't know. I'd love to take credit for these videos, but we didn't shoot these. These aren't ours." So that has been one of the unintended consequences.

Lauren Schiller:                  Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Steve Goldbloom:             It's beautiful, yeah. It-

Flossie Lewis:                      Steve, may I say something?

Steve Goldbloom:             Of course.

Flossie Lewis:                      She is a hard act to follow.

Steve Goldbloom:             So are you.

Mahogany Browne:         I'm staying with Flossie forever.

Flossie Lewis:                      But the world is hers. My world is passing. Her world is coming. And I think most of us realize that, and we will accept it gratefully and graciously very close.

Lauren Schiller:                  This is Inflection Point. I'm Lauren Schiller. This conversation with Steve Goldbloom, creator of Brief but Spectactular of PBS NewsHour and two of his most popular briefs, writer and teacher Flossie Lewis and poet and professor Mahogany L. Browne. It was recorded live at the Commonwealth Club in California on August 22, 2018. We'll be right back.

Lauren Schiller:                  Hey, there, it's Lauren. Before we get back to it, I want to let you know about our new Facebook group for everyday activists. If you're someone who wants to connect with other ordinary people seeking to make extraordinary change, come join The Inflection Point Society. Together we'll have important conversations and come away with simple daily actions to help each other rise up. Search for Inflection Point Society on Facebook or go to Facebook.com/groups/inflectionpointsociety.

Lauren Schiller:                  I'm Lauren Schiller, and this is Inflection Point. This conversation with Steve Goldbloom, creator of Brief but Spectacular on PBS NewsHour and two of his most popular briefs, writer and teacher Flossie Lewis and poet and professor Mahogany L. Browne. It was recorded live at the Commonwealth Club in California on August 22, 2018.

Lauren Schiller:                  I love that girls are sending you their videos because one of the things that I have been thinking about and has been sort of bothering me lately is that we have had a lot of talk of empowerment. And I want to know how are we going to get from empowerment to actual power? And what is that bridge? And how do we actually make change with the momentum that is being created around all these issues that we're tackling around racism and sexism and ageism, and add your ism? Fill in the blank.

Mahogany Browne:         I think mentorship is key. I also the young people, they have it on lock. They know the verbiage is changing so drastically and so quickly often times there is little grace when you're learning and relearning. But the young people have a great idea of the way in which we're going, and I'm talking high school, y'all. I'm talking middle school, just talking to young people about pronoun use and racial epithets.

Mahogany Browne:         They are on it, and they're super empathetic. They're super compassionate, and they're ready to like fight for what's right, which I think for some reason there was this lull. I don't know what it is. Maybe it was like reality TV, which I love. I just want people to know, I'm here for all of it, but it's anthropological research. It's research. But they like the ... But I don't know when the disconnect happened, whether it was like money, whether it was the crack epidemic, and then of course the generations that it affected. But right now, the time is now, and the youth, the young people who are writing, and speaking, and protesting, they have it on lock, so I think the power is already in their hands. It requires younger teachers to really just like show them the way, like open the door, make sure the door is open, right? Like Game of Thrones, hold the door--we're supposed to do that. That is our job, not like-

Lauren Schiller:                  [crosstalk 00:35:49]. Yeah.

Mahogany Browne:         Thank you. Not fight them on respectability, not fight them on civility. That doesn't matter when you're trying to get free. When you're trying to liberate a people, civility ain't going to work.

Lauren Schiller:                  So there is another question here about which poet should we turn to to feel like we can take their words and turn them into action? Who will inspire us to do that?

Flossie Lewis:                      Well, let's talk about gender issues or relationship between men and women. I think we start with some of the old fashion stuff. We dare to start with how Shakespeare treats men and women in love. We dare to start with Romeo and Juliet, and we dare to see how equal their relationship is and how much they're hemmed in by a society that won't let them love. But I think that language itself can be liberated. I know that sounds like a lot of malarkey, but it has worked for me. And I remember when I would teach Romeo and Juliet, and I would let the kids take over, and they would do the balcony. And I would have to separate them with hot water.

Lauren Schiller:                  You mean while they were kissing? [inaudible 00:37:20].

Flossie Lewis:                      No, they don't kiss in the balcony scene, but my kids did.

Steve Goldbloom:             I can't. Can I tell you, can I just say one things I've learned from Flossy, watching, rewatching the video just now with you? The scene in the cab, I'm so terrified in that car ride. I don't know if you know that, because I'll remind you, it was raining. I was worried about transportation, and I was worried the kids weren't going to show up. And I was worried that I was going to have wasted your time. And I was petrified in that car ride. And I remember there's a lot of silence. And I look to you and I said ... This is what you were wearing actually, and I said, "This is a beautiful whatever." And you said, "Don't make small talk."

Steve Goldbloom:             But it tells you everything you need to know about Flossie because it's the power of intention. When I called her even the other day and I said, "You've reached 100 million people. It just ran on NewsHour Friday night." And I said, "And the comment that keeps coming up is you inspire people and you remind them of teachers in their life."

Steve Goldbloom:             And you just said, "Let me internalize that. Let me think about that." And I thought, how long do we do that in the rapid form of communication or Twitter? How often do we just sit and think about what was just said? And so I've learned that from you. So thank you.

Flossie Lewis:                      Let's see what I have learned from you.

Steve Goldbloom:             Oh [crosstalk 00:39:06]. Wrap it up.

