Read an Excerpt Dream Not of Other Worlds Teaching in a Segregated Elementary School, 1970
By Huston Diehl
University of Iowa Press Copyright © 2007 Huston Diehl
All right reserved.
Chapter One A Part of Me You are white- yet a part of me, as I am a part of you. That's American. Sometimes perhaps you don't want to be a part of me. Nor do I often want to be a part of you. But we are, that's true! As I learn from you, I guess you learn from me- although you're older-and white- and somewhat more free. -from "Theme for English B" by Langston Hughes Those Children
"Of course," Dr. Martin assured me as he shook my hand, "I don't expect you to teach those children anything." Speaking in the soft, courtly drawl of a Virginia gentleman, he emphasized, ever so slightly, the words "those children" so that I would understand and appreciate the unspoken difference between them and the two of us. "All I ask," he added, "is that you maintain order." And with no further instructions, I was hired to teach a fourth-grade class in a segregated, "Negro" school in rural Virginia. It was January 1970. I was twenty-one.
My interview with the superintendent of schools had not gone well. The office staff had misplaced my transcript, and Dr. Martin had no official verification that I had in fact received a B.A. degree a month earlier from a college two thousand miles away. Unperturbed that he knew nothing at all about my credentials, he showed surprisingly little interest in my qualifications for any of the numerous teaching positions he needed to fill before the beginning of the spring semester the following week. Indeed, he barely acknowledged my presence, directing nearly all his comments to my new husband, whom he had, to my surprise and dismay, invited into the interview. Bill had been teaching math in a junior high in Louisa County since September, his willingness to work in an impoverished, understaffed, rural school district having secured him a draft deferment at the height of the Vietnam War. As Dr. Martin chatted amiably with Bill about the eighth-grade arithmetic textbooks that at midyear had not yet arrived, it slowly dawned on me that he was not the least bit interested in interviewing me. Rather than treating me as a promising applicant for a teaching position, he saw me as a convenient solution to a bothersome problem: how to find enough bodies to staff the classrooms left teacherless by midyear resignations and leaves. If just about anybody would do, I served his purposes especially well, since by hiring me, he would be doing my husband a favor, thereby obligating Bill to check his anger at the absent textbooks.
I tried to direct the discussion toward the job openings that had been advertised. I had no teaching credentials and no classroom experience, but there was one position I thought I was reasonably well qualified for, a position teaching English in the newly integrated high school. I'd just graduated, a semester ahead of my class, with a B.A. degree in English; I'd done some tutoring in remedial English at an urban high school; and I'd taken an education course on teaching English in the secondary schools. Not a very high level of expertise, I knew, but enough to make me think I could do that particular job.
When I explained that I was interested in the high school position, Dr. Martin was visibly annoyed. "No, no; I can't let you teach in the high school," he declared curtly, his mannered gentility escaping him for a fleeting instant. Then, perhaps detecting my disappointment, he quickly sought to soften the effect of his blunt rejection. "That's not a suitable job for you," he explained patiently, speaking to me in the kind of tone a protective father uses when his young daughter asks to do something he considers dangerous. Then, after a short pause: "There are some real big colored boys in the high school."
I couldn't immediately grasp what he was telling me. The spring semester started in a few days, the district's opening for a high school English teacher was still unfilled, there were no other candidates in sight, and I met the minimal qualifications for the position. If that was the job I was best qualified for, why couldn't I have it? I tried once more to make my case, but Dr. Martin wasn't listening. My education and experience were irrelevant to him, trumped by the specter of black male sexuality and a southern ideal of white womanhood that I, born and raised in Pennsylvania, the great-granddaughter of a Yankee soldier, could only dimly comprehend. He swung his chair away from me to face Bill. "Trust me. You don't want your wife teaching in the high school," he advised, with some urgency, addressing him as if I weren't in the room. "An attractive young woman like her? It wouldn't be proper. Wouldn't be safe. Some of those boys, well, you know how they are." He paused, as if to let his point sink in. "I won't allow it. I think she should take the fourth-grade class over at Z. C. Morton. That's the Negro elementary school right next to the junior high where you're teaching, which would be very convenient for both of you." Then, turning to me, "Wouldn't you like to be able to drive to work with your husband? And have him near by in case you needed him?"
