Thomas Webber

A White Kid Growing Up in Black and Brown Spanish Harlem

VTR Date: June 30, 2005

Dr. Thomas L. Webber discusses his coming-of-age memoir.


GUEST: Dr. Thomas Webber
VTR: 06/03/2005

I’m Richard Heffner, your host of The Open Mind … and my guest today is one of the most interesting persons I’ve met in all my years now of moderating its “Book Talk” series for Columbia University’s prestigious Teachers College.

Thomas L. Webber is a Harvard graduate with a Ph.D. in education from TC. An expert on education in our inner cities and the founder and Superintendent/Executive Director of Edwin Gould Academy, he grew up mostly in Spanish Harlem, the neighborhood where he and his wife raised their own family and continue to call home.

Now, what brought Tom Webber and me together, of course, was his wonderfully sensitive and evocative Scribner book, Flying Over 96th Street: The Memoir of an East Harlem White Boy.

Publishers Weekly accurately called it “an exemplary coming-of-age memoir”. And Piri Thomas, the author of “Down These Mean Streets” wrote as a blurb on the back of the book and I hope you’ll read the book and read the blurb: “Bravo to Tom Webber for such a beautifully written and sensitive reflection on his boyhood as a white kid growing up in black and brown Spanish Harlem in the 1950s and 60s. His unique vantage point helps debunk commonly held stereotypes about Spanish Harlem, its people, youth and race relations in general. And strengthens our connections to one another through an understanding of our shared history.

“Webber has created a blend of heartfelt innocence, historical document and social commentary in this warm and multi-textured memoir. Webber’s sincerity, optimism, and honest insights are refreshingly uplifting.”

But I wonder whether that sincerity, and that optimism, and those honest insights, don’t also in a sense make this experience one of a kind. And that’s really the question I put to you first, Tom. Could it be possible that someone could develop the sensitivities you’ve developed without that kind of “flying over 96th Street”?

WEBBER: I think, sure, every human being has that ability to develop that kind of sensitivity. It’s a mindset that you think of how to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes. I think a lot of New Yorkers have that experience. As I’ve gone around talking about this book and reading passages from it, the number of people who have had cross-cultural experiences in America, from a Chinese person growing up in Minnesota, to an Italian Catholic person in a Jewish neighborhood … I think it’s the ability to, to really put yourself in somebody else’s shoes.

It is a unique experience. There were not very many other white people in East Harlem when we were growing up. And I think it’s somewhat extreme possibly. I mean it was a … public housing projects. And my father only was able to live there because he had taken a vow of poverty in the parish he helped start, so we were there with welfare families and people in very … below the poverty line, living in this public housing project, the only white family.

So, I guess …to that point it’s somewhat extreme. But I reject the notion that we all can’t be cross culturally sensitive or aware of what it might feel like to be black or a woman or gay if you’re not one of those three things.

HEFFNER: Yeah, I, I hear what you’re saying, but I have a suspicion that that’s that Harlem domicile related optimism and humanism …


HEFFNER: … that was created out of that experience which so few people have. And you’re saying “what” about that?

WEBBER: I’m saying that human optimism is not something that is, is a …comes from a given experience in life, is it? It’s something that is a sort of personality trait, it comes from all kinds of things you have with your parents … anyone from a loving home and optimistic parents, I think.

If anything my parents gave me … it’s a sense of … you can change the world, you can affect things, you’re an active person, you can make the world better. It’s your job to make it better. And it should be fun to make it better. It should be something that fulfills you.

HEFFNER: But you …

WEBBER: … that doesn’t, you don’t have to live in Harlem to have that sense … or …

HEFFNER: But you know you’re making it more and more of a unique situation, as you speak, because it’s true …

WEBBER: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: … as I read this wonderful book and read about your parents and realized that it was your father who felt he had …


HEFFNER: … a mission to perform and left a very comfortable upper middle class situation up at Columbia … at Union Theological …

WEBBER: Right.