Flossie Lewis:                      But a gonif is always lovable. Don't use that term unless you are deeply for that person.

Steve Goldbloom:             Flossie called me a gonif. And-

Flossie Lewis:                      Yes, he is a gonif.

Steve Goldbloom:             Crook, thief in Yiddish. And I said, "That's not ..." But you said, "Because you steal my heart." That's what you said.

Lauren Schiller:                  Nice.

Steve Goldbloom:             I was so glad you said it because I was worried about that one.

Lauren Schiller:                  You didn't know this was actually a conversation about love, did you? It's actually what it's all about. So, Flossie, so I want to get back to this question that is so hard to talk about, which is growing old and growing old with grace, and you put it in your Brief but Spectacular story. How do you prioritize your time? How do you decide what you want to do each day as you think about the time you got-

Flossie Lewis:                      Well, if you live in a retirement community, there are activities. You can participate. You can sit. And if you sit, invariably you will fall asleep. But if you take an active part, we have a poetry class every Monday. And I work with the activity director. And we have a topic, a theme, and we have anywhere from 10 to 15 old ladies and some gentlemen who go back to find a poem that illustrates that theme. And if they can't, maybe they start writing themselves. And that's something to see at age 80 and 90 and getting up there.

Steve Goldbloom:             That's part of the film that we didn't show, which includes we were there for one of those poetry sessions, and it was unforgettable. And Flossie took a backseat to that one and really let the other residence shine, and-

Flossie Lewis:                      And were they ever good. And there was Hugh Richmond, who was dying of pancreatic cancer and said very clearly, "I've had a good life. I'm ready to go." And he, knowing that he would be dead in a few more days because, guess what, his doctors had given him permission, he could stand up and read [inaudible 00:41:44], Robert Frost, and make the room shake. He hadn't gotten yet close to, how shall I say, Derek Walcott, for example, whose poetry he would have loved too, or Langston Hughes, or Gwendolyn Brooks, or some of the other guys and girls.

Lauren Schiller:                  And this brings us to another audience questions, and I apologize, the original question was for Mahogany, which is how can we all learn to use poetry to get through hard times?

Mahogany Browne:         We had a poetic protest responding to the police brutality. And it is called Black Poets Speak Out, and that was with Jericho Brown, Sherina Rodriguez, Amanda Johnston, Jonterri Gadson, and myself. And it was a moment where all of these artist and poets and professors were like, "What are we doing? How do we respond? I feel like I'm going crazy. I feel like I don't understand. I feel silenced. I feel like I'm silencing myself." 

Mahogany Browne:         And we decided to do this initiative, which in turn still exists, and it is an archive of poetry written by all people from 40 years ago to two years ago. And I learned that poetry can be the balm that we require as citizens, as global citizens, as aware citizens, as human beings. There are times when we can't articulate the frustration. We don't know yet how to process what we're feeling. It just all feels kind of jumbled. Then you read the right poem, and it just kind of like clarifies. The room becomes still. I think someone else is doing a particular project for Poetry Review or Paris Review, Sarah Kay, who introduced us.

Steve Goldbloom:             The first episode we did it.

Mahogany Browne:         Mm-hmm (affirmative), and she did this ... She's doing it now, and you can find it on parisreview.com. And it's called Poetry Rx. And I think the basis is you ask. Someone sent in a letter: "I'm having heartbreak. What do I do?" And they prescribe a poem to read, and a specific poem, and it's really, it's such a great that you're in that moment of inarticulation, and you read that thing that thing that articulates it all, and you're like, "Oh, I'm not alone." And what does that mean to just not be alone, to not be the only one feeling this way and to know that there is, for lack of a better cliché, light at the other side of the tunnel? Gosh. Sorry.

Lauren Schiller:                  We're living in hard times. It's okay.

Mahogany Browne:         I know. That was a bad one, guys.

Lauren Schiller:                  Right. Poets are not supposed to make bad, like those cliché metaphors.

Mahogany Browne:         Yeah.

Lauren Schiller:                  Is that the ... Okay.

Mahogany Browne:         I was going to blame Twitter, and-

Lauren Schiller:                  No, no, no. It just gets ingrained in you. Sometimes you can't help it. "Dear Flossie," this is turning into an advice column, "why did you decide to get a PhD after you retired from Lowell? your PhD classmate Hillary."

Flossie Lewis:                      I'd like to answer that question. Because I was scared. The PhD, for me, was unfinished business. We had so many principals in the public schools, even in San Francisco, who were semi-literate as far as I was concerned. But they had their EdD, their doctor's degree in education. And I thought, "Well, I can do that. I can get a doctor's degree in education. I've been a teacher for a long time." But I took my sabbatical years at Cal, and since I was a teacher of English, I got to work with some of the loveliest, greatest people I've ever known in my life.

Flossie Lewis:                      And in my first sabbatical year, I met Professor AAlex Zwerdling, who died very recently and who opened my eyes to what the English language was all about. And in his class when I was already an experienced teacher, he gave me my first real taste of George Orwell, which wasn't 1984, but which was politics in the English language. And that made me a teacher, that I could see how you could lie, how you could twist, how you could kill with language. And even though I killed some of my kids by making them avoid the passive voice, it became I had something to hold onto to.

