Words Matter

A local independent school is encouraged to include more literature in its curriculum that reflects the Black experience. Wanting to be inclusive the school conducts studies and hears recommendations from its community. Of the newly included literature, a well-regarded play by August Wilson, Fences, is added to the school’s curriculum and is read aloud in 9th grade English classes. Because of Wilson’s liberal use of a derogatory word referring to Blacks, the students are directed to say “n-word” when reading the word Wilson uses. Perhaps the school feels that it has made progress in race relations, but as a retired independent school English teacher and administrator, I disagree for several reasons.

First of all, while Wilson’s play is highly acclaimed, I question if it is it a valid choice for the 9th grade, or even  high school? I suggest that the play would be better used in the 11th or 12th grade curriculum, if at all. This is  not an argument about the merits of Fences, but the appropriateness of it for this level. Even if it is used in an independent high school, how it is read and examined should be carefully considered and monitored. While students may be able to read the words in assigned literature, that does not mean that they can understand their music.

Secondly, the decision to read Wilson’s play in class is a poor use of class time.  Students in independent schools purchase their textbooks so each student has his or her own copy to read and study outside of the classroom. By reading the text outside of class, class time is made available for discussion and thoughtful examination of the play and what it has to say concerning the Black experience.

Third,  I think the students should not be allowed to repeat the pejorative that Wilson uses—in any form- and saying  “n-word” is a form of that word. During my teaching career I prohibited students from repeating any word used in a text that was derogatory or vile or both. My students and I discussed how and when and why any such word would be used in a text, but its use by an  author did not give us  license to use it in our class discussion. Language, as Orwell writes, is political. That is a lesson students need to learn.

Finally, two of the most powerful words I know are ones referring to females. One rhymes with witch and the other with runt. They carry power for me because, as far as I know, there are no such words used to refer to or used to describe males. Now imagine a class of about 15 males and two or three females that is orally reading a poem or play in class and the reader says “b-word” or “c-word” instead of the actual word. It does not require much experience teaching or being a parent to understand how those girls would feel, and what message that method sends to all the students. The word is present for the author’s purpose, not ours, and those words and their substitutes carry power. To say or write “n-word”  or “b-word” or “c-word” seems to me to be a self-serving cause which allows those in power to disparage the disenfranchised. An author must use language that reflects his or her characters. Fine. But we do not need to offer some substitute for the word(s). Instead, I suggest all readers of a text allow recognition for its presence and its purpose while not causing discomfort to any student(s) by any form of repetition.

The adult word usages surrounding the oral reading of Fences in the classroom of the independent school demonstrate the power of words. A parent uses strong, offensive language when she perceived her complaints about the play’s use were being ignored. She posts her language on the web while angry and later expresses regret for her words. The school does not expel her son but terminates his contract for enrollment. The words of the adults, like those of Wilson, carry much weight. But a 14-year-old pays the price, not the users of the  words.

A Promise Made

In so many ways, there are no surprises in reading A Promised Land by President Obama. Suspicious of the slickness of a word-processed draft, Obama explains that he hand wrote his autobiography in which he covers aspects of his life that all readers look for while he also offers some unknown, at least to me, tidbits of his life. And like all autobiographies it is not too critical of the writer. Obama shares much concerning his early life, his Harvard years, the formative years in Chicago, and the lessons learned as a state senator in Illinois.

Obama does not flinch at telling of his struggles with John Boehner and Mitch McConnell to get certain measures, such as the ACA, passed. He shares the burdens he felt that came with the wars and tensions of the Middle East. We walk the halls of power in many countries with him as he sorts out their leader’s programs, and how they will affect the United States. His accounting of the Deep-Water Horizon catastrophe is the best that I have ever read. Obama’s telling of the Osama bin Laden affair reads like a good story, but one that is fortunately true. As expected, A Promised Land is chock-full of these and more accounts of Obama’s first term.

We also meet people who Obama allows to mark the pages of his book. There is no veneer placed in front of his wife and their relationship. He allows her words to show who she is, such as her telling him it was okay if he ran for the United States Senate, but, “In fact, you shouldn’t even count on my vote.” Obama admits to his dubbing by Bobby Rush, an experienced Chicago politician, in an early campaign. All the names we anticipate, and others, are here. Best of all,  each is presented as they are—real people.