HEFFNER: … to move to Spanish Harlem …

WEBBER: And I guess … the experience was unique.


WEBBER: But I’m rejecting the idea that unless you have that unique experience you’re off the hook. You don’t have to be optimistic, you don’t have to be caring about others, you don’t have to try and serve folks. It’s not humanly sort of uplifting for you.

I go around talking to high school kids all the time. I mean that’s my message. Whether they’re poor kids, or White kids from, from the Collegiate School for Boys … that it’s your ability to enter into human contacts with people, to give yourself to them that makes your life fulfilling. And I truly believe that and I found it … I’ve met many, many people who’ve had … not had my experience that are more optimistic and giving than I am.


WEBBER: I’m not the epitome of that … I have my own dark sides and my own being careful about protecting my own self that … I’m not as giving as a lot of people I’ve met in life. I don’t know who your, your folks are … but …

HEFFNER: [Laughter] But you see … you, you seem to think that I say this as a means of getting off the hook. If you haven’t had that experience …

WEBBER: Well …

HEFFNER: … you don’t have a moral obligation … a human obligation …

WEBBER: Right.

HEFFNER: … to respond to individuals one by one as you have in your lifetime.

WEBBER: Right. Okay.

HEFFNER: That isn’t what I mean.

WEBBER: Okay. What are you saying then?

HEFFNER: I’m talking about how blessed you were …

WEBBER: I’m with you there.

HEFFNER: … that situation that you had … your parents, their nature as you described your father and your mother …

WEBBER: Absolutely.

HEFFNER: … and your siblings.

WEBBER: The only thing I would say to that is … that’s so true, but it was still hard. There were some very, very hard things we had to go through. And I think my personality, out of the five kids … my personality was sort of the most up-beat for whatever reason, naturally and more gregarious in a certain way … outreaching. Plus my athleticism and enjoyment of sports.

HEFFNER: Yeah, I …

WEBBER: My older brother did not have the same experience … as it talks about in the book and my younger sister did not. They are unique, wonderful, giving people, but I don’t think they would talk about their years in East Harlem with the same sort of rosy colored rapture that comes across in the book a little bit. Although I tried to not have it be that, but …

HEFFNER: Rosy colored rapture?

WEBBER: I think …

HEFFNER: Is that what people accuse you of?

WEBBER: No, I wax eloquent about East Harlem. I love East Harlem, it’s part of my blood, it’s part of what I am and I … that was not … people don’t accuse me of that because there’s enough in the book about how East Harlem can also kill you and bring you down and …

HEFFNER: You talk about your interest in sports, and …


HEFFNER: … it seemed quite clear that there was a connection there between your love for basketball …

WEBBER: Right.

HEFFNER: … and the association that you made, the connections that you made …

WEBBER: Right.

HEFFNER: … with your, with your neighbors.

WEBBER: Right.

HEFFNER: And friends. But, you know, I raise all of this because I was unfortunate enough … when we did our Book Talk …


HEFFNER: … some months back, I had not yet read this wonderful four page document, “Creating Caring Safe Schools” that you had written. I hadn’t had the opportunity and as I read it recently, and I was delighted that you made reference to your favorite professor, Larry Cremin, who was …

WEBBER: Oh, he was my mentor.

HEFFNER: … and he was my wife’s mentor.

WEBBER: Oh, oh.

HEFFNER: … and he was my good friend and he was a frequent guest here on The Open Mind.

WEBBER: What, what an intellect he was. Wonderful man.

HEFFNER: But, you, you move from what Larry’s major emphasis was upon, the difference between teaching and learning.

WEBBER: Right.

HEFFNER: And you go … there’s something here that you write …”there simply is not enough barbed wire, surveillance equipment, or hidden cameras in all the world to make us safe from our own children.” And what you’re saying is that a punitive approach, an approach of punishment, an approach of building safety net, presumably, all around us to protect us from the kids you’ve dealt with professionally … doesn’t work.

WEBBER: I believe that absolutely …

HEFFNER: Can’t be done.