Flossie Lewis:                      And when I became disillusioned with the courses in education, I had by that time become something of a writer. I had some short stories published, and I found that I wanted the PhD in English, and I thought that when I had finished my work as a teacher in high school, I would go back as a student, and those were some of the richest years in my life. That's why I waited. I wasn't sure of myself. And when I was a little more certain, then I could take on the rigors of the PhD at UC Berkeley. And let me tell you, it was not easy. Even though I was a high school teacher, I'd get my composition slashed the way only the profs could do it.

Lauren Schiller:                  They're hardest on the good students, you know. You may have heard that.

Flossie Lewis:                      Taught me a lesson in humility too.

Lauren Schiller:                  Well, thank you so much. Thank you, Flossie, Mahogany, and Steve for joining us all this evening. I'm Lauren Schiller, and this meeting of the Commonwealth Club of California, the place where you're in the know, is adjourned. [inaudible 00:48:27]. Yeah.

Lauren Schiller:                  This conversation with Steve Goldbloom, creator of Brief but Spectacular on PBS NewsHour and two of his most popular briefs, writer and teacher 94-year-old Flossie Lewis and poet and professor Mahogany L. Browne, and me took place at the Commonwealth Club of California. Many thanks to them for inviting me to participate. I'll put a link to Brief but Spectacular and the Commonwealth Club on my website at inflectionpointradio.org.

Lauren Schiller:                  And while you're at it, remember to subscribe to Inflection Point. We're on Apple Podcast, Radio Public, Stitcher, and NPR1, and all your favorite podcatchers. I'm Lauren Schiller, and this is Inflection Point. That's our Inflection Point for today. All of our episodes are on Apple Podcast, Radio Public, Stitcher, and NPR1. Give us a five-star review and subscribe to the podcast.

Lauren Schiller:                  Know a woman with a great rising-up story? Let us know at inflectionpointradio.org. While you're there I invite you to support Inflection Point with a monthly or one-time contribution. Your support keeps women's stories front and center. Just got to inflectionpointradio.org. We're on Facebook at Inflection Point Radio. Follow us and follow me on Twitter at laschiller.

Lauren Schiller:                  To find out more about the guests you've heard today and to sign up for our email newsletter, you know where to go: inflectionpointradio.org. Inflection Point is produced in partnership with KALW 91.7 FM in San Francisco and PRX. Our story editor and content manager is Alaura Weaver. Our engineer and producer is Eric Wayne. I'm your host, Lauren Schiller. Support for this podcast comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Speaker 5:                              From PRX. 

 

Photo taken at the Commonwealth Club of California, by Ed Ritger

Photo taken at the Commonwealth Club of California, by Ed Ritger

When Teachers Are Trusted To Teach: Gabe Howard, Saint Ann’s School

What happens when teachers are given the freedom to inspire a lifelong love of learning? In this episode, I talk with Gabrielle Howard, who recently retired as the head of the Lower School at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn, after 35 years.

We’ll talk about why she dedicated her life to fostering a love of learning in young children, why she let them swear in her office, how a school without grades can produce high-achieving graduating classes time and time again, and the deep value of listening to kids. 

 


TRANSCRIPT:

Lauren Schiller:                  From KALW and PRX, this is Inflection Point. I'm Lauren Schiller with stories of how women rise up. I think it's fair to say that I talk with amazing women in every episode of this show. Sometimes they come from far off lands, and other times they're in my own backyard. Today's guest is all three of those things. As the long standing head of the lower school at St Ann's school in Brooklyn, now widely considered one of the top K-12 schools in the country.

Lauren Schiller:                  Gabe Howard changed the way an entire generation of kids embraced learning. So she's amazing, check. She comes from England, far off land, check. And lucky for me and a first for this show, we're related by marriage, own backyard, check. At the same time we were discussing recording this interview, Gabe was preparing to retire from St Ann's, so I had some competition for her attention and a high bar to reach in my questions since her most important constituents got to her first.

Lauren Schiller:                  Gabe told me that her favorite interview so far had been with a couple of third graders who asked her, as you prepare to ride off into the sunset, what kind of horse do you have? I am not sure how to top that, but I did want to know more about, Gabe Howard. And Gabe Howard is a third grader herself, and how that led to her lifelong dedication to education. So, that's where we started our conversation. Gabriel Howard went to school in a small town in England.

Gabe Howard:                     I went to very strict schools for all of my education. And I really loved to talk, and you weren't allowed to talk. I was always in trouble for talking.

Lauren Schiller:                  I began to see just how important her story is. Not only because she helped to shape a new approach to teaching kids.

Gabe Howard:                     Well, I fell in love with the school. Children's voices, what the school was all about. It wasn't about being quiet and not talking too much. It was all about, "We want to know what you have to say."

Lauren Schiller:                  But like many immigrants, her vision of America was a bit idealized.

Gabe Howard:                     Having grown up during the war, and been exposed to Marcel and other Americans magazines I thought, well that is definitely the place to be. So I feel it on suburban houses, and refrigerators and ham and big cars and none of that happened.

Lauren Schiller:                  And also sometimes the things we have to learn from the people we love can't reveal themselves until we just sit down, face to face and talk. Now often the story you hear from women in Gabe's generation is, well, I wanted to be an actress or I wanted to be an engineer, but in the end I had to teach because that's what was realistic. In Gabe's case, she wanted to teach deaf children but didn't.

Gabe Howard:                     It would have meant that I had to go to university at a time when 2% of the eligible population at the University. It was a really different time. And I suppose also it was probably a phase, that I wanted to do that to some extent. You know, I certainly didn't continue to push for it, anyway I didn't do that. I designed bathing suits.