I was becoming increasingly alarmed at the prospect of teaching grade school. Fourth graders? I couldn't even remember how old they were. I had not set foot in an elementary school since I had left Hempfield Elementary for Penn Junior High ten years earlier. Reading, writing, elementary mathematics and science, social studies, spelling, handwriting-I hadn't a clue how to go about teaching any of those subjects to young children. But I needed a job and, newly arrived in this isolated, rural county in central Virginia, I had no viable options. I reluctantly agreed to teach a class of fourth graders whose teacher was taking a maternity leave. I was to begin my job at the Z. C. Morton Elementary School the very next week, observing the outgoing teacher for five days before assuming responsibility for the class.
It was snowing hard the following Monday as we drove into the school parking lot. I said goodbye to Bill and watched as he walked confidently towards the junior high, a graceless, two-story red brick building without a trace of ornamentation that, until it had been integrated a few months earlier, had served as the county's Negro high school. Then, far less confidently, I headed for the front door of the elementary school. It was separated from the junior high by a narrow driveway. The county's largest Negro elementary school, Morton had been built ten years earlier, replacing a number of one- and two-room schoolhouses scattered around the county. Originally conceived as a firewall to fend off school desegregation by providing African American children with an elementary school that was "separate but equal" to the county's white elementary schools, it was scheduled, along with the county's other elementary schools, to be integrated the next fall in compliance with a federal court order. To ease the transition, four white teachers had been transferred to Morton. I would be the fifth, and the first white teacher my students had ever had. I glanced nervously around before entering, taking in the drab brick exterior, the horizontal row of institutional windows, the empty fields that surrounded the isolated building and its companion school. And then I walked inside.
I remember their faces-curious, uncertain, anxious-when Morton's principal, Mr. Thompson, introduced me to my students. Heavy snow, highly unusual for that part of Virginia, had fallen in the early morning hours, was still falling in dramatic swirls outside the classroom windows, and the whole school was in an uproar. One of the local radio stations had announced that school had been canceled; another, that school was open. Buses had arrived late, or not at all. Some teachers had shown up; others had not. As the principal escorted me to Mrs. Stockton's classroom-my classroom-I could hear the din of children, exhilarated by the snow, the confusion, the unexpected disruption of routine. But when Mr. Thompson appeared with me in the doorway, his six-feet four-inch frame a commanding presence, the students fell instantly and utterly silent.
"What's going on in here?" he demanded sternly.
When he learned that Mrs. Stockton was absent, he turned immediately to me, shrugged apologetically, and said, "I'm afraid you'll have to be in charge today." He then announced to the students that I was Mrs. Hallahan, their new teacher, and abruptly left. I was on my own.
"Where are you from?" a boy in the back row asked.
I explained that I had grown up in Pennsylvania, but that I had just graduated from a college in Colorado.
The boy looked at me skeptically. "Where's that?"
Here, I figured, was a perfect opportunity for a geography lesson, and since I had nothing prepared and no clue what the kids were supposed to be doing that day, I quickly seized it. But as soon as I began trying to explain where the Great Plains met the Rocky Mountains, I could feel myself floundering. I needed some way to mark the distance between Virginia and Colorado, some way to help them visualize an unfamiliar part of the country.
"Do you have a map of the United States in the room?" I asked. A girl in the front row eagerly jumped up from her seat, marched over to the blackboard, and pulled down a large map hung on a frame above the board. Grateful for a visual aid, I turned to locate Colorado. But I found myself staring at a large map of Virginia. Taken aback, I pointed out that the map wasn't, in fact, a map of the United States, but of Virginia. The Rocky Mountains, I explained, were two thousand miles beyond Virginia. I fully expected the helpful little girl to realize that she'd pulled down the wrong map and to produce the correct one.
"It is so a United States map," protested a tall boy sitting in the far left corner of the room. "And the Rocky Mountains are on it." Rushing to the front of the room, he pointed triumphantly to the Blue Ridge Mountains. "See, right here."
"Yeah, the Rocky Mountains are right there, on the map," others began to shout as my impromptu geography lesson quickly disintegrated.
Bewildered, I tried to quiet the class.
"Your hair is beautiful," ventured one of the little girls, staring at my long brown hair. "Can I touch it?"
"Will you beat us?" another girl interjected, perhaps sensing the tentative way I was going about maintaining order.
Instinctively, perhaps foolishly, I assured the children that I had no intention of ever hitting them. The classroom erupted in hurrahs.
"Old lady Stockton beats us," one of the boys confided.
"She's beaten every kid in this class at least once," another declared. "Man, can she hit." Then everyone chimed in at once, the noise level of the classroom rising as they recalled ever-more-elaborate stories of palm-slappings, spankings, punishments, and perceived injustices.
"Can we look at the snow?" someone suddenly asked.
