Known Unknowns — The Child's Question

The New York City council defeated a magnet school program because it would inflict stress on the public school system.

PS 123

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” ― Frederick Douglass

Midtown New York City is thousands of miles from PS 123 in Harlem. But about five statute miles as the crow flies. Beginning at Central Park’s northern extremity on 116th, the area continues to the East River and sends the same message as Alcatraz prison — try to escape, and you will drown.

Harlem was discovered by Dutch traders in 1658 who named it after a city in the Netherlands. It is technically part of upper Manhattan, although no one calls it anything but Harlem. Founded before the American Revolution, Harlem is still searching for an identity.

There is no ‘welcome to Harlem’ sign. Despite nearly $1.5 billion a year in public assistance, an amount greater than the GDP of 28 nations including Somalia and St. Lucia, there isn’t a Harlem University, nor a Museum of Harlem, or a sports team (long gone is the entertainment troupe, Harlem Globe Trotters). There are plenty of churches representing the spirit of hope, outnumbered by bars and drug dens demonstrating abandonment.

The border between Manhattan and Harlem exists as surely as if a wall were built to divide the good life from a ghetto in decline. The avenues of Manhattan, or what locals affectionately call “the city,” are festooned with flower boxes and shop windows that display treasures worth a year’s salary to those who live north of the divide. In the other part of Manhattan, north of 116th Street, you are more likely to find tenements with sagging beams, window frames shielded by plywood, and homeless lounging in substance induced stupor looking for help and finding trouble. After a jaunt around town, the conclusion is that the citizens of this once great village have been vandalized, but not in the way people think.

When I was asked what school I wanted to tutor, I replied a 5th-grade class in Harlem.

A Failure To Lead

“The city presents a microcosm of modern life, its worst and its best. Here are broad avenues and fetid streets. Here are palaces on which self extravagance has lavished every luxury. And here tenements, where men, women, and children are crowded like maggots in cheese. Here are the noblest putting forth energies for the redemption of their fellow man. And here the hopeless specimens of degraded humanity. What shall we do with our great cities?

— The Reverend Lyman Abbot, Plymouth Chruch Brooklyn

The words of Lyman Abbot demonstrate that not much has changed since 1891. Harlem was once a proud Italian and Jewish community before becoming a proud African American community known for soul food and jazz, the original American musical genre. Then activists discovered they could make more money screaming about poverty than curing it. That money went into the politicians' coffers, and out of it came a very vicious circle. They did what undertakers do, turn tragedy into a good living.

Demagogues are armed with weapons. They start by fear-mongering and graduate to something abstract like social justice. Now, a toxic cocktail of racist ideology, drugs, crime, and poverty fuel resentment. More importantly, they simulate activist donors. Elected administrators lack the skills to run a complex organization, so nothing changes. For example, when graffiti got out of control, a New York mayor called it street art, making it cool and acceptable. It is an invasive species, and now there is nothing but graffiti on the walls. The mess with Covid vaccines is only the latest example. Former students of Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan recall his warning that tolerance of disorder was ‘defining deviancy down.’

Harlem’s caretakers turned deviancy into art: the art of Jazz to the art of magic markers.

Bill de Blasio, New York’s colossally incompetent Mayor, is a descendant of proud German immigrants, whose real name is Warren Wilhelm. He goes by his mother’s maiden name, De Blasio, to establish ethnic cred among gullible constituents. He spent $35 million on racial bias consulting aimed at primarily Hispanic teachers over buying enough mousepads for computers. I know, because I bought them (the class of 25 shared one mouse pad). If Thomas Hobbes were writing about life for a kid growing up in Harlem, he would call it nasty, brutish, and solitary.

I was to discover, Hobbes was wrong.

PS 123 Halloween (Photo: Facebook)

The Wisdom of Fifth Graders

Every Tuesday, I drove up to Riverside Drive to 125th Street. From the backseat car window, I saw boarded storefronts, dilapidated townhouses with iron bars. I asked the driver to let me off a half-block from the school. I thought it was better to walk than have students call me “the limo teacher.”

When I learned what teachers had to say about PS 123, I knew I was in for a lesson in living under adversity. Here are some comments from a website:

“Students fight each other on almost a daily basis. If they say that they are “playing,” no one is held accountable.

“Students regularly curse their teachers. Parents also threaten teachers.”

“For teachers who are considering work. the middle school has almost 100 percent turnover.”

“The school is surrounded by domestic violence shelters.”

“Students are jeopardizing teachers’ safety.”

“Teachers are subject to allegations by students — the politics are not in your favor.”

“I am praying for this school. It is so poorly managed. The leadership shows disdain for the students.”’