For instance, Obama introduces us to two of the White House senior butlers.  Buddy Carter had “been around since the tail end of the Nixon presidency” and Von Everett since  Regan. The two senior butlers, we are told, always spoke of previous First Families with discretion, but the Obama family soon realized there was a special bond between them and Carter and Everett. Once, in explaining to the First Family why they continued to dress in tuxedos instead of khakis and polo shirts (as requested by the Obamas) to serve them, Von Everett said, “We just want to make sure you’re treated like every other president.” Then Buddy Carter chimes in, “That’s right. See, you and the First Lady don’t really know what this means to us, Mr. President. Having you here….” He shook his head. “You just don’t’ know.” We are never told if either man traded the tuxedoes for khakis and polo shirts, but we understand their pride in serving the Black First Family.

Obama shares his enthusiasm for his “chance encounters that made the [presidential] campaign come alive.” We meet Edith Childs when Obama keeps a promise made early in his campaign by visiting Greenwood, South Carolina during torrential rains, to speak to about twenty people in the local municipal building. Thinking it a wasted day and planning a quick exit, he and his staff are startled by a voice shouting, “Fired up!” The twenty or so people in the room responded, “Ready to go!” The exchange continued, and Obama was later told how Ms. Childs was well known for her yell, even at the local high school football games. And the crowds always responded in kind. Before long, the sodden candidate admits to feeling “ready to go” and tells us that after his encounter with Ms. Childs he realized that “a campaign—and by extension a democracy-proved to be a chorus rather than a solo act.”

Reading the book, I began to anticipate Obama’s learned lessons and insights that he would share after an experience. They showed his vulnerabilities, his thinking, and his humanity. One such shared moment is his telling of going to the residence late one night after Ms. Obama is asleep, and he thinks as he lies next to her in the dark, “about those days when everything between us felt lighter, when her smile was more constant and our love less encumbered, and my heart would suddenly tighten at the thought that those days might not return.” I submit that a spouse who feels enough to think that way has no need to worry.

One of the most intriguing events Obama shares is the story of the Maersk Alabama, a cargo ship captained by Richard Phillips from Vermont, and one of the lessons his power as President taught him. Three Somali pirates boarded the ship and when they could not navigate it, they took Phillips hostage and boarded a covered lifeboat, demanding a $2 million ransom. After five days, two of the pirates came out into the open night air and the other could be seen through a window as  he held a gun to Phillips’ head. Three Navy SEAL shots, and Phillips was rescued. Yet, Obama reflects: “but I also realized that around the world, in places like Yemen and Afghanistan…the lives of millions of young men like those three dead Somalis (some of them boys, really, since the oldest pirate was believed to be nineteen) had  been warped and stunted by desperation, ignorance, dreams of religious glory, the violence of their surroundings, or the schemes of older men. They were dangerous, these young men, often casually cruel…. Still, in the aggregate at least, I wanted somehow to save them—to send them to school, give them a trade, drain them of the hate that had been filling their heads. And yet the world they were a part of, and the machinery I commanded, more often had me killing them instead.” Thus, Obama shares a bit of the burden a president’s power instills on the person.

Each reader will have his or her own reason(s) for reading A Promised Land. The story of an unknown state senator’s political rise is one reason.  To gain some insight to the working of political America is another. Famous people, such as a President, are often thought to being known by the general public. However, unless the curtain of invincibility is pulled back to reveal the vulnerabilities and fears and struggles of the famous, all we will ever know is the packaged image. Obama gives the expected stories in a good light for himself, but he also shares himself, and for me that is the best reason to read this first volume chronicling  his presidency..

Being First

In many situations being first is desired. Athletes train to be first in order to stand alone. Explorers take risks to be the first to reach an objective, such as a mountain peak, which will likely be named in the explorer’s honor. Students study to be first in their class to reap scholastic rewards. The winners in professional sports are richly rewarded by fan adulation and huge salaries.  In our culture, to be the first is to be special and successful. Being first is associated with being a winner, and the rewards for that will be vast.

However, there is one first that I wonder about, and that is being the first child. I wonder what it is like being the child on which parents work to perfect their parenting skills? What is it like being the child who is expected to help after the younger siblings arrive? How does the first child react to expectations that he or she had but that are not later made of the younger ones?  Does the pressure of being the yardstick for all children in a family ever lessen? How old does the first child have to be before the remark, “You’re too old,” stops hurting or stinging? How damaging is the mantle of adulthood placed too soon on young shoulders, and does it sometimes cause them to sag?