I glanced out the window. Great quantities of snow poured out of the sky onto the playground and drifted into fantastical shapes, eerie and magical. "Sure," I answered, thinking how rarely children in this part of country ever get to see snow. I naively assumed that they would turn quietly at their desks to stare out at the blizzard. But instead, they jumped out of their seats and made a wild dash to the windows, pushing and jockeying for position, shouting with glee.
"What on earth are you children doing?" boomed an incredulous voice in the hall. Mr. Thompson stood in the doorway, staring at my chaotic classroom in disbelief. I could tell that he was already worried about my competence. If the white superintendent had been oblivious to my lack of credentials and experience, my black principal clearly understood their ramifications. He must have known immediately that I was out of my depth. And he surely must have resented the way I had been hired by the white superintendent, without so much as a courtesy interview with him, let alone any consultation. Deeply invested in maintaining a disciplined and orderly school, he may even have foreseen the way my ineptitude would undermine his authority.
My struggle that Monday to keep the students quiet and in their seats must have been unsettling and disorienting to the students, too. Upon their teacher's return the next day, they sat quietly and obediently in the long neat rows of desks. Mrs. Stockton ran a tight ship. She expected her students to sit still, raise their hands, address her as ma'am, and do as they were told, and she didn't tolerate any challenge to her authority. At one point during my observation a small boy in the back of the room passed a note to the boy in front of him. Mrs. Stockton fixed her eyes on him, but the boy did not see her admonishing gaze.
"Ervin!" Her voice was sharp, her tone commanding and deadly serious. An extraordinary hush swept over the room. All the children became alert, tense, and unnaturally still. "Ervin," she said again, even more sternly. "Come here."
Ervin slid out of his seat and stood reluctantly beside his desk, hanging his head.
"Come here," she reiterated.
He walked slowly, solemnly towards her.
"Put out your hand," she directed.
He scowled, then held out his small hand, the palm faced upward, exposed. It shook ever so slightly. She picked up her ruler and hit it hard three times. Whap! The sound of the wood hitting the bare skin reverberated in the unnaturally quiet room. Whap! Whap!
"Go back to your seat," she ordered, without sympathy, glaring at him.
Fighting back tears, Ervin lowered his head and silently returned to his desk. The attentive eyes of his classmates followed him as he made his way to the back of the room. I watched, knowing I could never hit a child's bare hand, but remembering the chaotic scene of the previous day. How was I ever going to control a classroom of thirty-eight ten-year-old children?
I didn't fully understand the magnitude of this challenge until later in the week. One afternoon, as I monitored my students on the playground, I watched the children in Morton's other fourth-grade class walk in single file out of the school building and march with their teacher in utter silence around the boundary of the schoolyard. My students were shouting, jumping rope, playing tag, and making the most of their brief respite from the classroom, so I was immediately struck by the remarkably different demeanor of their counterparts. I watched, curious at first and then with increasing concern, as their teacher, a burly, middle-aged white man with ramrod straight posture and an authoritarian bearing, surveyed the column of silent students as if he were a drill sergeant inspecting his troops. There was something bizarre, even menacing, about him. And his students were unnaturally subdued, as if they were afraid that a lapse in concentration might undo them. I had never seen a group of children so tightly controlled, so cowed. After completing their grim march around the perimeter of the schoolyard, they returned to the steps of the school, halted for a brief moment, and then, upon command, disappeared back into the building, their "recess" completed. What was I to make of this disturbing scene, the eeriness of the children's regimented and unhappy procession, the intimidating presence of such an unlikely elementary school teacher?
When I asked Mrs. Stockton to explain, I got only a terse answer. The teacher, she told me, was Mr. Snead. The year before he had been hired to teach at one of the white elementary schools in the county. However, after a series of complaints from parents about his style of discipline, he had been transferred to Morton. He was transferred, she went on, eyeing me closely, after he broke the arm of one of his white students. So skilled was Mrs. Stockton at dealing with me, the inquisitive white woman in her classroom, that I detected not a trace of emotion in her voice as she related this appalling story. She left unsaid everything that mattered about Mr. Snead's reassignment to Morton: the powerlessness of the black principal to prevent it; the fear of the children whom Mr. Snead taught; the anxiety of their parents; the outrage of the African American community at the white superintendent's blatant disregard for the safety of the children under Mr. Snead's supervision; the terrible message that his presence at Morton sent about the relative value of white and black children.
Excerpted from Dream Not of Other Worlds by Huston Diehl Copyright © 2007 by Huston Diehl. Excerpted by permission.
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