Lauren Schiller:                  It's true she could even visit Marks and Spencer in London and see who was buying which of her designs, but the desire to teach still lingered. Eventually Gabe, got married, moved to America, had children and did go back to college, but between getting her undergraduate degree and going to Grad school, she needed to find work and teaching was work she could do while her kids were in school.

Lauren Schiller:                  And that's how she became acquainted with St Ann's school in Brooklyn. St Ann's was an experimental school that rebuffed all the usual norms about how to teach kids and who could teach them. And in particular, it rebuffed and still does, a speak until spoken to norm that Gabe herself a grownup with.

Gabe Howard:                     I did not love school. And I think that one of the worst things you can do to a child is to beat the desire to converse out of them. And while I wasn't literally beaten, I was sitting really shamed into not talking as much as my inclination would have it. I think they made conversing not come as naturally as it had, when I was little. Maybe that happens to everyone, but I do remember being over time, told that I talk too much.

Lauren Schiller:                  Well, let's talk about what happened between the time that you arrived, decided to stay and then actually did enter education as your career field.

Gabe Howard:                     I went to college. I went to Long Island University because that was where my then husband was teaching, and I could go free. And they would have me with very few academic credentials. So I got a degree and then I was going to go to graduate school. But in between getting a degree and going to graduate school, I wanted to make some money, and I had two small children at that point, and teaching was something I could do without having to pay a babysitter because they were in school when I was in school.

Gabe Howard:                     And I ended up teaching in a private school. But initially I wanted to teach in public school, but I couldn't teach in a public school because I wasn't a citizen. And I didn't in fact become a citizen until a lot later, when I'd never voted in my life, and I wanted to vote for Bill Clinton, so I became a citizen, so he's responsible for a lot of shit.

Lauren Schiller:                  So it wasn't until the 90s that you-

Gabe Howard:                     I'd been here 36 years before I became a citizen. And that's the longing for home, that's the saying, no, I'm not really English anymore, I'm an American now.

Lauren Schiller:                  Yeah. So, you were telling me that you came over on a visa because your husband at the time was a scientist?

Gabe Howard:                     Yes.

Lauren Schiller:                  Can you talk a little bit more about how that worked?

Gabe Howard:                     Yeah. It was a little after the time that Sputnik had gone up and America was looking for European scientists and he had a PhD in physical chemistry and we had both of us always wanted to go to America.

Lauren Schiller:                  Well, I should probably say that the man you came with, who was your husband at the time was not a citizen, but you've been here in America for a while and were then dating an American. And so you could have gotten citizenship at anytime by marrying him. But you chose not to.

Gabe Howard:                     I guess I didn't want him to become a citizen that much. I mean I didn't really want to become a citizen. I wanted to vote, you know, it was the vote. It was the never, having, had that voice, that motivated me and that the voice that a lot of women work really hard to get me.

Lauren Schiller:                  Yeah.

Gabe Howard:                     To have.

Lauren Schiller:                  Yeah. But I am curious about that choice to not get married until very recently.

Gabe Howard:                     Yeah. Yeah. I don't know, we had a good thing going, you know. It didn't seem necessary and then suddenly it did. And I think part of that is just aging. You know, I had visions of being in the hospital dying and Marty couldn't come and see me because we weren't married.

Lauren Schiller:                  Now he can.

Gabe Howard:                     Maybe that would never happen.

Lauren Schiller:                  Okay. Well, let's get back on track. Let's go back to England. What was your life like back in England?

Gabe Howard:                     Well, it was pretty deprived. I mean, I was ... given the possibilities, I was one of the lucky ones. I wasn't shipped off to live with another family. I lived with my mother in the house that we had always lived in. And since it had always been that way, I took for granted that. There wasn't a lot of food, and you couldn't always have what you wanted and you certainly couldn't have candy or sweets as we called them at time.

Gabe Howard:                     But there weren't many cars, and that's a good thing. They certainly was a lot less packaging and that's a good thing. But it did look really sort of super luxurious and so on, and that was interesting. I suppose I was about nine when I started wanting to come to America.

Lauren Schiller:                  Wow. That's a lifelong aspiration.

Gabe Howard:                     Yeah, and then I wanted to go home.

Lauren Schiller:                  Once you got here.

Gabe Howard:                     Once I got here. I wanted to go, but that's not entirely true because I love New York. I mean from the get go. I love New York and we actually arrived two days before Kennedy was shot and that was ... Well, I mean it sort of goes without saying that that was stunning, that was stunning for everybody. To me that shooting was so unusual in those days, that nobody ... Harold Macmillan was prime minister in England at the time and that nobody would shoot him unless they mistook him for grouse or something like that.

Lauren Schiller:                  So that was your introduction to American culture?

Gabe Howard:                     That was my introduction to American culture, yes.

Lauren Schiller:                  So what were your impressions when ... I mean that must've colored everything about your impressions when you arrived versus what you imagined it would be?

Gabe Howard:                     I'd say yes and no. It was just part of the whole remarkable experience of being here. And it was ... the weather was so blue and so cold, and coming from England I had to some extent expected that if you had blue skies, you had warm weather and it was absolutely freezing and so blue.

Lauren Schiller:                  So you surpassed your year, when you thought you would go home and I mean, once you got past that, do you still miss England? I mean, did at that point, were you wanting to go back for real? Are you really just were nostalgic about it?

