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Story Hour Didn't Have a Happy Ending
N.Y. Teacher Runs Into a Racial Divide With Black Author's 'Nappy Hair'

By Liz Leyden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 3, 1998; Page A03

NEW YORK, Dec. 2—Ruth Sherman lives in Inwood, a traditionally Italian town in suburban Long Island filled with middle-class families. She taught third grade in Bushwick, a gritty black and Hispanic neighborhood in Brooklyn notorious for drugs and graffiti.

Her commute to P.S. 75 was not far -- but it took her a world away.

"When I first told them, people said to me, 'Bushwick? Oh my God, why Bushwick?' " Sherman, 27, recalled in an interview today. "But there was something about it. I chose that school because I wanted the neighborhood. I was going to turn things around, really make a difference."

In just three months at the school, Sherman did make a difference, but not the one she planned. By Monday, after a week at the center of a small, but loud, community uproar, Sherman requested a transfer, saying she feared for her safety.

Although she did not know it at the time, Sherman's troubles began right away last September with "Nappy Hair," a book written by an author born in the District. Sherman chose the story because she thought it would change her student's lives. She regaled her class with the story of a little black girl with "the nappiest, fuzziest, the most screwed up, squeezed up, knotted hair." She said they loved it so much "they clamored for copies to carry with them." An eager new teacher, she made some.

Two months later, just before Thanksgiving break, a parent found a pack of pages from "Nappy Hair" in her daughter's folder. The title did not make her happy, according to Board of Education spokesman J.D. LaRock, who explained that she and some other parents at the predominantly black and Hispanic school interpreted "nappy hair" as a racial slur.

"The first I knew of the problem was when this parent came into my room and said she was surprised she didn't see a white hood on my desk," Sherman said.

After speaking to the teacher, the parent, whose name school officials refused to reveal, photocopied the pages and dropped them in local mailboxes. On Nov. 23, Sherman was called from class during a morning lesson. A meeting was in progress, to choose a new assistant principal, but her presence had been requested.

Sherman smiles when she's nervous, like a tic. And so she smiled on her way to the auditorium, even as she heard shouting, even as she called her fiance to ask him to come pick her up. She told him she had the feeling something bad was about to happen.

While the assembled 50 parents, most not of her students, greeted her with what she and school officials called abusive language, she kept smiling. "I couldn't stop, and I think that made them madder," Sherman said. "They started getting in my face, asking me who I thought I was reading that book, calling me a cracker. Nobody would let me, or the principal, or the librarian, who was waving good reviews of it from off the Internet, talk."

A woman stood up and told her she "better watch out."

"I asked her if she was threatening me and she said it was no threat, it was a promise," Sherman said.

She left the meeting and was sent home by district Superintendent Felix Vazquez, who arrived midway through.

"He told me he heard people saying they wanted to do me bodily harm," she said. "And that was it. I never saw my students again."

After a day of review, the school backed Sherman and "Nappy Hair," which has been critically praised as a positive lesson for children.

Carolivia Herron, author of "Nappy Hair", said Sherman's students were exactly the audience for whom she intended the book. "I wrote it delighting in nappy hair," said Herron, who is black. "I love my own nappy hair and the stories my uncle used to tell me about it. It was a celebration, and I had no idea it would be political. I am a '60s person and thought we had already dealt with this problem of being ashamed of our hair."

The book itself grew out of a novel. When Herron, an assistant professor of English at California State University at Chico, visited the Anacostia Museum to read from her work in progress, the listeners focused on the vignette about hair.

"The reaction here was wonderful," Joanna Banks, museum educator, said. "The story was part of a novel she was working on and was hilarious. I encouraged her to get it published as a children's book. I thought it would be something for African American children to celebrate."

A school-wide meeting was called the day after Sherman left. Only a handful of parents out of the 60 gathered complained about her or the book. Offers were extended by the school district, promises of extra security, an escort from her car to the school doors. Chancellor Rudy Crew wrote her a letter over Thanksgiving commending her performance and asking her to return to P.S. 75. But she decided to request the transfer.

"I miss my kids," she said. "I wanted to go back for them, but I'm scared. I listened to the idea of someone walking me to my car and all I could think was, that's ridiculous. What do I tell the kids about that, after everything I was trying to teach them about getting along and loving each other, no matter what color your skin was?"

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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