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Post #2 And Then There Were 2: My conversation with David Henry Oliver.


David Henry Oliver is one of the most inventive, creative, and smartest people that I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. My fondest memory of him is walking over to his desk and seeing him turn a tennis ball, a soda can, some duct tape, and a packet of chewing gum into a roll-on dispenser for deodorant. (Ok, I may be exaggerating slightly, and he really is my own personal Meredith Gourdine, who I found out Dave did an internship with when he was in 8th grade.)

I was lucky enough to meet David during my time working for the Boston office of a global design and branding firm about 20 years ago. At that point in my career, and for a large part since then, he has been one of the very few Black men I have encountered in my professional spaces. That might have sparked our friendship. What bonded us over these past decades, though we had never spoken of it before, has likely been our shared experience of trying to successfully navigate expectations around class, education, affiliation, and belonging.


This particular excerpt is part of a much larger conversation between me and Dave. I will share other pieces in the future. As the country grapples with educating diverse students in the midst of a pandemic, and the myriad ways that class and race often shape educational outcomes, this part of the conversation seemed important to share.


Thanks again for visiting the Big Black Man Project.



Cheers,


C.L. Greene II

___________________________________________________


Interviewee: David Henry Oliver

Principal, Cusp Development, and Board Member, HEET

Place of Birth: Morristown, NJ

Age: 51

Current Residence: Eastern Massachusetts


Interviewer: Charles L. Greene II,

Executive Director, The Big Black Man Project


Dave Oliver: I was in seventh grade, and halfway through the semester there was some

A young David Henry Oliver

change to my schedule and I went from being in one health class to another. The teacher in my new health class was a black woman. She was young. She was kind of rough around the edges. And she was highly identified with all of the kids who are typically “tracked down”, as I think she had been. So when I was put in her class halfway through the semester, she had a chip on her shoulder. I didn't understand this. She basically tried to deep-six me. It was weird.


All the work that I had done for the first half of the semester was in a notebook we had to hand in. I handed her my notebook and she said she wouldn't count anything that I'd done before entering her class, for my grade. Well, wait a minute, you're saying that you're going to grade me as if I was here the whole time but I didn't do anything for half a semester?


So it became a struggle with her because I would give her stuff and she would be like, “Yeah, right.” Then the end of the semester comes, and I get my report card, and there's a D on it. And I'm thinking, “I got a D in Health?”


And then I have to explain to my Dad, “Hey, this teacher has been all over me.” Let's just say that teacher wasn't there the following fall. She was gone.


C.L. Greene II: Did anyone tell her your dad was a former principal and a senior school administrator?


David Oliver: She was new. On the one hand, I don't feel sorry for her, because she would have done this to somebody else.


C.L. Greene II: And someone else would have had no recourse?


David Oliver: Actually, if she had done it to someone else, and that kid wasn't a top student? And of course, there were lots of clues that might have pointed her in a different direction. I mean, if she had looked at the rest of my report card she might have thought, “He wouldn't get a D in health, and then get an A in our advanced science classes.”


I don't know if you had this experience, but being a serious student and being black, you're always going to hear from somebody who's saying,” You're just trying to be white.” There's always this.


C.L. Greene II: I was going to ask you about that.


Dave: Yeah, well, it felt like she was one of the kids.


C.L. Greene II: Which is tough to manage when you are 12 years old because you are catching it from the kids. And you are just trying to do what the adults want. You hope that at least the adults are behind you.


Dave: For me, dealing with the kids wasn't a big deal, because I didn't really care. I had strong role models. And the idea that I wouldn't be academically successful because I’m Black, that didn't really comport with my reality, because, both my parents had advanced

David Oliver with older brother, sister, Mom and Dad.

degrees. I was a Hampton alumni brat of two very involved parents. They would take me to Hampton homecoming. There was this idea that college was not a reach, it was a given. And of course, my dad eventually became a school superintendent. I was supposed to do well in this system that my father has dedicated his career to. The rest of the stuff didn’t mean anything. It didn’t make sense to me.


C.L. Greene II: Well I’m listening to you say this, and I'm thinking my own experience was similar. There was every expectation that school was what I was supposed to do. You comport yourself a certain way in school and in the rest of life as well.


I do remember being deeply hurt, on a personal level, that the relationships weren't easier. We had moved into a newer, and whiter school district where many of the neighborhood kids weren’t happy to see me. I was there for a year or two when the Akron public schools started busing.


Like many districts, we only appeared to bus one way, Black kids into predominantly white neighborhoods. Suddenly I wasn't the only Black kid. Though I don’t recall it, a year or two earlier I had asked to leave private school, telling my parents, “I'm tired of being the only black kid.” So to be in public school, and suddenly have more black kids coming in, it would have seemed to be exactly what I had asked for. And the early relationships just didn't work well at all.


I can look back and say there was class background stuff going on. And I sounded different. And I was lucky enough to live right next door to the school. Most of these relationships I have long since reconciled and repaired. We have been friends for decades now. But it was hard.


David Henry Oliver: I experienced that all at MIT because I arrived at MIT, and I was used to being surrounded by white people. It wasn't a big deal to me. But it was a big deal for some of my classmates. So their reaction was immediately to congregate. Which is fine, and I remember the friends that I started to make, were all over the place. Most of them were non-white, but most of them were not black. People would ask, “How come you're not over here?”


The truth is, having this group of non-white friends was much broader and more diverse than it had been in my hometown. It was so different. I would meet a person, they would seem cool, and we would hit it off.

But I'm looking at the Black students and I'm thinking, “You crushed it in high school too. And you probably heard from people the things that you are saying to me.” Of course, none of this was about academics. It was more social. But you know, it's funny how we find ways to do this to one another. That was just an initial gut thing that happened. And a year later, those same people were my friends.

David's father and son. Both are Henry Olivers

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