Gabe Howard:                     Yes. You know, I have an immigrant's longing for home and I expect to always have it.

Lauren Schiller:                  When you were growing up in England ... so you got married, but was it a choice of ... I mean, now when you think about that time, it's like going to college versus getting married, whereas now people don't really think about that as a choice. Was that actually something that you had to make a decision about doing?

Gabe Howard:                     No. I went to an art college. I did dress design at Alaska college of Whilock, and I had done that by the time we got married, but we had known each other since we were 17, so it was like a high school relationship.

Lauren Schiller:                  Wow. I didn't know you had a degree in dress design. Do you ever use that?

Gabe Howard:                     No.

Lauren Schiller:                  No. You're not sketching?

Gabe Howard:                     No.

Lauren Schiller:                  Never.

Gabe Howard:                     No.

Lauren Schiller:                  Wow.

Gabe Howard:                     I mean, I did do swimsuit design for a while.

Lauren Schiller:                  You did, professionally?

Gabe Howard:                     Yes.

Lauren Schiller:                  Oh my goodness.

Gabe Howard:                     When I lived in London. That's what I did. I worked for a supplier of Marks and Spencer's.

Lauren Schiller:                  That's so cool.

Gabe Howard:                     It was fun.

Lauren Schiller:                  Do you still have the drawings that you made, the designs that you made?

Gabe Howard:                     No.

Lauren Schiller:                  Do you have any of the bathing suits that made?

Gabe Howard:                     No. I can remember them though. And the office that I worked in was close to the Marks and Spencer's that is on Oxford Street. And you could go down in your lunch hour and watch people buy the swim suits that you designed.

Lauren Schiller:                  That's amazing.

Gabe Howard:                     Or not buy them.

Lauren Schiller:                  Did you ever look at anyone and say, "Hmm maybe that wasn't the right choice for you?"

Gabe Howard:                     I'm sure I did.

Lauren Schiller:                  No judgment, no judgment. How did you get connected with St Ann's to start with? Because it was it's early days.

Gabe Howard:                     Yeah, it was the time on a tradition of nepotism. I had a friend who was friends with the person who was the recurrent head of the lower school there. And she said, "Oh, you have to meet my friend Jim Madison." So I met Jim Madison and he hired me and I stayed for 44 years.

Lauren Schiller:                  That sounds great.

Gabe Howard:                     I was going to teach for a year.

Lauren Schiller:                  Yeah. You have a lot of one year plans that seem to extend. What's your next one year plan?

Gabe Howard:                     I'm going to die for a year.

Lauren Schiller:                  So we have 44 more years of Gabe Howard. Thank goodness. Can we talk a little bit about the ... just to get to the philosophy of St Ann's and where it all sprang from. So Stanley Bosworth, he was the original.

Gabe Howard:                     He was the founding headmaster.

Lauren Schiller:                  And it was his concept at the school or?

Gabe Howard:                     It was his concept.

Lauren Schiller:                  How did he talk about what he wanted the school to be?

Gabe Howard:                     Well, one of the things that made it work was that he talked about it all the time. He talked about his passionate desire for literacy and for intellectual endeavor and for poetry and for art and for music. And he believed that those things and a few others I haven't named, are what make life and children sacred. And he knew that children were sacred, and that was how the school progressed. And because he said it all the time, everybody, everybody was kind of on board with it. It wasn't never on it.

Lauren Schiller:                  I know. From a far St. Ann's is totally Nirvana.

Gabe Howard:                     It wasn't Nirvana and it was bloody hard work, and it was underpaid. But you've always felt like you were doing something important and valuable and that's what kept me there so long. And if I wasn't there, where would I go?

Lauren Schiller:                  What was the affiliation of St Ann's school with St Ann's church?

Gabe Howard:                     The members of the church ... so members of the church wanted to start a school because the public school in the neighborhood, they didn't like the private schools that were there already. By then there were a couple of them or the public school. And so they wanted to start a school, and so they had to find somebody to run it. And the person who is in charge at the church was a man named Carmen Hawkwood. And he and Stanley, although they were strange bedfellows, not that they ever went to bed, Stanley was fiercely heterosexual.

Lauren Schiller:                  Just to be clear.

Gabe Howard:                     And he was gone by the time, I think the school was seven years old by the time I got there and Carmen Hawkwood had returned to England. But there were stories of him walking the halls and wearing a purple robe and smelling of lavender and telling Bible stories to the kids. But there was the friendship between those two men, other than that st Ann's Leeds has a very large Jewish population was not an episcopalian school and that was a few years later.

Gabe Howard:                     That was ratified in a way because the church, and the school separated. Although we have celebrations in the church, it's available for graduation and concepts and it's a really beautiful, really beautiful old church.

Lauren Schiller:                  So how did you think of your ... coming into this school which sounds completely different from your own experience of school. Like what was your role as the teacher and how did you figure out how you wanted to be that person having not personally experienced anything like that before?

Gabe Howard:                     I'd always loved kids and even when I was a kid myself, I loved littler kids. And so teaching in a way came very naturally to me and I wanted to know what they had to say. And so I listened to them. I had things that you could teach, you could and you still can teach anything you want to teach at St Ann's in the lower school. You can teach if you want your curriculum to be the Middle Ages, you can teach that.

Gabe Howard:                     If you want it to be ancient Greece, you can teach that. If you want it to be surrealism, anything you want it to be. I mean, as long as you can engage the kids in a passion for learning and as long as they ... along with that learn to read and write and compute and talk and listen to each other. Then I felt that was just fantastic.

