‘I want my students to stand up for people who can’t stand up for themselves,” said Gail Meadows, principal of the Meadows Livingstone School.
For the last 30 years, Meadows and the school that bears her name and that of her husband, Bob Livingstone, have been situated where Potrero Street meets Cesar Chavez. There, she and her teachers and their largely bi-racial and black student body, grades one through six, navigate the persistent development surrounding General Hospital and tent encampments to reach their little schoolhouse on the sprawling property known as The Farm.
“We’re dedicated to directing children to be critical thinkers, to carry the torch for Black Power, and are unashamedly African American,” said Meadows.
Human rights activists from Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth to Malcolm X obviously take pride of place in lessons, projects and depictions in drawings on the walls, but often more obscure artists, inventors and hidden figures like pilot Bessie Coleman, are also celebrated.
“Our parents are conscious enough to know that their children need a cultural education,” she said,
Drawing largely from a pool of San Francisco children of LGBT parents, Oakland children from working-single-parent homes and families from the African diaspora, the teachers focus on academic curriculum, along with music, drumming, yoga, dance and tennis. The children also develop skills at treating others with dignity, no matter race, gender or class identity. Meadows personally teaches reading and “history and herstory” from an Afrocentric perspective. It’s a healing experience, especially for children who arrive at the school’s door after they’ve encountered institutionalized racism in the classroom.
Meadows told the story of a child she called “Mark.”
“He went to a public school and his mommies understood him to be a very good kid, but the teachers were always saying he was doing something wrong. He wasn’t. They knew,” she said.
Meadows claims an impressive 99 percent college completion rate among former students.
“We have quite a few doctors, African American Studies professors, dancers, CEOs, quite a few lawyers, psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and a few teachers,” she said.
Meadows has been teaching in some form since she was a girl, growing up in Kansas. She began teaching dance at age 11, assisting her mother who owned five nursery schools. As her reputation as a young leader grew, she was recruited by the local YWCA to teach cheerleading.
“I had no idea how to do that and my mother, true to herself said, get a book and learn,” she said.
Meadows went on to teach trampoline and realized she not only had teaching skills, she also enjoyed passing on knowledge. Deciding to pursue primary education as a profession, she graduated from Kansas Wesleyan University where she met Livingstone, who is in private practice as a psychotherapist and social worker. The couple married in 1971 and moved to The City in 1979.
After 40 years, they continue to enjoy The City’s natural beauty and wide range of cultural offerings, especially art and live music; they like that as an interracial couple they generally have the ability to move about town hassle-free. They founded the school in the predominantly black Oceanview neighborhood and moved to its current location at the spot known as The Hairball in 1989.
Starting with about 10 children who were Cuban-Korean, Colombian, Venezuelan, “and a lot of bi-racial children whose fathers were Jewish and mothers African American which is like my family, we were very much welcomed to the neighborhood,” remembered Meadows. It wasn’t long before her drumming and dance instructors arranged for student participation in the local Carnaval and Día de los muertos celebrations. Meadows also promised the Spanish-speaking families she would do what she could to educate students on the history of their culture.
“Not just the food but the heroes and sheroes of their history,” she said.
Students have since come from Trindad, Jamaica and the African diaspora.
“Sometimes if they are from Africa, they don’t find we’re ‘African’ enough and I have to explain that being African American means something different.” Interestingly, the children and their families do not always come educated on the history of the slave trade and empire-building.
“That isn’t necessarily taught where they come from,” she said. “I’ve had parents say children are too young to learn that history, but we don’t hit it with a sledgehammer, we give them bits and pieces,” she said.
Other times, she finds herself educating the adults in the family.
“One of our student’s mother’s boyfriend wore a T-shirt with a confederate flag on it to a family event. The student said to him, ‘We’re black people and you wore that to our barbecue?’ The boy’s relatives said he shouldn’t be able to say that to a guest,” recalled Meadows. “But the boyfriend said, ‘I just learned something’ and turned the shirt inside out.”
Despite The City’s well-documented outmigration of its black population, Meadows finds there remains a select group of Bay Area families seeking an Afrocentric education for their children. She offers several scholarships annually to families that lack the means for private education.
On April 27, the school will hold its annual scholarship fundraiser at the Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse in Berkeley, headlined by Linda Tillery and the Culture Heritage Choir for the third year running.
“These kids are obviously loved by their teachers and parents,” said Tillery. “They’re smart and not naive and the best part is at the end of the night, I get hugs from 15 or 20 children.”
Meadows is understandably proud of each child that passes through the doors of her little schoolhouse.
“In a school such as ours, with its closeness, love, and expectations, you’ll go far,” she said. “I want other teachers in The City to know, a group of children are coming, and they expect to be taught.”
Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” Follow her at www.denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan