I can’t find my old school. OK, I know that the “old building” of Ashland School burned to the ground over 20 years ago, but the new building is still there - I can see it on the map; I just can’t find it in the directory. And even though their buildings may also still exist on the map, I can’t find the schools my friends went to either: Kentopp, Lincoln, Elmwood, and others.
Why? Because the names have all been changed.
At some point in time, after the City of East Orange became 89% black, we exercised our right to rename all the schools after famous African-Americans; people like Althea Gibson, George Washington Carver, Johnnie Cochran, Langston Hughes, Toussaint Louverture, Benjamin Banneker, Gordon Parks, Whitney Houston, Dionne Warwick, Cicely Tyson, and Sojourner Truth. This would be fine with me if these people actually had some connection with East Orange, but most didn’t.
At least the old names were in honor of people who had actually lived in East Orange and had done something for the school system. I’m talking about former principals and Board of Education members like Henry Kentopp, Vernon L Davey, and Clifford J Scott. And if the schools weren’t named for someone within the school system, they were named by their location. Hence Ashland School in what was originally the Ashland district, Elmwood School on Elmwood Avenue, and the Eastern School on the Eastern side of town.
But the current names mean nothing to me. They reflect nothing of the town history, and they seem to only reflect a desire by the African-American community to say “We get to name the schools now, and we’re naming them all after black people.”
Even though most of them were never in East Orange. Even though some of them who were really don’t deserve it. I mean, come on now, Whitney Houston?
OK, at the time it probably seemed like a good idea. But you really need to be careful naming a school after someone who’s still alive, because she might just embarrass you. And Whitney Houston has indeed done that.
So what names would I suggest using for the schools in my hometown? Well, I made a quick visit to Wikipedia find out what notable African-American former East Orange residents have not publicly embarrassed us, and first of all, tennis player Althea Gibson and singer Dionne Warwick get to keep their schools. Trombonist Slide Hampton, State Assemblyman LeRoy Jones Jr, and poet Naomi Long Madgett get to have schools.
But let’s open it up to any notable and worthy person from East Orange, and not just the African-Americans. How about Clara Maass, who died volunteering for experiments to study yellow fever? Or Albert Vreeland, US Representative from New Jersey? What about William Wiley, co-founder of the publishing company John Wiley and Sons?
Or how about we just admit that there really aren’t that many nationally famous people from East Orange who are worthy of having a school named after them, and name them instead after local heroes, and then have some sort of display in the school building explaining who this person is or was.
And most of all, how about not changing the names of existing schools. I almost don’t care what you name a new school, but changing the name of a school that’s existed for decades seems almost spiteful. It’s also confusing to old people like me.
Wait…I think I found my old school. It looks like it might be the Edward T Bowser Unique School of Excellence (how's that for a mouthful?). It’s located right about where I remember the “new building” of Ashland School being. But maybe I’m wrong, and it’s a brand new building and a brand new school.