|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.|
|NARRATOR:||Harvey Scribner & Teaneck Gala|
|DATE OF INTERVIEW:|
|TRANSCRIBER:||Jackie Kinney (12/1985)|
BERNIE CONFER: Why do those former colleagues of mine on the board of education look so much older than I? I am sure they, as well as I, appreciate very much the chance to be with you tonight because it is just like a homecoming. It is good for the heart. I don't know why they allotted Matty Feldman five minutes and me twenty five minutes. On a very serious note, may I say some years ago, some of us were talking with Norman Fess who made a very clear point which I think applies to humanity in general that there is a tendency for humanity, all of us, to adjust to our situations, right or wrong. And his point was and he had been in situations which had a clear, underlying issue of efforts of justice a community, a nation, a world may not be (in audible) and I'd like to suggest that during the time Haley and I have been in Teaneck, Teaneck government generally tries to promote justice in the quality of opportunities and I think this helps them (inaudible). And that was a landmark time when my colleagues and I were on the board of education and had a superintendent like Harvey Scribner to give leadership and yet you know the way these resolutions (inaudible) and I thank you for those fine proclamations and resolutions and I think they are good for our community to meet once again and to consider the future still I'd like to suggest that a large segment of this community was with us in those days.
It may not have been 50% but that is not unusual where minority concerns are involved. But the fact is that you know and I know that a large number of individuals and organizations back in 64 were really ready for the integration of the schools. More than that, they were willing to work on the project. Now we on the board of education, we may have turned back some (inaudible) but I would say that each of us in those years was politically wise. We had a pretty good idea where the members of the town council stood individually. And we met with the town council and as Matty tried to reflect in his remarks, he and I think other members were not eager to push us in any direction but were letting their views be known and I will not forget that night when Matty said, "It is your responsibility as trustees to take the move that you think is right and proper and it is our responsibility on the town council to see that law and order shall prevail and whatever you do, you may be sure that we try to be supportive and try to promote law and order in this town." And a lot of organizations and individuals who were in there ready and active and I see many faces here tonight that bring back many memories. So in a large sense, this celebration tonight, this gala, is a community celebration in a true sense.
Now through those troublesome times and it is just amazing how many hours the board of education and the superintendent put in on this problem, through those troublesome times, of course however strong an individual trustee or the of the board might be, there was Harvey Scribner who was our firing arm and we know that when it comes to that decision in May, 1964, Harvey Scribner was the leader and the interpreter. And so, although it is fine of you to honor the board tonight, I'll bet my colleagues are with me that we are here primarily to honor Harvey Scribner. But you know he has been interpreted as a mover and a person who believes in selling himself, a real leader, I'd like you to know that he has many aspects like the one night in Ben Franklin meeting that succeeded that decision of May, 64 (inaudible) one woman got up, I knew it, and said, "Don't you think that it would have been wiser to hold sort of a hearing and take testimony like the town council does on some of the proposals before it?" Well Harvey and I were sitting together and I tried (inaudible) and he restrained himself and responded that yes, we could have done that. On the other hand, this general issue had been before us for a couple of years now. We have sent quarterly mailings to every home in town about this. We, the board itself, has never refused to meet with any organization that wanted to meet with it. We always proposed the date to them. Routinely we met with several organizations. So maybe a lot of people were informed and had a chance to speak. And I say that he is patient too. He restrained himself there. (inaudible) Well I am real pleased to be here. Gene Mulcahy, I think it is a splendid evening and I'd like to take this opportunity to congratulate all of you on the Teaneck Foundation for Children. Thank you very much.
Some of the most exuberant and joyful celebrations that we engage in and enjoy are reminiscent of some of the deepest and most difficult struggles that we experience. As Mr. Confer said, much of the leadership and much of the energy that the good hearts, the strong, convictions and the great integrity of this community came from the then superintendent. He went on from Teaneck to direct the New York City school system, become commissioner of education in the state of Vermont where his name is still held with great reverence and to his present position as senior professor of the faculty of the University of Massachusetts. One often wonders when one struggles what they need to make an impact, to leave a message, to be clear about what one believes in, if in fact any of what one strived to do has been heard and had any meaningful and powerful effect. I think our former superintendent tonight knows that what he did, and what he stood for, and what he believed in has profoundly impacted this town and its impact echoes through generations. Ladies and gentlemen, Dr. Harvey Scribner.
