Civil Rights Movement Subverts Teachers & Administrators!

I’m a white guy who grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, during the Civil Rights era. I remember “Coloreds Only” signs over water fountains, restrooms, and waiting rooms. I remember segregated schools. I remember one day per week (Wednesdays) dedicated to “Coloreds Only” at the local amusement park.  I remember the fear and violence:  Selma’s Bloody Sunday, fire hoses mowing down black children in the park, murderous Klan bombings. I wasn’t quite ten years old, but it’s all knifed forever in my memory.

Now, more than half a century later, I teach eighth grade at a racially, ethnically, and religiously diverse middle school in a Birmingham suburb. Every year I take my students on a field trip to Birmingham’s Civil Rights District where they tour Kelly Ingram Park, site of the infamous high-pressure firehoses and gnarling police dogs; 16th Street Baptist Church, where four girls died at the hands of a Klan-planted bomb; and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute where a variety of exhibits are meant to weave meaning and context into what can seem an insane chapter of American history.

When we first started these field trips, I got a huge rush out of bringing a racially diverse group of young people to Ground Zero of the very movement that made our very diverse school possible. At first, my ego ballooned every time a student exclaimed, “Wow, Mr. Stephens, you actually remember this stuff!”

But within a couple of years, this wore off. Reading my students’ post-field-trip essays, I saw that they might as well have been about the conquests of Alexander the Great. The Civil Rights movement was for my students—even my students of color—a distant tiny island in the vast sea of history. It simply did not engage them.

At first I chastised their insensitivity to the sacrifices of life and blood that had made possible our diverse classroom and our friendships across racial and ethnic borders. “You have NO appreciation,” I bellowed, “for what those marchers and activists gave up for YOU!”  An African-American girl rolled her eyes and said, “Mr. Stephens, you sound just like my grandmamma!”

In time I calmed down and admitted I was expecting too much from my students. After all, these are kids who can’t imagine a planet without smartphones.

Then I remembered a mostly ignored admonition from one of America’s greatest teachers—John Dewey. Teachers must not, he said, start “with ready-made subject matter…irrespective of [the student’s] direct personal experience of a situation.” [Democracy and Education, 1916; p.90 ]. In other words, Dewey believed that ALL teaching should meet students in the midst of their own experience rather than that of the teacher (or textbook).

I saw now the futility in my expecting students to engage the Civil Rights movement in the same intensity with which I engage it. I had failed to notice that, while the movement was a direct experience for me, it wasn’t really an experience at all for the kids in my classes. Still, I argued with myself, the movement is important to the lives of these kids. And they should know this!

Then John Dewey’s voice whispered to me from across a century, “Why don’t you help your students learn that importance by identifying their movement.” Dewey was telling me this: History—no matter which part of it—is absolutely worthless unless it offers practical advice to present experience.

So this year I changed my approach. About three weeks before the field trip, I started class discussions with this little monologue:

Every generation is born into a world that is shaped by the generations that came before it. And eventually the new generation starts to stand on their own little feet. They look around and say, “Okay, some of this stuff is cool. I like it. Good job, old folks!” But then the new generation begins to notice others things, and says, “Wait! What? Look at that over there. That’s not cool. That needs to be changed.”  And almost always, the older generations say, “Shut up. It is what it is. We made it, so you’re going to like it!”  But the younger generation says, “You’re not the boss of me! You can’t make me like it.”  And then the struggle begins.

 Now, you, my friends are that younger generation. You’ve come into a world pretty much shaped by old folks like me.  Tell me what you like and dislike about the world you’ve inherited.

Well, I learned that they’re big fans of technology—PlayStations, Xboxes, iPhones. Plus, they love the oldsters’ creation of Marvel and DC superheroes. And great job, old folks, on multi-function hand-held calculators. Also, hip-hop is a nice achievement.

After a while, I jumped back into the conversation:

Okay, now I want you to look around and talk about what you don’t like about this world you inherited. I want you to focus especially on injustice. I want you to think about those kids we read about in the 1963 Children’s March for Freedom. They weren’t completely different from you. There was stuff from the older generations that they liked—televisions, soul music, portable record-players [I had to explain that term], air-conditioning, etc. But then they started noticing the segregation, the racism, how they wouldn’t get the same chance as white kids, and they said, “This is an injustice. We don’t like this. We want to change this!”

 So look around you now.  What do you not like? What do you want to change in order to make the world a better, fairer place?

 At first, students spoke in general terms of topics you might find on a news site editorial page: racism, sexism, gender bias, climate change, etc. In time, though, their sense of injustice began to migrate from “out there” to “right here” in the school building.

The dress code is extreme, they said, and biased against females. LGBTQ students are ostracized and bullied. Some recounted perceptions of latent racism in the school. Eventually, they discussed the oppressive nature of present-day schooling, using terms like “prison” to describe their daily routine. “Teachers almost never ask us what we are interested in,” said one, “never what we want to learn.”  “True that!” said another, “it’s just a one-way conversation!” Several complained of having absolutely no downtime during their 7-plus hours at school. I suggested lunch as free time, and got this: “You tell us where to sit!  And you’re watching us the whole time! That’s not free time!”

In the following days, I challenged my students to choose one injustice from the several they had mentioned.  I let them work in groups to gather information on their chosen injustices.

As they did this, we discussed the Birmingham Children’s marches of 1963, noting that the participants were kids, many of whom were the ages of my students—some even younger—who had no official power: no vote, no voice, no money.  And yet they changed the world.  How did they do it?

This was the question my students would carry with them on the field trip. They would search the Civil Rights movement, asking this question and looking for patterns, plans, and strategies that would allow an initially powerless group of people—like my students themselves—to address and overcome injustice.

Following the field trip, my students morphed quickly into outraged activists. They saw similarities between the voiceless, powerless, predicament of African-American students of 50-plus years ago and their own sense of voicelessness and powerlessness in our school today. “Teachers and administrators really don’t treat us with respect. They treat us like punks who are guilty until proven innocent!”