            As I type these words, all six children of my mother cover the range of the 70 aged group. But in a few days, the oldest, a girl, turns 80. Once again, she will lead us into a novel age decade. Yet she has led us before because she is the oldest: Into Marriage: On being the first parent;  She would be the first college graduate; She led us into and through many life experiences. In many ways, she showed us how to navigate life’s water.

            At one time the seven years between my older sister and me was a chasm too deep and wide to cross. But as we aged, that space between us grew smaller, and we developed a kinship that was not possible when, for instance, I was thirteen and she was twenty. The family baby is ten years younger than the girl who soon turns eighty, but those ten years are now nothing more than dates on a calendar. Life and aging have a way of closing such gaps, reducing the space that once seemed insurmountable.

            Our mother, a divorced mother of six children, worked hemming washcloths in Plant 1, Cannon Mills. Her life was hard, but her unconditional love covered us. Later after she retired and needed help to live in her mill house on South Juniper Street, my four sisters took turns spending a week at a time with her. Each Tuesday at Noon one sister would arrive, and one would leave. This rotations was done in their birth order, so for this loving gift, the oldest child was once again the first. Many observations and stories came out of the eight years my sisters cared for our mother. One often repeated story is how they all heard our mother walking through her three-bedroom mill house softly repeating over and over, “Just me and my six little children.” Each sister would share feelings about her time with our mother, and the oldest told me more than once, “Those days brought me peace with our mother.”

            Tobie now lives in the same neighborhood with her closest sibling, a girl two years younger. While that younger sister will soon enough turn eighty, the best thing of all is that they again share much of living just as they did when they shared the front bedroom of our mill house with another sister. Ponder that: Three adolescent girls sharing one bedroom!

            Life lived and shared, and Tobie was and is the first in so many ways. Some of those ways undoubtedly were difficult. Some were joyous. But all along the path she travelled, she left blazes–marks easy for her younger siblings to find and follow.

Chipping Sparrows

This morning’s ride on the stationary bike began earlier than usual. When I had uncovered the bike and adjusted every detail to begin my five-mile workout, the small grove of 14 pine trees between our road and me were still shrouded in soft, morning shadows. Because of the crisp December wind, I hurried to get moving in order to create some warmth because the sun had yet to clear the horizon of Lake Norman.

Before too long, my rotations on the stationary bike began to create a stronger blood flow, and I sensed a rise of temperature. While no sweat dripped from my brow, the steady wind was not now causing as much discomfort as it was just a few minutes before. The rhythm of the ride steadied, and as my arms flowed into it my entire body joined. It was then that I noticed a small movement in the pine tree grove next to me. Then I saw another and another and another.

I watched as I cranked the bike. The small sparrows were busy looking for a morsel or more on the ground under the 14 pine trees. Because of the morning shadows I could not see the sparrows as clearly as I wished, but by the small bodies and action, I think that I was seeing a morning flock of chipping sparrows. It seemed that when I saw one, I saw another. Their constant movement along the ground prevented any accurate count, but I was more interested in how they were almost indistinguishable from a pine needle or piece of pine bark or a fallen leaf from one of the dogwood trees. When I thought I was seeing a chipping sparrow, the breeze would blow the leaf across the ground. But I saw many as they flurried across the ground in search for food. Then they quietly disappeared, leaving me to now have time to notice the first sun rays grace the grove’s shadows.

 I have watched many sunrises from this postage stamp of earth where I ride each morning. All of them are the same, but all are different. They are like people in that way. But no matter, I watched this one as I shifted to a higher gear for more resistance. I wanted the heat created by the harder riding, but I also wanted the warmth the sun would give. And I also needed to observe it, aware that the rotating earth and nature’s way would not wait. Aware of the moment,  I watched as the sunlight first graced the tree tops across the road in Ken’s yard and, clearing the housetops on our side of the lake, cast shadows of morning on the pine forest floor where the chipping sparrows had just been. Soon the shadows under the pine grove disappeared,   its needle covered floor revealed by soft, early morning sunlight. Deep shadows, chipping sparrows, and a morning moment replaced by another as the day, like all days, made its offer.

I began my warm down, but I kept notice as the day began. Watching the sun rise, seeing its rays break the grip of night, and feeling its warmth, I applauded its promise and the hope of that promise. A new day that would resemble yesterday and tomorrow, but one that had its own personality and potential. Its own hope. The Pharisee turned Christian, St. Paul, writes in Romans—“we are saved by hope.”

Indeed.

Team

Every high school coach uses various methods to build “team spirit.” Now, that sought after team spirit could be the sense of each player being responsible for his/her teammates; for each player knowing that their effort and action is a reflection of their team and school and community; and that team spirit would bond the individuals into a cohesive unit. There are more reasons for building a sense of spirit, but these are enough for my argument. As a high school coach I would use various methods, as other coaches did and do, to build team spirit: wind sprints, crunches, water breaks- I used a variety of means to inspire the runners and wrestlers I coached; to get them to compress as a unit because that would  lead them to success whether they won as a team or not; they would benefit from being part of something larger than themselves. If one of these athletes transgressed during practice by breaking a rule, such as using inappropriate language, I would stop practice and have all of them do some punishment such as crunches. And then when one of them  did something extraordinarily well, everyone would get a water break.

A recent decision to remove a team from the playoffs caused me to remember my days of coaching and how I rewarded/punished my teams to build that elusive team spirit.

            Since this is a universal objective for all high school coaches, I will be vague because what happened could  have occurred in any high school sport in any state. However, it is important to know that a player was suspended from a game for committing a personal foul and for unsportsmanlike conduct. Before play can resume, the offending player rushes the unsuspecting official and body blocks him to the ground. The player is corralled by a teammate and a coach, and after some time play resumes with the offending player’s  team winning the contest. However, the following week the winning team is banned from the playoffs because of the actions of its team member.

            For a player to commit a personal foul and unsportsmanlike conduct is awful. He was removed from the game and his team penalized yards. The remainder of the game was played. Players left believing they were in the playoffs and that their teammate would likely face consequences for his act. But the following week someone decided that the entire team should be punished some more. No playoffs!

            In my view this is one more example of adults sending the wrong lesson to our high school students. The calls were made by the officials during the game and appropriate punishments were issued. Perhaps more would follow for the offending player by his parents, school, and coaches. I think that all the players realized how violent and egregious their teammate’s act was. In fact, one teammate  was the first person to rush onto the field to pull him away from the prone official. However, the team was banned.

            While I am not involved and facing the pressures that are all too often present in high school athletics, I regret that the team was disqualified because of one person’s act. That is a lesson better taught in the confines of the practices. To make such a decision after all that had transpired sends the message that power rules and that the power will be used against any who appear to be a threat to the status quo.

            Games played while players don’t attend school in person. Games played and offending players penalized. Games played, but then over-ruled by someone who has the power to do  the wrong thing. What lessons, such as ones of mixed messages,  we teach our young.

Power of the Dog

Much news and many comments have been written and spoken concerning the recent news conference held by Mr. Gabriel Sterling, an election official in Georgia. Mr. Sterling spoke passionately about threats that he and other officials had received because of President Trump’s efforts to overturn the election in Georgia and other states. Mr. Sterling called out the President and his supporters for the verbal and printed violence that President Trump, US Senators, and others were complacently supporting. Mr. Sterling said that someone was going to be killed if the assault on the election continued.

When I watched Mr. Sterling during the conference, I was struck by his “powerfully felt emotion” as Wordsworth wrote about poetry not politics. However, Sterling’s force passionately showed his deep concern for the safety of election workers and our democracy. His plea for leadership from President Trump and Senators and others called them out. It asked them, including the present senators from Georgia, to step up and  show leadership.

But has Sterling not heard President Trump these last four years? From the beginning Trump has lied and not accepted responsibility. One of his chief advisers told us early on in his term of office that there were “alternate facts.” Did Sterling not hear President Trump malign Latino immigrants as thugs and rapists and murderers? Was Sterling hearing candidate Trump leading the cheers of “Lock her up” at his rallies. When candidate Trump offered to pay the legal fees for anyone at his rally in SC who would remove a protester, was Sterling listening? Did Sterling hear President Trump ridicule Representative Omar and say that she should “be sent back to her country.” Was Sterling listening during the Muslim ban and the ****hole countries comment? And did Sterling not wonder about all the convicted people surrounding President Trump? Did he not hear what his professional logic must has spoken?