HARVEY SCRIBNER: I'll bet you thought I wouldn't be able to get up here I am so old. What do you say? I don't know what to say at a moment like this. I am just a poor kid in one of the poorest homes you ever saw in the state of Maine, a family with two or three divorces in it, stepfather whose home brew I used to sell on the street at night, true story, true story and I just happened to get with the right people. You know, following this act up here tonight, reminded me a little of the ticket sales person on the airline when the guy came in with these three bags and bought a ticket and he said, I'd like this brown bag to go to Denville, I'd like this black bag to be sent to Los Angeles and I'd like the smallest one of the three to go to Dallas and she said, I can't do that. He said, dammit, you did it last week. You know, I've got a few notes.
They asked me to speak three minutes or something like that but I haven't seen you for about eighteen years. Some of you I haven't seen for longer than that. There are people in this audience tonight that I'd just love to get down and talk to personally all alone for a while. My neighbor, Kay Cohen over here. Kay used to give me the old spirit to stay in there and these board members who are back and later board members that came on too. And even the critics that we had. Let us not forget that critics help us how to see sometimes. But they might just think it through the second time to give it a little more thought and to ask yourself, are you really doing the right thing and believe me, if anyone ever asked himself that, I asked myself that many times, believe me. Alfred is here and I have to, AI, stand up. Can you see we are aging rather graciously? This is my 51st year in public education. God, if I am ever going to learn anything, I should have learned it by now.
But the fact is that the longer I have stayed in this business, the less I know about it. Ask me thirty years ago a question about education and I knew the answer. Today I don't know. I only know the questions. I'd do well to forget those. We are dealing with people and you don't deal with people by a formula. You have to look at it differently. But let me get on with my talk. I want to thank the Foundation too. I am not surprised. Teaneck is a great community. Alta and I have always looked back on it as a place where we learned a terrible lot about people and I had good friends and good critics I might add too. Gene, I envy you in a way. You know, you have your good days and your bad days. I don't need to tell you that. But I will tell you right now, for the rest of your living days, you are going to be, you will thank yourself that you went to Teaneck because it is a great community. And it is a good community. They give you an amount of time. They know what they want and they don't leave you alone until they get it.
And of course I am terribly grateful, Bernie Confer, he is just the way, you know him better than I do. As he behaved tonight, he would sort of put that little restraining hand on you. He would grin at me and say, Harvey, take it a little easier. I remember the night I was interviewed by the board, or the day I was interviewed by the board, and Joe Coffee, you know they asked me questions and I'd struggle as hard as I could to answer them and Joe would look right at that board member and say, did he answer that to your satisfaction? You owe a lot to these guys. George Larson, LeMar Jones, I know better than to do what I am doing now because I will always leave people out. Who did I leave out? Well Milton wasn't on during when I was hired. I remember more of the board that hired me, the one that made the mistake. I want to thank Lucy Stamilla. Lucy brought us here today. You don't know it but behind those of us who are out on the front line, there are so many back home that are doing the work and Lucy, you were a great help. Good guidance, good suggestions and a lot of follow up work. Aubrey Sher took the Red Eye last night, came from Los Angeles and came here tonight and Aubrey, I owe a great deal to you. I want to tell you how you can make a mistake, think you are so damn smart, you don't know it all.
I need to have an assistant and I preached democracy and I thought I'd practice it once in a while. I am not given to it very often. And this particular time, I had the administrative teacher council help to make this choice. And they made the choice of Aubrey. They picked him. And I had not selected Aubrey. But I said listen, I asked them to do it and I am going to stick with my conviction and I took Aubrey. They were right. Aubrey is one great person. You can't buy honesty and loyalty. And when you get those in people, you better recognize it because too few people have it today. (inaudible) and Paul Huber, I want to thank you for that nice brunch today. It was a great opportunity for us to go and for me to get a little more hoarse. I had surgery the day before Thanksgiving and the guy who put the breathing tube down my throat I think was a plumber, I am not sure. And there was a month that I couldn't talk out loud. Need I tell you how frustrated I was? But we survived it all nevertheless. The Brancato's had us up there this afternoon at five o'clock. That's where we used to live, you know. John Brancato and Robin. We don't know them all that well but we feel like we have known them for a lifetime and we are very grateful to you. You mentioned Jack Woodbry. Jack Woodbry is the guy that had the courage to go into New York with me. He was the only person I took in. The two of us went in there alone. We didn't come out alone though Jack, others came out too. Contrary to what you might be thinking, we came out on our own power.
