Barbara Lois Williams Fullard ’66 Memoirs
[Submitted Nov. 2010; excerpt in The Calhoun Chronicle, Winter 2011]
As an African American woman, my Calhoun experience was quite unique in many ways. Calhoun has become a manifesto for the life I have led for more than sixty years.
During the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement, Calhoun was a microcosm of what was occurring socially and politically in the United States, especially in the North. Calhoun helped me become aware of innuendos and subtleties that I needed to understand in order to cope with so many situations that I have experienced. I am profoundly humbled to have been called upon to express what Calhoun has meant to me all these years as I see my life in retrospect.
I have written notes here in three phases to illustrate how my life has come full circle, beginning with 1960 at Calhoun, going into my life and career in Washington, DC, and ending with the present time in retirement in the new Millennium. Oddly enough, with the help of some research in Facebook, I have come full circle, finding many of my Calhoun classmates, all of whom have succeeded in careers and in their lives in general. From attorneys, organizers, entrepreneurs, and high profile politicians to artists and musical comedy actresses, philanthropists and educators like me, I am proud to be a part of the Calhoun Sisterhood from the Sixties.
Coming from a long line of educators myself, I feel that the plight of education today is critical. Contrary to popular belief, not everyone can be a teacher. A person can take classes and hone the skills that he or she already has. New techniques can be learned. However, I have seen too many people enter a school in the morning and walk out of the building by lunchtime, never to return. The career is challenging and thankless at times. It's a talent for an educator to impart more than just book knowledge. The teacher is the guide to some of the mysteries of human nature. He is the facilitator by which the student develops the means to think. That is a powerful weapon against ignorance, prejudice, hopelessness, and despair. If one can think critically, one can create in a positive way. Thus, the world would become a better place.
In retirement, I have had the luxury to have lived long enough to assess my life, the contributions I have made, and appreciate the blessings from those who have influenced me along my journey. I had taken many things for granted, including life itself, the greatest gift of all. Many of my former colleagues and one dear Calhoun classmate, Alice Adler Engle '66, passed away at what I consider to be a young age. So before I lose the chance to thank any more of my friends and teachers from Calhoun, I would like to dedicate this telescopic peek into my life to those who have touched my heart. I thank you for enriching my life and helping me, in a small way, touch the lives of many children because of how you taught me to live through your example.
The School That Used To Be: The Calhoun School 1960-1966
From Public to Private
It was one brisk spring day in 1960 when I walked in what I later discovered was called a brownstone, in New York City. The school was The Calhoun School, and I was to take an entrance test there to see if I could attend in the fall. That summer, I was expecting to graduate from The Longwood Avenue Elementary School in the South Bronx. It was known as P.S. 39. I had been there since the first grade, when my parents moved from 2140 Madison Avenue in Harlem to 840 Stebbins Avenue in the Bronx. Now I was a senior in the sixth grade. At twelve years old, I was preparing to venture out into a new world. Little did I know what surprises lie ahead as I entered those hallowed halls of 309 West 92nd Street at West End Avenue [currently the West Side Montessori School]. My father was determined that I would not attend the neighborhood tough school near my home; I would leave public education and attend private school. I just wanted to make them proud of me, wherever I went. So I tried my best on the test and it pleased my father that I told him I liked Calhoun. Lo and behold, I was accepted.
I left six years of overcrowded classrooms with one teacher for each grade, a huge population of African American and Hispanic students, and a coeducational environment with a male administrator at the helm. Now I entered Calhoun with not one, but two administrators known as Headmistresses: Miss Elizabeth Parmelee and Miss Beatrice Cosmey. Miss Parmelee was silvered hair, statuesque, and to my twelve-year-old eyes, a congenial giant, both physically and intellectually. Closer to the ground, but yet another formidable powerhouse of a woman, was Miss Cosmey. She had a deep and gravelly voice and breathed heavily when she spoke. She, too, had silver locks.
Scared did not even begin to describe how I felt. There was no where to hide. I knew I was black, but I felt as if I looked like bitter sweet dark chocolate and almost deep purple among those bright and bubbly Caucasian Jewish females who would come to school sometimes in a Rolls Royce.