I got nervous and went on the defensive, trying to convince them that the plight of black students in the 1960s was much worse than their own. They agreed with that, but they didn’t agree that they weren’t also deprived of certain rights and privileges: “Why is there absolutely no free time?” “Why can’t we choose what we want to learn about instead of having to learn only what the teacher cares about?”

I tried to explain gently that they were just fourteen years old and that maybe they weren’t ready to choose.

“Mr. Stephens, you’re sounding like Bull Connor.”

Then a student suggested a walk-out: “Look, there’s what…a thousand of us students here? And how many faculty? Not even a hundred. We could come up with some demands, tell the administration and faculty, and, if they say no, we can walk out.  Are they gonna put a thousand of us in I.S.S. or detention? They don’t have enough jail space!”

Oh my God, I thought, what am I doing?

And John Dewey’s voice returned to me, “Here’s what you’re doing: you’re leading these kids to the real meaning of the Civil Rights movement: removing injustices of the status quo. They’ve found a lesson in history and now they’re bringing it to the present!”

Yes, Professor Dewey, but what about my job?  I’m not sure tenure will protect me against the charge of fomenting an insurrection.

Graciously for my employment, all of this happened at the very end of the school year. A single week didn’t provide enough time for students to organize a walkout. So now, these young people are headed to high school. And in their eyes I see the fire of activism kindling in their hearts.

Should I warn the high school?

Nah.

A Sacred Place

Bill and I opened the door, took one step inside and were stopped in our tracks by laser beams shooting from more than a dozen eyes. While the juke box twanged on, the rest of time and space stood still. The pinball machine stopped its pinging and buzzing, the customers ceased their chatter.

About fifteen feet in front of us was a bar, stretching to half the size of the room—half its stools occupied by men who looked like steelworkers, all of whom had swiveled in our direction. Beyond them, a ruddy-faced bartender, squat, balding, wearing a condescending grin that seemed to ask, “What the hell has the cat dragged in now?”

I whispered to Bill, “I told ya this was a bad idea!”

We were standing inside Air Devil’s Inn on Taylorsville Road in Louisville, Kentucky. Bill and I were 24-year-old students at the nearby Presbyterian seminary. At least a dozen times we had passed this place on trips to and from the J-Town Lanes where we bowled for The Holy Rollers.

“Look at that place!” Bill had said the first time we passed it. “It’s the perfect dive bar! All closed-in, you know it’s dark inside. Cheap drinks, I bet.” Bill was from Buffalo, New York, where dive bars were a-dime-a-dozen and a way of life. I was from the buckle of the Bible Belt where Baptist ministers based pledge-drives on the quest to close bars and taverns. Though I was a young man of “drinking age,” I could still hear my mom’s voice pleading, “You got no business in a place like that.”

But Bill had worn me down. Earlier on this night, upon leaving the bowling alley, he had declared, “This is the night!  We’re going into that bar!”

And so here we were, inside the door of Air Devil’s Inn, frozen by a barrage of blue-collar glares. Then, after what seemed an eternity, the men at the bar turned back around, the pinball machine resumed its pinging and buzzing, and the bartender moved down the bar to serve a customer.

Bill moved toward the bar, and, against better judgment, I followed. We grabbed two stools. The bar was backed by a smudgy, wall-length mirror, off of which many laser-stares were ricocheting toward us.

One of the pinballers bellied up to our end of the bar and called out to the bartender, “Hey, Pops! Old Forrester!”  Shortly, the bartender ambled down to hand the guy his drink. He didn’t look our way.

Bill spoke up, “Hey, Pops.”

The bartender turned slowly, looked venomously at Bill, and said, “Do I know you?” Obviously, a rhetorical question. Not even a question. More a statement. Years later this moment would spring to mind when I first saw Robert De Niro ask menacingly, “You talkin’ to me?”

“Uh, I’m sorry, sir.” Bill muttered, “Can we get two beers?” Without asking what kind, without uttering a word, the bartender reached into the beer case, grabbed two cans of Falls City, and plopped them before us. Bill and I each put a dollar on the bar. The bartender looked at me, pointed to Bill, and sneered, “He’s payin’.” He went to the register, came back, slammed a dime down in front of Bill, and walked away.

Wide-eyed, Bill took the dime between thumb and forefinger, and whispered, “Holy shit! Forty-five cents a beer!” He dropped the dime back onto the bar, turned to me, eyes gleaming in excitement, and whispered, “Stephens, this is the pinnacle of irony! We’ve found heaven right here inside Air Devil’s Inn!”

We had several more. I don’t remember exactly what we paid for them. But I do recall that we left a one-hundred percent tip and still felt as if we’d made a steal.

And, yes, we came back and back and back and back and….  Soon, the laser-beam stares diminished, and we came to be greeted with smiles and head nods. We learned the names and stories of some of those bar-stool regulars who had been so daunting on that first night. We learned their joys and pains. We came to see them as fellow travelers. And the bartender? Well, he was Bobby Drene, a horse’s ass with a heart as big as a washtub. Bobby would occasionally slip me free drinks as a gesture of thanks for my listening to his frustrations, which needed expression after his having listened to so many others’ tales of woe.

Sometime, toward the end of my senior year, as I was perched at the bar after nearly all the customers had gone home, Bobby asked me, “Hey, preacher. If Jesus was to come to Louisville, where’d ya think he’d go first—up on the hill to your seminary or down here to Air Devil’s?”

I didn’t hesitate. I slapped the empty barstool next to me and said, “Right here!”

“That’s what I think, too.” Bobby said with a rare smile.

“But Bobby,” I said, “You oughta be nicer to him than you were to me and Bill.”

“Oh, I will. ‘cause he won’t look like a wall-eyed turd the way you and Billy did!” He cackled and I joined him.

Now, nearly forty years later, I’ve amended my opinion. Today I believe that Jesus was already there in that dark, smoky, pinball-pinging bar. Now I see quite clearly that I was always closer to Him when I was on an Air Devil’s barstool than I was seated in a seminary classroom.  One place was unavoidably real; the other was not. One place was sacred, the other—not so much.

Indeed, the pinnacle of irony.