WEBBER: … it’s … I’ve had 40 years of experience of working with teenagers, hard-core, so-called teenagers, “at risk” so-called youth. And I just have found that if you expect greatness from them, they will act great. If you expect them to be criminals, they’ll act like criminals. And you can’t build an environment that’s a jail and expect them to act like students who appreciate learning and …

HEFFNER: And yet in our country we are building more and more jails.

WEBBER: We are. We’re building more and more jails. We’re building more and more schools with electronic devices to get into the building; policemen walking up and down the corridors. And you’ve got to somehow change the culture of those schools, if you’re going to have kids learn.

We learned at Edwin Gould Academy. Kids can bring knives, guns, marijuana, drugs into a campus. You have to get them not to want to. There’s just … unless you’re going to build jails, unless you’re going to put kids in jails, you’re not going to be able to guard their behavior. To, to make sure that they don’t do things that you don’t want them to do, you have to get them not to want to and you’ve got to get their peers to say, “Hey, Dick, we don’t … we don’t want a knife in this school because when a fight starts we don’t want you pulling out that knife. So either you’re going to get rid of that knife, or we’re going to go see Dr. Webber and we’re going to tell him about it. So please get rid of it.”

And once you get that kind of peer pressure and you build that culture in a school, then the whole dynamic changes. You don’t have to worry about being a security guard, you can become teachers, you can become mentors with folks. And this is a school for kids who are there because they’ve acted out in schools. So if it’s possible there, it’s possible in a regular public school.

HEFFNER: Why don’t we? Why don’t we achieve what you’ve achieved in that academy?

WEBBER: Because it’s a lot, it’s a lot easier … it’s a lot easier to put guards at the door and make sure that the knives don’t come in that way. And because people are so scared they believe if they see those things that they’ve got some kind of security. But it’s such a false sense of security. Because kids can go in the back door, they can camouflage things, they can get it up through the window, they can come on the roof, they can … kids know how to do … (laughter) … I’ve learned in my experience … teenagers have an uncanny ability to get around any adult rules. Unless, of course, you’re watching them every minute. And if you’re going to watch them every minute, then we’re creating a jail.

HEFFNER: How many citizens in the Academy?

WEBBER: 170 or so.

HEFFNER: All right. Don’t’ we have to talk about numbers?


HEFFNER: Don’t we have to talk about the negative impact of numbers that multiply the children you’ve dealt with … by thousands …

WEBBER: My point is that every school can create a cultural environment where the kids … it’s a pro-student environment … it’s sort of what I talk about in that article a little bit.


WEBBER: You can … it … it’s just strictly an environment where you learn what we want to teach you and that’s it … that’s all we’re here for … we’re never going to be able to, to create that cultural environment where kids see themselves as active learners and take responsibility for themselves. Kids … you know … when I was raising my two children … the more I could let them make decisions for themselves and the more they believed that I believed in them to make those decisions, the healthier our relationship was.

And that’s what we’re trying to do with all of our kids in schools. And that’s what we have to do. We have to make the kids believe that it’s their learning and their process that they’re taking ownership for. And their behavior that they’re taking ownership for.

It’s easy to …. if you want to change someone’s behavior, put a gun to his head. We can, we can make sure all kids behave. If we had the ability, if we had the human power in numbers to have big tall people walking around with them every minute, or …

HEFFNER: But we don’t have that power.

WEBBER: We do not have that power. So the only alternative … I wouldn’t want that first alternative anyway … is to have an internalized, a new sense of values, a new sense of respect for each other. And that has to be part of our school curriculum. That has to be just an equal part of learning history, calculus and whatever else. And that is that kind of peaceful attitude toward aggression, peaceful attitude towards others, the ability to be sensitive. To put yourself in someone else’s shoes. There’s a whole new movement in education called “emotional intelligence” and teaching folks how to be … resolve conflict peacefully. And it’s some wonderful stuff.

At Edwin Gould Academy we call it positive, pure culture. Building a positive, pure culture where peers take responsibility for each other.