Before we began school, every new student was assigned a big sister. I never thought twice about my “Big Sister" as being white. She was a lovely girl named Kathy Englander. When we met, she made a date with me and took me out to The Tip Toe Inn. It was a lovely restaurant near the school. I had a hamburger that was as large as a dinner plate. There were cloth napkins and posh flatware. It was a great experience. I don't remember socializing with her anymore. She was very active in the school as a leader of many clubs and committees.
Speaking of food, the school had good lunches, but sometimes we just wanted to go out. There were two favorite eating haunts: the neighborhood deli and the pizza place. At the deli, I would order the same thing. I had a rare roast beef sandwich on rye with Russian dressing and coleslaw. A pickle and chips would be on the side. I would also have a slice of pizza later in the week. That's when you didn't need all the meats, anchovies and pineapple to make your pizza taste great. A plain slice with the cheese you could pull for days would be sufficient to send your taste buds into orbit.
Everything about Calhoun was big to me then, especially those doors when I walked in the building. What wasn't enormous was my class. There were only eleven of us. In fact there were only six classes in the entire school from grades seven through twelve, with one class for each grade. There were no male students, about six African Americans in the school, and if there were Hispanics other than the instructors, they kept that a secret. All together, the school had about 300 students—all female instructors—and one male art teacher.
Scared did not even begin to describe how I felt. There was no where to hide. I knew I was black, but I felt as if I looked like bitter sweet dark chocolate and almost deep purple among those bright and bubbly Caucasian Jewish females who would come to school sometimes in a Rolls Royce. I took two subways and traveled an hour each day just to get to school on time. I was a good student in elementary school, but these girls had a work ethic that was horrifying to this public school maven. I had to stay up every night just to try and get a grade of “C" in every class. If I failed a test, especially in English, the teachers would shame me in front of the class and remind everyone that my mother was an English teacher and I just disgraced her and her profession. My French teacher was also my homeroom teacher. She refused to speak anything but French in class, from day one. I was not prepared for this at all.
In the '60s, with the beginning of the Civil Rights Era and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I felt the pressure at Calhoun to try and be worthy of everything for which the activists were fighting. I felt the weight of representing not only my family, but the entire African American race. I wanted to be worthy of the privilege of being equal. I did not feel it was my right at the time; I felt I had to earn it—even at twelve years old. There was a problem with that. There was nowhere I fit any comfortable stereotype. I wasn't fair skinned with flowing straight hair. There was always the stereotype that fair skinned people were pretty. That certainly was not me. I wasn't brilliant. I struggled just to stay afloat academically. I was painfully shy and played the records at class socials, which were planned with other all-boy private schools in the area. My real passion was writing poetry, but at the time, Nikki Giovanni wasn't so famous and Alexandre Dumas wasn't touted as a black man who wrote The Three Musketeers. I was great at running and I liked sports, so my father encouraged me to join the basketball and volleyball teams. Playing sports was my way of excelling in something and being worthy of “overcoming some day." By the way, the school mascot was a beaver. We had girl cheerleaders cheering for us. We rarely won any games, but we played hard.
At the time, there was a dress code at Calhoun. Girls could not wear makeup or stockings, and dresses had to be knee-length. Flat shoes were the rule of the day. Heels were out. The fad among the females in my class was to “iron" their hair. They would take some wax paper, place their head on the edge of an ironing board, place an iron (the same one used to iron clothes) on top of the wax paper and hair, and start ironing. I would use Madame C. J. Walker's technique and use a straightening comb with applied heat to straighten my hair. The girls would sometimes sneak a little makeup on and wear light shades of lip gloss.
We put on many play and performances. I was no singer or actress, but I had to be involved in both. I noticed there were students in my class who were not only artistic in drawing, they had angelic voices. Talent and brains abounded, so I had no other choice but to put my bid in for both. It paid off.