My First Teacher

Last Thursday morning, minutes away from the first-period bell, I was in robot mode, punching pencils into the electric sharpener on the counter of my classroom. You see, experience has taught me to keep on hand a batch of ready-to-use #2s for those hapless souls who come to class sans writing instrument. (Colleagues chastise me for aiding and abetting student carelessness. “Make them sign the tardy log!” they bark.  “Punish them for their unpreparedness!” I did that for a while, but found it to have no effect on the more Mr. Magoo-ey of my students. In other words, the ones who are like me.)

As the pencil sharpener whined and whirred, there came a sudden, unbidden memory of my mother.

***

I am 17 years old, in my childhood home, dressed and ready for school, but still bleary-eyed and yawning. Hunched over the dining room table, I’m punching pencil-after-pencil into an electric sharpener—in those days a luxury item that Mom induced Dad to buy because her first-graders have taken to surreptitiously breaking pencil-points as a stalling tactic.

Mom has countered—buying pencils by the hundreds, and charging me and my siblings, in turns, to pull morning duty, sharpening dozens of pencils and putting them into a cigar box. This way, Mom nips her students’ foot-dragging by quickly delivering a freshly sharpened pencil to every child who breaks his or hers.

For my sibs and me, this duty comes with specific instruction. Turns out, there is a golden mean of pencil-sharpening—neither too sharp nor too blunt.  We kids learn to work that sharpener as deftly as John Coltrane works his saxophone. Mom thanks us profusely, and repeatedly tells us we’re part of her teaching. I half-listen to her.

***

Nearly a half-century later, all of that came suddenly to mind and prompted me to pay closer attention to the tips of the pencils I was pulling from my classroom sharpener. “Geez, I’m making these too sharp,” I muttered. And I thought again of how Mom used to insist that I was part of her teaching.

I paused and wondered if her decades-ago encouragement and her own teaching have served in any way as cause for my being exactly where I am now—in a classroom of my own.  I must tell you that until about fifteen years ago, I never dreamed I would wind up a teacher. If on that morning in my 17th year, Mom had said, “Jerry, you’ll be teacher, too, one day!” I would’ve laughed in her face.

My mother clung tightly to her identity as a teacher throughout her adult life. But I dismissed her claim in my early adolescence—those years when you start to challenge your parents. I thought, “She calls herself a teacher, but how much has she actually taught?”

Not much, up to that time. There had been those very few years at Moore Elementary School following her college graduation, before she had quit to have kids.  Then, after my baby sister started to school, Mom tried again, this time at Wylam Elementary. But that didn’t last, as she couldn’t find enough energy to teach while battling depression..

Then, in the early 1970s, on her third try, she was hired on the spot while filling out an application for Jefferson County Schools. The county sent her to an impoverished and neglected, nearly one-hundred percent African-American school—Roosevelt City Elementary. Within two years, her students were outperforming over-the-mountain rich kids in reading.

Mom had taken a mandated, standardized reading program and had altered it so that, among other things, extra repetition was added. She persuaded a banker in our church to give her the bank’s discarded IBM punch-cards so she—and we, her children—could fashion them into reading flashcards. Doing this, she lifted her own students to the top of the charts.

This was along about the time my 17-year-old bleary-eyed self was sharpening pencils for her. There was then a particular moment when it hit me: “Wow! Mom really is a teacher.”

***

No doubt, all of our lives are influenced in some measure by our parents’ lives. Yet I don’t think we can ever be sure of the degree—or even the precise ways—in which we are influenced by our parents. I think we construct narratives, life stories that infer our parents’ influences. But are those narratives always accurate? I’m not sure.

Still, in my constructed narrative, I can’t seem to let go of the notion that my winding vocational path has now arrived at Room A104 of Bumpus Middle School precisely because my mother was a teacher—and a good one.

Thus, last Thursday, over the whine and grind of an electric pencil sharpener, I heard my mother’s voice again tell me that I was a part of her teaching.

And I heard my own voice reply, “And you’re part of mine, too, Mom.”

Let’s Trash Grades!

“Lookie here!” the principal shouts into the microphone.

Despite the upscale suit, the professorial glasses, and the elegant white hair, the principal is a bona fide Southern-bred good ol’ boy. His big eyes grow big as he pauses for effect and then thrusts his arms outward and downward to indicate two rows of students seated in chairs cordoned by stretches of blue ribbon.

“These up here in the front,” he pauses again, “are the top ten percent!” [Pause]  “And they’re up here to show all the rest of y’all—”[Leans into the microphone] “—what excellence looks like!”

Obediently the rest of us look upon excellence sitting straight—if nervously—in the glory of a thousand gazes.

“Now, next year!” [Pause] “We gonna need us a bunch more blue ribbon.” [Pause] “‘Cause I wanna see every student up here in the top ten percent!”

Seated next to me, the Latin teacher leans my way and whispers, “That’s a mathematical impossibility, right?”

Right. 

But in the principal’s defense, he’s not alone in overlooking this aspect of rank-ordering students. The principal’s words have rolled over the assembly like water off a duck’s back.

In my experience more than a few teachers, students, and parents vaguely believe that if everyone tries super hard, then everyone can be in the upper percentiles.  Few stop to think that the traditional way of sorting out student performance guarantees that some students—no matter how well they perform—are required to be the mediocres or the losers.

For example, what if we took the principal’s top ten percent—those excellent ones sitting in ribboned chairs—and made them a group unto themselves? Brilliant as they are, they would be split into sets of winners, mediocres, and losers.  In fact, they should stand up right now, turn around, and offer great thanks to the ninety-percent seated behind them. For without that ninety percent, nearly every one of the top ten percent would’ve been reduced to mediocres and losers.

“What’s wrong with that?” you may ask.

Well, consider this: suppose that after Test #1, the teacher works hard, as do her students, to ensure that everyone improves.  Now, suppose every student does improve on Test #2 by, say, a whopping fifty percent. How will the scores for Test #2 look in terms of student comparisons when placed next to those of Test #1? Exactly the same! The losers on the first test are still losers on the second one, despite their having performed fifty percent better.

