Sunday, January 24, 2010

Memphis, Martin and Me

In 1967 I graduated from Southeast Missouri State College in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. Most of the classmates I finished with would leave Cape and go north to St. Louis. Me? I went south to Memphis, Tennessee. My experiences there were the most deliberate and consuming in education I have ever had.

First there were my students. Out of the over 100 I saw everyday, only six were white. Interesting integration, I thought. My teaching was at South Side High School. We were the Scrappers because the year before our football team continued to play in a game where they lost forty something to nothing. Scrappers, indeed. In my classes I had cousins of Stax recording stars and street walkers. I had middle class black families, which was a surprise to me. I thought all blacks were poor. One assumption down. I had thieves and murderers. The police actually came to my door one day and arrested Alonzo right out of his desk. He had shot a woman on the bus. He always addressed me as "Miss." Absolutely polite and protective of me. What did that woman on the bus do to rouse him to shoot a gun at her? I discovered another way to conjugate "to be." And I discovered that black children did not "live" at home but "stayed" somewhere. Transience was ingrained in the language. Can you imagine a life so temporary as to refer to home as a place to "stay" rather than "live"? I never had.

Then there was the administration. Our principal was white and had a red neck. Really. He was also very red faced much of the time because he was frustrated by students and families who did not seem to understand his middle class approach to life. His assistant principal was a wonderful black man--Otto Lashley. He was a comfort to someone like me trying to learn the ways of a culture absolutely foreign. He and Mr. Edmunds. Perfect administrators working for a man and a system that had no clue what or where or how to get the job done. Memphis City Schools were a nightmare of organizational red tape. Every school taught from the same set of books regardless of the school population or needs. The text I used had an eleventh grade reading level. My students read, at best, at the fourth or fifth grade level.

So I became an interpreter of not only language but culture. The short story "Snake Dance" was impossible for my students because they had no idea what a "snake dance" was. So we pushed back the desks and joined with each other, hands on hips and "danced" around the room. I created small group grammar sessions and tried my best to convince them that they needed to learn standard English, different from what they would use at home or with family and friends often. I discovered that some of my students didn't need my help as much as others. So in the second year there we created honors classes. That was the year I took them to see Romeo and Juliet at the theatre.

I had never spent any time with a black person before. (My mother's maid Myrtle Gholson does not count. As a child I would never have asked her the questions I asked my students.) I was deprived physically and culturally. In my second year at South Side, I was the only white person in the room in every class, except when the Latin teacher's son was in my room. For the first time in my life, I was the only person of my ethnicity in a room. A very eye opening experience to say the least. So that is what it feels like to be the only one? I had to put ear drops in Donny's ears one day. I touched his head to tilt it to the side for the drops. (No teacher would be allowed to do this now.) And there it was. His hair was stiff and coarse. I admitted out loud to the class, before I realized what I was saying, that I had never done that before--felt a black person's hair. They giggled and then admitted to me that they had never felt a white person's hair. What a moment.

I sponsored the Y Teen volleyball team. Me--coach; you--player. That was how that went. At the end of the season, having come from a sports family, I thought it would be fun to have the girls over to my apartment for lunch and celebration. (No teacher would do this now either.) We ate sloppy joes (a white cultural treat they enjoyed) and chips and soda. They tried to teach me some dance moves. (White female failure--me.) Then their parents arrived and picked all the girls up. A knock at the door minutes after the last student and parent had left. My landlord. "We are asking you to leave. We don't do "'this,'" she informed me. I asked what "this" was. "We don't have colored in our apartments. You'll get your deposit back but you must be gone by the end of the month." Another assumption gone.

Then the morning in April came when the lights went out. Driving to school that day, I listened to Dr. King's speech from the day before. He had inspired such righteous anger in the garbage workers. Memphis was about to heat up. By the end of the day, I had no idea how hot it would get. My friend and I were at supper that evening when the news came that he had been shot and killed. By the next morning school was a mess. First we were called to a faculty meeting and told we would be escorted out by police at the end of the day. Then as soon as students arrived, their parents started pulling them out of class. The rumor was that black gangs were insisting that students stay home and they were going around to all the schools and clearing them out. Our students starting leaving around noon and by the last period of the day, we had 60 kids in the gym shooting hoops and sitting and talking.

We were escorted out only so far. Then we were on our own. I lived in the school neighborhood. As I drove home I was not necessarily nervous or fearful. But at a red light, a group of young black men starting yelling at me and for the first time in my life I heard the word "honky." I did not wait for the light to change.