It was only after I graduated that I realized I had such a dynamic music teacher in Miss Balcome. We learned arias in Italian and classical music by Bach. Music was also emphasized in Spanish and French classes, and I still remember songs today that I sang over forty years ago in Italian, French and Spanish. We were taught how to harmonize, and for the first time I realized there was a place for my deeper voice in the alto range. The only thing we never sang was jazz, America's classical music. The jazz songs I learned came from my mother, who could sing and play jazz piano.
I remember one of the most exciting times for me was awards day at Calhoun. That's when each class would compose a song for the departing senior class. We would take a popular song of the times and change the lyrics to fit our sentiments for the seniors. My poetry was put to the test and I was in literary heaven. This is a song that was sung by my entire class on Awards Day, which I wrote to the tune of “The Days of Wine and Roses."
Farewell, dear Calhoun Seniors.
We wish you the best,
Luck and happiness.
We know you have done
So much to serve us all,
So now as we recall,
Your efforts were not small.
Goodbye, success at college.
We will miss you so,
But before you go,
Thanks for leaving us with happy memories
So long, good luck,
Have future victories.
My best years at the awards assemblies came in ninth and tenth grade. I had hit my stride both socially and academically.
There was an award called “The Gilman Cup."* [ed: The Sheryl Gilman Cup, still given out today.] The award was for a well-rounded person who showed leadership abilities, had a good sense of humor, and was likable by both her peers and faculty alike. At the time, I was the vice president of my ninth grade class (a far cry from the shy girl that I had been in seventh grade). The presidents and vice presidents of every class nominated and voted on the winners. To my amazement, I was nominated. I ran home to tell my mom. It wasn't about sports, so my father wasn't that interested. When Awards Day came around, I discovered I had won! I had arrived. I was becoming worthy of the people who had the sit-ins, marched on Washington, fought for me to vote, died for my equality as an American citizen. I was an activist for the non-light skinned, ordinary looking, of average intelligence, creatively poetic, reluctantly athletic, partial people-pleaser who was coming into her own. I had arrived.
For a student who began with only average grades To my astonishment, I received my first “A" in 10th grade in, of all disciplines, English. I finally discovered that I was good at interpreting and writing poetry, and had a knack for writing prose. Where was that teacher who embarrassed me in front of my classmates by shouting that I shamed my mother by failing an English quiz? I realized then that knowledge meant power and respect, and with it, no one could steal my spirit or destroy my self-esteem. I discovered that this would be a lesson I would take with me from Calhoun, that would put me in good stead in front of those who dared to underestimate me in my career and in life in general. My name was called out as having “distinction in the subject of English." This was a pivotal time and solidified my original quest to become an English teacher.
I noticed that famous people would send their daughters to Calhoun. I went to school with the daughter of the Copacabana manager and mogul, Jules Podell. Maureen Stapleton, Academy Award-winner and Tony-winner, could often be seen in the audience of our assemblies; her daughter also attended Calhoun. Musical composer and icon, Richard Rogers, dated a former Calhoun girl. Actress Lynn Zimring Loring '59, who I had seen on the soap opera “Search for Tomorrow," graduated before I got to Calhoun.
I remember going to Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts. Calhoun was given a ticket for one fortunate student; I was chosen, I guess, because I seemed like a person in need of the cultural exposure. Little did they know that my mother and father had a hand in taking me to many plays on Broadway as well as giving me lessons in film every chance they got. I knew about the Apollo Theater before its concerts were televised, and saw many of the jazz greats that the people who were trying to give me the cultural exposure didn't even know about. I took piano lessons for six years, from ages six to twelve. Was I appreciative of this opportunity to see who most girls in my school felt was a sexy Jewish man, sitting alone on a Saturday morning in an audience full of strangers to listen to classical music? After working so hard every night during the week and playing hard on the teams after school, all I wanted to do was sleep late and watch television. To make everyone else happy but me, I went. Finally, I couldn't take it and gave up my ticket to another student for the last program. The only time I enjoyed being at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts was when Leonard Bernstein played songs from “West Side Story." I wore out two record albums playing those tunes, even before I saw the movie.
