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Horace Mann’s Teachable Moment

Horace Mann, the NYC private school in Riverdale, received some unwanted publicity this past week. So far, articles have been published in The New York Times and Gothamist about an assembly that occurred on Tuesday at the school.

Visiting poets and professors Denise Duhamel, M.F.A. (Associate Professor at Florida International University) and Maureen Seaton, M.F.A. (Associate Professor at Miami University) were invited to Horace Mann to lead the NYC private school in a literary exercise. The poets began their assembly with a recitation of “Litany of our Fathers,” a poem written together, that contained profanity and violent images, including “slurs against blacks and gays.” To read a more complete account what then occurred, look at “Assembly Goes Awry, Community Shaken,” by a staff writer for the Horace Mann Record, the school’s newspaper:

The two then led an exer­cise involv­ing the stu­dent audi­ence col­lab­o­ra­tively pro­duc­ing a spo­ken work. Each stu­dent was given three index cards, and was asked on the first to write five words begin­ning with “I remem­ber…” on the next, seven words includ­ing a color, and on the last, five words ref­er­enc­ing a pop cul­ture icon. The cards were then col­lected and brought to the stage. Any stu­dent was invited to read aloud a card from each category.

Some cards con­tained racial slurs, sex­ist com­ments, and other offen­sive lan­guage, “rep­re­hen­si­ble things that are not reflec­tive of our School’s val­ues,” Schiller wrote in a let­ter to par­ents. “Much to the con­fu­sion and shock of vir­tu­ally every­one in the room, these com­ments were then read aloud.”

The two [poets] could not hear what stu­dents were read­ing because they were stand­ing behind the micro­phone, they told stu­dents. They said the note­cards they read had not seemed inap­pro­pri­ate.

The school’s newspaper has many additional articles and reflections, including “Thoughtful Reflections on Thoughtless Words” from Harry Bauld, the English teacher who invited the poets, explained:

The goals of the assembly were to experience that 1) communities do fun things together 2) poetry–and creativity itself–need not be out-sourced to specialists, but belongs all of us, like dancing, singing, or the urge to draw a bison on the ceiling of the cave 3) art can be coaxed from a structure of happy accidents 4) skilled poets can be not distant icons but partners in creativity.

There is a piece from student Treshaux Dennis-Brown, who writes, “Being Black, my family has always come down on me to realize the harsh realities of this world and the fierce racism that still exists in the world today.” He also states the statistic, “There are 9 African-American kids currently in the junior class, under 5% of the grade total.”

Esther Ademola, another student writes, “Words and ideas were thrown around that I’ve heard expressed in hallways, classrooms, and the cafeteria. I personally have been subject to remarks much worse than those shared on stage. The one aspect of this that shocked me was that people had the audacity to get up on stage in front of the entire school with absolutely no regard for our emotions and utter such filth.” She ends her piece, “Horace Mann is still an amazing educational institution; I will never deny that. However we cannot ignore this now visible facet of our identity. We’re still intelligent, mature, athletic, inquisitive human beings but we are also discriminatory. It’s time that we use our talents to fix these problems. It’s sad that it took this event to make me find my voice, but now that I’ve embraced it, I’m keeping up my end of the conversation. Are you?”

Amongst the many questions this incident raises for all of us:

  • Should the exercise have been vetted in advance?
  • Should the Horace Mann faculty and administration sitting in the audience have intervened during the assembly and if so, how? Why didn’t they? What level of responsibility, if any, should the listening faculty and administration take?
  • If the poets “could not hear what was being read from the cards because they were seated behind the students,” why did they not stop and find a way to “hear”? How could they have expected to comment and lead discussions if they could not hear, and more importantly, listen, to what the students were saying? If they did, would they have done anything differently? What level of responsibility, if any, should the listening poets take?
  • Should students have had the right to anonymously say what they did? What is the role of free speech? Would they have said those things if it was not anonymous? Should these students have been censored? What level of responsibility, if any, should the student writers take?
  • Should students have read the “inappropriate” cards, refuse to do so, or substitute other words? When and how do we follow or break the rules? What level of responsibility, if any, should the student conduits/speakers take?
  • For the students listening, should they have or why did they not intervene? What could they have done? Should they have allowed their peers to speak, censor them, refuse to listen? What level of responsibility, if any, should the listening students take?
  • For the parents who were informed about the incident through the administration and their children, what level of responsibility, if any, should parents take? How are issues of racism or sexism discussed at home? How did parents parent their children to manage with a situation like this? Did they act how the parents would have imagined? If so, why? If not, why not?
  • For non-Horace Mann parents, how would you have hoped your children or the faculty/administration of your school respond? How do you think your children would have actually responded? Could or would your children have written some of “those” words too?
  • How do we understand the terms, “active” bystanders vs. “passive” bystanders?
  • Is the Horace Mann community being unfairly singled out by the media?
  • Is this an incident that could have happened at any NYC private school or is it more likely to happen in some schools as opposed to others?
  • Is this a one-time incident vs. a pattern?
  • How does this school vs. other schools deal with issues of diversity and tolerance (besides the Prep School Negro below, take a look at the other Private School Diversity Videos on our site which deal with NYC private schools)?
  • Do some schools create more of an environment for authentic, difficult dialogue vs. others?
  • Is this a good or a bad thing?
  • For applicant families of color, is this a school, or are there any NYC private schools, where students and families of color would feel comfortable?
  • Is this all being blown out of proportion? Are people being too politically correct?
  • Given the recent media focus on the importance of failures, mistakes, and discomfort, could this be a critical opportunity for Horace Mann students, and possibly, all NYC private school students, for learning?

We hope that all members of the the NYC private school community, not just Horace Mann faculty, administration, students, and parents, will continue to dialogue about the sequelae of this incident and the opportunities for learning and reflection for all of us.

About the Author: Shamir A. Khan, Ph.D., is the Founder & Publisher of the NYC Private Schools Blog.

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