CROSSOVER

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 learning.

            Programmed assumptions 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 white faces.

            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 President.  Yes!