There were yearly Bazaars, Mother/Daughter Luncheons at the Pierre Hotel or The Four Seasons, and birthday parties in homes where I saw maids and doormen. In elementary school, I had an apartment with a fire escape and I knew the name of the neighborhood prostitute. So it was unusual for me to witness what I might have only seen in a Woody Allen movie. One classmate who was having a birthday party invited everyone in the class—including the other fair-skinned classmate—except for me. I was still fighting to be “worthy." So the day of her birthday, I gave her a birthday card and told her to have a Happy Birthday. The next thing I knew, I was not only invited to every birthday party anyone had, but I was placed at the facing end of the table at the head. That was another Calhoun lesson I didn't find in a book. So long as my heart was in a good place, gifts would come to me.
My junior and senior years were challenging. Calhoun students did not have to take the N.Y. Regents Exams that everyone in public schools had to pass in order to graduate. Instead, we had Miss Herald, who would give us one question in history that would take two hours to complete. Multiple choice was not an option unless we were taking the SAT exams or calculating mathematically. We read Le Petit Prince in the original French, and those in the Advanced Placement classes were reading Cervantes' Don Quixote in Spanish. Most of the answers to questions in English literature and history were addressed in essay form.
My political and leadership chops were developed when I ran for office as chairman of the Calhoun Athletic Association. On election day, I had to go to every class and recite my speech, answering questions from each student. I knew that I was running against a senior in my junior year and that she would win. That's just the way it was. It was an unspoken rule. Also, when I ran for the same office in my senior year, I knew I would win because I was a senior. The practice with public speaking and thinking on my feet, even knowing the outcome, helped me enormously in my career. That's something that many students don't experience in public school. If they do run for office, they recite their speech once in front of an assembly audience. They don't hone their oratorical skills unless they are forced to do so in a club or committee lead by an instructor who emphasizes public speaking.
We were also taught Robert's Rules of Parliamentary Procedure and had to follow them to the letter as class officers and Student Council leaders. This helped me when I became Student Government Advisor in my career. We had to attend city-wide meetings where there were discussions and debates. This training came from Calhoun and no other place.
In the seventh grade, I remember my history teacher, Mrs. Herald, taught us how to construct a term paper. I ended up teaching my students different research methods that continued to help me even after my career had ended. I remember that I wrote an entire paper on the Egyptian sarcophagus and the burial rites of ancient Egypt. I went to college and discovered that over half of my Freshmen class never wrote an essay, no0 less a term paper. I remember Mrs. Herald used to call our class “The Herald Angels." She was an outstanding history teacher whose motto was “Procrastination is the thief of time." It was because of her and that theme that I am never late for anything. I hand in assignments way ahead of time and I research material thoroughly when called upon to do so. She also taught us Shakespeare and I had to memorize parts of Julius Caesar. She helped to make Shakespeare fun and made a difficult language understandable, even though it was English. She helped to solidify my focus on becoming an English teacher.
All of us applied to colleges in our junior year. I was accepted at Howard University when I was in the eleventh grade. I eventually went there and received a bachelor's degree in (you guessed it!) English. My heart was originally set on C.W. Post College, because it was small and I was used to small schools now that I had been a Calhoun girl for six years. I was angry with Post for accepting students who I knew had lower SAT and academic schools than I did. Post waited until there was no more dorm rooms before accepting me in my senior year at Calhoun, which meant I would have had to have lived off-campus. Clearly, we hadn't overcome that much. So I rejected Post's offer and went to a predominately black university.
Howard was a well-needed institution for the social exposure I was lacking. However, when I got there, I discovered that Calhoun had prepared me academically for my major studies. Many students who were accepted had to take remedial English. All those essays we had had to write for our finals paid off and set me apart from that “Multiple Choice Generation."
Graduation was unique. We all wore short white dresses and carried a dozen long stemmed red roses that we shifted when we graduated instead of using the traditional tassels. This was the school song:
Time Passes at Calhoun School,
The careless days speed by,
Then wistful years of dreaming,
Until we say good-bye,
Both we who are achieving
And we who make no name
Shall ever be as schoolmates,
In spirit aye the same.
A spirit of endeavor,
Of service and of truth,
Of loyalty and friendship,
Of happy, earnest youth,
The child, the girl, the woman,
In what she gains or gives,
In all her grief and gladness
Will prove Calhoun School lives.
