“Agricolae sunt!” (Tribute to Miss Hortenstine)

Occasionally on TV I’ll see a Farmers Insurance commercial featuring the Oscar-winning actor J.K. Simmons who describes the various ways the vaunted insurance company can save us from doom. Always, the commercial ends with the ear-wormy jingle

We are farmers! Bum-bah-bum-bah-bum-bum-bum!

To which I often sing back

Agricolae sunt! Bum-bah-bum-bah-bum-bum-bum!

which is Latin for “They are farmers!”  I’m always thrilled to participate in this little litany even if it’s about all I remember from two years and a summer of Latin at Ensley High School. And yet those twenty months in Miss Hortenstine’s class changed my life. You see, my slog through Latin is one of those life lessons that are 90 percent painful and 10 percent redemptive, but somehow, with time, the redemptive part prevails.

It all began with my naive 13-year-old notion that I was to become a lawyer. So, in eighth grade, when time came to make my ninth-grade course selections, my father said, “You’ve got to take Latin because lawyers deal with Latin terms a lot.” And so I did.

Latin 1 was misery beyond description. The teacher, Miss Hortenstine, was what we indelicately called “an old maid.”  But she did have a lover—Julius Caesar. In great rapture would she effuse the Latin for “All Gaul is divided into three parts!” which, next to “Et tu, Brute,” is apparently J.C’s most famous line.” (Sorry I can’t remember it in Latin.)

How I passed Latin1 remains as mysterious as the whereabouts of Jimmy Hoffa. I’ve chalked it up to the grace of God. And so I tried to bail out at the end of ninth grade. I told my dad, “I no longer want to be a lawyer. In fact, I hate lawyers!”  But he said, “No Stephens will be a quitter!”

So—on to Latin 2 which was, frankly, unbearable. You may have heard the phrase “Latin is a dead language,” unspoken for centuries. Well, that memo didn’t find its way to Miss Hortenstine’s desk, for in Latin 2 she spoke Latin almost exclusively and demanded the same of us. I felt as if I were trapped in a kennel of ceaselessly barking dogs—albeit dogs considerably smarter than I.

I flunked Latin 2.

This, of course, meant summer school, which meant two more months in the kennel. Here I’ll admit something I wouldn’t have then: I cried, I sobbed. I begged my parents to get me out of this hell. But there would be no turning back, I had come too far down the Appian Way to jump track now.

So summer school it was.  But contrary to my expectation, there awaited an altogether different Miss Hortenstine. With only five of us flunkies in her charge (from both Latin I and II), she sat us not in those impersonal student desks but around a table with herself, now and then taking one or another of us aside to her desk or the chalkboard where she would explain things slower and with added detail. Our main task was to translate the writings of her loverboy, Julius Caesar.

And, to my own amazement, I was actually getting it done!  What’s more: I was freakin’ having fun doing it!. The noun declensions, the verb conjugations, the syntax were suddenly making sense. This was more fun than puzzle-solving!  For the very first time, I saw how language worked—its architecture, mechanics, the whys and wherefores of grammar.  Epiphany!

And here’s the great part: this stuff applied in one way or another to EVERY language—including English. Within weeks of passing (yay!) summer Latin 2, I was in an eleventh-grade English class with a teacher who made us diagram sentences on the chalkboard, a task that, until now, had humiliated me. Suddenly, though, I was a kick-ass diagrammer.

And though I didn’t know then, I would eventually study four more languages—Spanish (in college), biblical Hebrew and Greek (in seminary) and finally French (on the African mission field).   In every case, even if my Latin vocabulary had faded from the rearview mirror, I had Miss Hortenstine riding in the backseat calling out. “Gerald, of course you remember what the future perfect tense is!  Son, you know the subjunctive mood!” And I did—and do.

Miss Hortenstine has since shuffled off this mortal coil. Still I think of her often, especially when I’m futzing around with these Legos we call words, trying to build something with them, for it was she who lit the fire of my passion for language, for painting pictures with words.  And. most importantly, it was she who showed me—now a language teacher myself—that individual attention to a struggling student can change everything.

Thank you, Miss H.  Hope you and Julius Caesar are having a blast up there!

