Meadows-Livingstone School teaches young African Americans about themselves and their cultural history
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.
"Sometimes, when I was at my old school, they talked about blacks badly," said one student. "They said they were stupid and dumb. And I still didn't believe it, but now I learned about my heritage and I learned that we're stronger and we have more spirit."
Or, as he said, "Black power makes me feel strong."
A 12-year-old who would be leaving the school soon told me a story of how the school influenced. "One of the kids in my neighborhood, he said, 'We're all niggers,'" he explained. "I said, 'No we're not. We're regular black kids.'"
As another child put it, "Black power means that you have strength and nobody can push you around, like, like you're just a little duck and everyone else is a coyote."
From a long line of teachers, Meadows' life work has been dedicated to educating and empowering young people. She taught her first class at age 10, before studying education at Kansas State University. She was teaching at Montessori schools when she decided to start her own.
Meadows-Livingstone school came out of a wave of alternative education informed by 1960s liberation movements. The Black Panther party, a part of the history that the children Meadows-Livingstone learn, had a 10-point platform laying out the ways that racism intersects with inequality in education, along with housing, treatment by the justice system, and other facets of society.
Point five says, "We believe in an educational system that will give to our people a knowledge of the self. If you do not have knowledge of yourself and your position in the society and in the world, then you will have little chance to know anything else."
Meadows-Livingstone continues this part of the Panther legacy, and not just ideologically.
"At one point in our school we had maybe 15 kids whose relatives had been Panthers," says Meadows.
"We have a grandfather who brings fruit every week," she says, continuing the spirit of the Free Breakfast Program. "And he was a Panther."
The children also learn about prominent Panthers. "They play a Panther tag game, and they would cry if they couldn't be Angela Davis or Huey P. Newton," she said.
On Fridays, the children read poetry. "They really like to recite poems written by African Americans, it gives them hope. They're stuck on Langston Hughes, they like Gwendolyn Brooks too."
The school costs $700 a month, but many of the students are subsidized by The Basic Fund, a private foundation.
Meadows also uses partnerships with city institutions to enhance the curriculum. The children spend time every week swimming at Garfield public pool on Treat Street, and playing tennis, and partnering with Acrosports for tumbling lessons. The swimming lessons hold a particularly strong symbolism, as generations of African Americans in Jim Crow states were denied opportunities to swim.
Tributes to Black historical figures decorate the school's walls. Children's art on "Black Inventors" and "Louis Armstrong, the king of jazz" are displayed, along with a large version of the iconic photograph of John Carlos and Tommie Smith doing the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics.
When asked about Malcolm X, 20 hands shot up to talk about a figure important to their studies.
As one child explained it: "Malcolm X, he said if somebody's hits you or hurts your family, he's not going to turn the other cheek. He's going to fight back. He's like, you hurt my family, I'll hurt yours. Martin Luther King, he said if a white person hits you, don't fight back, make peace."
"That's nonviolence" another chimed in.
When listing their personal heroes, many kids included King and Malcolm. "Muhammad Ali, Yele, and you, Gail!" one exclaimed, the middle hero referring to the school's drumming and African Civilization teacher, Akinyele Sadiq.
In the summer, most of the students go off to Camp Winnarainbow, the hippie-circus camp that Meadows calls "almost like an extension of our school." Many of the children have parents who attended the school, and when I ask if they're excited to graduate, all the kids frown and one says, "I don't want to leave!" Others are more calm at the question. The school provides a safe haven for bullied kids and a source of ethnic pride. One 12-year-old tells me that when he goes to middle school next year, he'll make new friends but, "I won't follow them if they do something bad." He sighs when I ask if he will be sad to leave. "Yeah," he says, "But we all have to move on."