The Village of Old P.S. 399
Not too many people my age can say that they are still in touch with their principal, assistant principal and teachers from their elementary school. Well, I am blessed to say that I am one of those people. They are my village. They helped to shape me into the woman that I am today. I am a proud Black woman because of what they instilled in me.
I am forever grateful to have sat at their feet and soaked up every bit of information they shared. I will forever speak their names because I, and thousands of other children in Flatbush, Brooklyn New York were taught that we are a proud people, destined to walk in greatness.
When it was time to enroll me in kindergarten, my mother, Deborah Kennedy, took me to my zoned school to see if it met the standards she wanted for my education. The persons giving the tour did not make her feel that they would make sure I would be taught well and protected while in their care. After the tour, my mother was so put off that she said there was no way she was going to send her daughter to that school with those rude people. She went to the District 17’s Office with me and my sister Chaya and I in tow, to find a school that understood that children are special and that parents trust schools to teach, care and protect their children, their most precious gift. My mother had heard about a new school that was opening up a short distance from our house. The school was modeled after the Montessori schools with open classrooms. While my mother was searching for someone to get information about the new school, she met the principal, Mrs. Mable W. Robertson, who was there to recruit new students. She was going to model her school after Mary McLeod Bethune’s educational philosophy and from that day forward, P.S. 399 would become a part of my life and part of the village that would help raise me.
After I started kindergarten, my mom became the P.T.A president and the volunteer dance teacher. Mrs. Robertson made 399 a community school, filled with families and the community. My mom, Ms. Kennedy, was an integral part of that. She created the first dance group called “The P.S. 399 Players.” It consisted of 25 students in kindergarten through fourth grades. Chaya was even a 399 player, even though she was not in kindergarten yet. Since my mom volunteered at the school everyday, Chaya had to be there too. She was sort of like a school “mascot”. Don’t worry, she calls herself that. The 399 Players danced all over New York City. I remember dancing for the US Coast Guard when they were stationed on Governor’s Island in 1981-1983. Mrs. Dowling or “Aunt Martie,” as we affectionately called her, was a paraprofessional at P.S. 399. Her husband, who I call “Uncle Jay,” worked for the Coast Guard, so the 399 Players performed at numerous coast guard events. We danced to everything from Olatunji to Taana Gardner, Grover Washington Jr and Lionel Richie. I knew all the words to “Four Women” by Nina Simone because that was a dance four of the older girls performed. I was a part of the younger group so our first dance was Sukiyaki, by Taste of Honey.
A couple of years later, Ms. Marilyn R. Reid, who was the librarian, became the assistant principal and completed the legacy of what would become the fiercest duo educators Brooklyn would ever see. Their styles were different. Mrs. Robertson was tough love and Mrs. Reid was smooth love. To us they were our Queen and Duchess. We revered them, we respected them and even after all these years, any former student will tell you how much they have meant to them.
With that kind of phenomenal leadership, you knew that the staff had to be exemplary. Mrs. Winifred Thompson, my second grade teacher, also taught us music. I learned the recorder from her. Mrs. Lynette Brinson, my third grade teacher, was the one who helped me to start enjoying reading and poetry. My fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Sybil Duncan, was that teacher you would never forget. When you look up the word ‘educator,’ you could probably find a picture of Mrs. Duncan there. I was reading on a seventh grade level and writing Haikus in the fourth grade. Mrs. Duncan was the truth. Mr. Carl Grassini, the art teacher, was the coolest. He made art fun and allowed us to express ourselves. Ms. Brenda Brown, the science teacher, was tough but she made you like science and all that came with it. Ms. Sandra Taylor, our computer teacher, put us on to what we now use in our everyday life. My fifth grade teacher, Ms. Louise White, got me ready for junior high school. Mrs. Hilda Ventura was the school nurse. I’m sure you’re wondering how she fits in the story but you see, Mrs. Ventura became Chaya’s and a lot of the students’ go to person when they needed some attention. You could go to the nurse’s office and Mrs. Ventura would take care of you.
The parents at 399 were amazing. With my mom at the helm, the parents stayed involved. There was Mrs. Mary Hobson. Do you recognize the last name? She was my mentor, and the person who sat with me when I was sick until my mother was finished teaching. Who knew that years later she would end up being my mother-in-law?