Lemme ‘splain to you about my back-up ball

Where I was born, every boy was supposed to become an athlete. This was terribly unfair to the few of us who weren’t equipped for the task.  But there was no begging off. It was unthinkable to face your father and say, “Look, Dad, I’m really more of the bookish type.”  No, you had to play ball. And to do that, you had to have the balls to play ball—a department in which I was sorely lacking.  Still I tried.

I tried little league baseball which amped up my prayer life, as I would stand be-gloved and bewildered in right field, mumbling, “Please, God, don’t let him hit it to me.” Or bat-gripping and sweat-dripping at home plate, praying, “Please, God, don’t let him hit me.”

I tried YMCA football where the coach—a father fueled by lingering frustration that he didn’t get the football scholarship to Bama he truly deserved—pointed at me and said, “You’re chubby. You’re an offensive guard.” He taught me the three-point stance and put me next to the ball-snapper where my prayer life continued.  I got in the first four downs of the first game and was benched the rest of the season. (God is good!)

I noticed, however, that there were other, lesser balls in play. The basketball, for example, but this involved too much running. The tennis ball (ditto). The golf ball—too outdoorsy. (I was an indoor enthusiast.)

Then, one Saturday morning after the cartoons had finished, I stumbled on an amazing TV show: Professional Bowlers Tour.  I watched the greats—Dick Weber, Don Carter, and others—battle it out on the lanes.

Geez, here was the sport for me! No running. No outdoors. No human suffering. Not long after, I found myself for the first time standing about 65 feet from a triangle of white bowling pins, my feet stuffed into size 7 red-and-green bowling shoes, my trembling hands cradling something like a ten-pound cannonball.

My first foray wasn’t pretty.  My ball, like a sleepy wino, kept falling into the gutters. My prayer life gave way to cursing. But, thank God, the bowling alley was loaded with balls. I hunted the racks and found a much lighter and more sober ball—one I could keep from the gutters.

Turning to my dad who was watching from the seats behind me, I exclaimed, “This is the perfect ball!”

“Yeah, it’s a woman’s ball,” he replied.

Which embarrassed me for a few seconds until I said to myself (silently, of course), “Who gives a shit?”

Over time, I made my way into a bowling groove. As I’ve said in an earlier post, I’m pretty much a maverick in most things. Bowling was no exception, for I noticed that while my right-handed bowling heroes on TV approached the lane from the far right side and rolled a left-curving ball, I, also a right-hander, was doing just the opposite—approaching the line from the far left and rolling a right-curving ball.

Yet it was working for me. I found that if I started my approach with my right shoe between the first and second foot-markers and then released the ball so it rolled slightly to the right of the second-from-left triangle arrow on the lane, the ball would curve right into the pocket between the 1 and 2 pins! More and more was I making strikes. And with more practice, I was finding the various positions for picking up spares.

Damn, I was good! I began to bowl consistently in the 160s-to-180s, and, occasionally, when visited by the bowling gods, I could pop 200. My highest game was 226.  In high school, I got great thrill bowling against jock friends and kicking their butts.

A few years later, in my senior year of college, I was paging through the course catalog in search of an easy elective.  Imagine my thrill at finding “Bowling 101”!

Reporting to the lanes for the first class, I pulsed with pride. The instructor—a football graduate assistant—was barely older than I and reminded me of the jocks I used to crush back home. Though I had to admit, watching his opening demonstration, he had fine form—typical of my heroes: right-handed, rightward approach, silent smooth-as-silk delivery, left-curving ball.  But it took him about seven balls to roll a strike. (I would’ve done better.)

Now it was our turn.  He divided us into four student practice teams. I rolled a strike with my first ball.  We bowled on, four against four. I was putting distance between myself and everyone else when the instructor began shouting, “Hey you! Yeah, you right there!” He was pointing at me, and he wasn’t gleeful.

“You’re rolling a back-up ball!” he said, stepping onto the platform. “Didn’t you see how I told you to release? Like you’re shaking a hand!” He extended his right hand to me. An awkward moment. Was I supposed to shake it? Mercifully he withdrew it.

“You’re twisting the palm of your hand outward, away from your body!”  He mimicked the move and shook his head in disgust, then lowered his voice. “You’re bowling limp-wristed, like a fag.”  He picked up a ball and said, “Watch me.”  Lucky bastard rolled a strike. “That’s how you do it!” he said, panning his gaze over the throng that had gathered to enjoy my humiliation.  “Now! You do it right!” He stood there waiting.

