On Monday, June 4, students at the Meadows-Livingstone School rehearsed for their annual end-of-the-year performance. It was bleak and rainy out, but the small, essentially one-room schoolhouse that houses the private elementary school was bursting with energy.
Twenty kids, first through sixth graders, were practicing: they sang Wade in the Water and a welcoming song in Swahili. During The Greatest Love of All, a seven-year old crooned her solo: "People need someone to look up to, I never found anyone who fulfilled my needs." But then the kids broke out into the Neville Brothers' Sister Rosa, ("Thank you Miss Rosa, you are the spark! You started our freedom movement!") and then a rap about Malcolm X.
At this school, located at Potrero and 25th streets, those needs are fulfilled.
This end-of-the-year performance will showcase what the children have learned all year in an elementary school education built around lessons on African and African American history and culture. As Gail Meadows, the school's founder and principal, puts it: "We have an Afro-centric school. We have a classical African Civilization class, and have books, videos, games, focused on African Americans. The kids learn African songs, they learn African American field songs."
Meadows says is offers more than the cursory black history that is usually taught: "At most schools, you'll learn about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, and that's it."
All of the children at Meadows-Livingstone are of African descent. "We're not nationalists," Meadows says. "The kids understand the world is of many colors, and you can't live in this world by yourself."
But spending some crucial elementary school time specifically for African Americans, Meadows believes, does wonders for her students' abilities to navigate that world.
As Meadows tells it, she's motivated partly because she didn't get the same experience as a child. "I lived in a small campus town and went to an all-white school. My mother used to say that she had to undo everything that was done."
Her education included books shaped by her parents to include black children ("They would search tirelessly for children's books representing people of color, or they would just change the stories") and distrust of television ("My father would say, why watch something that doesn't validate you as a child?"). At her school, she recalls being in "a play that included a line, 'Don't drink coffee. It will make you black, and that's bad.'"
For children in San Francisco today, Meadows says this feeling of belonging is as important as ever. "There's an exodus of people of color out of San Francisco," she says. "That means children of color are in classrooms with people who are not educated about African American culture. And they're educated by a media that gives them a skewed view of who they are."
This lack of education can often lead to racist bullying. a large reason why many students transfer to Meadows' school.
"There are students that transfer into my school after having bad experiences, and they don't know how to confront the person who said something offensive to them," says Meadows. "In my school they learn to confront. An angry confrontation isn't productive. It should be direct, they should be able to explain, here's the real story about that stereotype."
This education helps when kids leave the Meadows-Livingstone school for middle schools across the city.
"People ask them questions like, are you in a gang? Do you have a house? All these stereotypes they've read about, all of a sudden they're right there," Meadows says. "If you know who you are, you can live through that. Its easier."
At a recent visit to the school, some students described their own experiences.