Thursday, January 8, 2009

My Harlem Prep Journey

My Harlem Prep Journey commenced as my confinement in Dante's Inferno ended. You see, for eleven years I attended Roman Catholic elementary and high school. At the end of my junior year I decided that I had enough of the Roman Catholic ethos and I needed a changed.

It was the early seventies and the world was in upheaval. Civil Rights was still the agenda of the day along with the struggle for equality for women. Rockefeller sent the National Guard to quell the riot at Attica, Vietnam was raging and Nixon had started bombing Cambodia:
"Tin soldiers and Nixon coming
We're finally on our own
This Summer I hear the drumming
Four dead in Ohio."
- Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

Although I was a good student academically I ran into problems with the school administration because of my political leanings. I was a member of High School Youth Against War and Fascism and the Prisoners Solidarity Committee, an organization that hired buses to transport family members to the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York. I was very political and fiery. I also had an inquisitive nature and I did not hesitate to question authority. This was too much for my teachers at Cardinal Hayes High School, most of whom were priests.

I decided I needed a new direction and I registered for the 1972 fall semester at the Harlem Preparatory School.

Harlem Prep was a "school without walls" both physical and mental. At the Prep I found that I flourished to an amazing degree. As students we were allowed to pursue thoughts and ideas unencumbered. My most memorable class was Being and Non-Being an existentialist literature class. We read Sartre, Camus, Kafka, Hesse and Martin Buber. Things we would never be allowed to read in Catholic school. I embraced the existentialists with a passion and they returned the embrace by providing me with the key to my own liberation. The class was taught by George "Sandy" Campbell who remains my dear friend to this day. Through Sandy's class I learned the importance of personal responsibility: whatever I am whatever I am to be - was totally in my hands, especially since, at that time, I believed that there was no God to determine our collective fates.

My personal philosophy would evolve over the years as I constantly reinvented myself. Harlem Prep taught me that I could be whatever I wanted to be: the human spirit unfolds and flowers again and again over a lifetime. I found this to be true when Harlem Prep provided with another opportunity flourish.

In the spring of 1973 I entered and won an essay contest sponsored by CBS and The World Youth Forum. Dawn Mitchell, another Harlem Prep student, and I along with seven other students spent two months traveling throughout Europe: England, France, Belgium, Switzerland and Italy. My world was turned upside down. In Europe I was accepted as a person, a human being my ethnicity and country of origin were insignificant. I had never, ever had such a feeling nor did I think such a thing was possible. It's now thirty six years later and I'm still under the influence of that trip. My ethos - my world view - was forever changed and I am all the better for it.
When I returned from Europe, I was scarcely home for a week before I left to study at Brown University. I studied Anthropology, Portuguese and Film with heavy doses of philosophy, music and art. All of which I still pursue to this day.

I have many more stories to tell, and I hope to share them with you soon.

Clifford Jacobs

Cliff Jacobs, Sandy Campbell, 2008

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Step By Step

Step by Step:
The Story of Harlem Preparatory School

“Step by Step
You’re in the race at Harlem Prep.
For the race has just begun,
There’s a goal for everyone.
Open the gates,
And open them wide.
For those who hunger
And thirst inside.
For the creative free,
Who once were denied.
Keep on marching…
Until you reach the other side.

Through the halls of opportunity,
To the stairway of success!
Work your show,
You’re on the go,
Just keep those students coming through.
For there’s so much work for us to do
With the help of God and the hand of faith,
We’ll make our dream come alive, hey, hey, hey
No matter what it takes.”

-Shirley Jones & Milton Hamilton

The words of the song state, “no matter what it takes.” Determination, never quitting, talent, brilliance, and unstoppable energy are some of the words that come to mind when I think about Harlem Prep.

I’m inspired to start this blog to capture and memorialize the work that my parents, Drs. Ed and Ann Carpenter, did back in the 1970s. If you recognize the words to the above song, you will remember how proudly we sang them – they became the “national anthem” of Harlem Prep. “Step by Step” was sung at graduations, while changing classes, in television appeals for donations. I still remember the words and melody quite easily. Some of you may even remember me running around, then a kid with pigtails. No matter how young I was then, I still remember the vibrant energy and excitement that I felt when I visited the Prep. To this day, I’ve never seen students so jazzed about learning, nor teachers as inspired to impart knowledge.

The 40 year anniversary of the school’s founding recently occurred. Forty years! I began to ask myself, “I wonder how many lives were changed by Harlem Prep? What became of all those people? What if I tried to find former students and teachers? What stories would they tell about their experiences?” Those questions gave birth to the current project – a documentary about the Prep and how it impacted the teachers, students, and the face of alternative schools in America.

We’re still in the early stage of producing the documentary. I recognize that there is a wealth of stories out there, many of which I’m unaware. Please use this blog to dialogue with me and share your recollections. Please include your contact information as I foresee expanding the project to include a reunion (with video camera, of course!)

Harlem Prep family, the story must be told. The time for the telling is now. We all know how strong oral storytelling traditions are. When we had the Prep, we didn’t have the technology we have today. Let’s use it to reconnect, re-energize and infuse our spirits. The Prep is who we are. We would not be who we are today without having lived it.

Please visit the blog regularly as we will keep you posted about the reunion, projects and the like. Thank you, be blessed.

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