HEFFNER: But I know at, at the … at the risk of ticking you off …

WEBBER: Yeah. (Laughter) Go ahead. Try it. Go ahead.

HEFFNER: Because I seem so damn negative.


HEFFNER: I honestly raise the question of whether one can’t say … must say “yes, indeed” to every point that you make. And that’s why I say, I was so enormously impressed …


HEFFNER: … with this, with this article …


HEFFNER: … which sketches out the principles behind the way you’ve conducted your very successful work. Then I come back to the population of this country. I come back to numbers. And the feeling that it is probably not possible to do what you do within your family and within an Academy that has so few citizens.

WEBBER: I reject the part … I’m not sure about the family part. We could talk about that … let’s talk about schools just for a minute.


WEBBER: If we were to dedicate … if we turned swords to plowshares, if we were to dedicate half of the amount of money we’re spending in Iraq to reducing the school … we know this. We know that school size in the classroom is an absolute determinant both of child behavior and of child learning.

No one disputes this, from the Conservatives to the Liberals to anybody. And yet in New York City we have sizes of 30, 35. In Scarsdale we have sizes of 18. Why? Because they spend twice as much money on schools as New York City does. And I believe it’s the government’s responsibility to use that kind of money to make sure that we have an equal playing field.


WEBBER: That’s what … that’s what … I’m so … in my book … what gets me so angry, what I hope people get from my book … the unfairness of things. It’s not because Danny or Charles or Samuel wanted to learn less, or had some kind of innate personality failure. It’s because they didn’t have a mother and a father and a school system … which said, “You’re going to make it, you have no choice, but to make.”

I had no choice but to make it, I would have been an outcast not to go to college. I mean everybody in my family … you’re going to college … it’s no … that’s part of the deal. But why was that fair? Well it was fair because I was born into that family. Why was it fair that I go to the Collegiate School for Boys? With class sizes of 11 and 12. And Danny went to P.S. 106 or P.S. 21 … 121 …

HEFFNER: You’re not an admirer of Jack Kennedy to the extent that I was …

WEBBER: Uh-huh.

HEFFNER: … but he was right when he said “Life isn’t fair”.

WEBBER: It is not fair. But isn’t it our responsibility … and isn’t it the government’s responsibility … certainly one with the ideals of America … to try and make it a little fairer.

HEFFNER: Now, wait a minute, wait a minute.

WEBBER: That’s my … that’s my point.

HEFFNER: Wait a minute, Tom, you know perfectly well that there are many people …


HEFFNER: … however much we might at this table sit and say it is society’s, government’s responsibility. There are many people in this country who say that its greatness … the nation’s greatness …and I don’t know how we measure this any more …

WEBBER: Right. Right

HEFFNER: … is based upon a very different point of view.

WEBBER: No, I disagree …

HEFFNER: … it’s not the nanny society.

WEBBER: I disagree with you, Dick. What …

HEFFNER: You don’t think there are many people …

WEBBER: I don’t … I think most people would say …


WEBBER: … that everyone has a right to go to an equally fine school.

HEFFNER: Yes, but are they ready to do …

WEBBER: In America.

HEFFNER: … what is necessary …

WEBBER: That’s all a different …

HEFFNER: … to make that.

WEBBER: That’s all a different story.

HEFFNER: But it is …

WEBBER: Now, okay …

HEFFNER: … ultimately isn’t.

WEBBER: But they would say, they would say that it’s not fair that some people go to schools where you have classes of 35 and other kids go to schools with classes of 20, where they …

HEFFNER: Yeah, but … but, Tom, what happens when, when a school budget is put before them in a, in a town …

WEBBER: Right.

HEFFNER: … they may say that …

WEBBER: You’re right.

HEFFNER: But they vote against it.

WEBBER: You’re right.

HEFFNER: So where are we then, in terms of being able to put into effect these … I won’t call them “commandments” ….

WEBBER: (Laughter) … how many are there …

HEFFNER: Because you’re the last person in the world …

WEBBER: … there are 10 or 12, I forget.