Gabe Howard:                     And it is, and it keeps teachers there, because there's so much autonomy. It's really satisfying. And, when you're in a classroom, you know if it's not working. And anybody who walks in, who knows anything about anything to do with teaching would know that it's not working and when it's working it's equally tangible.

Lauren Schiller:                  And as a private school are there test requirements like we have in public schools where you there has to be some sort of measure of the kids progress?

Gabe Howard:                     No. What really happens is in the end they go to college.

Lauren Schiller:                  You have to wait years to know if it worked.

Gabe Howard:                     And if they don't go to college and if they don't go to, the college is that people expect them to go to, then I think that you would soon be out of business.

Lauren Schiller:                  Yeah.

Gabe Howard:                     In that sense there is a measure. And the kids take the same tests everybody takes. They take the SATs and-

Lauren Schiller:                  The advanced placement tests.

Gabe Howard:                     Yes. But there are no grades. And that's huge because, you know kids will measure themselves and some more than others, but kids will measure themselves against each other anyway. But if you take away the tangible grade expression of what you're doing, then you minimize the competitiveness instead of exacerbating it, you minimize it.

Lauren Schiller:                  Well this idea ... so just thinking for a second about the ultimate measure of how well the school "did for the child," being, did they go to a good college, did they go to the college that their parents wanted them to go to, or the student themselves aspire to go to?

Lauren Schiller:                  I feel like the notion in New York is that if you don't get your kid on the right list for the right preschool while they're still in Utero, you may as well just say goodbye to the entire potential for success for the rest of their life and so much anxiety around that. But it seems like that goal and the philosophy of St Anne's actually don't like ... I wouldn't actually connect those two things together, that the goal would be to end up going to a good college.

Gabe Howard:                     I think, if there wasn't enough kids going to good colleges, then people would question the validity of the school. But in reality, the goal is you leave as a person who ... leaves St Anne's already, as a person who has interests in things they want to do and that they can become an accomplished and happy person. In that way it's transcendent and not just dependent on getting into a good school. But as a New York City, private school, if kids wouldn't going to good colleges, then it would not be considered the success is, even though that an ephemeral success compared to the real success.

Lauren Schiller:                  It's aspiring to think about what happens when teachers are given the freedom and resources to guide their students for discoveries, rather than just toward higher test scores. What happens when we take the pressure off our schools to achieve and instead lift them up. So every teacher, regardless of how wealthy the students are, can inspire a lifelong love of learning. Coming up after the break, we'll go inside the classroom with Gabe Howard.

Gabe Howard:                     You can set them free, and adults just as much as children like to be set free.

Lauren Schiller:                  Hey there. It's Lauren. Before we get back to it, I want to let you know about our new Facebook group, for everyday activists. If you're someone who wants to connect with other ordinary people, seeking to make extraordinary change, come join the Inflection Point Society together. We'll have important conversations and come away with simple daily actions to help each other rise up. Search for inflection points society on Facebook or go to facebook.com/groups/inflectionpointsociety.

Lauren Schiller:                  I'm Lauren Schiller and this is inflection point. I'm talking with Gabriel Howard, who recently retired as head of the lower school at St Anne's school. Where she was for 35 years. At the time that you started working with St Anne's even though they'd been around for seven years. The work that you were doing, I feel like was really groundbreaking.

Gabe Howard:                     When you're in a situation where teachers feel trusted and they have autonomy, then they have a big investment in making it work. And they also have to be people who are intelligent and literate and have interests of their own and people who love kids and who have a sense of humor, and if you have people like that, then you can set them free and adults just as much as children like to be set free.

Gabe Howard:                     And so, if you're studying the revolutionary war at one year, and you get tired of it and you decide you want to do Arabian Nights, then you can change it and there is no red tape you just do it, because you're trusted. And then it reinvigorates your teaching to do something like that. You have to study it, making a curriculum is a huge undertaking. And so you know, you're going to be studying it yourself as well, and then the kids bring themselves to it and that really the joy of it.

Lauren Schiller:                  What was your moment of discovering what that could feel like for you?

Gabe Howard:                     That was a really long time. I think it goes back to when I told you that I went there for a year and then I fell in love with it, and I fell in love with the freedom and the trust and with the children who wants you listening to them, listening to them with each other and listening to them with you. They kind of show you the way. And I don't mean by that, that they plan the curriculum, although in some schools they do, do that.But they certainly, guided in different directions. And an art project can be something just amazing that came out of something that a kid has done.

Lauren Schiller:                  Can you get specific?

Gabe Howard:                     Yeah. I mean, they'll sit with a pair of scissors and a piece of paper and suddenly you have a puppet or you have a train or you have a dinosaur and then everybody wants to do it. Or you can ... they just build things and little kids are ... although I'm not working at St Anne's anymore, I go into a preschool one day a week and play with the three year olds, and the stuff that may come up with is absolutely phenomenal and they make art all day long. And all the time they're learning, dexterity and appreciation and they feel like artist and they feel like poets.

Lauren Schiller:                  So you went from being an assistant teacher to running the entire lower school?

Gabe Howard:                     Yes.

Lauren Schiller:                  Yeah. But you spent a significant amount of time in the classroom and you still would meet with the children one on one even after you were in the administrative role.

Gabe Howard:                     Yes.