I am  glad that Gabriel Sterling has now spoken out, telling President Trump and his followers that enough has happened and that we are in a danger zone. Sterling spoke well concerning the damage done and being done to our system of  government. As Chaucer wrote long ago in The Canterbury Tales, “late is better than never.”

However, I will not applaud Gabriel Sterling as a model of citizenship and as a model for an elected official. It seems to me that Sterling, like many others, has only reacted when the “power of the dog” has come to his door. Since he now feels threatened by Trump, he speaks out. Now, I hope his words help quell the assault of Trump on our democracy and on some of our citizens, and most of all I  hope that Sterling, unlike the German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller, has not learned a lesson too late. However, I wonder if Sterling has learned anything because of what he said in an NPR interview when he admitted that he would be voting for Senators Loeffler and Perdue in the January special election because “The future of the republic is at stake. I’ve been fighting for these values my entire life, and I’m not going to leave my party. I’m going to fight to make my party the party that it needs to be.”

Has Sterling not heard the supporting words for President Trump that Loeffler and Perdue have been uttering over and over? Is he deaf to their assaults on other Georgia election officials with which he works?  Does he not see Loeffler and Perdue as supporters of the beliefs that are placing him under attack?

Sterling mentions “values” in the NPR interview, and I hope the values he is thinking of are ones such as integrity, respect for self and others, decency, honesty, responsibility, trust, and such. In his news conference, we see a man pleading for all of these values and more. I hope that he will go online, find, and read Pastor Niemoller’s short poem, First They Came for Me, and then ask if Loeffler, Perdue, and their ilk deserve his respect and vote.

One thing Gabriel Sterling’s plea gives us is the lesson of “The power of the dog.” Once let loose, the pack will turn on anyone, even its handlers.

A Warning from 1919

Written in 1919, Yeats’ poem carries as much warning in December 2020 as ever. We have a president who lost but flames the fires of his MAGA worshipers. Not even United State Senators will call for calm but remain silent for reasons of greed and power. Read The Second Coming and ponder its warning of things falling apart because the center, our democracy, is being torn apart and will not hold under such an onslaught.

The Second Coming

BY WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS

Turning and turning in the widening gyre  

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere  

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst  

Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.  

The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out  

When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi

Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert  

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,  

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,  

Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it  

Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.  

The darkness drops again; but now I know  

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,  

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,  

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Aspirations

This past weekend the news media was busy reporting on Sarah Fuller becoming the first female to play in a Power Five football game. It seems that Vanderbilt, which is 0-8, needed a kicker so the coach asked a senior soccer player if she would kick against Missouri. Ms. Fuller did, and her second half kickoff was what we used to call “a squib”. It covered about 35 yards. After she kicked she jogged directly over to the  Vanderbilt sideline instead of staying on the field to help cover any runback. Later Ms. Fuller explained to news outlets that her participation showed that no female should ever doubt what could be accomplished.

I applaud Ms. Fuller for stepping up to help her college’s football team. She even spoke to the team during halftime. She was asked and she did the best she could. But what does her appearance in the game mean for female aspirations? Is her appearance, the fourth time for a female in college football, a gauge for female success? I doubt that.

When women use participation in men sports as a measuring stick for equality, such as a female kicking in a college football game or men’s soccer game, they allow male domination to continue. I suggest that there is little advancement for a “level playing field” made when women celebrate such participation. Young Fuller’s participation on the field against Missouri was not level. It was not equal because she is not capable of competing against the Missouri players, nor should she be able to. At that level, male players are much bigger and stronger, even the opposing kickers.

In the late 1990’s I was the track and field coach at an all-girls’ high school in D.C. We used the track at our “brother school”, and the coach of the boys’ school was a good friend. We decided to combine our teams since we all were on the track at the same time. Little did I know how the girls and their school would react to this news. For days I was questioned concerning my decision and often was told, “We can’t compete with the boys, coach,” or “How do you expect the girls to feel about competing with the boys?” After many conversations explaining that the girls were not competing with the boys but were practicing with them, we were able to proceed with the merger. I also reminded the girls that they would be able to do the workouts with some of the boys and to use them as motivators. In fact, the older girls soon savored the fact that they could outperform some of the younger boys in workouts. Before that first season was over, the girls and boys saw each other as teammates, not competitors because each knew that no playing field can ever be level, but the field of an opportunity must be. Each of those track and field athletes was given the chance to compete in a just arena to do his or her best.