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

WEBBER: What I wrote … I think its 12 actually.

HEFFNER: Well, remember what Clemenceau said about Wilson’s 14 points …

WEBBER: Right.

HEFFNER: God had only 10 and look what we did to them.

WEBBER: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: You have 12.

WEBBER: Right. Right.

HEFFNER: And they’re beautifully stated.

WEBBER: I guess, Dick, my thinking is … when I was a youth and watching my father bat his head against the wall with individual problems, from the drug addict that knocked on his door to the grandmother that couldn’t pay the rent, etc. … I got inspired by John Kennedy and said, ‘The only way to solve this problem is to get a government that’s going to get behind new laws, new regulations, making sure schools are right.” And I still think that that’s partly true. But …

HEFFNER: You don’t think he did it.

WEBBER: I don’t think he did it. No. I don’t think Kennedy … Kennedy might have done it … he might have been growing into it. I, I happen …here’s my real, true Liberal background … I think Bobby Kennedy had a chance of really doing it. Because I think that you have to get a coalition of lower White, middle class folks and minority folks to understand that there needs to be change in America. Otherwise the power-brokers are going to make all the decisions. And that’s what was so frightening to people I think about Bobby Kennedy, was that he was building that kind of coalition. He was having …the poor White folks in the rural towns of Pennsylvania have very much in common with the poor Black folks in East Harlem and they don’t recognize it. They’re too scared, they’ve been too scared by White backlash and other things that I believe the …


WEBBER: … power structure sort of played on their fears. So to separate those instead of building that coalition that Bobby Kennedy was building … so I think he was … now whether Jack Kennedy would have become that …I mean he was eloquent and he was smart and intelligent. He spoke right to the camera without the script, which, you know, we don’t have any more these days. And I admired that and he inspired me.

But in my own life I’ve decided now that I can only do what I can do. I ran for political office in 1985 and learned how you win and how you lose (laughter) in New York City politics. Because I wanted to still see if you could build a government and a coalition that was different. But I didn’t have the resources and wherewithal.

HEFFNER: Wait a minute, wait a minute. Let me ask then. Are you saying you can’t build a government that is different then … that responds as you want government to …


HEFFNER: … respond?

WEBBER: … I’m saying that I decided in my own life …

HEFFNER: For you?

WEBBER: For me … that I needed to build the little cells and if those little cells start growing, if there became more Edwin Gould Academies where kids are learning than you’re proving that event he hardest, most troubling kids can be turned around and can become productive citizens if those becomes other places. That that’s all I can do. I have no idea that that’s going to multiply into changing the world. Because I’ve seen my father for 50 years. You know I once asked him … I said, “East Harlem is … doesn’t seem to be any better off than it was when you moved here in 19 … started working here in 1948. Just a much drug addiction, the schools are just as bad. What?” He said, “Every man just has to do the most he can do … what he can do. And the rest is history or in … he would say ‘in God’s hands’, I wouldn’t necessarily say that, but …

HEFFNER: In whose hands then, would you say?

WEBBER: It’s your hands and my hands and our listeners’ hands. And that’s what I’m doing now, trying to inspire folks. White folks and Black folks. Everybody. Minority folks, but also the White power folks, the kids of the Collegiate School, that you have a responsibility to make this world “fairer” because you’ve been given so much. And you need to make it fairer.

HEFFNER: For the viewers who don’t’ know, who haven’t yet your book …


HEFFNER: … but they’re gonna, by gosh …


HEFFNER: That the Collegiate School was south a very, very upper …

WEBBER: Probably the most prosperous school in America, maybe.

HEFFNER: And one with enormously high academic standards.

WEBBER: Absolutely.

HEFFNER: South of 96th Street.

WEBBER: Every kid in my class went to college. Every single one of them.

HEFFNER: But they didn’t’ go across 96th Street with you?

