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Harlem school’s librarian brings role models to students through speaker series
by Micah Landau | December 22, 2011 New York Teacher issue
Pat Arnow “There is a sweet spirit in this place,” Dr. Cornel West, dressed in his trademark three-piece suit, pocket watch and scarf, told the packed audience of faculty, staff and students from Harlem’s Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing Arts and Frederick Douglass Academy II on Dec. 5.
A renowned social activist and scholar, West had come to the auditorium shared by the two schools to deliver a motivational speech as part of the impressive speaker series organized by Paul McIntosh, a veteran librarian at Wadleigh, a school labeled “failing” by the Department of Education, which is seeking to eliminate its middle grades.
And deliver West did.
Pat Arnow “The fundamental question of all of education is what kind of human being you will be on the move between your mama’s womb and the tomb,” the Princeton University professor told the students, who cheered enthusiastically throughout his speech as he urged them to lead an examined life and to “love learning.”
Discussing injustice and the need to fight against it, West encouraged his young listeners to “find your voice.”
“You want to lift your voice, but you have to find your voice before you can lift it,” he advised them. “To be educated, in the deep sense, is to take your schooling and find your voice.”
West was only the most recent in a long line of influential guests brought to the struggling school by McIntosh during his 15-year tenure.
Seated in his office after West’s departure, the librarian explained his motivation for the speaker series.
“There was a time in Harlem when you could walk outside and see Paul Robeson or Zora Neale Hurston or Langston Hughes,” McIntosh said. “In other words, you were in an environment peopled by men and women of substance: thinkers, artists, scholars.”
Though times have changed, he said, the young people of Harlem still need role models, which is why he does his best to provide them, bringing at least one speaker to Wadleigh every month.
“As Maya Angelou says, ‘We describe ourselves in relationship to our heroes and sheroes,’” McIntosh said. “The intention of this series is to put young people in contact with people of substance from various disciplines.”
Pat Arnow Not all of McIntosh’s guests are famous. For every Ruben Studdard, a past winner of American Idol, or Norman Siegel, who led the New York Civil Liberties Union for more than a decade, he hosts many more poets, musicians, writers and lawyers. His first guest was Don Witter, a classical guitarist who performed in the library; another was Muriel Petioni, one of the country’s first female African-American doctors. He’s even hosted a mariachi band.
The point of it all, McIntosh said, is to give students “a sense of the value of life and how to celebrate it” — and, his colleagues say, he is succeeding.
Anthony Klug, the school’s chapter leader, described the impact that McIntosh and the series have had on students as “immeasurable.”
“Paul offers our kids someone who looks like them who is succeeding and can help them get there,” Klug said. “He makes a little library in Harlem feel like the center of the universe. He’s the most humane and loving person I’ve ever met.”
Unfortunately, Klug said, the DOE’s recent decision to eliminate Wadleigh’s middle school will deny future generations of students the chance to benefit from the speaker series during their formative preadolescent years when many students are searching for mentors.
In the event that the high school, which is confronting the impending co-location of a Harlem Success Academy in its building, is also eventually shuttered, Klug said that the loss of the speaker series would be “immoral,” describing it as “suffocating the hopes of young people, literally taking away their inspiration.”
That would certainly be true for at least one young man now at Wadleigh, 11th-grader Jamal Augustin, who is living proof of the impact that the speaker series and McIntosh, or Mr. Mac, as Augustin calls him, have had on students.
“I tell Mr. Mac, ‘You are like my second father,’ because I don’t have a father figure,” Augustin said of the librarian.
As for the speaker series, Augustin said it “provides guidance,” noting that he was particularly inspired by a visit from State Sen. Bill Perkins.
“The speakers come here to guide us and tell us, ‘No, you don’t need to follow the stereotypes of young black or Hispanic men,’” Augustin said. “They tell us that one day we can help our community.”
In the fight to save their school, the students already are.
West promised his support in that fight.
“Any service I can render to you all to keep this school where it is, you let me know,” West said. “I can’t sing, but I’ll raise my voice.”