I picked up my ball, moved rightward, made my approach, and dutifully released in the holy hand-shake mode.  But my ball departed in a nervous flutter down the right edge of the lane. It refused to break left, moving straight down the lane’s edge, like a novice on a tightrope, for which I felt such empathy that I started leaning my own upper body leftward as if to nudge the ball in that direction.  But—no avail. About a foot from the pins, it fell pitifully into the gutter.

“You just need to practice correctly,” said the instructor. “You’ll get there.” And he walked way.

But soon as he turned his back, I resumed my maverick way. Sadly, this course, which I’d expected to be filled with fun, degenerated into an angry game of cat-and-mouse between Jocky McJockface and me.  When I knew he was watching, I would bowl his way, but otherwise I Sinatra-ed him: I did it my way. He kept catching me, though, and finally took to hovering about whichever lane I bowled on.

I did my best to behave, despite the damage this was inflicting on my game.  Then, one day toward the end of the course, as I was en route to barely breaking 100, a raging voice in my head shouted, “Screw this guy!”

Brazenly I bowled my limp-wristed fag ball over and over.   And though I was hitting strikes and spares, the Great One went nuts. “Stephens!” He knew my name by now.  “On the final, I swear to God, I’ll flunk you for bowling a back-up ball!”

Yes. There is a final exam in bowling. You sign up for a time, and then bowl solo an entire game in front of the instructor.  I considered defying this doofus, taking the F, and then appealing to administration, until I learned this would be the Athletics Director.  When I imagined myself walking into the office of the boss of all the coaches at the University of Tennessee, and saying, “Mr. Woodruff, lemme ‘splain to you about my back-up ball….”  Well, that imagined scenario didn’t play out well for me.

So I bowled “correctly” in the presence of Mr. Smarty Jock.  I rolled a 126 and got a low “B” for the course.  But there was value in this, for it revealed to me a painful truth about the world I was entering: Orthodoxy—that is, doing things the “right way”—is regarded by powerful people as far more important than positive results.  This was the deeper meaning behind Andre Agassi’s pitch line in the Canon camera commercials decades ago, “Image is everything.” In other words, how it comes out doesn’t matter nearly as much as how you look while you’re doing it.

P.S. I don’t bowl much anymore.  But I’ve not forgotten my boyhood roots. I know I must play ball. So I traded my bowling ball for a much, much smaller ball—the one at the tip of this ballpoint pen.  Writing is my sport now. I’m still an amateur.  But, hell, I’m having fun.

Me and Russia, we go way back

[Written in response to, “How come you old farts are so pissed off about Russia?” asked by a younger friend whose political awareness bloomed after the Cold War.]

My stormy relationship with Russia began benignly enough in my front yard on an October night in 1957.  I was three years old, so it’s a bit fuzzy, but I recall sitting atop my dad’s shoulders as he asks excitedly, “Do you see it, son? Do you see it there!”  His forefinger punches skyward.  But all I see is a massive splatter of stars against inky darkness.

Fearful of disappointing Dad, I say I see “it.”

“That’s Sputnik!” he shouts. He tells me it’s a Russian satellite.

What’s Russia? What’s a satellite?

“Russia’s a huge country on the other side of the earth, and a satellite is something that goes round and round the earth.”

I have no clue what he’s talking about.  In time, though, I will learn that he could’ve more accurately said a Soviet satellite because, thirty years earlier, old Russia had morphed into the U.S.S.R. and was called Soviet Union on newscasts.  But still, pretty much everyone I knew called the Soviet people Russians, or, in their  more animated moments, Godless commie bastards.

But I wasn’t bothered.  So the Russians have shot a little star into space that goes round and round the earth. Big deal! Let ’em do whatever they like, as long as they don’t stop me from watching Captain Kangaroo.

A few years later, however, in 1962, the Russians started seriously messing with me. Nikita Khrushchev, their pudgy bald-headed boss who vaguely resembled Curly from the Three Stooges but was meaner than Moe, put missiles in Cuba and aimed them at me. (I’ve written a little bit about this HERE.) Civil Defense films at school revealed that I, along with Captain Kangaroo, Mr. Green Jeans, Bunny Rabbit and Dancing Bear, were all in mortal danger of incineration.