Lauren Schiller:                  Right. So in this freewheeling free spirited school, I'm sure that there were still kids who were biting, scratching, kicking, swearing, you know, doing all the things that little kids do to find their boundaries. How did you handle those kinds of situations?

Gabe Howard:                     Well it took a lot of swearing right?

Lauren Schiller:                  Yeah, let's do it. I love swearing on the show.

Gabe Howard:                     The thing about a so called bad language in the classroom is not really the language, but that it gets everybody riled up, and you don't really want a whole class of kids riled up about somebody saying, fuck or whatever they say. So I had kids, if it happened which ... and it didn't happen very often but if it did, and the teacher would send a kid to me because they weren't responding to that saying, you can't say that in the classroom. I would tell them, they could say it in the office. They could come and say whatever they liked, because I didn't care what they said and they would look. And so I said, "So, go on."

Lauren Schiller:                  Well, it's not as much fun when you're given permission.

Gabe Howard:                     I think it's a little unnerved. And it just kind of ended. It wasn't really a great way of saying ... I said, I don't really care about the words, but I do care that you don't listen to your teacher and you need to listen to your teacher. And this is why she's telling you this because it makes everybody Giddy, doesn't it? And they go, "Yeah." That's an example of a way to not really be punitive, but to change behavior. And I had one little boy once who took me up on it.

Lauren Schiller:                  Yeah. Just one out of many.

Gabe Howard:                     He just sat there and he swore like the truth, for about four minutes. But he didn't come back and do it again.

Lauren Schiller:                  I mean it ... St Anne's is ... I would say considered an elite private school and people are banking their entire children's lives and where they go to school from the time they start in preschool, in New York City especially. So, when it comes to the admissions process and the selection, I imagine that there are some people who will try and do anything to get their kid into the school. Are there any crazy stories and anecdotes about what parents have tried, that would be just let's say a cautionary tale to others who might try and do the same, that didn't work?

Gabe Howard:                     Oh, well. We don't accept bribes.

Lauren Schiller:                  Are there people who tried to bribe? You're not answering.

Gabe Howard:                     I suppose as a cautionary tale, I would say don't send too much paperwork, don't huge numbers of letters from people who want to tell us why we should take a child or lots and lots and lots of the kids work. Some of the kids work is fine, if there's a huge file of papers and you haven't admitted the child yet, then it sort of rings bells, cautionary bells.

Lauren Schiller:                  So don't try too hard.

Gabe Howard:                     Right. Don't try to hard. And it's important to find the right school for your kid. And you know, the reason I'm sure there isn't a school in existence that is the right school for everybody.

Lauren Schiller:                  Yeah, great. But then you read admissions for a while. So what was the spark that you looked for in the kids that came through because he would talk to the kids before they came into the school.

Gabe Howard:                     I did admissions in a different time. I did admissions in a time when Stanley and I were out beating the bushes, looking for kids. And St Anne's was that school in Brooklyn.

Lauren Schiller:                  That weird [inaudible 00:34:05] school.

Gabe Howard:                     Weird school in Brooklyn with a crazy headmaster.

Lauren Schiller:                  Okay. I would just say, how was it characterized at that time?

Gabe Howard:                     Yeah. We took kids that we don't take so much now. We took kids who had been kicked out of other schools, and kids who were very unevenly talented, and we made it work for them. So it was ... you looked for ... or at least I did, I'd looked for divergent thinking. I look for kids who would say really surprising things and wrong answers are often much better than right answers. And so, when you're actually seeing the kid, you can take that into consideration, when you get IQ scores that had been done somewhere else, then the people who scored the tests, can give credit for wrong answers. And I mean in the sense that, the wrong answers are often ... the really great wrong answers come from really creative kids, and that's an important thing to look for. Yeah, it was fun doing admissions when we were beating the bushes.

Lauren Schiller:                  Yeah, what a different time. At that time did you run into any naysayers who said, "I would never send my child to that school."

Gabe Howard:                     I said that.

Lauren Schiller:                  You said that about your own children. So they were not there while you were teaching at the beginning?

Gabe Howard:                     Not at the beginning, and I was a naysayer. When I looked at the school for my children, and in those days, they didn't show you the school, which was a little suspect.

Lauren Schiller:                  You can go inside.

Gabe Howard:                     You can actually go and see this school, but you went into Stanley's office and listened to Stanley. And I said I would never send my children to a school run by a man, like that.

Lauren Schiller:                  Why?

Gabe Howard:                     Because, he was crazy. But then he hired me and I wasn't so fussy when it came to getting a job. So yes, there were naysayers and and rightfully so, it's not right for everybody. And if you want to get very measured in the sense of a measurement feedback on your child on a regular basis, if you want to be able to go online and look up how they did today. St Anne's will drive you crazy.

Lauren Schiller:                  So I feel like we can't complete this conversation without talking about poetry in the classroom.

Gabe Howard:                     Yeah.

Lauren Schiller:                  That's because the reason I know you, is because you met my father-in-law when you were both teaching at St Anne's, you could say poetry brought you together when he walked into your classroom.

Gabe Howard:                     Yes. He came to teach poetry in Justin's classroom and his son's classroom with whom you were familiar.

Lauren Schiller:                  I am familiar.

Gabe Howard:                     Then he was open to coming to other classrooms too. He wasn't getting paid at this time and the person who hired me, Jim Madison said, "Does anybody else want him?" And I said, "I'll have him," so I did.