Thus, in our current practice of education, there will always have to be losers, no matter how well the losers perform. Ain’t no way the principal’s lower 90 percent can break into the top ten percent.

This brings a subtle but, I think, harmful side-effect. In my twelve years of teaching I’ve noticed that ranking students in relation to one another creates (in both students and parents) an attitude that, if expressed honestly, is: Learning be damned, just tell me what I need to do to get an “A.”

As a result, by eighth grade almost every student has developed an academic identity based on his/her average grades:  “I’m an ‘A’ student,” or “I’m a ‘C’ student,” etc.  And this means that students shape their expectations of themselves based on past grades. They settle into their rank, because they begin to think it’s written in stone.

From time to time, my frustration inspires me to speak with my classes about their obsession with grades. I remind them that grades aren’t nearly as important as learning. This sets off a cascade of eye-rolling, and inevitably, a student asks, “But don’t grades show what you’ve learned or not learned?”

Sadly, no, they don’t.

For the most part, grades are an indication of how long a student can remember information that is usually irrelevant to his/her life.  To confirm this, I will occasionally remind students of tests they may have taken in, say, Science or History two weeks earlier. “Would you do as well if you got it as a pop-test today?” I ask.  They laugh at the absurdity of the question. “Of course not!”

There’s an old riddle that goes:

Question: What’s the difference between an “A” student and an “F’ student?

Answer:  An “A” student forgets the answers five minutes after the exam; an “F” student forgets them five minutes before.

Some may say, “Well, that’s life! We all went through it!”

But is this the best life we can offer our young people? And if it’s not, can we do better?

I say we can, and we can start by making the following changes:

  1. Let’s trash grades (yes I said it!) and replace them with performance standards. For example, in my subject, English, a student would be presented a rubric that clearly defined specific degrees of mastery in reading, writing, speaking, and listening. The student would be shepherded through these degrees of mastery. Upon displaying mastery (which is something more than making an “A” on a one-off test; it is, rather, the display of an enduring skill) the student would move on to the next defined and specific degree of mastery. True, some students would move faster than others. So be it. And there would be no stigma associated with a student’s slower pace.  After all, we don’t all learn at the same pace. The pace is far less important than that we learn.
  2. Give the student voice and choice in pursuit of standards. We often forget—or never stop to think—that there are almost always many different paths to mastery of any performance. Traditional public education, with its cookie-cutter methods, tends to favor one mode of learning over the many others, thereby unfairly disadvantaging many students. Plus, students are far more likely to see relevance in their learning if they are given voice and choice in how to achieve their goals.
  3. Encourage collaboration among students as they seek mastery of standards. Traditional grading systems turn students against one another. If I know that my value as a student is based on where I rank among all other students, then I’m inclined to wish ill for those above and below me, and disinclined to share knowledge or to help my peers. If, on the other hand, I see myself and my classmates as climbing a mountain together, even if by different paths, then I’m much more likely to collaborate with and help my classmates. Better yet, I’m more likely to be a collaborative and helpful citizen in future society.

 Granted, these are three very broad-brush suggestions. And I’ll issue here what I consider to be the five most important words in the English language: but I could be wrong. However, I can confidently say this: What we’ve been doing ain’t working well for us at all.

I think it’s time for radical reform.  What do you think?

“…and deliver us from ‘the data,’ for Thine is the kingdom…”

I teach eighth-grade English.

Last February I spent a training day with colleagues at our school district’s central office where a district official emphatically reminded us that our students’ reading scores are of paramount importance. If our students don’t show improvement from standardized test to standardized test, we were told, then teachers will be held accountable.”

At the end of the day I raised my hand and said, “We’ve been here about six hours and not once have we said or heard the word ‘creativity.’  Do we simply not care about our students’ creative capacities?”

I got this answer: “Well, we don’t have a metric that measures creativity. Next question?”

But do we, in fact, even have a metric that measures reading?

*  *  *

A few months earlier I had been in a bi-weekly meeting with my school’s administrator, our reading specialist, and other teachers of the same students I teach. We were reviewing a list of “struggling readers.”

Coming to the name of a particular student—let’s call her Bonita—we were told authoritatively that Bonita reads on a second-grade level.

“Wait! What?” I blurted.

I explained that in my class Bonita was independently reading a sixth-grade-level novel, was journaling about it intelligently, and, furthermore, was explaining the novel’s unfolding plot to me in weekly one-on-one conferences.

“Well,” I was told, “it says right here in the data that she reads at second-grade level.”

“The data.” Lately, I’ve begun to pray the Lord’s Prayer, but with “deliver us from evil” changed to “deliver us from ‘the data.’”  For in the case of reading assessments, the data is evil, because it works like this:

  • slice out 60-120 minutes of a child’s life (without regard for how she’s feeling physically or emotionally in that moment);
  • have the child read a block of text that has little if any relevance to her life;
  • test her comprehension with someone else’s questions and—get this—someone else’s multiple-choice answers (in others words, don’t dare give this child the chance to express her comprehension with her own passions and her own terms);
  • score the test, compare it to other scores and then label the child with that number.
  • Oh, and make sure that child and her parents see that number in comparison with others so that child may be accorded a place on a continuum of good-to-bad.

That, my friends, is “the data” from which I pray the Lord will deliver us.

*   *   *

Last week I learned that last year, according to “the data,” I did not sufficiently advance my students along the reading continuum. Thus, I’m told, I am failing—not in those words (we’re too nice for that) but “the data” is a master of inference. And its inferences always carry a moral tinge. Everyone—students, teachers, parents—on whom “the data” lays its grubby little hands will be judged as either good, fair, or bad.

Having received my judgment, I felt bad—real bad.  In fact I was demoralized. I began to scheme ways to retire as soon as possible. “I’m too old for this sh*t,” I told myself.

But suddenly a voice came to me, saying, “If you feel demoralized, how must Bonita have felt on hearing that she was an eighth-grader reading on a second-grade level?  How must her parents have felt?”

This made me angry—real angry. How dare “the data” do this to us?