The so-called Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved, but my deep-seated fear of Russia had only begun. Other Russian missiles, even if farther away, were still pointed at me and my friends and remain so to this very day.

If you weren’t around for the 1960s, I get your confusion about us old farts and our Russiaphobia. Be grateful you didn’t experience the 24/7 existential terror that, at any moment, a massive solar flash would permanently switch off the lights on you and everyone you loved.  Such fear has a way of burrowing into your skull.

At some point in the 1960’s, I first suffered the nightmare that recurs even in my present old age.  A howling Civil Defense siren stirs me out of bed. I run to my parents’ bedroom but they’re not there. The siren continues. I run to wake my brother and sisters, but they’re gone, too. Frantic, I dash onto the front porch to find the sky awash in blood. The siren moans down to silence, and there’s a second or two when I hear only the wind. Then—the flash.  To this day, I wake up clutching the bed in terror.

My terror was nourished by conversations with friends and their parents, by newscasts, even by my education. Back then, the 9th-grade history curriculum required one semester of Alabama history, and the other of Communism. This was not an objective study; this was a know-your-foe course as evidenced by the textbook’s title, Communism: America’s Mortal Enemy.  It revealed the atheism, oppression of liberty, and unabated evil that composed the cancer we called communism.  And it strongly stressed that this demon disease had been loosed by the Russians.

As I stumbled toward high school graduation there came racing from the other direction the menace of Vietnam where raged a war between Russian-backed Communists and U.S.-backed Good Guys. Older brothers of friends were drafted, armed, trained and shipped across the Pacific to protect us from Communism. Fifty thousand Americans, a few of whom I knew, died there—fighting Communism. And by 1970 I sensed I might die there too, with the fatal flash this time bursting from a Russian-made AK-47 or landmine.

Mercifully, the War in Vietnam wound down in my senior year.  But still, the fact that America had essentially lost the war made my generation’s terror and hatred of Russia all the more intense. Again, much was made of the missiles Russia continued to aim at us. The fatal flash was back—bigger and badder than ever.

In 1980 Ronald Reagan was elected president and convinced us to create a “coalition of peace through strength,” which meant that we needed to aim so damn may of our own missiles at Russia that they would come to their senses and quit this Communism nonsense.  Having been a Hollywood film star, Reagan loved movies and from them got the idea that we should put missiles in outer space aimed at the Russians.

Finally, in 1989, the iconic Berlin Wall—symbol of Communism’s stranglehold on the world—was sledge-hammered to pieces. For decades—perhaps centuries—historians will debate who deserves more credit for the fall of Communism: Reagan, with his I-got-more-bullets-than-you approach, or Gorbachev (another bald-headed Russian ) with his Frankly-I’m-just-tired-of-this-shit approach.  In any case, the Soviet Union disintegrated, melting away like Oz’s Wicked Witch.

I wept for joy because I was naïve enough to think that America’s problems were solved, that the existential threat was slain. Over the next couple of decades I studied a great about the so-called Cold War, and saw where a lot of what I had been taught about Russians was panic-born propaganda.  I met Russians, taught some Russians, shared drinks with Russians (not the ones I taught), and saw that in most respects that they’re folks like me, despite their origin.

But…the pale of Communism still hangs noxiously over Russia, especially where its leaders are concerned. And while much of my indoctrination about Communism was steeped in propaganda and hysteria, what remains indisputable is that Russian leadership is still opposed to freedom of speech and freedom of choice. President Vladimir Putin is a former KGB agent. His DNA still runs toward communism as he brashly undermines the freedoms of his Russian subjects. It is a fact that the Russian government kills journalists and others courageous enough to voice disagreement with Putin.  It is a intelligence-based fact—agreed upon by both Republicans and Democrats—that by Putin’s order, Russian operatives tried—and quite likely succeeded—in manipulating U.S. elections in 2016.

So, you ask, if Communism has fallen, why am I still afraid of Russia? Because I see the Russian government as playing the role of the bogeyman in every great scary flick I’ve ever seen.  Who remembers Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction, the final scene, where you’re sure she’s dead at the bottom of the bathtub but suddenly rises up slashing with a butcher knife?

