The Lesson I Learned from Dr. Kenneth Clark
Dr. Kenneth Clark, noted psychologist, educator and member
of the NYS Board of Regents in the 1970s passed away last month.
When I saw the notice about his passing, it was the day after
I spoke about my only personal encounter with him.
During one of those
rare and enjoyable afternoons with friends, this time with
Bernie and Nancy Zemsky formerly of UFT fame, the conversation
turned to the politics of education. In spite of the unspoken
intention not to EVER talk about NYC’s
educational plight, it took us from gazpacho to dessert to
gingerly broach the topic. (Okay, so it wasn’t “gingerly!”)
Questions about special education, the direction of the reorganization,
new contracts were on the table. I was reminded of my encounter
with Dr. Clark.
It was in the late 70s when NYS was on a tear to return students
from out-of-state schools serving children with special needs.
One school in Pennsylvania became a target of the NYS Regents
and its Deputy Commissioner Louis Grumet. NYS parents whose
children were thriving in the school were invited to attend
a special meeting of the Regents and to present their case.
One parent, an attorney,
was the designated spokesperson and presented a cogent and
intelligent argument for the services, culture and credibility
of the school. Dr. Clark looked up and said, “Now that
we have heard from an attorney, I believe we should hear
from a parent.”
Looking from one to
another, the parents who were not prepared to speak before
this august body, leveled their gaze on me. Before I knew
what was happening, I was standing before the Regents and
the Deputy Commissioner trying to control my shaking knees
and quivering voice. Remembering that the only good story
is one the storyteller knows intimately, I began speaking about
my child and our relationship with the school, its unique culture
and environment, and the future without such an opportunity
for our children. When I finished, there was question after
question, comment after comment, “curiouser and curiouser” as
Alice would say and I thought that all was not lost.
After the applause, we were asked to leave the chamber and
it was then that Dr. Clark taught me the best and most breathtaking
lesson about education and politics.
While I was glowing
in the aftermath of an adrenaline high and being heartily
congratulated by parents and Regents, Dr. Clark stepped into
the group, whisked me aside and said, “Mrs.
Levy, in spite of your singular presentation, this decision
will be a political decision. Nothing else will ultimately
matter. Do you understand what I am saying to you?” I
simply nodded as the adrenaline left my body and my mind absorbed
the impending reality. We shook hands and I thanked him for
honesty and concern for the human element. He was after all,
a renowned sociologist.
Later, in the coffee
shop, the parents wanted to know what Dr. Clark said to me. “He told me we will lose the fight,” I
said. I did not explain except to tell them that we were heard,
our arguments were respected, and Dr. Clark thanked us for
our efforts. The lesson: In the end, it’s not the merit
of the argument, but the politics that will always rule. #
Jill Levy is the President of the Council of School Supervisors