I recalled Bonita sitting across from me with smiling wide eyes, her arms gesturing excitedly, while explaining the unfolding action in the novel she had just finished, while she inferred insights into the characters’ points-of-view. This novel was set in the midst of middle-school girl drama which was the world in which she lived. Later in the year she would write poetry about her world, and my pride in her would bring tears to my eyes.

But “the data” doesn’t give a damn about any of that, because “the data” has no capacity for human uniqueness, no appreciation of a child’s ability to gather impressions of the world around her and put them into words that stir her heart and the hearts of her readers.  “The data” just wants to judge in much the same way my students describe the incurably judgmental: “Haters gonna hate.”

So I am not going to let myself be demoralized or defined by “the data.” Instead I will remind myself every day that I have the privilege to share life with hundreds of unique 13- and 14-year-old human beings, each of whom brings curiosity and talent to my classroom.

And so I swear I will refuse to worship “the data.” I will refuse to “standardize” my students. I will not tell them what “the data” declares they ought to be. I will instead ask them what they want to be, and I’ll do my damnedest to help get them there.

For in my theology, one cannot serve God and “the data.”  So, to “the data” I say, “Get thee behind me.”

Amen.

 

 

A Great Lesson from the Great White North (Part 1)

February, 1983. We are twenty miles south of Toledo on Interstate-75 north in a ‘79 Ford wagon, hurtling through flurries of snow. We are five Presbyterians from five Indiana churches–two directors of Christian Education (DCEs, they’re called) and three ministers. Our destination? Toronto, to attend the annual North American conference of church educators.

“I think it’s accumulating,” one of the DCEs says and then giggles.  She’s from that part of Wisconsin where they punctuate their speech with nervous giggles.

“Yes. So it is.” adds Big Steeple Preacher behind the wheel. His words roll out in sonorous tones that make me want to bow my head and say, “Amen.”  But I don’t. What I really want to say is: “What breed of moron sets up a February conference in Toronto?”

But I don’t say that because in this group I am much the least in age and importance. My travel mates are “icons” in the presbytery. They’ve spent years making names for themselves. They preach and lead workshops at churches throughout the Wabash Valley. Adoring fans fawn over them for their faith and wisdom.

They are icons” and I am…well…do you know that character who wanders uninvited into a party and naively kills the mood? That’s me–attached like a wart to this crew of cronies who have trekked together for 15 years, just the four of them, to conferences all across the continent. They see themselves as a single vital unit of Presbyterianism, a brain trust, if you will.  And as I ride quietly in their midst, I imagine the conversation that put me here:

“Somebody’s gonna have to take the new kid?”

[Long, painful pause]

“Well, he lives closest to you.”

“Yes, but…

“What would Jesus do?”

[Long, painful pause]

“All right, all right! We’ll take him.”

Compulsory Christian guilt cracked open a door just wide enough to stuff me into this Ford wagon.

By the time we reach the Detroit suburbs, snow is buffeting us in big, thick waves, creating that starburst blast of flakes beyond the windshield that can hypnotize the most alert of drivers. But there in the cockpit, Big Steeple’s holy hands are tight on the wheel at 10 and 2.  He cranes his neck forward, his knobby nose only inches from the windshield. God is his co-pilot.

No one has yet stated the obvious—that we ain’t gonna reach Toronto like this. So, trying delicately to broach that subject, I resurrect the question I’d muted earlier, only in a kinder, gentler way:

“Why did they schedule a February conference in Toronto?” I ask.

“Isn’t it obvious?” blurts the minister up front in the passenger seat. Let’s call him Big Steeple Jr, or better, Junior. He’s a balding 40-something whose blaring voice belies his belief that everywhere is his pulpit. Covertly, though, he covets Big Steeple’s bigger pulpit, and designs to seize it, once Big Steeple retires—or dies.

“You get much better hotel and venue rates when demand is low!” says Junior with a laugh meant to signal my ignorance.  Then he looks to Big Steeple for approval.

“Quite so, quite so.” booms Big Steeple.  “Are we not called to be righteous stewards of the bounty our Lord has bestowed upon us.”

“Amen!” blares Junior, a little too eagerly.

Make no mistake: by bounty, Big Steeple means money. And nothing brings out the crazy in Presbyterians like money. They are, after all, a manifestation of the Church of Scotland where, for centuries, penny-pinching has been the noblest of arts. I will eventually endure 25 years in Presbyterian ministry, and through it all, any mention of money always trumped all other topics. For example, I witnessed a presbytery meeting in which a debate over the ordination of “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals” (practicing?) descended into shrieking madness bordering on fisticuffs. Then, suddenly, near the back of the room, a peace-minded man stood up and shouted, “ONE MILLION DOLLARS!”  Immediately the room fell silent, all movement ceased.  Then came bewildered murmurs, “Where?” “Whose money?” “Are we makin’ a million or losin’ it?” “Quick, call the Finance Committee!” “Form a subcommittee!”

“Money” is to Presbyterians what “Squirrel” is to the attention deficient. Shouting the word works like the neuralyzer in Men in Black. Folks forget everything that came before it.

So here we are: money-minded Presbyterians, a faith-filled fivesome in a Ford, fishtailing to Toronto, dodging dozens of ditched and dinged-up vehicles, hanging our health and safety over the abyss. But it’s okay. We’re saving money!

In retrospect it’s clear I should’ve been terrified. We had no business on the road in those conditions.  But two thoughts shielded me from terror. First, I naively believed that God was guiding the hands and brake-foot of Big Steeple–that God was his Co-Pilot. Years later I will come to believe that Big Steeple was as unbearably annoying to God as he became to me.   But in February ‘83, it didn’t occur to me that God might be swinging at Big Steeple and whiffing.

Second, I was shielded from terror by my own eager anticipation.  This was to be my first ever trip abroad. Okay, okay, I know. It’s just Canada. But to a boy who who’d just recently escaped the South, the Great White North was bona fide exotica. And so I believed that neither rain nor sleet nor snow could keep me from crossing north of the border.