Call me crazy, but I’m convinced that in this scary flick of communism, Vladimir Putin and his cronies play Glenn Close’s character. That bogeyman ain’t dead. And he’d not think twice about taking that butcher knife to me, Captain Kangaroo, Mr. Green Jeans, and all the rest of us.

I know, cuz me and Russia, we go way back.

Eulogy for Ensley High School

Last Tuesday around 2:30 a.m., a call came into the Birmingham Fire Department that a large, vacant three-story building at 2301 Avenue J was on fire. TV cameramen arrived shortly after the firefighters and filmed thick flames shooting like cannons from the building’s third-floor.  Against the night sky, the scene was especially lurid and would have left any viewer thinking, “Geez, that place is a goner!”

But for several thousand of us, sprinkled across the city, state, and even the nation, this conflagration was particularly painful, for we are Ensley Yellow Jackets, and this building was the walls, halls, floors, stairs that enveloped us from our fourteenth through our eighteenth years. For as many generations as can be counted from 1908 to 2005, this building was “dear ol’ Ensley High, her colors black and gold.” Our alma mater.

Half a century ago, in a classroom on the backside of the building’s second floor, my Latin teacher, Miss Hortenstine, taught me that alma mater means “kind mother.” Ensley High School was indeed for so many of us a kind mother—and, when she needed to be, a stern and disciplining mother, as when Mr. Lott espied me whispering during an auditorium assembly and called me up front where the spirit of our “kind mother” urged him to whip my ass with a boat-oar paddle (a very painful lesson learned).

For more than a few of us, Ensley was a “kind grandmother,” for she had nurtured and disciplined our parents whom we followed, by only a generation, through her doors, up her stairs, and into her classroom desks where Mom and Dad had learned math, science, history, and literature—and, in some cases (my own, for example), where Mom and Dad had started dating and had fallen in love.

For us, the kind mother’s grandkids, stories of dear ol’ Ensley High came to us well before our freshman year. During my early childhood, my parents repeatedly told tales of their Yellow Jacket days—for example, Mom’s daily fear of hearing Señorita Pace call her name in Spanish dialect, ¡Sarah, a la pizarra! [Sarah, to the chalkboard!] And so nearly twenty years later, even though I didn’t take Spanish, I would occasionally use a restroom pass to lurk outside the Spanish classroom to hear the very same Señorita say “a la pizarra!”

There was comfort in this generation-to-generation continuity, in knowing that you were occupying space that had been filled for decades before by families you knew and loved. I recall mornings, for example, standing in a herd outside the lunchroom, waiting for first bell to ring, when, from boredom, I would scan the memorial plaques of alumni  who had fallen in World Wars I and II, and I would recognize many of the names as being from families in my church, my neighborhood, my parents’ circle of old friends. In the late 1960s when the world outside seemed like an express train to hell—what with racial violence, assassinations, and the Damocles’ sword of Vietnam hanging over us—there was some shred of confidence in knowing that your parents, aunts, uncles, and other dear ones, had walked here before you.

So for thousands of us, those flames that leapt last Tuesday from that empty building’s roof felt like a personal assault. A friend and fellow alum wrote, “We have lost the Mother of our family that united us one.”  And I get that, because, at first, I felt that way, too. But  if you stop and think about it, you will realize that memories are amazingly fire-resistant. The tens of thousands of stories  that we in Yellow Jacket nation could tell are beyond the reach of any flames.  And so long as these memories live, so does our kind mother.

So let’s take comfort that she is alive and well, because somewhere right now, Señorita Pace is calling out “¡Sarah, a la pizarra!” and Mr. Lott is whipping my ass.

Go Jackets!

“Mr. Stephens, were you a racist?” (Conclusion)

[This concludes a five-part series that begins here.]

As I grew older, my experience of the world around me increasingly contradicted the stereotypes in which I’d been indoctrinated. I began to notice that the exceptions were overwhelming the rules. Italians were not all connected to the Mafia. Greeks were not all in the restaurant business. Blacks were not all—not by long-shot—lacking in intelligence or ability. But according to my indoctrination the world should have been a neater and simpler place, a set of rank-ordered dresser drawers into which every category should be stuffed with its own kind. According to my experience, it was not that.

