|All interviews were taped and documented. They are available through the Reference Department of the Teaneck Public Library. The Library is not responsible for the accuracy of the statements nor does it necessarily endorse the opinions expressed.|
|DATE OF INTERVIEW:||April 1, 1985|
|TRANSCRIBER:||Jackie Kinney (12/1985)|
(I) So it was really, it was a good community.
(N) As far as I could see. I could go everywhere. Everybody else could go everywhere. We did whatever we wanted to do. And nobody got into really big trouble. I mean, you know, if we did something that like we broke into the high school once in a while and the cops would come the next day to school and say give back whatever you took and we'd give it all back and that was it. Nobody got into any trouble and it was just a nice time.
(I) Now one thing that was different that I mentioned about was having a mother who was a single head of household. Just because that wasn't the way it was for everybody else. That was, were you conscious of that, that it was different?
(N) I was conscious of it but it didn't mean anything because the majority of people came to my house to hang out so it wasn't like having just one parent took away from anything. I mean if you wanted to know where your kid was, you called my house fiirst and that's usually where they were so it really didn't have anything to do with it other than whatever strength I got from it. I was given a lot of responsibility and I didn't do too bad with it so I can't say that it was wrong. It just, I know what I've heard and felt from others either subtly or kind of overtly and that was one parent, they're not too good. Because we are talking everybody is upwardly mobile, you know. You had yuppies back then too. That was not yuppiedom. That bothered me but it didn't because I knew that things were happening at my house that weren't happening at other people's house so I just kind of figured that that wasn't anything to deal with.
(I) It just seems like sort of another case where there could have been a problem but because of your situation was kind of exceptional that it wasn't.
(N) All I can say is you know I can't speak for anybody else. All I know is that this is how it happened for me and I can't complain about it. Up until my senior year, I couldn't complain about anything because nothing really was wrong.
(I) When you went away to school, I imagine then over the next few years, you'd hear what was happening here. Were you in touch with. .
(N) Nope. Now that was another kind of thing that just happened. Because I was on trimesters, I came home in April so I'd beat the job hunting crowd and the whole time that I was in school, I worked at Ford Motor Company. I mean I was making a tremendous amount of money every week so that in itself was wonderful. I even walked home from Ford, that's how wonderful things were. Which is a long way. Ford in Mahwah. Walked. Got paid one day, missed the bus, walked home. I got out of work at two o'clock so I just walked.
(I) You wouldn't do that today.
(N) I am not a walker but, you know, that's how calm things were. I felt no problem with walking home. Nice sunny day, walked home. But I got to work at Ford. Not many people were able to work at Ford. I mean we are talking $200/$300 a week back then. That was a lot of money. A lot of money.
(I) This is when you were in school.
(N) In college, 66 to 70. I had it for four years, yes. In my senior year, I said to my mother, forget it. I am just going to work at Ford from now on. And she said, wait. . . no you are not. That was the end of that.
(I) Do you think there was anything in your experience in school that laid the ground work for your wanting to be a school board person?
(N) No, none whatsoever.
(I) How about wanting to be a teacher?
(N) None whatsoever.
(I) Where did that come from?
(N) Everybody in my family is a teacher so when I got to school, it was, what are you going to do? Well, until you find out, why don't you take education courses? OK. And as time went on, I just continued taking education courses but it just so happened, there were only six men in the education department so that was kind of, well let's make sure they get through. So, I was like fine. I had no problem there either. And I went from Teaneck which was basically an all white school system to a black university.
(I) Did that seem strange, did it seem fine?
(N) I guess it was strange but when you get plopped in another state where they have pigs and cows and cornfields, it is kind of like, oh my gosh, I didn't even have time to say oh my gosh, one day I am here and the next day, I am in Ohio. It was adjust now or forever hold your peace because there just wasn't any time but I only started remembering that recently. It was like, wow, I went from a white school system to a black school system. There were no white kids at the school. None. And definitely none on any of the sports teams so it was kind of like, how did I do that? Kind of shocks me sometimes but it was just kind of smooth.
(I) A lot of people when they go away to school are traumatized by the change.
(N) I should have been but because I went at that period of time, only sports people were there and by the time September came, and the normal people were there, I was already an upper classman so to speak so I was in. I was already in.
(I) What was it like to be there in that all black environment and then coming back here. Did you continue, did you keep up with your white friends that you had from school?