This past week a new United States female record for ten miles was set. In Washington, DC, a 36-year-old real estate agent, mother of two, and wife broke the old record by 49 seconds. Keira D’Amato, an un-sponsored runner, broke the record set six years by former Olympian Janet Bawcom at the 2014 Cherry Blossom Ten Mile Run. You do the math for her time of 51:23 and figure her average mile time. For me, when I road raced at her age, I never ran even one mile as fast as D’Amato averaged for those ten miles.

The United States women’s soccer team defeated the Netherlands recently by a 2-0 score. While that is good news, I think there is more to celebrate in that game when Kristie Mewis came in as a second-half substitute and scored in the 70th minute. It was Mewis’ second score for the U.S. team. Her first came in 2013. Imagine waiting over 2700 days to play again and to even score in such a high level of sport.

Women sports offer females a multitude of opportunities to compete. Yes, at certain levels, such as in youth sports, the sexes are combined for expedient’s sake, such as in wrestling, running, or football. And at that level, girls will often outperform boys. But eventually the sexes separate, and we must ensure that the opportunity to compete is equalized. A female kicker, running back, or point guard at the age of ten is not the same as her at the age of twenty. Nor should it be. Let’s level and maintain that opportunity but leave the kick-off to the boys.

A Tribute Too Late

In September, 1968 I left my hometown in North Carolina and travelled to Maryland where I began teaching in a rural county on its Eastern Shore.  Like most recent college graduates, I was eager and knew I was ready to “change the world.” I had four years of learning behind me that I felt had given me all that was necessary to conquer any hurdle that presented itself. I had, as Mark Twain observed, “the confidence of a Christian holding four aces.”  When I arrived to my assigned junior high school, I was not fazed by the number of students assigned for my two 7th grade classes of Language Arts/Social Studies, the poverty of my students, and all the problems their poverty would present. After all, I had my degree, and one of my sisters had helped me carefully choose a small, but versatile wardrobe fitting for a young educator. 

Because this was early in the integration of the county’s schools, the tracking system was used.  In such a system students were placed in classes based on academic scores. My two classes of Language Arts/Social Studies were sections 7-14 and 7-4, one the lowest academic class, and the other near the top of the academic ladder. My 7-14 section met in the morning in the main building, and after lunch 7-4 met in the National Guard Armory directly behind the school.  The racial make-up of the fourteen sections was not surprising—the lower sections were all Black and the highest sections were white, and in the middle sections there was some balance of Blacks and whites. However, as I mentioned, I was ready to take on any problem of education and to correct it. I do not remember myself as being arrogant, but I was confident.

Many of my sixty odd students were mired in poverty. Before too long I learned how to ignore the odor of clothes worn too often without being washed, or the breath from a mouth that knew no oral hygiene, or the sour stench of urine. I learned how to smile when I gave my Chap Stick to a student who had asked to borrow mine. If returned, I later would drop it into the trash can. I became accustomed to “loaning” lunch money. I learned to deal with any discipline problems in my room and not to send any unruly student to the school office because that short trip would likely result in a paddling of a Black student by the white principal or his white assistant. I learned to make two lesson plans for my classes—one that I turned in to the principal, and the one that I used in my room. I learned the value of keeping my classroom door closed to the outside world of the school.

An 8th grade girl that I remember as Joyce taught me a valuable lesson about the influence of parents. One day walking down the main hall, I saw a girl at the water fountain. A substitute teacher was calling for her to return quickly to class, and the girl said, “I will when I am ready, God ….” I took the girl to the office and she was suspended. Two days later I was called to the Guidance Counselor’s office of Mr. Jim Robinson. In his office sat Joyce and a woman with disheveled hair and a loose dress covering her amble frame. I noticed that her shoes were well worn like her dress, and that they did not properly fit her calloused feet. Mr. Robinson informed me that Joyce would be allowed to return to school as soon as she apologized to me. The four of us sat in the small office and Mr. Robinson gently told Joyce to apologize to me so that she could return to school, but she just sat looking down at the floor. Mr. Robinson repeated his request a few times with the same result. Finally, Joyce’s mother reached across the sofa they shared, shook her daughter, and said, “God…., Joyce, apologize to this man.”  I looked to Mr. Robinson and said, “I accept Joyce’s apology” and walked out—never to forget that lesson.