So now we’re warping, woofing, weaving through the Motor City. Big Steeple is furiously working the wheel, hard and fast to the right, then to the left, back right again, all to keep the tail of the wagon in line with front. Junior squirms in the passenger seat, vicariously jerking himself in whichever direction Big Steeple jerks the wheel. The DCEs are wide-eyed and seem to have quit breathing. DCE Giggles starts to pray, “O Precious Pinnacle of Power, protect us….. [nervous giggle].” The other DCE interrupts with the wisest words said so far: “We need another plan.”

And Junior is ready to dispense that plan, for he is a train buff, among those whose Grandpa took him to see a Choo-Choo when he was a tyke, and, in that moment, the heavens opened and a voice came forth saying, “This is my beloved mode of transportation in which I am well pleased!”  So today Junior can name and describe every locomotive, every train car that ever rumbled on two rails. Back home his attic is a sprawl of miniature towns nestled in an intricate web of model-train tracks over which little locomotives whistle and toot and tug long lines of flat cars, commodity cars, coal cars, passenger coaches and, of course, cabooses. There’s even a circus train that totes tiny elephants and lions and tigers and bears.  (Oh my.)

“If we can get over the Ambassador Bridge and into Canada,” barks field marshal Junior, “we can take the Canadian National rail line into Toronto! CN has some of the finest, softest rail beds in the world! Leave the driving to them!”

“How much will that cost us?” asks Big Steeple, warily, Presbyterianly.

“Less than it’d cost to replace your car and pay our medical bills,” says the DCE who’d lobbied for a new plan.

Judging by the interstate beneath us, I don’t expect the bridge to Canada to be open. And, ill-advisedly, I say so. Junior is too ready to denounce my doubt. “O ye of little faith!” He explains that in its role as a major international artery, the bridge was designed for quick and easy d-icing. And yadda, yadda, yadda.  Well, sure enough, we find the surface of the bridge quite passable, almost dry.

Across the bridge at customs, Junior maintains his command, demanding directions to the train station which turns out to be mere minutes away—a great convenience, not so much because of proximity, but because it cuts short Junior’s sermon on the history of railroads.

[Blogpost concludes HERE.]

A Great Lesson from the Great White North (Part 2)

[Conclusion of a two-part blog that begins HERE.]

At a money booth in Windsor station we convert U.S. dollars to Canadian currency, after which we buy round-trip tickets to Toronto. In the waiting area, we settle into seats, five abreast, until our train arrives. Junior seizes the chance to resume his sermon, prompting the DCEs to open books that they pretend to read.  More politely Big Steeple pretends to listen, his spirits having been lifted by the senior discount.

My own attention is absorbed by my new Canadian bills, which are exotic and eminently more colorful than their drab American counterparts.  I wonder at the faces on them.  I recognize Queen Elizabeth II, but who are these old frowny white guys? What did they do to land on money? The mystery thrills me.  The bills seem to speak: “Gerald! You have made it. You are in a foreign country!”

Our train arrives.  The public address calls for the elderly and parents with young children to board first.  DCE Giggles teases Big Steeple, “Go ahead, get on, old man! You took the discount! Get on the train!” Big Steeple declines.

The seats on the train are set in pairs on either side of a center aisle. My travel mates slip quickly into a cluster of seats together as I stand gawking in the aisle. “Gomer Pyle goes to Canada,” is what I think of myself. “Gaaaah-lay!”  Indecision nails me to the floor as other passengers scurry past to take the diminishing vacant seats. Still I don’t move. My strain of procrastination is less about lazy than it is about indecision. I’ve found that if you procrastinate long enough, you’ll never have to decide. Default will decide for you.

So it is now.  Just one seat is left, about five rows ahead of me on the aisle. I note the back of the head of the passenger in the window seat–silver hair stylishly coiffed beneath a blue pillbox hat. I sit next to her. We do that pleasant-smile-with-a-nod-of-the-head thing. No words spoken. She wears silver-rimmed glasses, wears them eruditely and is dressed professionally, a business suit that matches her hat. I figure she’s in her late fifties. She’s what my grandfather would’ve called a handsome woman. She’s reading the editorial page of the Toronto Star. I steal glances as I pull a book from my briefcase. She’s grimacing, presumably at what she’s reading. I remain silent.

The train starts gently forward. Several rows back of me Junior is preaching, “See? Notice the smooth start. No jerking like Amtrak. CN is one of the finest….”  I tune him out.  The train escapes the station canopy, and I see through the windows that night is falling beyond a veil of thickly falling snow—great white globs of snow dropping fast like stones. I pull a book from my briefcase, but, by damn, I’m in Canada, in a train, in the snow! My excitement won’t let me focus.

Soon, there comes down the aisle a young woman, blonde and uniformed in an apron. She’s pushing a silver cart in stops and starts. I see miniatures of liquor, small bottles of wine and, jutting from a mountain of ice, a big bunch of beer-bottle long necks. God, I desperately want one—or more—of those.

When the cart reaches our aisle, my seatmate buys a Merlot. The young woman hands her the bottle and a glass, then turns to me, “And you, sir?”

Suddenly, a crazy idea pops into my head: treat the four Presbyterian icons to beers! Honestly, this has nothing to do with grace or generosity. The truth is, I’m just seized with an un-Presbyterian impulse to blow a barge-load of this fancy Canadian money, because doing so will make me feel all the more like a foreign traveler!

“I’d like a Molson,” I say. Then I rise slightly, point to the iconic foursome, and say, “And I’d like to buy each of them a beer, too.”  The server smiles, “That’s very generous. Fourteen dollars, please.” From my top pocket I pluck the folded stack of Canadian bills and fish out a twenty. I pass the bill to her. She takes from her apron a Canadian five and one and hands them to me.

Suddenly I panic. How much should I tip her? Earlier Junior had delivered a sermon on how gratuities in Canada will need to be smaller because Canadians often regard American big-tipping as a pompous show of opulence.  Dear God, what do I do!?

Perceiving my panic, my seatmate leans my way and whispers, “Giver her the one.”