-by Edith Mendel Stern, 1918
So my Calhoun experience helped me in developing my social and academic skills. It gave me a sense of power by enriching my love of the spoken and written word. It afforded me the scenarios to tackle interracial bigotry and prejudice within my own race. It gave me the strength to rise above those who mistake me for being less than I am. Calhoun made me a critical thinker. The only disciplines that Calhoun did not incorporate in the curriculum that I wish I had had were Home Economics, Industrial Arts, driver's education, and Keyboarding. Because the school was labeled as strictly college preparatory, those courses I just mentioned were of little consequence for getting into college. However, Calhoun has given me so much more. It has taught me life lessons that have thickened my skin and helped me to appreciate my strengths and uniqueness. It has given me the baton to lead my own parade.
Here is the senior class song as I remember it. Please forgive me if the words aren't totally in the right place. The sentiment is still there.
Hail and farewell ole alma mater.
Thy class of '66 departs.
Calhoun we know that everywhere we go
Memories of youth will stay
In hearts that are thine always.
These we take as now we leave thee
Throughout each succeeding year
We send to thee
Oh hail, alma mater dear.
Hail and farewell ole alma mater.
Thy class of '66 departs.
Calhoun we praise
For now and always
Give light and make us wise
Thy wisdom we'll always prize,
This we say as now we leave thee
Though our parting come too soon
We pledge to thee
Farewell, farewell Calhoun.
Three Decades and Then Some
I went to Washington, DC to matriculate at Howard University in 1966. There is where I received my Bachelor's of Arts degree in English. I taught kindergarten at a church during the summer of 1970. By September 17th of 1970, I entered the John Hayden Johnson Junior High School as a full-fledged English teacher at the age of 22. Some of my students were already 18 years old and asking me to be their date for the prom. Now, I'm supposed to be discussing Calhoun in the 60s. My techniques of teaching stemmed from what I had learned in high school.
It gave me a sense of power by enriching my love of the spoken and written word. It afforded me the scenarios to tackle interracial bigotry and prejudice within my own race. It gave me the strength to rise above those who mistake me for being less than I am.
For example, when we were taught about a language, our French teacher, Mme Pitzele would immerse us in the language. If we couldn't go to Paris, she would bring Paris to us. We went to see the first foreign film I ever saw with subtitles in which every word was sung, as in an opera. That movie was “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg." It became a hit for musical composer, Michel Legrand. We loved hearing the French words and knowing that the translation to English was not exactly what the actors were singing. Well, Mme Pitzele didn't stop there. Later that same day we ventured out to a French restaurant where we ate authentic French cuisine. I had the coq au vin and felt very grown up and smart ordering the food in French. Then we would come back to school and write about our experiences. We had different cheese from France. As I mentioned earlier, I had to get the French version of Le Petit Prince and understand not only the words, but the metaphors and symbolism.
I would do the same with my students. I would take a theme like The Harlem Renaissance. I talked about jazz, poetry, and the artists of that era in teaching across the curriculum in history, music, literature, and the arts so that they would have a basis for creating a research paper based on the life and times of one of the icons mentioned. So they read about Langston Hughes and spoke about his “dream deferred." Then they related that poem to Lorraine Hansberry's play, “A Raisin in the Sun." They read the play in it's entirety, saw the video of the film with Claudia McNeil, and then for Black History Month, they performed the entire play in the school auditorium with invited guests and parents in reserved seats. They also saw “Ma Rainey's Black Bottom", a musical, at the famous Washington landmark, the Arena Stage. I had videos of artists of that time. They wrote papers on the books they read by Zora Neale Hurston. They used the computer at some point for word processing. The hands-on approach to thematic teaching was what I learned from my language, history, and English teachers at Calhoun. So that any book we would read as a class I would have the film or take them to a play or have the author c0ome to the school and discuss the work as I did when I taught the novel, A Teacup Full of Roses. Sharon Bell Mathis was the author of the book and she came to our school after we had read the novel. The students were excited. After her discussion, the children chipped in and I went to the florist and bought her a teacup that was filled with tea roses as a parting gift. I learned through the examples given to me by real Calhoun teachers who had the gift that some people are visual learners. Some are auditory learners. Some learn best with saturation and repetition.