Before September was over, I became aware that, although I had knowledge and skills to offer my students and fellow educators, they had offerings that I needed to accept willingly and with grace. One student named Jerry began calling me only by my last name, but he pronounced it as “Baabe”. However, he said it with affection and respect, so I went with it. I became aware that the more I gave my students, especially the less gifted ones, the more they gave me. The words of my Granny Susie resonated in my ears: “Sugar draws more flies than vinegar,” and I learned that for many of my students, kindness was the most important thing I had to offer them. English and social studies could follow.

Four of my colleagues took me under their care and guided me in how to teach and sometimes more. Irvin and his wife Doris, both teachers a bit older than I, fed me good meals since a young single man would not cook or eat healthy. They also offered me social outlets with their friends, and they tolerated my immature actions by always being a safe harbor where I could lick the wounds that only a young man could inflict on himself.  Frank taught me how to live and enjoy each day as if it were a song or other gift involving music. He was, after all, a music teacher. His attitude concerning life was not trivial, he was old enough to be my father, but he had learned that most events in life were not to be taken too seriously.  Fred, too, was old enough to be my father, and he had a “lazy eye” that took me some time to become accustomed to. A large, imposing man, he was an assistant principal, but his office was down the main hallway away from the main office. He taught me how to politically navigate a school and how to avoid conflicts with the administration. He was wise in the way of schools and men. He shared with me all the wisdom of his that I could absorb. But Jim Robinson, the guidance counselor, taught me the biggest lesson of all.

Somewhere in my early months, and for some unknown reason, I began carrying a yard stick. I would use it as a pointer to the chalkboard, tap it on the floor to gain the attention of my students, lean on it when stressing a point or correcting a student’s behavior, or just carry it in my hand as if it were a sword and I a young officer. I don’t remember how long I carried the yard stick, but I will never forget Jim Robinson asking me to come into his office one day during my free period.

After we had settled, Jim asked me about the yard stick and why I carried it. I gave him the best reasons that I could, some of which I have mentioned. He then went on to tell me that my 7-14 students, the ones who had class with me in the main building, came from extremely poor homes. I told him that I was aware of that, but what was his point. He then explained to me how the poverty of their homes meant that their parents were usually uneducated, frustrated by their life circumstances, and sometimes heavy drinkers. He went on to explain that many of the fathers and some mothers were crude and that my students had grown up in brutal environments. Parents like these, he went on to explain, thought little of beating one of my students with a limb or stick or hand. For so many of my students, he said, life at home could be mean, and often the safest place for them was school. I asked Jim what that had to do with me, and he looked at me and said, “The yard stick, Roger. Your students see it as a weapon in your hand. It will make them fear you.” Stunned, I sat for quite a while with Jim in his office, and having taken in all his words and their importance, I thanked him and went to my classroom down the hall and put the yard stick in the room closet. Then Jim surprised me again when a few days later he came into my room and thanked me for listening and explained that our conversation was a rare one in his experience.

In The Odyssey, the young Telemakhos, the son of Odysseus, has Mentor, a comrade of his father, to guide him. I, too, had my Mentors who were Black and they took a young, idealistic white man in their care and worked to help him understand things about living and teaching. And as I look back over these near fifty years since that fall of 1968 and write about them, I thank them for their patience, wisdom, and willingness to share their craft with a young man. They taught me much, but most of all they taught me, as we say in teaching literature, the point-of-view–to see every “yard stick” through the eyes of a child.

Thank you, Irvin and Doris, Frank, Fred, and Jim.

Note: I wrote this essay in May, 2018, but think of it Thanksgiving, 2020 because those five good people are still remembered and cherished for their goodness over fifty years ago. As much as anyone or anything, they helped form me.

Fear Mongering

Justice Samuel Alito warns us of the restrictions on our liberties because of the pandemic. He warns us that nothing like this has happened before, but I guess he does not remember the blackouts during WW II. If he has a gripe against a ruling for same sex marriage or any other one, he should say that. But he will not because he wants to stroke fear, not offer an honest opinion. He is one more fear-monger we must suffer with because of his life appointment