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This is an interview with Carla Lerman for the Teaneck Oral History Project on June 17, 1985 by June Kapell.
(I) Carla, we usually start out by asking people why they came to Teaneck. Now the interview with Paul indicated that you had sort of come by accident. Do you want to just go over that quickly again?
(N) Yes, we just needed, we were expecting a second child and needed a bigger place to live and we were looking for a three bedroom unit, rental unit and saw a house advertised in Teaneck and had to look on the map to find out where it was. We were living in Englewood at the time and knew nothing about Teaneck. But looked at the house, at night, liked the house and figured we would take it. It was only as the years went by we decided it is really a nice town to live in.
(I) Once you got here, what were the first things you did besides having your second child?
(N) The first thing I did was have a baby. The next thing we did after the next couple of years was, the first thing I did that was involved in the town at all was to answer an ad that was in the TEANECK SHOPER for people who were interested in working on a campaign to elect people to the Board of Education who were supporting the central sixth grade school and who were supporting the integration in the schools. That was called the Good Guys campaign. Joe Coffee, Greenstone and Orville Sather. The number was in the paper and since this was an issue that I was very interested in, I wanted to see that Teaneck schools were integrated, and I think my children would be starting school in a couple of years, I called up the number in the paper. They were somewhat suspicious since they didn't expect anybody from our end of town, down at the south end, to be interested in this and they wondered whether I was a plant by the opposition, which they told me later. They didn't tell me that at the time. So they told me where to come to help leaflet and I went up and I think that that was when I first met the McNatts and a bunch of other people who were involved in that campaign and many other campaigns after that.
(I) And the Good Guys won:
(N) The Good Guys won. It was a very good introduction to political activity for me.
(I) And your kids started, would have been in the Longfellow School.
(N) My daughter started at Longfellow School. She was there for kindergarten and first grade and then we moved to, we bought a house then and moved to the Whittier School district, moved to Maitland Avenue, and by that time we had lived in Teaneck for five years. My daughter started at Whittier School in second grade and my son started at the first central kindergarten. Which was Washington Irving.
(I) And what were your experiences there?
(N) My experience there was excellent. There was a great sense of excitement about this school, a tremendous amount, even with the people who had been originally opposed. When the school actually got started, there was a great sense of enthusiasm, excitement and after all a school full of five year olds has got to be a fun place. And that's just what it was. It was just fun and lively and exciting and everybody I think had a very good feeling about the teachers, very up about the whole thing. I had been asked to be on the P.T.A. of that school before it got started and I was vice president and in charge of human relations and one of the things, I put together a committee with people trying to get somebody from different sections of town. People who had been coming from different school districts whose other children may have been in different schools. And we decided that rather than just having a series of evening programs for parents about integration and good community relations, we would do something that would bring the children and the parents together outside of school and so we started a Saturday morning program. there was a core group of about six people I guess on the committee but then other people got involved. People knew people who had particular skills and we had programs that were athletic programs with all kinds of sporting things for five year olds and we had crafts and dancing. We had some people who were experts, really very, very fine dancers with children, folk and modern dance. We did musical programs, we got some very good people who volunteered, all these were volunteers. Fathers volunteered, people who had never done anything in P.T.A. before came in on Saturday mornings and did this.
(I) Do you recall the names of the original core group?
(N) Yeah, there was Mattie Glanville and Edith Kramer, Libby Berday, Nisha Pulliam who has since moved away, Althea Jackson, I think that was the group that was the committee, the community Relations Committee. No Marshall Pearlmen was another one. Then when we were clear on what we wanted to do, we started bringing in a lot of other people. There were a lot of talented people as there are in Teaneck. There are lots and lots of talented people in Teaneck and the people even who didn't have children in the school who had particular skills were willing to get involved and willing to help.
(I) And how many years did this program go on?
(N) I understand after our class, because it was a one year school so we all left then and disbursed all over Teaneck, as I understand it, there was some continuation of it but a slight y different form. I think they cut down, we did quite a few Saturdays. I think we were doing, trying to do like one a month, Saturday mornings. And afterwards, I think they cut down and then I think they tried to do something after school. They changed it somewhat. Our goal was to have a variety of activities going on at once so that we would have one special feature, like a folks singer or somebody who could lead children in a song, somebody who was very good at dancing with children. But then we would have in different rooms, we had different activities going on so that some children who just liked quiet things could do that and some who liked to learn how to climb on things and do some gymnastics could do that. We had a variety of things going on at one time.
(I) And your principal was in favor?
(N) He was swept along, both. I think he had been swept into this whole school.
(I) Who was the principa1 at the time?
(N) Harris? He retired not long after this.
