Some men wallow in misery; others rise from depression and create change
Posted Jan 07 2009 3:19pm
As America prepares to swear-in its first African-American president, seminal figures whose names don't trigger instant recognition the same way as Barack Obama or Martin Luther King Jr. do - but are heroes to many, nonetheless - come to mind.
There was Richard Wright, who captured the struggle of racial oppression in the prison system nearly two decades before the civil rights movement with his 1940 novel, "Native Son." There was Don Haskins, the coach of Texas-Western who started an all-African-American team against the racially exclusive University of Kentucky basketball team in the 1966 NCAA championship, and won.
Others may say, "Dig deeper, and you'll find more." I'm reading books that capture the civil-rights spirit of people who I've struggled to find on Google search lists (why is that, anyway?). But some argue they've done more for their neighborhood, their community and even their country than many of the today's civil rights leaders who seem to consider appearances on television news programs and talk shows to be a greater priority than the cause.
Few men learned the art of coping, and successfully converting tragedy into hope than Orlando Gober, a former Black Panther and deceased former principal of Rice Catholic High School in Harlem.
Orlando was a young up-and-comer in 1985 whose young career as a high school principal was almost cut short when an asthmatic child who accompanied him on a field trip - and tested herself by embarking on a long-distance hike - died in his arms. Gober survived weeks of depression and declined physically, becoming a diabetic.
But he stayed at the New York City private school, St. Mark's, until he moved to Rice High School, where he became dean of students in the early 1990s. In 1999, at 46, he became a principal at Rice, one of the few African-Americans at the time to head a Catholic High School in the country.
While there, he left a mark that few other people could, inspiring hundreds of African-Americans with the force of his personality and his presence. When Gober spoke, everybody did more than listen. They were empowered.
And the 1999-00 school year would be the year that Gober made his biggest impact, before more tragedy would bookend a career full of ups and downs. That year, instill promise and hope in the minds of hundreds of African-Americans by imploring the importance of his mission: Getting an education.
Orlando was a big man who was no-nonsense talker and leader. He demanded that people not use his school as a babysitter, as so many parents do. He wanted them to show up for admission interviews with the principal with the idea that, when they were to leave Rice, they would have more than just a piece of paper in their hand. They would be better, smarter and mature young adults. Most who showed up for the interviews accepted his mission; those who didn't were shown the door.
Most of his staff accepted this mission, too, even as some butted heads with Gober continuously, and viewed his strong-willed character as stubbornness that seemed to trump fairness. Those who stayed around, however, believed Gober's positives greatly outweighed his negatives.
One who stuck around was a man known as Brother Walderman, who had been at Rice long before Gober's arrival. He was a more liberal elder of the Catholic order, a product of Vatican II. He constantly reminded people that his school was about providing a religious education but, more importantly, producing results. He frequently rolled off the list of successful people who graduated from Rice, including bank executives, basketball player Rod Strickland and a prominent member of Run DMC.
Even with all this support, however, going to the next level was always a struggle for many of the kids. Many dropped out; graduation class sizes were small - usually around 100 or less. The students always had to balance the demands of their neighborhood with what was good for them. When some students were former or active drug pushers, it was hard for the staff - and for the students themselves - to steer to the right path.
But Orlando was a powerful leader, and people knew that - particularly parents, and enrollment increased when he was put in charge. Slogans from him were everywhere, either frequently repeated by the students as they sat in class, or posted on the walls of the hallways. Kids entering this place understood that they were going to be disciplined if they crossed the line - and they had to leave the street behind them, slipping on uniforms and slipping off other clothing wear that the school viewed as troublesome. Orlando, who saw race in virtually all things, employed his brother as a teacher, but his closest bond is with Chris Abbasse, a former partier who reformed himself and advocated in discipline. The two butted heads frequently when Gober first arrived at Rice. But Abbasse learned how to work with Gober and, together, they were an inseperable and powerful force.
Orlando, meanwhile, had run-ins with teachers who were as strong-willed as he is. One, in particular, was a science teacher who refused to do lab because, in his view, the students were not up for it. Orlando replaced him before the 2000-01 year with somebody more inferior, a teacher who ended up quitting after a few months. But the move was made for one reason: He didn't accept Gober's mission.
Other teachers were inexperienced. The math teacher was clueless, but math teachers were a dime a dozen, and Gober did his best to work with employees who were struggling but were considered necessary.
Many teachers left after only a year or two - and not just because of the pay. Orlando was overbearing, and some got an earful whenever they didn't see things Gober's way.
The students got an earful, too, but Orlando almost always mixed harsh words with compassion.
Gober always felt like a cloud was over his head: Losing people to the streets was like death. He didn't want to lose another one like he did in 1985.