(N) Not really. I think maybe the first year everybody kind of got together and I think my leaving in the middle of the year kind of cut people off. I don't think anybody ever understood I don't think anybody knew because one day I was here and the next day I was gone and I don't think anybody knew and it wasn't until a few years later that I was people and everybody was nice and that was about it but as far as something here that, no, I, like I said, being a teacher was strictly parent, this will do, and as far as the board, that was just something I dreamt and said let's go for it and that was it.
(I) Do you have any memory about Teaneck politics from, I mean obviously (end of side I - begin side 2) You got interested in Teaneck politics at some point and then you ran for the board but when you were either growing up or when you were away at school, or carne back
(N) No, politics was not in my mind. Never even came close. That's why it bothers me now but that's a whole other story. I got interested in politics about three months before I decided to run. That was it.
(I) What triggered that for you?
(N) Deciding to run? I don't know if I want that on tape.
(I) Is there any part of it you feel like talking about?
(N) (NO answer).
(I) Backtracking for a moment - I was just thinking of something. Before we get back to the school board. Were there black teachers when you were in school?
(N) That question came up and I said no. Yes there were. One was Typing which was Alice Benican who is there now and the other was, I can't think of his name but I think he only came when I was a junior in high school. Now I did have a fifth grade teacher who was black, Mrs. Bennett. Other than that, I didn't see any and I didn't think there were any in high school because I didn't take typing or at least I didn't take the cycle she was teaching.
(I) How important did you think that was?
(N) It didn't bother me. I don't know if it bothered other people but you got to remember at that time, no matter what color you were, you were growing up basically in a white world. Everything you saw on TV was white. Everything around you so to speak was white. It wasn't until you got home that you dealt with anything that was non-white and it didn't make, I understand what it means or what it meant to say I want somebody who is black to teach me about black things or whatever. Just a rapport because I have rapport with kids now who are black. So I know what that means. But I also have a rapport with kids that are white so that has to do with the teacher, that doesn't have to do with the color so I don't, it didn't bother me. I had white teachers as long as I could remember so it didn't make a difference. None that I know of.
(I) And I guess there weren't any black ministers at that point.
(N) Junior high school, high school, no. I never saw one. Never.
(I) I am just interested in the school board. How do you see Teaneck, I mean this is the place you grew up, to make a kind of a commitment and stick with it - is it because you grew up here. Would you be able to make that kind of commitment to another place?
(N) No. OK. I remember standing up in front of that board of education and I can't remember what the issue was at the time but the place was heated and, but at this time I knew I was going to run so the people who were behind me were, you are going to have to start making yourself known so I remember getting up and I asked, I made a very simple suggestion or comment like, you know, why don't you stop talking at people and to people and there was, you know, they just got kind of biserk. Just at that kind of statement. That was the kind of turmoil that was there and you know something clicked so you can see that that's easy to go up against. I could see that that wouldn't be a problem. You people have got to go. These people out here are asking you just to listen. I knew deep inside that being a teacher would help no matter where, on what board of ed, you need a teacher. I believe at that time there were none and that's to say whoever is there because Ann Mesereau was an administrator, that's it.
(I) And when you came on, what was that, the first election after the strike. So things had been tense.
(N) Things were very tense so it was kind of like, it is kind of like somebody was standing behind me. Like a fairy godperson and when I wanted to run, it was no, not now. Because I wanted to run the year before, the year of the strike, and I just didn't, nobody said anything but I just didn't and then the year after the strike, then I didn't do it because of the strike. I just ran and it was kind of like the teachers had to say, how bad can a teacher be? It makes a little sense and fortunately the Teachers' Union gave me a lot of support which I just expected. I mean I didn't know what they could do for me just other than saying, we are behind you, but I just thought that was kind of a natural thing to have a teacher on the board. Not to be in anybody's pocket and that's kind of what I feel strongest about. Whether I do this another three years or not, I will be able to say, nobody's make me do anything, I didn't owe anybody anything. I did this all on my own. If I lose it, I've lost it on my own; if I win it, I won it on my own. And that kind of makes me feel good. And nobody calls me to put pressure on me because a long time ago, I said, I don't want to hear your hysteria because that doesn't do anything but confuse me. I am going to make a decision on what I know is right and what, after I go and find out for myself. I mean you can yell and scream and say this is wrong and this is wrong but if there is an issue, I am going to find out what it is on my own. I don't want to hear anything.