(I) Not because of you, of this.
(N) I hope not. But I think that he just got swept along by the whole thing. There was such enthusiasm. It's the activity around the P.T.A. that I have seen with the most enthusiasm, the most spontaneous participation, just let's' do it and everybody loving it. Really exciting. The parents were really excited. And the children, our perception was that the children really enjoyed it very much.
(I) And the same children would come back every month?
(N) Yeah, I think we generally had a lot of repeats but you know some children would be particularly interested in one thing or another and there probably were some, there were a lot of children that took part. A lot of children. And we would have well over a hundred children each time so that it was really a very busy Saturday morning. Very much fun. Very exciting really.
(I) Well that didn't injure participation in the P.T.A. just because you. .
(N) No, then the next year my son Josh went to Whittier and my daughter was in Whittier too and I did get involved with that P.T.A.
(I) In what respect?
(N) Oh, I think probably in community relations. This was something that I was particularly interested in and I think we tried to do something like that, not on Saturday morning, we tried to do some otter activities for children outside of just the school day. Frankly I can't remember exactly what went on there.
(I) Well you had established the lunch program.
(N) Well then the lunchroom yes. One of the things that I had gotten concerned about and I guess it was within that next year or two, a number of people were concerned about it, but I was in a position where I could maybe do something. The children who were bused to school ate lunch in school. There was very little supervision in the lunchroom. It was the assembly room, you know, the auditorium turned into a lunchroom. Once they finished lunch, they had to go outside. If it was raining or terrible day, they just ran around in the building or they moved the tables back and tried to make some space there. There were one or two teachers on duty and some aides that were just not capable of handling 150 very active children who have been sitting down all morning and really wanted to just run around and didn't have the opportunity to go outside, to go home for lunch. So we thought it might be, my feeling was if they could, if there were children who could get out of that mass group and into small groups, there would be a much more relaxing lunch hour and it would be more furl. It would be of benefit for them and hopefully for their classrooms that they were going to go back to without all those pent up energy.
So we got the cooperation of the principal and of enough teachers who are willing to have their classrooms used and we got mothers to volunteer to come in and eat their lunch in school with the children in groups of maybe eight or ten in a classroom. We would, different mothers had different skills, I mean there were some mothers who could really do certain things with the kids and would bring in materials or would get materials. The school I think was pretty helpful in getting us stuff that we needed, And so we had a number of classrooms going on. All children didn't participate but we had a number of classrooms going on with small groups eating lunch. It gave them a chance to talk, it gave them a chance just to be out of that auditorium which was really an oppressive place to eat lunch. My feeling was and I think it was right at the time and I can't speak for what it is like now but at the time, these children, 95% of them were black, were put in a situation which makes children behave in a very sort of wild, it is like a camp dining hall which can be pretty wild. And they were being perceived by the staff as being something different.
And I guess what really pushed me to do something about it, one day I was there and I was just going by when one of the maintenance people, an old time maintenance person, and there were kids, food was on the floor and kids were running around the way they do in a situation like that and he made some remark about animals. And at that point I decided the perception of these kids is so negative that it is absolutely essential to do something for them, to make lunch a better time of their day. And for that year, which was my last year in Whittier because then we went off to England for a year, so this was my son's fifth grade that we actually got this thing off the ground and going and I don't know whether it was kept up because I wasn't in town the next year. And then in fact, I think it was the year we came back, the following year that they switched and had a lot of kids eating in school. They changed the whole busing routine and changed the lunch hours so that many children, many neighborhood children were eating lunch in school. They shortened the lunch hour I think and made two lunch hours, something like that. I wasn't in the school anymore so I didn't keep close to that but they changed the whole thing.
(I) By the time you came back, then your youngest one was in junior high school.
(N) In junior high, right. He missed sixth grade.
(I) How did you find the junior high school?
(N) Well, the junior high school was fine, Benjamin Franklin was fine for my daughter who was, you know, did the work that was asked of her, was a hard worker and a high achiever and was willing to go through hours and hours and hours of homework, was willing to go through the business of how many minutes you had for this or this. My son was very unhappy in Benjamin Franklin. It was not a successful school for him at all in spite of all of its wonderful reputation. The whole concept of the minutes to get from one place to another, something like twenty seven minutes for lunch and you take a twelve year old boy who has been sitting still all morning and twenty seven minutes for lunch is just not enough. So it was uncomfortable. He didn't get into trouble. He went through it OK but it was not a good experience.
(I) Did they find any, were there any racial, was there racial discrimination that the kids were aware of?