“I hand give the bill to the young woman who thanks me, puts it in a jar, opens the beer, hands it to me, and asks, “Would you like a glass?”  I decline. She pushes the cart on.

My seatmate has put down her paper as she pours wine into her glass. I heave a sigh of relief.  She grins.

“So, you’re an American,” she says. It’s not a question. It’s a declaration. I might’ve thought it an accusation, except that she’s smiling amiably as she swirls her wine.

“Yes, ma’am,” I answer.

“Ah!  And you’re from the South?” She takes this as an unexpected treat.

“Yes, ma’am.  From Alabama originally.  But I live in Indiana now.  I gather you’re Canadian?”

She chuckles and nods. She tells me she lives in a city called Hamilton, about 70 kilometers from Toronto.  She’s a lawyer, her husband’s a judge. She had been in Windsor for the day on business and is now headed home. She asks my occupation. When I tell her, she grins slyly and says, “Then I’d better be on my Ps and Qs, ay?

“No, ma’am,” I say, “please just be yourself.”

She smiles and says, “And you be yourself.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

The ice is now broken. The beer is working; its buzz melts my inhibitions. So I pull again from my pocket the stack of Canadian bills. “I recognize Queen Elizabeth,” I tell my seatmate, “but these guys are well….” I grin, “…foreign to me.” 

She chuckles, and points to the five-dollar bill. “Let’s start with this furious looking old man.” She tells me that he is Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Canada’s prime minister at the turn of the century. “Despite his pinched face here,” she says, “he’s probably our most beloved PM.” I learn that he was the first francophone prime minister and did more than any to reconcile the French-speaking provinces with the English-speaking ones. He stood for liberty and individual rights. “A bit like your Thomas Jefferson,” she adds.

We move to faces on the other bills. Sir John A. Macdonald, served as PM in the mid-19th century and made Canada stronger and more independent but resigned under a cloud of scandal.  Mackenzie King, the PM who led Canada through World War II and oversaw industrial growth.

I sense that I’m in the presence of a very good teacher, one who peppers her lessons with wit and frequently asks for her student’s impressions, and earnestly listens when he responds. I begin to feel as if we’ve known each other for a while. She’s merrily impressed when I tell her that this is my very first trip out of the States.

“On behalf of Canadians everywhere,” she says with a little bow of the head, “May I say we are honored to be your first foreign land.” When I mention I’ll be staying at the Royal York Hotel in Toronto, she beams and tells me this is where she and her husband honeymooned thirty-five years ago. “Would you like some advice on where to go and what to see in Toronto?” she asks.

“Absolutely!” I pull a notepad from my briefcase and jot notes as she describes restaurants, bistros (“Ask for Tony at the bar”), music venues, historic sites, how to navigate the underground, how to find the international art of West Bloor Street.

Much too soon comes the announcement that we’re arriving at Hamilton station. She gathers her things, and readies herself to leave.

“Thank you so much for teaching me,” I say.

“My pleasure!”

“I really want to travel the world,” I tell her, “and I hope everywhere I go I’ll find someone as kind and knowledgeable as you.”

She smiles, starts to speak, pauses for a moment, and then says, “I can tell you this: if you travel humbly, if you ask sincere questions like ‘Whose picture is on this bill?’ if you listen sincerely to those who answer your questions, you’re very likely to find someone kind and knowledgeable to teach you, no matter where you go.” Then she raises an index finger, and imparts to me a proverb that I will guard in my heart.

“Travel humbly, not pridefully,” she says, “and you will find the world a wonderful place.”

The train slows to a stop. Hamilton is announced. She rises. I stand to let her into the aisle. She smiles, shakes my hand, wishes me well in Toronto and in all my future travels and disappears down the aisle. I move to the window and take her seat. Snowfall has ceased. Gazing out across the laden, fallow fields, I’m interrupted by a kind voice, “Another beer, sir?”

I give her a five and tell her to keep the change.  She’s not offended. “Why, thank you sir. That’s very generous!”

I sip the beer slowly and look again across Canadian fields. I do not yet know to what extent I will travel. I do not know that I will visit Mexico, England, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, Belgium, Israel, and Lebanon. I do not know that I will live for two years in Africa—Burkina Faso and then Congo. But I do know that wherever I go, I will do my best to go humbly, not pridefully. I’ll do my best to muster the courage to ask people about their country, their culture, their lives. And I will listen when they answer.

The train slows to a stop at Toronto station. I gather my things, stand and wait until the four Presbyterian icons pass me so I can slip into my place as last and least.  As the DCEs pass, they thank me for the drinks. Big Steeple simply nods. Junior smiles dismissively and says, “You didn’t get to hear my history of railroads and my commentary on I Corinthians 13. Your loss!” He struts down the aisle.

I say a little prayer:

“Thank you, Lord. Thank you.”

Football Season! Let the Irrationality Begin!

Twelve years ago, as I was teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) to middle-schoolers, two boys—a Venezuelan and a Mexican—entered my classroom furious at each other.  Before reaching their desks, they had squared off, only inches apart—fists clenched, eyes bulging, mouths shooting bullets of Spanish.

I jumped between them, pushing each away from the other. Still, the screaming continued.  My Spanish being almost non-existent, I couldn’t grasp the point of contention until I heard one of the boys shriek something that sounded like “Auburn!”

“Nah,” I thought.  “Can’t be.”  Neither of these boys had been in the States more than a few months.  Then the other boy shouted, his Rs rolling like a revving machine, “RRRRRRoll Tide!”

Holy Mother of God!  These foreign boys were already sucked into the South’s most avid religion—football.   But they’d somehow landed in two separate sects of that religion, like Shiites and Sunnis in the Fertile Crescent. After all, isn’t this what Alabama v. Auburn is—a heated sectarian dispute?

It’s serious business, no doubt. Anyone who moves into Alabama is immediately hit with the BIG TWO questions:

  • Have you found a church home?
  • Are you for Alabama or Auburn?

Answering either in the negative will bring public shaming.