The rank-order part had been immensely strong for a long time. And we in the white drawer had for centuries been told that we were top drawer, making us supreme. The Italians, Greeks, and other derivatives of Europe descended beneath us.  And, finally, on the bottom, the African-Americans. The U.S. Constitution in its earliest form helped perpetuate this, allowing for slavery and totally dis-empowering slaves. Later, in the South, Jim Crow held the ranks in order by keeping African-Americans dis-empowered. And so for generations, children of all races were indoctrinated to believe these stereotypes.

Did this mean that the variety of races and ethnic groups didn’t get along?  It didn’t mean that at all.  If everyone appropriately behaved within his/her rank order, then everyone could get along quite well.  And until Brown v. Board and the civil rights movement, everyone pretty much did.  But, by the middle of the 20th century, those folks down there in the bottom drawer had had enough. And so they began to get uppity, meaning they dared climb out of their designated slot and insist on moving higher.  Let me tell you a story to illustrate this . . .

My maternal grandfather was, to my early-childhood eyes, perhaps the most wonderful creature God ever made.  I was his first grandchild and he swaddled me in love and affection. He was also a vehement racist. I recall Sunday afternoons watching pro-football broadcasts with him—a peaceful experience until…Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown (one of very few blacks then in the league) made a phenomenal play over which the commentators effused, thereby launching my grandfather out of his chair and screaming, “Get that [n-word] off the TV!” And he would switch off the game.

Decades later, after my grandfather had died, we would lament, “It’s painful to think Granddady was such a racist.” And, though, none of us condones his behavior, our love of him impelled us to make excuses. “But Granddaddy was kind to black people individually. He even had black playmates as a child.”

This is true. But here’s the rub: So long as an individual black person dared not look my grandfather eye-to-eye, dared not presume to approach him on equal footing, my grandfather was kind and benevolent. But the minute a black person asserted himself or herself as equal to, or more able than a white person, Granddaddy went wacko.

My uncle tells of an exchange, overheard in his own childhood, between my grandfather and a friend.  The friend, referring to a black man, said, “He’s a good [n-word].” And my grandfather responded, “Yes, he’s a good [n-word] because he knows he’s a [n-word].”  And there you have it: so long as the black man knew his place and stayed in it, he was good, but the moment he started to move up (e.g., daring to set an NFL record for touchdowns), he was not good and showed himself to be unbearably uppity.

This rank-ordering was built, of course, with stereotypes that put whites at the top merely by the notion of innate superiority indicated by skin color.  By twelfth grade I just couldn’t make the stereotypes jibe with the world I was looking at. I’ve already mentioned my black classmates, Shirley and Derrol, better students than I. (I could name more).  I’ve mentioned certain of my black teachers, not only able and competent, but more so than many of my white teachers.

So, being a 17-year-old in 1971, I was naturally in a state of rebellion. At dinner table, and in chance conversations, I began suggesting that the grownups had got it all wrong about the races.  I was summarily dismissed as being young and naive. I was a liberal as most young and ignorant people are. When I grew up, I was told, I would return to the conservative ways of my elders and see things as they did. Here’s a line they loved: “You’re young, but you’ve never been old.  We’ve been both young and old.”

Decades later, and too late, I stumbled on a rapier retort, attributed, I think, to Margaret Mead: “True, unlike me, you’ve been both young and old. But also unlike me, you’ve never been young in the present world, nor will you ever be.”

And it was, indeed, a profoundly different world than the one my parents and grandparents had grown up in. In that world, values that had actually been present all along—in the Declaration of Independence, in the amended U.S. Constitution, and, above all, in the biblical tenets of the Christian faith—had been twisted and perverted in order to support the age-old stereotypes. But now, America was gettin’ woke.

My contact with people of color (on a more level playing field), put a bright light on ironies and absurdities that had for so long been obscured.  Here’s one: Moments after my third-grade Sunday School teacher had told us, “We must pray for and forgive the Negroes for they know not what they do, bless their hearts,” we sang a song called “Jesus Loves the Little Children,” the refrain of which is:  “Red and Yellow, Black and White, they are precious in His sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.” On the wall was a lithograph illustration titled “Suffer the Little Children to Come unto Me,” depicting children whose skin and features represented all races. Jesus was sweeping them into his arms, all at once—not white kids first, then others, but all together.