(N) Yeah, my daughter had a very sad experience there. Her, probably her closest friend in Whittier School was a girl who was bused to school and was a black girl that she did dancing with and they saw each other a great deal outside of school, slept at each other's houses, were very, very close friends and they were when they started B.F. too because she was in B.F. also and the peer pressure on this young black girl was such that she could not maintain the relationship and the pressure on Nina from her friends also was there so that at one point she described the lunch hour to me where she was trying, and I think her friend was trying too, and neither one of them could carry it off because they just couldn't withstand that kind of thing, where she described her friend Kim at one end of the lunch table with a group of black girls and Nina friends, the other white girls at the other end of the lunch table, and Nina sort of sitting half way between and not knowing what to do, you know. And that was a very difficult time and she and Kim talked about it later, years later, and I don't know how much they talked about it but they talked about it enough so that Kim acknowledged that it had happened and that they just hadn't been able to deal with it. She went away to private school and they didn't have each other in high school when it might possibly have come back together, I don't know. But the separation at that point was very, very great. Very difficult to overcome. There were a few activities where I think it was overcome, a few sports activities but a very, very tough experience for both groups I think.
(I) There were perceptions of the two schools, Benjamin Franklin as being a very much more rigid school than Thomas Jefferson which was known as the zoo.
(N) Yeah, well B.F. was always described to us before we got there as, there was a principal named Simmons and the only phrase we ever heard was "he runs a very tight ship". This was the only description we heard about B.F. except the kids achieved there. And it was. It was a driven school. There was a biology class and I remember Archie Lacey once saying, "this is absurd. This could be given at Princeton." And he was right. It was absurd. The memorization and just rote memorization so that they could say they knew all the files and all the this and all the that. And it was in the nature of an honors class, even at that age.
(I) In the junior high school?
(N) It wasn't called that as such but you had to be recommended to take this particular biology class. And there were other things. There was a lot of pressure this way on that math course.
(I) SMIX, Yes.
(N) That was a very, I mean there was a real division in SMIX. If you took SMIX, then you were OK; if you didn't take SMIX, then you were really sort of a second rate citizen and of course the lines divided very much between black and white. My daughter who was very gifted in math excelled in SMIX. She would have excelled in any math program. My son, who was not mathematically oriented, started in SMIX and dropped it. It was just not for him. And his friends noted this, his SMIX friends noted this, that he was not in SMIX. It was a very, very, it was a tough school in that sense. A lot of status connected with your academics, a tremendous amount.
(I) What about when they got to the high school?
(N) High school was a very good experience for both of them. Very good. And it was why we stayed in Teaneck. Because Paul teaches at Rutgers and over the years, we had thought maybe this is a silly commute. He commutes an hour back and forth each way. And we went and looked at towns down there, we looked at Princeton, looked at different places and really from everything we knew, from people we knew who had kids in the High school, we felt that Teaneck High School was better. And each year, as Nina got closer to high school, we felt that's worth staying for and when she got to the high school and when Josh got to the high school, we really felt that was true. It was a very good experience for both of them.
(I) There were some interesting experiences there too. Such as the experience with Mr. Nash.
(N) Oh yes. Well actually that happened before either of them were in high school. That happened in '68 and I remember that because we had just moved to Maitland Avenue. So that our kids weren't even in the high school then. But the Mr. Nash situation was certainly, as a matter of fact they benefited. When they got to the high school, they were benefiting from the results of that whole episode.
(I) In what way? Specifically.
(N) There was much more awareness of tracking and of trying in some way to prevent tracking.
(I) Let's just go back for a moment and explain what the Nash incident was.
(N) The Nash incident was a man in, who was teaching biology named Herman Nash staged a sit-in with his students which he clearly lead, the students participated, in the principal's office as I recall or in one of the main offices to protest what he felt were inadequate facilities for the students in his biology class which was not the college directed biology class. They did not have any lab facilities for instance and he was trying to teach youngsters who were not academically oriented biology without a lab which he felt was absolutely impossible. What came out from this was that and I don't know who called me about it but it may have been somebody like Winnie Ferrar. I mean it may have been through that kind of connection that I got involved. Now I can't remember exactly. Libby Frank was also involved in that and she may have been one who, she doesn't live in Teaneck anymore. At any rate, we learned about it, heard about it, Ebby Parker was involved. I remember going to a meeting at her house and Winnie Ferrar's little boy who is probably now in college was running around, little tiny Charlie Brown they used to call him.
But what we became aware of at any rate was that there was tracking of a very. . very strong tracking in the high school. I can't remember what the names of the levels were whether they were A, B, C or what but they were actually levels that were specifically for college people and then for a layer below that and below that and below that. I think there were four or five tracks. And you had to, you got recommended into them by teachers so that if you were going to go into the top level, you had to be recommended into that by teachers. And what was happening is that there was a very clear racial breakdown so that the majority of kids in the top track were white and the majority of kids in the bottom track were not white, were black, and this was being directed, the whole question of how you perceived the child, what the expectations are for that child are very, very important and the kids were being perceived as unable to do harder work.
