I grew up in Harlem on 159th Street, in the Colonial Park Houses. They became Ralph J. Rangel at some point. I, like so many of the people who grew up in the 60s and 70s, had a dysfunctional family. We rebelled against what was going on in our house by going to the streets. I guess you could say the street played as much a part in our development as our parents did. The knowledge the street gave us came from being in certain situations, dealing with drugs and learning about people. While I’m not condoning drugs, you did have to learn to count, divide and multiply to be profitable in the game. The ability to tell fake from real people just came from listening and judging where that person was coming from. Being in the street you were always in situations where you had to think your way through or you could end up dead. Harlem gave us all that and more. The lessons we learned from growing up in Harlem enabled us to deal with any curveballs that life threw at us. While a lot of us didn’t finish school or some did, what I did was I got a GED. There does come a point when you realize that if you want to be a legitimate person you have to get an education. And street knowledge, while it taught me to survive, wasn’t what was needed in a job.
I went to Washington Irving H.S. or, better, I didn’t go there. I remember my mother being called to school because of my excessive absences. The counselor told my mother I wasn’t going to amount to anything. While what she would say stung me, it still didn’t hurt me enough to make me want to go; in fact, it had the opposite effect because I really stopped going. My day consisted of sitting on the school steps shooting the breeze with my friends, drinking until the day ended. I felt the same way so many might feel like. I thought, “What you learn in school is not used in the real world.” What I didn’t realize though was that my thinking was looking into the future. My thinking was flawed.
School may not prepare you to deal with life situations in a realistic way. I say realistic because I was a black female living in Harlem, and my household was not like those across 110th Street in the white area. Education was not geared for me because it did not know my needs or those of my community. What I didn’t understand was that, in order to be somebody and not just anybody, you needed to play by the rules, which meant getting an education. What I learned is you might not need education, but you do need what education provides. School provides you with a job that has benefits, not just a job working for a weekly salary with no benefits. School provides you with self-esteem: you feel good about yourself. Though going out to the street gives you self-esteem, it gives you the wrong kind. School gives you the ability to make money, legitimate money. School gives you a place in society that you can be proud of, and people can be proud of you. When I was in my 50s I got my associate degree from UOP, not because I needed it as I had already changed my life. I had a government job. I went back to school for my daughter and grandsons, to be able to show them that it’s never too late to do anything you put your mind to. I felt proud hanging my degree on my wall, knowing that I did accomplish getting an education.
I’ve concluded you need both street and school education to be able to reach your full potential, because each has its benefits in shaping the world we live in. It’s a tough world out there, and you need to understand people – which you learn from the street – but you also need school to move up the ladder. I want to be clear on one thing: I’m not saying all kids should rebel against their parents to get knowledge from the street. What I am saying is the people who grew up with me who have grandkids should teach them about the things that we learned from hanging around. Talk to them about the situations that you’ve been in and that they might also encounter. Take them to the neighborhood, and tell them how each Cotton Club, Red Rooster Bar or Apollo Theatre played a role in your life. Then let school take care of the rest and mold them further.