(I) So you don't get people grabbing you on the street.
(N) No, no. I mean other board members say they can't go shopping, they can't go here, they can't go. I get one phone call a month if that. I guess a lot of people don't like it because they have to talk into the machine but since I am not there, I thought that would be a nice thing to do. And for a while it did happen, like when we were closing the schools, I got lots of calls and whenever there is a special ed issue, I get calls but I think the word got out. No matter what you say, I am going to do what I have to do anyway. And I don't think I've based all my decisions on being a teacher. It is just what is right.
(I) What have been the biggest challenges since you have been on the board?
(N) Shutting down schools. Really. I mean being a part of a group of people that spend $25 million is a challenge.
(I) That's interesting.
(N) It is a challenge. I mean if you want to start from the top, that's it. The second biggest challenge is just, it is not so much the socializing but being a part of or being involved with totally different people than I might normally come in contact with and getting their acceptance and at the same time, holding my own and it has been an education. It really has. But you know you come up with these political cliches and you can't help it but I think these people know that I am honest and that kind of says it for me. They don't ask me to do things out of the abnormal. They don't look at me as a problem and they know when I am there, I am there. I get mad sometimes, I'll get up and I'll stand and I'll sit out with the audience
(I) Really? Like what would make you do that?
(N) Oh when somebody's got the floor and they don't want to give it up and they have an issue that they just want to, we are not saying that it is a bad one but we will say it is an issue that does nothing for me. It might be how are we going to spend this thousand dollars or something that, if it is not directly related to kids, I have a problem with it. I don't want to hear it really. Just let's take a vote. But it was funny because LaMar Jones came to a meeting one night and I was standing by the door so he kind of pulls me over to the side and he says, you know you really can't do that. I mean you are supposed to be sitting down and I went, I do this all the time. And he just kind of looked at me as if, you're mad. I mean that is not what board members do.
(I) How does the rest of the board react? .
(N) They have no problem with it. As long as I am there, I am still in the room. But
(I) Does it affect their behavior?
(N) No, no. It doesn't do a thing for them. Now it started with, I used to have to get up because I have a basketball knee and I can't sit down for long periods of time and sometimes we are sitting down for five, six hours.
(I) So you told them that. They know that.
(N) Yeah. So I'll just stand up and walk around and instead of just standing in one spot, and I can't stand behind my chair and hold it up, that really looks odd, so I'll stand by the coffee machine or I'll go stand by the door and even if there is a vote, I am voting at the door and I guess it looks kind of strange but I have to look at it as kind of refreshing. There is no need to be stuffy in all of this. I think, you know, that is all I ran on. It is time for a change. You've got to start being a little more in touch with what's going on and what's going on is not the gavel. You will not speak and you know being unflexible. That was the only thing I ran, that was my platform. It is time for a change and let's start talking to each other instead of at each other and that's all I do now. I don't yell; I don't scream.
(I) Do you think you've had an effect on the way the board
(N) Occasionally. Unfortunately because of the letter C, I am the first person that's called on to vote and I sometimes know that my yes or no has something to do with what happens in their mind and I've been told that by other board members and people in the community. Everybody is going to see what you do because they are going to say, well, we know what X, Y and Z is going to do and we know what W, X, Y is going to do. We really know what they are going to do. What we don't know is what you are going to do.
(I) So when you vote
(N) That kind of, that sometimes will swing one to one side that they didn't know. They might say one person is not sure or two people are not sure and I know that for a fact and it is sometimes it puts a lot of pressure on me but I guess that was kind of from the beginning. I don't have any problem, I will back whatever I vote on now to the hilt because if it is wrong, it is wrong only because sometimes feels it is wrong. To me it is right. I justify whatever vote I make to me, not to anybody else and that's, I have no problems with that.
(I) Do you ever get grilled by other board members?
(N) No, a lot of board members, not a lot, a couple of board members have asked me, I want to talk to you about this issue or I want to talk to you about this issue either because it has to do with something that is teacher related or that is color related and I have no problem with that.
(I) So you are like the consultant they are going to check it out with? That makes sense.