And the fact that the lower track didn't get the same facilities and didn't have the same equipment was clearly something that was wrong. I mean if anybody needed the lab, to see something demonstrated, it is somebody who doesn't maybe have all of the reading skills or the verbal skills and can conceptualize without seeing it. So we decided we would, a group of us decided we would, try and defend Mr. Nash. I smile now because I think we all ended up feeling that Herman Nash was a little bit off the wall. He was off the wall. But even off the wall people can prove a point. And I think that what he did in his own sort of crazy way was really to prove and to bring out things that nobody knew.
Most people did not really know what existed. That black kids were being given guidance, literally, there was example after example, specific examples, of kids who were told when they said they wanted to go to college who were told why don't you go to secretarial school. I mean literally. This happened over and over and parents began coming forward with stories that they had never talked about. They had been embarrassed thinking there was something wrong with their kids and now they began coming forward and saying, yes, that happened to my child who wanted to go to college and was told no, a vocational school would be better for you. That type of thing. So that what happened at the end, even though at the trial, which really went to trial and Art Leseman who is now a judge and his partner, Leo Mazer, took on this case for nothing. They were always taking on these causes for nothing.
I remember us having suppers in somebody's home, pot luck suppers, to raise money so that we could pay at least the court costs and the costs of transcriptions and things like that. And Art Lesemann and his wife Joan were the kind who would come and buy some of the stuff and they'd be paying their own court costs. It was wonderful. But at any rate, it did go to court and I can't even remember now if the issue was whether or not he had trespassed, I think, or whether he had illegally occupied something. The thing dragged on for so long and he was fluid in Japanese and apparently there is an obscure law that says that you can have, you can conduct your case however you want. He meanwhile sort of fired Art Lesemann and Leo Mazer. I don't think they ever got to go to court with him because he didn't agree with their way of handling things and he was a trouble kind of person in many ways but he ended up conducting his trial. He was his own defense in Japanese which meant that they had to get a translator because you have to do that by the law. It says if somebody speaks another language, you have to provide them with a translator and crazy things like that.
But what it proved was not anything really about Herman Nash except that he was obviously an independent, and in his way, he was a very courageous person. But what it really proved was that the parents in Teaneck didn't know a lot about what was going on in the high school and that an integrated high school is difficult to achieve, really integrated thoroughly and it was going to take a lot of effort and it is going to take a continuous effort and I think that is probably still true today. But if you let up the effort for a minute, it probably is very easy to have problems and have it slip back. But by the time our children got there, honors courses that's what they were called, honors classes were the top track, by the time our children' got there, it was possible for anybody to take an honors class if they felt they could do it. You used to get more points for an A in the higher track classes than in the lower track classes so that if in your cumulative grade average you got more points for getting an A in an honors class than if it were the next track down. It was a whole degree of ranges there. But I think what it showed us is that you really have to work on it and it is very difficult and the kids have to be aware of it and the parents have to be aware of it. That the parents have to keep pushing all the time for what they want for their kids.
(I) And you found that this experience with both your kids prepared them well for their further education.
(N) Very well, very well. They both took AP classes, advanced placement classes. They both placed and passed the test and Teaneck prepared them very well. They took the AP tests; they both placed out at whatever they took the AP tests in, they got high enough so that the colleges they went to gave credit for those courses. They never used their courses though but they took it. And just in general, I think it did. Josh was very involved in the newspaper, T-HIGH NEWS, and it was a very, very positive experience. They were both in different musicals and we had a couple of those mammoth cast parties at our house that were just great things. Really fun. That was a lovely experience, 150 kids pack in your house and just having a wonderful time together and those were interracial activities which were delightful.
(I) That's another thing that there are not too many parents who would welcome 150 or more kids into their homes.
(N) It got pretty rough having cast parties because there would be kids who weren't in the plays who would then crash the party and it became a problem so when our kids wanted to do this, we said OK but we are not going to have, it has to be just for the cast. The kids have to know that. And what was interesting is that we stayed with the party. We stayed and saw to it that the kids didn't come in who weren't in the party or in the cast and the kids appreciated this. The kids in the cast. I mean even with that many kids in the house; they all commented that this was really good because there wasn't those rough kids here to break it up. But there was a lot of fun, those things were a lot of fun. So I think their high school generally speaking was very positive.
(I) Now your experiences with education were so good that this prompted you to run for the Board of Education.
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