M.J. Fall 2009
Among many treasured
memories from my teaching career, one year stands out. In 1968-69 I taught at Woodland Junior High School in La Marque. I was one of
a few white teachers assigned to the black campus as the district took steps
toward full desegregation. From the
vantage point of age, I see that Life granted me a full scholarship to a rare
and priceless learning experience.
I was teaching at La Marque’s white junior high when the request for volunteers
was made. I had always had a passionate
belief in the civil rights movement so I rushed to the front office as soon as
I had a chance, wanting to be at the top of the list. I did not want to miss out on an opportunity
that was not going to come my way again.
I spent the summer in eager anticipation of the “crossover”
experience. I was young and naďve.
On my way to the first
day I was full of good intentions and the missionary zeal of the self-righteous
crusader. That lasted until I got to the
parking lot. A few hundred students were
gathered outside the school waiting for the doors to open and a homeroom
teacher to call out their names. They
were all black. They all looked
alike. Utter terror ambushed me, but I
set myself on autopilot and made my way through the crowd. Blending in was not an option. I was conspicuously white. Though I had spent a lot of time trying to
imagine what it would be like to be black, I had spent no time considering my
own whiteness and the fact that I had no control over my complexion. It just never came up. Now the shoe was on the other foot and it was
not a comfortable fit…at first.
Attaching names to very
unique faces turned out to be no problem at all. I could easily understand a
student speaking directly to me. It took
longer to figure out exactly what they were saying to each other as they chattered
among themselves. I quickly discovered
that my students knew as much about white people as I knew about black
people. We knew what we had read, seen
on TV or movies, and what we had been told by our parents. Many were especially curious about my hair. Eventually, one brave soul asked if she could
touch it. Then everyone wanted to. Of course, they let me touch what they called
their “nappy” heads. This was hands-on
about race began to surface and transform in the light of actual
experience. It became clear to me that
pigmentation and dialect were the main differences between the black and white
campuses. By my estimation the black
faculty had the same percentages of excellent, competent, and mediocre teachers
as any white faculty I had ever been a part of.
Likewise, the essential intelligence of the black student body matched
the range of their white counterparts.
I had to face the ugly
arrogance underlying my good intentions to help the “less fortunate.” I noticed that these black children had the
innate ability to recognize condescension no matter how subtle. I learned from them. White teachers who weren’t aware of this
tended to regret their decision to crossover.
Away from school, in my
“white” life, I began to notice changes in how I perceived my environment and
the behavior of myself and others. I
became keenly aware of the black/white ratio in any group of people. I was uncomfortable when the only black people
in a restaurant were part of the wait staff.
To this day, it bothers me when TV cameras span an audience with only
Every year in my career
I learned more from my students than they learned from me. From my year at Woodland I learned things that I could not have learned any
where else. Looking back softens me and fills me with gratitude and good
humor. I remember some truly special
people and their memory warms my heart.
After Barack Obama was
elected our President, a favorite question from the media was, “Did you ever
think this would happen in your lifetime?”
Most responders in my age bracket said no. Because of what I learned from my students
and colleagues at Woodland, I always thought I would live to see a black