Lauren Schiller:                  Sight unseen or after you've just given him a little once over.

Gabe Howard:                     Well, yeah. A little bit once over.

Lauren Schiller:                  So he started coming into the classroom?

Gabe Howard:                     Yes. And then he started coming in more and the poetry that we did, we put up on the walls all over the school, the pathology that the kids had written. And that informed the whole school of what was going on and kids would stop on the stairs and read the poems that had been written by these really little kids and many of them will hilarious. And then he just started teaching more and more. He went till he ended up teaching all of the lower school classes.

Gabe Howard:                     And then when his third graders moved to middle school, he moved to teach just a handful of them. And then it got more and more and more until poetry at St. Anne's became kind of mythic and then he got an enormous amount of support from Stanley who deeply loved poetry. And knew poetry and he would ... one day he called Monte at like 12:00 at night or one in the morning and said, "Bring me Hannah Jones," because he just read a poem by Hannah Jones.

Lauren Schiller:                  Right now-

Gabe Howard:                     Sometimes I leapt out of bed, ran over to Hannah Jones.

Lauren Schiller:                  No.

Gabe Howard:                     No, it didn't.

Lauren Schiller:                  Hannah was a student at the time?

Gabe Howard:                     Yeah.

Lauren Schiller:                  It seems like that started off with the process of collecting the poems from these kids for at least from what I understand, it seems like it started off with listening to them and what they had to say.

Gabe Howard:                     Yes. Here we go again.

Lauren Schiller:                  Here we go again. Yeah. Again, if you could recollect with how that collection process happened or an example of how that happened?

Gabe Howard:                     Yes. He starts by going into the classroom ... going into the first grade classrooms, which is when he starts teaching poetry. On the first day of school and listening to what they're saying and writing down things they say. And then he puts it altogether and he goes back into the classroom for the next poetry time and he reads them what they have said and they get so excited. They say, "I said that, I said that. You said that." And it gives them the sense of how free of poem can be, and how much it can be just a part of your life and there's no constraints.

Gabe Howard:                     The constraints and the value of constraints come later. But that's how he started. And then when he goes in, they've already had two great experiences with him. And so he says, you know, "We're going to poem." They stand next to him and dictate a poem, and he doesn't take more than a page, because some people don't want to start and some people don't want to stop. And so, I suppose there is a constraint. At more than a page, you have to write it yourself and if he had six that's more, a little daunting sometimes.

Lauren Schiller:                  What's the best advice that you've ever been given about how to carry on even when there are loads of people telling you, "That's not how it should be done."

Gabe Howard:                     I think I'm not very good at taking advice.

Lauren Schiller:                  That's not a shocker. Well, what about ... I mean again, it's easy to look at the work at St Anne's now and think, well it's considered one of the best schools in the country. They're obviously doing something right. But at the time, when you started there in the early days it was going against the norm and you must have had to have some level of fortitude or something that was keeping you going in spite of hearing, that's crazy. What people are thinking over there, and how did you push through that?

Gabe Howard:                     People did say, yeah, people did say it's crazy and the sort of bottom line retort is that, it works for us and it may not work for you. And there are lots of schools in this world, and this is the way we do it. You know, I mean it ultimately kind of draw some line. And really if people do want you to do something differently, then they should find a place that does it differently.

Lauren Schiller:                  Yeah. So that's-

Gabe Howard:                     If it's a profound difference.

Lauren Schiller:                  Yeah. I mean that sounds like having the conviction of your beliefs and sticking with them.

Gabe Howard:                     Yeah.

Lauren Schiller:                  Speaking with Gabe made me think more about education in general and right now when it comes to investing in schools, our national conversation has revolved more around revolvers and creating secure buildings and giving teachers guns to defend kids from active shooters? But what happens when we create environments where from a very young age, children are safe to be curious, to experiment, to investigate, and to express themselves, even swear inside these buildings.

Lauren Schiller:                  Investment in this type of education is the best investment you can make to teach kids to stand up and be heard, not sit down and be quiet. Many of you parents out there might be thinking of ways to thank your kids' teachers for their dedication to your children's learning, along with a thank you note, show your gratitude and advocacy for your children's teachers. They're researching how your local representatives vote on investing in education.

Lauren Schiller:                  And vote for candidates who make funding our public schools and giving our teachers a fair living wage's top priority. You can learn more about state education bills currently up for vote, who proposed them, and how your representatives voted at ncsl.org. I'll put a link in our show notes  at inflectionpointradio.org. This is Inflection Point. I'm Lauren Schiller.

Lauren Schiller:                  That's our Inflection Point for today. All of our episodes are on apple podcasts, radio public, stitcher, and NPR one. Give us a five star review and subscribe to the podcast. Know a woman with a great rising up story? Let us know  at inflectionpointradio.org. While you're there, I invite you to support Inflection Point with a monthly or one time contribution. Your support keeps women stories front and center.

Lauren Schiller:                  Just go to inflectionpointradio.org. We're on Facebook @inflectionpointradio. Follow us, and follow me on twitter @laschiller. To find out more about the guests you've heard today and to sign up for our email newsletter, you know where to go? Inflectionpointradio.org. Inflection Point is produced in partnership with KALW 91.7 FM in San Francisco and PRX. Our story editor and content manager is Alaura Weaver. Our engineer and producer is Eric Wayne. I'm your host, Lauren Schiller. Support for this podcast comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. 

 

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