These values had been all around us all along—in our revered government documents, in our Bibles—and, I like to believe, they had also been somewhere deep in our hearts, but buried unfortunately beneath the indoctrinating stereotypes.

My elders were wrong. I have not come back round to where they were. Instead, the America I live in has moved in great measure away from the way they viewed the world. We have come a long way. But we’ve still a long way to go. Racism is, as I said in Part 1, like a stain that must be scrubbed.  And one should never stop scrubbing.

“Mr. Stephens, were you a racist?” my student asked.

“Yes, I was.”

And, honestly, I worry that I still am, insofar as my indoctrination may yet lurk in the shadows.  A few years ago, upon meeting my colleague and friend Carl, an African-American teacher, I asked where he was from. He told me he came from a family of farmers.  And I heard myself blurting in great surprise:

“Wait! What? Your people are farmers?” Somewhere inside me the old stereotype had bolted its coffin and was telling me: Blacks are farmhands, the white guys in John Deere hats are the farmers!”

I was mortified at myself, but Carl was gracious. (He’s used to it, sadly.)

So I have to keep scrubbing the stain.  And here’s what scrubbing is: putting my beliefs under a bright light, examining them thoroughly, and mustering the humility to admit when long-held beliefs are wrong, even if taught to me by people I love.

Don’t stop scrubbing, America. We’ve still got work to do.

“Mr. Stephens, were you a racist?” (Pt. 4)

[The fourth installment of a five-part series that begins here.]

“Why did you come to our school?”  I asked my 7th-grade classmate Shirley, one of only two black students in our 800-student school. She had been writing but stopped at the sound of my voice. She didn’t look up. Long seconds passed, and I was sure she was making a show of  ignoring me.  Then…

“My old school,” suddenly she was talking! “is about four miles from our house. This school is less than a mile.”

“Did you wanna come here?”

“My parents wanted me to come here.”

“Are they communists?”

She dropped her pen and turned toward me with a look that suggested I was covered in poop. “No! They’re not communists!”

“Well, then, why did they want you to come to our school?”

“It’s not y’all’s school, Gerald!” She said my name! She sort of spat it out, but she said it, nevertheless!  Until then, I’d not heard her say anyone’s name. To my amazement, this made me feel ecstatic, even honored, as if a celebrity had uttered my name!  This thrill greatly confused me.

“It’s everybody’s school,” Shirley continued. “My parents’ taxes pay for this school just like yours do.”

I had no comeback to that and figured our chat was done, until she asked what I had made on our history test. She plucked a mimeographed sheet from her binder on top of which was written in red ink “100 / A+”

“Not that,” I said.

Shirley smiled and returned to her writing.

That exchange broke some ice,  and not only between me and her.  It broke a bit of the ice that had frozen shut my ideas about race, about who black people were.

A couple of years later, in my first week of high school, another memorable moment would bring Shirley to mind. This was Algebra I, and the teacher was an old white man called Mr. MacArthur. The first thing he did was pick up a stick of chalk and etch a complicated problem on the blackboard.

“I want somebody to come solve this,” he said, extending the chalk toward us. In retrospect, I think his plan was to impress upon us our ignorance, our inability to solve hard problems, and then, perhaps, to announce that when he was done with us, we would be smarter.  But his plan was immediately derailed.

Seated in front of me was a black student named Derrol, who raised his hand, tentatively.

“Oh, you think you can do it?” Mr. Mac smiled condescendingly.

“Yessir, I think so,” said Derrol.

Mr. Mac beckoned Derrol forward and handed him the chalk. Derrol proceeded to solve the equation step-by-step-by-step without pause.

He looked plaintively at Mr. Mac who looked frowningly back at Derrol.  Mr. Mac stepped slowly toward the blackboard, read through the problem, scratched his head, and muttered, “Well…uh, yeah, that’s right.”  Derrol showed no sign of superiority or haughtiness, he just humbly handed back the chalk and returned to his seat.

He would prove to be way, waaaay smarter than anyone else in the room, maybe even in the school. (Four years later Derrol would be studying at Northwestern University on full scholarship, after which he would attain a medical doctorate in pediatrics.)