Because of my techniques, I later became Departmental Chairman, and the unofficial ninth grade teacher, a position that was coveted by everyone in my department. Ninth grade was the beginning of high school and the grades counted as Carnegie Units.
Since I taught in the same school all of my career, I had to change certain things to make learning and teaching interesting for myself as well as for the students. I had a literary school newspaper, I taught humanities which I began to learn at Calhoun. I even wrote curriculum for Shakespeare's “Romeo and Juliet", one lesson plan which is online today. This was published in conjunction with the ARTSEDGE program at The Kennedy Center. And Miss Herald, who taught me to hear poems and reenact the words in poetic dramatization, my students memorized the entire 16 verse poem, “The Raven" by Edgar Allen Poe along with Dr. King's entire “I Have a Dream" speech. Their vocabulary increased also.
The first time I saw mythology in action in a foreign language was in Calhoun. The film was “Black Orpheus" with music from Luiz Bonfa and Antonio Carlos Jobim. Yes, I also taught my students the myth about Orpheus and Eurydice. After they read the story, I showed the film. When the aptitude tests came around in the spring, my students knew about mythology, which they found on the test.
In 1996, 2002, and 2005, I was named “Who's Who Among America's Teachers" and I received the honor of being named Teacher of the Year in 1996 in my region. In both instances, students voted for me. I taught English composition, curriculum writing, creative writing, research techniques using computer word processing, jazz appreciation in conjunction with the Smithsonian Museum of American History and the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, drama, and public speaking. I was named as a mentor teacher in which teachers from around the city would come to my classes the entire day to watch me in action. I began my career in 1970, four years after I graduated from Johnson. I ended it in 2003.
The reason why this is so important for me to explain what has happened during my career is that so many people in high positions have accused Washington, DC public schools as being the worst schools in the nation. That hurts both the students and dedicated teachers who are accomplishing so many things that never get discussed in the media. Much of the passion for teaching and the technique for making teaching fun came from the teachers I had at Calhoun in the sixties.
Many times teachers never know what an influence they have over students unless the students have time or the inclination to return to the school to see them. Because of the Internet, I have two students who have emailed me to let me know what an impact I have had on their lives. I have included some of their correspondences to be in this document. Please observe the words of praise from my former students.
The Third Act
From a class of 11 seventh graders in 1960 when I began at Calhoun, I graduated in a class of 21 seniors. After I received my Bachelor's of Arts Degree in 1970, I received a Master's of Arts degree in teaching from what is now known as Trinity University. It was Trinity College in 1980 when I completed that degree. Because I had developed good habits in research skills at Calhoun, under the auspices of Mrs. Herald, instead of waiting my last class for my Master's of Arts to write my thesis, I completed my thesis before I took any graduate classes. Calhoun began that work ethic of getting things done completely. I refused to allow procrastination to steal my time on earth. I have things to do, places to go, and people to see.
I have a grown son and grandson, both named JULIEN. They are the loves of my life. Right now they both reside in Virginia. I'm still living in the nation's capitol that I have grown to love since 1966.
I have written a few poems for a published anthology entitled Epiphanies and Other Absurdities. I have a book of verse that outlines the story of my life that has yet to be published called My Stardust Reverie based on my mother's favorite song “Stardust" by Hoagy Carmichael.
I have traveled to Paris, Belgium, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, and Nassau in the Bahamas. I enjoy reading and watching classic film. I'm having a great time on the Internet traveling that way with new friends and old friends.
It was Thomas Wolfe who said, “You can never go home again." As long as I can think, remember, and place my memories on paper, I can always revisit that five-floor Brownstone walk-up on West 92nd Street and West End Avenue with those antique, splintered, wooden desks with dry, built-in, inkwells available for dipping unused feathered ink pens. That was my second home for six of the formative years of my life. I am grateful to have had them and to have been a Calhoun girl.