One thing I have been able to do in my career of fifty one years is to make my own decision when I wanted to go. I may have read it incorrectly but I controlled my own agenda. I want you to know that I have selected the music for my funeral already which is to the tune of I DID IT MY WAY. It is a good time while I am passing out my thanks to people to thank the people that I really think made integration work in Teaneck. The one reason that integration worked, we never did it because we had to do it. As Matty said, we did it without any coercion from anybody. We did it because it felt in here like we had to do it and you can do anything if you feel it in here. It is when you are (inaudible) and somebody else is putting the pressure on you. But the people that really made it work were those kids who went to school. They are the ones that made it work. Fortunately for us, they were the people we tried to do it for too. And I will never forget them and their parents that first day of school. The reporter asked me outside, what was the most exciting day. I said the first day of school. Remember that morning? I remember the walkie-talkies on the desk, I remember the people around the other schools had walkie-talkies. I remember hearing that first report come in. The bus just rolled in. There is no violence. Everything is peaceful. I nearly cried I was so happy. So and tonight you know I was amazed as I rode down from Brancatos. There were so many lights on. This building seems to be all lit up. I was told it would be a ghost town. I was told they couldn't give the house away. But listen, it is too simple for us to beat on our chests tonight and say, we won. We only made the first step. I think we did win probably.
But I would like for you to find my few minutes to talk about what Teaneck would be like tonight if we hadn't done anything. I thought Matty Feldman was going to take my notes right out of my hand and give them to you for a few minutes. If we had failed to bring these kids together as we did, all of whom have resources belonging to another kid to make education rich and meaningful to people, would fail to provide the thousands and thousands of friendships in this community that never would have occurred. Now I've been to a lot of meetings, a lot of them, and I have never seen a meeting as rich as this one here tonight. This is a rich meeting. There people in this room who come from different cultures and different backgrounds and that's why you are enjoying it. This could never have happened. I'd like to think about that. That gives me courage sometimes that maybe we spent the in the right direction. This is a beautiful room. The lighting system leaves a little to be desired. We would have neglected to bring together a critical aspect. You know, we never looked upon integration in this community as a problem that had to be resolved. We looked on it as an asset, as resources that we had to put together. Good God, people go out and spend a million dollars for books and library materials, resource materials. We have people waiting to come together in this community and it is the most natural thing in the world to bring them together at no cost really, a little effort, that's all. I think what we have here tonight is beautiful and Bernie and I have put a lot of hours in but (end of tape 1 - begin tape 2) I noticed in a letter from the ex board members and people who have talked tonight have mentioned it, and it is so true. And I want to now refresh your memory and to sort of think again if I may about a few things that have happened that I probably never will forget while I was here. I never will forget the night, the day we came to town.
Alta and I, a couple of country bumpkins, and Ruth Hendredon picked us up in that T-Bird of hers and showed us around town. I met some of you that day. I also want to recall, I'd like to think about the, I mentioned the opening day of school and I want to pay special tribute to some of the people on that opening day of school. I see the principal here tonight. Typical of Teaneck that you are here. And Emil Massa I don't want to ever forget what you've done. And I don't want to kid you. Emil and I have had a few hectic moments together. There was a lot of strain for both of us but we have tremendous respect for one another because we were both working for the same cause. I will always remember, I just can't read my notes and this is terrible because I am depending upon them, I will always remember the morning that Alta and I sat up on 404 Churchill Road, I had only been here a short time, and I said to her, honey we've got to decide whether we want bread on the table and be rather certain of it or we've got to fight for something. I don't have to tell you what we decided. I remember many stressful meetings with the board, not for them necessarily, but we had among us we had this issue up on the table without splitting us all down the middle to begin with because we had to get it up there so that we could do something about it and we tried it many times and each time we seemed to get hassled a bit and it was my responsibility, I thought, to say, wait a minute. I haven't done my homework. Maybe I need to do some more homework on it.