WEBBER: No, they did not. I remember when we first moved to East Harlem, I would invite my Collegiate classmates to come to East Harlem and they refused, they wouldn’t come. And I figured out that their mothers and fathers and perhaps themselves were scared. You didn’t go above 96th Street because that’s where drugs were, gangs were … it’s where you White people got beat up. That was the idea of East Harlem.

HEFFNER: Now let me ask a very simple question. You’re still a kid … you’re a young man, but …

WEBBER: I am now, or I was then?

HEFFNER: You still are. Let’s be comparative …

WEBBER: I’ve got grandchildren now, Dick. I’m glad, thank you for the compliment.

HEFFNER: Okay. I can’t trump that, but I can say, how different do you think it would be today? Now, that goes back to the first question in which you, in your response, really, basically saying you, you negative old man, you.

WEBBER: We got into this a little bit when we were at TC …


WEBBER: … and I think it is different. Because first of all, I had no Black classmates at Collegiate in 1965. 1965 … no we had one African … son of an African diplomat …

HEFFNER: Naturally.

WEBBER: Who came at the last … just for his senior year, because he happened to be there. We had no Black faculty … zero. Collegiate’s a very different world now. They probably have 25% to 30% minority kids, many of them live in East Harlem, and I believe that there … I believe that there’d be much more sensitivity on the part of the faculty and the parents about possibly going … they would be careful, and they should be … about going to East Harlem …but I don’t’ think it would be an automatic “You must be crazy”. There would be some kind of sensitivity towards it that we didn’t have in 1964, 5.

HEFFNER: And how about those who get on the bus … and we just have a couple of minutes left … North of 96th Street?

WEBBER: Right.

HEFFNER: Have their attitudes changed?

WEBBER: The kids in the inner city ghetto, I don’t think as much. Because they still don’t go to school with White kids, they don’t … the numbers of times that someone looked at me and said, “Tom, you’re the only White person I’ve ever talked to. You’re the only White kid that I have any experience with.” Can you image the world thinking … the Black kids in East Harlem thinking White people are all like me and my father and mother? But that’s … but they … it was either that or television. And that’s what most concerns me. Although of course, East Harlem is changing a lot. Now there are a lot more Chinese in East Harlem, a lot more gentrifying younger White people actually living in East Harlem.

HEFFNER: But we know that the schools, Brown versus Board of Education …


HEFFNER: … to the contrary, notwithstanding …

WEBBER: Right.

HEFFNER: … still are not really integrated.

WEBBER: That’s right. Churches and schools.

HEFFNER: Churches, too?

WEBBER: …the two most … the two most segregated places in America.

HEFFNER: Is that still true of the churches?

WEBBER: I wouldn’t know, I’m not … but that was certainly what we used … Dr. King used to say the most … segregated hour in America is 11 o’clock on Sunday morning.

HEFFNER: Well, you know, coming back to the beginning of our discussion today, that’s indeed why I raised the question.


HEFFNER: Could you without having that experience?

WEBBER: I have great hope and I have great hope in our youth and our young folk, and I, I refuse to accept that I … that everybody can’t become part of making America a “juster, fairer” place. I just will not accept that. And you don’t have to have … you don’t’ have to be an East Harlem White boy to get into that fight.

HEFFNER: But it helps. Doesn’t it. It helped you.

WEBBER: It helped me be angry. It helped me be … that what still motivates me, that the fact that my best friend Danny did not have the chances and opportunities I’ve had. Made me angry, motivates me.

HEFFNER: It’s the unfairness of it all.

WEBBER: Yes, that’s right. All kids want the world to be fairer and I’m still a kid in that sense. You, you got me there. I want the world to be fair.

HEFFNER: Tom Webber, I so much appreciate your coming to the Open Mind today …

WEBBER: It’s been a pleasure, Dick, thank you.

HEFFNER: I couldn’t urge more that people read “Flying Over 96th Street: The Memoir of an East Harlem White Boy”, who now is an East Harlem White man.

WEBBER: That’s right.

HEFFNER: Thanks again.

WEBBER: Thank you so much, Dick.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.