(N) That makes a little sense. You are supposed to. You know, when I say I am going to find out for myself, that's what they are doing and I think that is good because the people that are on there that are administrators, that's why I could never be an administrator because you forget that you were a teacher at one time. You just black that out of your mind. I don't ever want to do that. So they ask me, I mean, Judy Macknow asked me, talked to me about; Margaret Ainsley asked me. These are people that had to develop some respect for me and I feel good about that. Bob Morrill asked me about things and that's not something Bob Morrill would say to anybody. I mean people will actually say, they don't care, Bob Morrill has a reputation of being a bigot. Out and out. And defends it. I mean he went to Teaneck High School when there were no blacks. People will actually say, he likes you, which is tough but he likes me because of, I'd have to say it is because I am honest and I don't think he looks at me as a color any more. He looks at me as an equal. He has to. He got a vote; I've got a vote. And that does something for me and for him. So it is kind of a learning experience aside from the political part of it.
(I) So some of these people are the kinds of people you would never have run into.
(N) Never and now it is, I think they needed this dose of refreshment because they know me as the board member but they have no idea what I do outside of board meetings and that kind of excites them because they can make up whatever they want to. Which keeps board meetings going sometimes. I am sometimes the topic of conversation when there is a lull. I mean there was a time when we needed more black kids so the conversation shifts to me and it is, well if you would go out there and married and have some kids, we might not be sitting here having this problem. And we will go on for about a half hour. I am the brunt of all of this. They wouldn't have been able to that. First black male in a long time.
(I) Who was the last? ,
(N) I don't think Mohammed was on there. I don't think there has been one since LaMar Jones. That is twenty years. Twenty.
(I) That's a long time.
(N) That's a statement.
(I) I was going to ask you how you are unique but you've already answered some of that.
(N) I can't say that I am not in this respect because it is a unique position I am in and it has been trying and I've almost lost it a couple of times. Things just got too overwhelming. The politics. The pressure. It has almost gotten to me a couple of times.
(I) Stuff that was happening there or stuff that was behind the scenes?
(N) Both. I mean this closing of the schools was a lot of pressure. Because you knew, I mean when you got an auditorium of about 800 people going nuts on every person's vote, you got a problem. But that was one of the times where I just had to say, now, it just was not, I wasn't comfortable to say, because the only facts I want are the ones that are dollars and cents and the ones that are in black and white. What's going to happen. And there was no room for error. So I knew that there was no way that I could vote to shut down a school when there was no room for error so I couldn't vote for it. You've got 800 people there and all 800 want you to not close the schools so it was a great vote but to me, it was the right vote and I had no problem with it although it didn't pass but I still said, down the road that has to
(I) So you were in the minority on that.
(N) Yeah. Because dollars and cents said they had to close the schools. There was no question about it. And I usually take the business administrator's advice. I go to him first. What does it look like in dollars and cents but
(I) What would have happened if your side had won?
(N) I don't know. But it wasn't so much I didn't want to close the schools, it was I didn't want because we didn't, we kept this one as a school. It is just not the school that it was housing a certain number of grades. It is central office; it is a school; it is special ed. That was in my mind I didn't know it, but that's what I wanted. I wanted a school to have some flexibility and it wasn't until I talked to some people that said, you know, you close two and you keep one on line which meant doing this. You keep it as something so that you don't have to reopen a school one day a couple of years down the road. It is already opened. All you have to do is shift. So the politics mainly are the pressure points. You have to play politics.
(I) It sounds like it was more hardball than you expected.
(N) I didn't know what to expect so I had no expectations. I was going in there virgin. I really was. And I think within a couple of weeks, I found out that wasn't going to make it. The first couple of weeks, I mean, you remember the problems I had just getting on the board, just getting the seat. That kind of let me know what I was in for and that's kind of the way it was for almost two years up until last summer.
(I) Has that cooled down?
(N) Oh yeah. Once the one thing that I found out, as long as you can justify things legally, you got no problem. And that's what happened. Legally I was allowed to live places as I wanted to. Technically, they could have said anything which was, you don't live in Teaneck. I didn't. But my mail went there and
(I) That was your legal
(N) Wherever your mail goes, that's where you live. Wherever else you might be is where you reside. And there is a big difference legally so there was nothing they could do, legally, it died down and they couldn't get me. I always said they couldn't get me because I knew they were trying get me.,
(I) Initially, there was a real attempt to keep you from getting on the board.