I can't remember what happened after that day. The school year continued. I fell in love with a sailor who was deployed out east instead of Viet Nam. And at the airport one day waiting for his return, I talked with a young black man, a professional civil rights organizer. It was curious that he thought I needed to visit local eateries and have collards and neck bone.

I ate those in my younger years. I had been raised in the South right along with my students. I valued the foods that most of my students valued. I valued church and faith much the way my students did. I valued parents and my mother much the way my students did. I valued music and its spirit that lifts us when everything else is dark and desolate much the way my students did. Why had I ever felt the rift that divided us? Why had they and I been deprived of the knowledge of the common ground we shared? Generations of bigotry, rancor, ignorance, greed and illiteracy...we were all victims--Memphis, Martin and me.

Saturday, January 9, 2010


I have relaxed. The new year has found me far less stressed about their (students) energies for learning. Why I ever got in a knot about any of this I don't know. It may be fellow teachers. When I work closely with other faculty, I find myself too readily drawn into their unhappiness with students. Usually my relationships with the same students they fight with are rather benign and even friendly.

Take Charise. She is an attractive ninth grade girl who has found herself in classes she was never prepared for. Teachers last year gave little homework, little study skills, little practical approaches to learning so that this year she is in a hole at the end of first semester. But she talked with me this week. "I want to do better. I had no idea how to approach this year. But I do want to do better." Can't say no to that. However, I realize that this statement from her depends absolutely on our relationship. She has not made this announcement to any other teacher.

Then there is Jacob. I am protecting him from some district rules. He is almost homeless and where he sleeps some nights does not qualify him for my classroom. I can't lose this child. He is ever so smart and articulate at 14. He deserves none of the misfortune which has visited his family. I must be a shining light in this young person's life despite the extra burden. I worry if he gets lunch. If he has warm clothes. If he has a chance to do his homework for all of his classes. If he is troubled by his family situation. No one outside of one other teacher knows this truth.

Then there is Dale. How do I help this child? The smile that greets me every day in class is genuine, but behind it I fear great insecurity lurks. Dale cannot keep up with classmates as well as he should. Yet when we have study group, Dale never shows. What to do? Other teachers have written him off.

Then there is Alice. Beautiful, slender, vivacious, failure--except in our ROTC program. She has found her niche. How do I get her to value the rest of her day and recognize how important it is to her enjoyment of ROTC? We have talked--her tears were poignant and her concerns genuine. Family life has been very difficult but now is improving--parents are now working. She, too, has been written off by others.

And then there is John. He wants to succeed in the worst way. His father has made him take my class because he recognizes the value of the program I teach. He knows it is a way out of the cycle of poverty and illiteracy that he will become part of without a good education. But John has brought to my class almost no skills. He has spent the first eight years of school doing as little as possible and now the perfect educational storm has happened. How do I explain this to his well meaning parents?

Thousands of us have days like this. Thousands. And the children number in the hundreds of thousands. So I have come to the conclusion that the 3R's need one more. The R of Relationship. If I can maintain my relationships with these students, and more like them, I might reach a few. And maybe, the stress other colleagues experience will dissipate like mine if they see my example--thoughtful reflection on the really important part of teaching--relationships.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Why Don't She Write?

I borrowed that question from the film Dances With Wolves. Although I am not a pioneer headed out across the vast prairie of the Midwest, I sometimes feel that isolated and alone. Teaching can make a person extremely singular in vision.

This has been Christmas once again. As usual my tree went up after we got out for break. My cookies got baked Christmas Eve and our presents under the tree appeared at the same time. I sent out Christmas letters just before Santa's visit in the hopes that my friends would appreciate the events of our past year. I certainly enjoyed theirs. And in the midst of all that frivolity, I graded papers.

And that theme resonated throughout these past two weeks--grade papers, have a little Christmas, grade papers. Now I know that many teachers don't grade papers at holiday time. They successfully or unsuccessfully have a schedule that allows them some freedom from this during this optimum family time. Not me. I am doomed to always see those two weeks off as time to get some grading done.

So my comments here have been put on hold because the paper load is overwhelming. But, as you can see, I have one resolution for the new year. I will only work as hard as my students work. For years I think most teachers have worked twice as hard as their students. We overachieve in a thousand ways. They show up and ask "What are we doing today?" I think I will start answering that question with "What can you learn today about >>>>>> (fill in the empty space)? Their achievement will depend on them, rather than me. Jim Fay always says that it is not our job to motivate them. So the new year will find me waiting for them.

In the meantime, I have this weekend to finish grading essays exams, book reviews and re-grading essays. It will actually go fast as I have relaxed my standards a bit. After all if they wrote the perfect paper and completed the work as assigned, what would I do as a follow up? My job depends on their failure to act. Interesting dilemma....