I remember the night that Archie Lacey, and I am sorry that Archie is not here tonight, Archie I didn't know that you were here. Remember the mornings that you and Tom Boyd and I sat down at 1 West Forest Avenue and you and Tom said to me, why should we trust you right now? I thought that was a great warning. . . I trust you Archie. Do you trust me now? I've got some repetitions in here. I want to bring up something to you that I've thought about many times. You know I have an idea that you might not have integration here in Teaneck if it had not been for the two anti-integration campaigners on the board of education. I am sure the board members recognize what I am talking about. If you remember correctly, another election would have swung it so that we wouldn't have had a majority. And it forced us all to take a look at it and say, my god, if we don't move right now, we are never going to have it in this community so actually our critics brought about integration in Teaneck. I hope they didn't suffer too greatly when they hear that. But it is nonetheless the truth. Remember the Good Guy epistles? We had a lot of arguments in my office with parents who complained about their kids rolling those down the floor in the classrooms. Should I have stopped them from rolling those missiles? Isn't it all right to go to school and take a pencil with you? Must I clear them in my office before they take them? That was a great campaign. I have never seen anything as slick as that since I've been in the business. Remember the we had the night after the election? I don't know what school it was we gathered in but we were all so happy, we didn't know what to do. It stands out in my career as a night to never be forgotten.
I talked about the first day of school and the many, many other scenes that you could think of and I could think of probably and I think I probably have gone back because I do want to get down to some things. What I'd like to mention to you is probably as I have said before placing youngsters together does not constitute integration. And in thinking back, we ought to think about the difference between the meaning of the word equity and the meaning of the word equality. You have provided equality I hope but equity is another thing. I think there was a Judge Low in a bilingual education case who said, in essence, and I am paraphrasing him, there is nothing more unequal in our society than to treat unequals equally. Think about that. There is nothing any more unequal in our society than to treat unequals equally. And I've thought about that many times. We have a tendency to say, why didn't you make it? You all had an equal opportunity. I'd assume when I went to school I was an unequal and I needed a little more compassion, a little more caring, a little more encouragement, a little more kindness maybe than somebody else who saw more of that at home I am sure. I wish that schools would refrain from operating under the principle of guilty until proven innocent to one of inclusion. I can think of nothing any more typical of that look at the way our athletic team performs, operates, the only people that are really worth while on the baseball team are the people who already know how to play baseball. What's the purpose of public education - to help those who are good to be better? Yes. But how about those who can't do it at all. So, please, a policy of inclusion from the beginning. Then of course I want to take you to a few of my particular concerns in education beyond those and would have you think as you read the DAILY PRESS now about all of the people that are calling for merit rating for teachers. That this is going to resolve all the problems in public education.
Let me tell you now, you are not going to have a merit rating of teachers and the politicians whoever are calling for that just don't know what they are talking about. Because we've got some very critical questions. I think it is a great concept by the way. But it isn't going to happen and they are whistling in the dark because number one, what you think is a good teacher and what I may think is a good teacher may be two different thoughts. Who is right? You as a parent, you the person paying the bills, you whose youngster's future is at stake or me the professional? Furthermore, after we get all these people, the meritorious separated from the non-meritorious, what are you going to tell the parent who has to send the kid or the youngster to the teacher who didn't get merits? So, please don't be taken in with that. Of course I will give you an easier solution before the evening is over. I've had some great opportunities. I am probably the luckiest man in the business. One of the opportunities that I had that I snatched up quickly was an invitation from the united States Senate Subcommittee on Education to come and testify as to what I thought the issues in education were. So I took that job on with great enthusiasm and I was pushing to them the concept of radical, very radical - but what else would you expect from me? But very reasonable and that is that we ought to have the schools establish educational programs and advertise them publicly and be responsible for you and every other parent in the community in knowing what is being offered and the parent make the choice as to where their child would like to go to school. Somehow in American public education, we got to get a greater commitment.
We've got to get out of this prescriptive type of education which tells you where your child is going to go to school before he or she is even born depending on where he or she lives. We've got to get to the point where you and that child selects the school, you and that child have a commitment, you and that child have a feeling of ownership and a feeling of some control over your own destiny. Now before you turn it down, you read all of the other teachers coming forward and all the other solutions, and you ask yourself, if we are going to have an informed population in this country and believe me, one of the most serious problems in public education today is the fact that the parents don't know enough about it, I didn't say don't know anything, but they don't know enough about it, and we are going to move to where they know more about it, you've got to give them an honest role to participate in it and people are always telling me, but they won't participate. Give them a chance to make a real decision. Not to decide how many people you are going to cut the cake into, not to decide some little miniscule affair, but really decide, yeah, I want my kid to go there. Now you say, well what about transportation, all those buses involved. We were not into buying buses by the way, we were into integration. Buses are only a part of making the integration work and we tried to keep point out of some of it. We've got transportation enough in this country to do anything we want to do with public education to work better and I believe if we could get people making choices and changes, good god, if you make a mistake, have the right to make a second one if you want to.
