NOTE: This reflection was formerly posted on the Harlem Prep blog back in 2011 and has been re-posted here.
“Night hath succeeded day, and day hath succeeded night, and the hours and moments of your lives have come and gone, and yet none of you hath, for an instant, consented to detach himself from that which perisheth. Bestir yourselves, that the brief moments that are still yours may not be dissipated and lost.” - Baha’u’llah
Writing about Harlem Prep at this point in my life is like recalling the first time one recognizes that life is really something special. Having the opportunity to relive each precious moment in explicit detail would be a wonderful blessing. The experience was a life altering blessing. It was an unparalleled beginning to a lifetime of learning, to wonderful adventures and to building lifelong companion-ships. However, with so many memories, it is not easy to highlight the nascent characteristics of a life sculpturing journey without overwhelming the reader; without over-whelming one’s self. In fact, to recount any single event of the Harlem Prep experience without touching upon all other events would not seem complete. Everything was intricately woven together as a whole. We all came there, initially, from our diverse backgrounds for different reasons. Some came as students, some as teachers, some as administrators only to become unified around the same purpose – to become a community of learners and change agents in an environment that could not meet the demands of our awakening spirits.
We started out with different visions of humanity and reactionary attitudes of how to respond to what was present in our society: our dysfunctional homes, our inequitable learning environments, the abrasive living on the streets of our city, the racist and divisive politics of our country and the persistent inhumane treatment of people throughout the world. Out of this negativity, came a family who understood that what burdened my brother burdened me. Most of us came away wanting to make change that would ultimately impact on the potential growth of our own lives and successive generations. We were one!
Harlem Prep was the beginning of that journey and we are all the better for it. We embarked upon the journey, we recognized our mission and each of us, in our own way, continues to contribute to making life better for ourselves, for our families, for humankind. Shortly after making the decision not to enter seminary, my journey to self- awareness and spiritual growth began. It was September 1969, almost 40 years ago.
From the very first day, worlds previously unknown opened in ways that were unimaginable. Thinking that the job ahead was to teach in an open space with eyes observing me seemed pretty scary. And it was at first! That first year, teaching English language arts and literature was the task. The students were waiting to be served and the curriculum was in place – teach what you know; teach what life has given you in terms of writers who have poured their hearts out in existential query; teach about the nature of search, learning, loving, losing and the lifting of the human spirit. Teach as you learn. And it happened! The learning environment as it should be, evolved. All were students. All were facilitators in a teaching/learning realm that, at times, was impenetrable. We were on a roll without the kind of interference that dominated the learning environments that we had come to know as public schools.
For the first time, for most of us, we became a family of learners giving and taking each other’s worth as essential to our own growth. We grew out of our learning from each other whether we agreed or not. We hung onto the words of each speaker, teacher or student. We questioned. We tested. We challenged. We questioned some more. We were building our capacity to be teachers and learners. We brought to the table what we had come to know, what our experiences and circumstances had taught us. We brought our suspicions and our prejudices. We brought our single mindedness. And gradually, we brought faith, hope and trust. We were Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Baha’i. We were atheist, True Believers or not. We were Five Percenters. We were black, white, brown and tan. We were Harlemites. We were African, African-American, European, Caribbean, Iranian, Puerto Rican and we were Dominican. We were protective and supportive of each other. We were family, and, together, we spoke success.
For several arduous years of striving to be the best while struggling for support, Harlem Prep attracted many of New York’s finest learners and teachers to a mecca of outstanding academic performance. Each year students were accepted into some of the finest institutions of higher learning both in the US and abroad. After its somewhat tenuous start sponsored by the Urban League and Marymount College, Harlem Prep attracted the attention and support from such corporations as the Ford Foundation, Standard Oil, Carnegie Mellon, to name a few. In addition, to Marymount College, students won scholarships to Columbia, Cornell, Howard, Bryn Mawr, Spellman, Brown, The London School of Economics and many more.
By 1975, after almost 7 years of success, the funding sources began to lessen. The acclaim of the achievements of Harlem Prep was a well known story throughout the country with several attempts to create similar schools based on the Harlem Prep model. They were not nearly as successful. Finally, with little funds to maintain its existence, Harlem Prep succumbed to the empty promises and pressures of the New York City Board of Education. It became part of the tradition of inner-city failure in an effort to survive with the hopes that it would be able to continue to deliver the appropriate services to an all too often underserved population. The open school was moved to a prison-like structure without windows – without the character for which it had come to be known as embracing. Harlem Prep soon took on a different kind of teaching staff and a far different body of learners.
Within a very short period of time, the journey had ended and once again the dreams deferred. But for those of us who were touched by the Harlem Prep experience and continue to survive, we are saying “thank you” and we go on giving what gifts we have received.
George Sandy Campbell