Now here I must confess something of which I am deeply ashamed. Like all racists, I had built my worldview with the straw-bales of stereotypes. Among the white grownups I knew and respected, the general consensus was that “colored folks” were mostly alike—not as bright as us, not as good as us, but useful for subservient jobs (e.g. yard workers, house cleaners (maids), farmhands, cooks, janitors, etc.) or, occasionally, as athletes or jazz or soul musicians, dancers and singers.  This is what I was taught, this was my indoctrination.

Increasingly, however, my experiences, my observations did not jibe with my indoctrination.  Looking around me, I saw smarter-than-me black students. Moreover, there was the matter of my black teachers, many of whom I still carry lovingly and respectfully in my heart to this day. I’ve already written (here) about Mrs. Todd, to whom I must add Mrs. Hanks, Mrs. Lassiter, Mr. White, and Mrs. Brown, my biology teacher who, with twinkling eyes, referred to her students as organisms:  “I see organisms in the back,” she would say, “who must either cease talking or get 20 demerits.” (I was one of ‘em.) These were professionals who ably and passionately taught me, and, more importantly, opened my mind to the world around me.

And so, for the first time in my life, I began to seriously doubt that the grownups who had raised me knew what they were talking about. I had given them a pass on Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. But now I began to suspect I had been Santa-Claus-ed and Easter Bunny-ed about a whole lot more.

So I began to ask pointed questions, which led the grownups to label me with one of their most disparaging terms—liberal.

[to be concluded tomorrow]

“Mr. Stephens, were you a racist?” (Pt. 3)

[The third installment of a five-part series that begins here.]

In 1954, the year I was born, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously declared, in Brown v. Board of Education, that racial segregation of public schools violates the 14th Amendment of the Constitution and that American schools must desegregate “with all deliberate speed.” Short version: “Segregation of public schools is a federal crime, so stop it—now!”

But white folks in the South—at least 95% of them—didn’t take kindly to Brown v. Board.  Nearly a century earlier “Jim Crow” laws had rooted and spread like kudzu across the old Confederacy. These local and state statutes forbade the mixing of races in nearly every public and commercial space. Jim Crow brought us the now infamous “Colored” water fountains and restrooms, the back-of-the-bus rules, and much, much more.

Above all, Jim Crow worked as a wickedly effective tool for indoctrinating children into racism—an indoctrination that had been applied to the childhood of my generation, as well as to that of our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. Consequently, in the minds of nearly all grownups in my world, any federal law that sought to change our Southern way of life was an invasion carried out by godless Yankee communist agitators and was tantamount to treason.

This explains why it took twelve years for my K-8, 800-student elementary school to slowly, foot-draggingly obey U.S. law by enrolling two (only two, mind you) black students: Andre and Shirley.

Andre came to us in either 1st or 2nd grade. Roly-poly chubby, always smartly dressed, this “little man” was equipped with a personality that never met a stranger. Andre created laughter—his and others’—wherever he went, and among his white classmates, he probably did more than any chart-topping soul record, to bring positive attitudes toward his race.

Shirley, in my 7th-grade homeroom, was decidedly different. Slender, shy, of studious demeanor, she, too, dressed in style—Sunday dresses, shiny patent leather shoes, hair usually worn in a ribboned ponytail.  On the first day, Shirley was assigned a desk in the back next to mine. For the first few days, our teacher was kept busy, shooing away students from other classrooms who clustered at the door to “see the colored girl.”

In a sense she was a phenomenon. I myself felt impelled (repeatedly) to turn and look at her.  About the fifth time, she crinkled her forehead and glared at me, as if to say, “Stop it!” Still, I couldn’t help sneaking glances at what she was writing or looking at. In the lunchroom she ate alone for the first week or so, until our teacher begged—maybe bribed—two or three of the less popular girls to sit with her, which they did, mostly in awkward silence.

One day, several weeks later, when our teacher was called out of the room, I mustered the courage to ask Shirley a question that had been needling me since I first saw her.

“Why have you come to our school?” I asked

And the brief conversation that ensued planted in my mind a seed that would (very) slowly bloom and contribute to a change of my heart and mind—eventually.

[to be continued tomorrow]