I have changed many times in my career. I went to that little school up in Unity, Maine where I started teaching school and buckled in there for eight years. I think we ought to think seriously about family choice education. We ought to take a look at what we are doing in education that doesn't speak to the issue at all. It is the way we operate on a victim/blame principle. If kids are slow learners, we want them to have more time to learn. We want to do the same thing over more times. We ought to take a look at why it is that kids are slow 1earners. What is it we didn't do the first time as far as I am concerned. We ought to take a look at the whole aspect of education that deals with what's causing these things to happen and I could cite you many situations that are working that way right now. This whole matter of testing the teachers, if you aren't getting good teachers, you've got to get to your board of education and your superintendent of schools. There should not be anybody out there who isn't any good. If they can't get rid of them for some reason, they'd have to be tenure logged (inaudible) Don't deal with the victim; deal with the cause of the situation. I'd like to remind you when I talk about testing, we ought to be very concerned about the way this country is taking tests. My God, we decide whether or not a kid can go to school by whether or not he can pass a test. I ask you, which one should go to school - the kid who can pass the test or the kid who can't pass the test? What are we talking about? We decide whether or not the kid can leave school. You've got to pass a test. If you can show me one ounce of relationship, proven relationship, between the score you get on the test and how well you teach school, I'll pick up the tab or Alta will pick it up for this dinner. We don't have any evidence for that. We are going after the victims. We are going to blame the teachers. Look, we aren't going to get anywhere in education when one of the biggest problems we have in it today as far as I am concerned - and I am going to skip right down to this one because you must be getting tired of all of this - but now the biggest problem we have in spite of all of the crimes we hear, is the fact that no one wants to go in teaching today, or very few people want to go into teaching today, because we don't have a system for rewarding those who do better than others.
In other words, it is a system of mediocrity. I am in this locked-in system of paying people on same salary, with the same years, with the same experience, the same education, who'd want to join that? The best teacher can't get a nickel more than the worst teacher. And it can't be resolved because we can't agree on what constitutes excellence in teaching. What you think is excellent, as I said a while ago, I might not think is excellent. (inaudible) Now you'd probably say to me, but Harvey, how do we know it is going to work? Well, I don't know. In this system, I've been in it for fifty years and I would say that it is not working too well. You look across America today, and 23% of the kids in public education are dropping right out. You look at the 20 largest cities in this country tonight, and you will find that over 40% are dropping out. You and I ought not to be sleeping well as long as that is happening in America. Do you know how many hundreds of thousands of kids that constitutes every year? We get ourselves focused on how well things are going at home, how well things are going in my (inaudible) and as I said to the folks up in Vermont when I went up there, these problems are not (inaudible) the problems of the big cities today are not the problems.
The problems are what are happening with the dropout situation in the American public schools today are your problems. Hundreds of thousands of kids a year that you are going to meet down the road someday. And everyone of them you are going to pay for. And you are not going to resolve it by testing teachers. We've got to get at the structure of American public education. In the years 1980 and 90, we've got to deal with the way the kids go to school. You've got to go with a commitment. You've got to go with the idea that you chose that. You've got to go with the idea that it belongs to him, a piece of it. And he's got to have some feeling and responsibility over his own destiny. You can't take that for him. As it is today, though lots of kids are happy in school, you've got to admit that they didn't make those choices, they have no commitment, and it is resting on somebody else's shoulder. So I'll leave you with a little thought. (inaudible) You folks gave me the best education I'll ever have. If I am good, you get the credit; if I am bad, you are going to have to take some of the responsibility. You taught me to do these things. But I must say, I am grateful tonight and I will be eternally grateful to you folks for the things I've learned from you. I learned how to live with people better than I'd ever learned before in my life. You know why? I never had anybody look any different from me before. I have told you this many times. I don't suppose I knew six Jewish families when I came to Teaneck. I never worked with two black children in all my school career. So I think perhaps telling you that, you will understand why I am grateful to you. God knows, I love everyone of you and thank you so much.
I'd like to recognize a person this evening, a distinguished former board of education member, Kathleen Shanahan Cohen. There is no reason to get settled back down again because the rest of the evening is the dancing to the sounds of the (inaudible)