Still, at the beginning of the 1999-00 school year, Orlando was not happy with freshman class. Early on, he chewed them out in classroom after classroom. Eventually, they caught on - and accepted his mission and purpose - just as they did at every school that employed Gober as an administrator.
Gober excelled in his first teaching job in the 1970s, but was taken aback when St. Mark's intiially treated him poorly. He went on to become a principal at another school but, ironically, went back to St. Mark's to become an administrator. The school at the time was afraid it was going to close; by the time he left, Gober doubled the enrollment.
Gober was married and then divorced, but he was more married to his work. He practically adopted some students, while he closely monitored others.
Some came in looking "gangsta," but he straightened them out through schooling and inspiration. Though he was diabetic, and despite having a poor diet and sometimes missing meals, Gober lived for these students and got them to work.
He also found time for fun. In 1999, Rice had its annual "Rice Jam," which went pretty well, save for a few flare ups. One student, named Larry, struck Orlando in the face. But, despite his reputation for toughness, he didn't expel him. Instead, Gober viewed it as youthful stupidity that wouldn't last.
Gober, in particular, had a good relationship with a student named Yusef, who didn't have a father and dealt drugs. While drugs exploded in the 1980s but tailed off in the 90s, Yusef tried to make a go of it as a way to support himself and his family. While at Rice, however, Yusef gave up the street life and bonded with Orlando better than anybody.
Other students bonded with the staff. One student, named Linwood, was smart but hyper. His dad was in jail, and he couldn't calm down. Linwood did well in school but not on his SATs. He bonded with the guidance counselor on his own volition, practically barging through the man's door whenever he wanted to see him. Others don't show that kind of initiative.
Ironically, few students from this school have gone to big places. Two boys made it to Columbia University once, but dropped out after their junior year. But graduation was viewed as the main, all-encompassing goal.
During the 1999-00 school year, teachers often complained about Orlando behind his back. They said they lost some of their best teachers because he forced them out. But Gober excelled at diffusing controversy by employing his skills as a showman.
During one gripe session, for instance, Gober burst into the middle of it and announced that Rice was a Vanguard school. The conversation was over; the celebration for the accomplishment began.
Gober believed that students - the poor ones, in particular - came first. He saw it as a connection to origins of Catholic schooling in the United States, when Irish made up the underclass for a long time.
Catholics wanted to lift the Irish up, so Catholic schools became the vehicle. To Gober and others, however, that mission got lost at Catholic schools began to cater to the suburbs. The enrollemnt of the city Catholic schools went on the decline after peaking in the 50s and 60s. Gober and Walderman hoped to reverse the trend.
All that didn't prevent Gober from being tough on students - even as they considered it tough love. During the 1999-00 school year, Yusef was suspected of dealing drugs, and he was accused of stealing a hat. Even though he was a Gober favorite, he had to go. He treated "Gobe" like a dad, often going to his office just to put his head on his shoulder. Even after his expulsion, however, Gober found a way to help Yusef, placing him in a Bronx school.
By the end of the year, the students improved, overall, and people like Linwood defied the odds and graduate. The basketball team won the championship, but they were also good students - a high priority in Orlando's eyes.
Many were inspired by Gober's speeches and his talks in class. The former Black Panther often equated the academic struggle with the civil rights struggle, and implored people to read the works of famous black figures.
Even though Orlando's diabetic symptoms got worse during the course of the year, his presence was dominant. He felt rejuvenated by the praise he received at a prayer breakfast at graduation. But his willingness to sacrifice his own health for the sake of the students became inspirational and legendary.
Despite recommendations against it, Gober taught during the summer of 2000 when he should have been getting a rest. But his health dramatically declined in August, when his brother noticed that he was developing Gangrene.
One day, the brother found Gober in a coma in his apartment. Orlando barely survived but his leg was amputated.
Later, despite feeling ashamed that he let the problem go as long as it did, he truly discovered the impact he had on people. He received an enormous amount of well-wishng through cards and calls. During the 2000-01 year, the school hung on even while he wasn't not there, doing work from his hospital bed. He made a triumphant return at the 2001 graduation, and he returned full-time as principal in September.
Physically, however, he was never the same. He became thinner and less mobile, and he was unable to impose his will in the same way. He was unable to connect with people as much. He was finally - and mercifully - dismissed in 2003, and then scouted around for jobs.
Then he suddenly died on the first day of school in 2005 - a month before the 20th anniversary of Samantha Brown's death, the girl who died in his arms.
But, as noted in The Street Stops Here, many now say they wouldn't have lived past their own struggles without Gober behind them, coaching them through times of trouble and triumph.