As I entered the reinforced glass and steel front door, Jean Claude greeted me there smiling. He was a Haitian refugee who became a 5th-grade teacher of economics at PS 123 and a man that would introduce me to the young boy who changed my outlook. His smile suggested that he was high or I was the Messiah. It turned out to be neither.

The class of 25 African American and Latino students looked like a casting call for football and ballet. They were robust, slight, dainty, tall and short, rolled into one. Many had been left back a grade or two, which explains the larger ones. But what struck me was their blazingly bright eyes, looking as if I had arrived from some far-away place.

This was early November, so I asked about Halloween. Did their parents take them trick or treating? Two raised hands. One child said, “I don’t live with my parents.” Okay. I didn't have a clue until that moment that Harlem children don’t all have parents. They live with grandparents or in foster homes after mom and dad disappear.

Jean Claude told me that PS 123 fell into the top third of Harlem schools. It meant I was teaching the top Harlem students. That day taught me they were better positioned to succeed than the kids on Fifth avenue. The reason was they knew what they wanted to be when they grew up.

Troy raised his hand and said, “can I ax you a personal question?”

I wasn’t concerned about the question, but I worried about mispronunciation.

I asked him to pronounce the word correctly, and I stretched it, aaasssskkk.

He worked up his mouth into a twisted knot like a muscle doing curls, but only ax, ax, ax, came out.

I looked around and saw that none of the children could say “ask.” All of them said, “ax.”

“May I ax you a question?”

One of my mandates was to explain the merit of entrepreneurship, and these kids were born to be traders, merchandisers, and negotiators. My fear that was “ax” may be acceptable in Harlem, but what happens on Wall Street or Madison Avenue or Silicon Valley, and say, “can I ax you about a wafer chip?”

The spiral downwards is what we call the butterfly effect. Wings flap in China, and a few weeks later, a tornado appears in the Pacific Ocean. I worried about a tornado because I didn’t take the time to get the children to say the word ask. I thought, let’s fix this thing.

An idea popped into my head. As it was Halloween, I said, “what do you wear on your face?”

They responded, “a mask.“ No problem. There was hope.

From now on, instead of ‘ax,’ say can I ‘mask’ you a question.

They thought this was very funny, and as if I said who wants ice cream, they began ‘masking’ questions. I still don’t know whether it helped, but they learned how to pronounce the word ask.

I circled back to Troy. What was it you wanted to “mask” me?

Troy beamed. He had one of those impish smiles that melt the world. He could be naughty, but you loved him more for it. And then he masked the question. It turned into one of those fateful moments.

“Are you rich?”

When a fifth-grader asks, he’s just curious. You know he’s truthful y because thirteen-year-olds don’t lie, unless they are caught with chocolate smudges on the collar, then they always lie.

A thousand things when through my head. I knew the answer, but I was not too fond of it. It was bad enough I was the limo teacher. What does rich mean to children whose parents are away serving time? Would they feel inferior? Would I make it worse for them?

“What do you think, Troy?”

“I think you are rrreeeeallly rich. You always wear a suit to school.”

Clever lad, that. He had sized me up, figured out my world, and was only wondering what’s it like. Imagination sets you free. When we stop children from asking or tell them lies, their imagination shuts down. When we give them the straight dope, the unthinkable becomes real, and they begin to reimagine their lives. Troy’s question came down to one thing: is there room for me?

My reply was, “Do you want to be rich, Troy? And then, “who else?” If you want a unanimous vote from children, other than ice cream, ask them who wants to be rich.

“They knew what they wanted, now all society needed was to show them the way.”

The children wanted what every child wants from the age they say they will be a fireman or ballerina, to live an extraordinary life. His question was intended to discover a way forward. To me, this was the best news I had heard.

As Churchill said, it marked not the beginning of the end but the end of the beginning. They knew what they wanted. All society needed was to show the way and remove a few roadblocks like “Can I ax you a question?”

When I finished my volunteer teaching, I reached out to the PS 123 kids, but they went their own way over the years. Then I read in the local paper that the New York City council defeated a magnet school program — for which they would all be eligible — because the grand poobah activists felt it would inflict stress on the public schools. How I would love to inflict some stress on the city council members.

Union-funded activists protesting against charter schools

But there is hope, even though public officials may not inspire it. You find it in grandparents who raise children’s children, Jean Claude's one mouse pad computer class, and when a student says the word ‘mask’ instead of ‘ax.’ Hope is a child asking if a teacher is rich. Hope is the teacher not knowing how to answer because the smart child has already figured it out.

Harlem deserves hope.


I received an email from one of the boys in the class, Charleston. He asked if I was ever left-back in school. It was one of the few times I wanted to lie. In those days, ‘left-back’ meant you were scarred. I told him he was a child who had gifts that took longer to unwrap.

It was a hard question, one of many.



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Jeff Cunningham

Jeff Cunningham

Just trying to make sense of things. ex-publisher Forbes