The year I graduated from 399, Mrs. Robertson hired my mother as the Performing Arts and Physical Education teacher. She would serve in that role until 2019 when she retired. Mrs. Hilda Goodridge would take over as P.T.A president and continue the family vibe. They made sure we stayed involved even after we graduated. I also came back to volunteer in 399 and taught dance to the students for different shows up until 2011. Ms. Wilma Ambrose, a fifth grade teacher at the time, would ask me to work with her to make the programs for the graduations. Those were some fun times. Once you were a student, teacher or parent of 399, you were family and it has always been like that. I can see someone from 399 now that I haven’t seen in years and it’ll be like we just saw each other yesterday.
Every morning all the students and staff would gather in the auditorium and line up with their class for the Mini-Morning Assembly. Dozens of parents would be standing in the auditorium as the school song, “The Greatest Love,” played in the background and all the children would be singing. We would then say the Pledge of Allegiance and then sing “My Country Tis of Thee” and “The Black National Anthem.”
If it was February, that meant it was Black History Month and Mrs. Reid would give some facts about famous Black Americans and the students would have to guess who it was. It was the same thing in March for Women’s History Month. Who could figure out the woman of the day? At the end of December Mrs. Reid would light a candle on each day of Kwanzaa and explain the meaning of the day’s principle.
After the daily announcements were made Mrs. Robertson would have the students recite the daily affirmation, “I Am Somebody. I Can and Will Achieve.” Did I know why she made us repeat that every day, back then? Of course not. Every child during her time as principal started their day by reciting that affirmation. Why did she do that? As children we were just repeating it, not understanding the significance of it and how it would play out in our adult lives.
At a 399 reunion that a group of us coordinated in 2012, Mrs. Robertson told us why. She said she wanted “her babies” to be prepared for the world when we got older. She knew that we would have to face a lot of things simply because of the color of our skin. Mrs. Robertson and Mrs. Reid wanted us to know who we were and be proud of our race and culture. That night I had an “aha” moment.
I realized that every time I was challenged or seen as less than because of my race, it never really bothered me. I mean I would be upset for a few minutes but it didn’t really stick with me. It was that night I realized why. I had been affirmed since birth by my mother and then every day at elementary school. I know who I am. I know where I came from.
It was Mrs. Reid that had me reading books like Anansi the Spider and Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears. I knew about Katherine Johnson in 1982, way before the movie “Hidden Figures” came out. Her picture along with Garrett A. Morgan and other Black inventors hung in the hallway when you entered the building. Have you ever heard of Black Solidarity Day? Well, it is the first Monday in November and the day before election day. Every year we had a Black Solidarity Day assembly to learn about our history through acting, singing and dancing.
After Mrs. Robertson and Mrs. Reid left 399 to further their educational journey, my mom kept that legacy and history alive. She taught there for 33 years. So, there are countless people who have played a part in my life, helping to shape my life from childhood to womanhood. I have to say that 399 helped to shape my family’s life because Chaya’s son Chris went to 399 as well. At his 21st birthday party, his 399 teachers were there to celebrate him. That just goes to show you that 399 of old wasn’t just a school, it was a family.
Mrs. Robertson and Mrs. Reid wanted the foundation of P.S. 399 to be built on the African Proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Family and community were an integral part of making the school what it once was. Now that I look back on it, the person at my zoned school was meant to turn my mother off. Had that not happened, I don’t know what my journey would have looked like. P.S. 399 gave me my village and my husband. It was destined to happen and for that, I am eternally grateful.
At the reunion in 2012, I wrote a poem that the alumni students read in honor of Mrs. Robertson, Mrs. Reid, my mother, Mrs. Hobson and all the parents and staff who played an important part of my education at 399. It was my version of the Pearl Cleage poem that she wrote for Oprah Winfrey’s Legends Ball. I would like to end this by speaking all of the names of my village of old P.S. 399. I know these names may be foreign to you but to me, they are my legends, my friends, my family. Ase. Ase. Ase.
Mable W. Robertson
Marilyn R. Reid
Deborah L. Kennedy
Mary L. Hobson
Brenda Moses Brown
Mary Lou Romero
Louise P. White
Thank you for listening,
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