My two students had covered their bases.  They had found a church home.  In fact, they had found the same church home.  But, as is often the case in the same church, they had become adherents of different theologies. And so they Hatfield-and-McCoy-ed it all the way through that football season,  the end of which featured Auburn beating Alabama, 22-15, serving only to flame the feud into the following season.

***

What is it about football fandom—or, really, fandom in any competitive sport—that so stokes up the passions? Why does it become so severe? Wouldn’t it be more understandable if those who were about to fight were actually participating in the game? After all, if the outcome of the game depends on YOU and what YOU do, then your ego, your being, is clearly invested. If you win the game, you can rightly claim that in at least one respect, you are superior to your opponent.  Those on the field (the court, the pitch, etc.) have an obvious ego investment: they’re actually doing the stuff that we call the game.

But those in the stands (or watching on TV) are doing absolutely nothing (aside from feeding their faces and guzzling their beer). As do-nothings, how do they become so ego-invested in a game’s outcome? How do they arrive at the idea that, by virtue of kids in blue jerseys defeating kids in white ones, they have proven themselves somehow superior—when they did NOTHING?

Is this rational behavior?

I think not.

***

Those who know me will say, “You’re being critical only because you graduated from Tennessee, a perennial loser.”

Sadly, there may be truth in that, because, even as I recognize the irrationality of fandom, I still participate in it. I still feel the personal repercussions of my team’s winning or losing. For example, this year if snow were to fall on the Sahara and the Pope were to twerk with Mylie Cyrus and Tennessee were to beat Alabama, I would find it impossible not to gloat over Bama fans (as they have over me since I can’t remember when). Why is this impulse to gloat so stubborn, so hard to subdue?  I think Charles Darwin gave us the answer.

Darwin’s evolutionary theory reveals that every living species has survived not so much by being rational as by being competitive, by kicking and clawing to stay alive. You and I are the progeny of winners, of primordial ancestors who—faced with fourth and goal and six seconds on the clock—battled their way into the end zone to put their genes in the next generation. We’re talking Super Bowl of survival here. Single elimination. Do you know that 99 percent of all species that ever existed are now extinct?  That makes us the one percent—the descendants of those who were best equipped to scrap and fight, and lucky enough to survive. And this means that the impulse to compete is baked into our DNA—literally.

So what does this mean for our crazy, irrational football fandom down here in the sectarian South? I think it means we’re drawn into these rivaling sports tribes not merely by choice. Sure, we do choose to be a Bammer, a Barner, a Vol, or whichever. But for millions of us, the impulse to become a fan is rooted to our genes. There’s something deeper going on, something more visceral than a conscious decision. A sort of genetic GPS steers us to attach ourselves to a tribe, to celebrate ritually with our fellow tribespeople, and to battle other tribes.

This has been an epiphany for me. For years I tried to divorce myself from football fandom. I considered it intellectually beneath me. “I’ve got better things to do,” I proclaimed, “than sit on my ass and watch a football game.” Yet hours later, there I’d be on my feet in front of the TV, screaming, “C’mon Vols! What the hell’s wrong with you?”

Now I see that these impulses are rooted more in my biology than in my free will. I’ve been especially persuaded of this by 89-year-old Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson, an Alabama native who describes the Iron Bowl as “the wildest spectacle I know of humanity’s primordial group instincts.”  Wilson believes that attaching oneself as a fan to a team can serve a positive purpose by giving expression to our biologically wired-in need to be part of a tribe that competes and prevails. For the human, this impulse follows John Lee Hooker’s line: “It in him and it gotta get out.”

Fandom lets it get out. And the good news is that being a fan lets us compete vicariously.  We don’t have to hit or tackle or draw blood (though some of us fans—especially the drunker ones—sometimes do). Instead, we have our warriors (players) down there on the field (or court, or pitch) doing our bidding, clashing in our name while we chant and cheer, and shout and curse to spirit them on, despite the fact that we have not one ounce of influence on what they do down there.

So this season, I’ll surrender to my primordial impulses. I’ll pack the fridge with beer, load up bowls of chips and dip, switch on the TV and shout, “C’mon, Vols!  What the hell is wrong with you?!!”

[Among my sources for this post is this 12-minute video that is well worth the watch.]:

Eighth-Grade Boys or “The Goot of God” (Rated PG-13)

To live as an eighth-grader is to see yourself as inferior to almost all who look your way. Despite the bravado and swagger displayed by many, eighth-graders are, deep down inside, quaveringly unsure of themselves. This is true for girls as well as boys. The only difference between them lies in their responses. I won’t speak for girls, except to say that in my experience they deal with their insecurity more quietly, less mischievously.

Eighth-grade boys tend to nurse an angry fire.  And why shouldn’t they, when every day is a series of passing back and forth from one system of control to another and then another? You go from home to school to sports or church or wherever, and always there stands “The Man,” a controlling authority wagging his finger, looking down on you: “Do this! Do that! What are you doing? That’s not right! What’s wrong with you?”

And let’s be clear: The Man is not gender-specific. For an eighth-grade boy The Man may be—and at school, often is—a woman. The Man is that collection of adults—including your parents—who flippantly wield their power over you.

Thus there grows an increasing anger at The Man. And that anger has to go somewhere.  “It in him and gotta get out,” to quote John Lee Hooker in “Boogie Chillen.”  And the anger often gets out by way of retaliation at The Man.

But this is tricky business, for The Man possesses all the power. Therefore, you can’t go full-frontal assault. You must go guerilla warfare, as in some variation of sneaking up on The Man and plunging a thumbtack into his ass. If you’re lucky, you get away before The Man turns around. This will bring you a fleeting thrill, a foretaste of some future freedom. This has been true as long as there have been eighth-grade boys.

Half a century ago, I was an eighth-grade boy. In my day “goot drawing” was the preferred retaliation. In case you don’t know, the goot was, in the parlance of those days, the male member, anatomically speaking, and the rendering of it was more stylistic than graphic or accurate. It was much less about sex than it was about eye-popping scandal. I would put such a drawing here in the blog, but Miss Moore, my eighth-grade teacher, might burst from the grave to destroy me with all the fury of The Man. So I’ll describe it in words.

Picture a curvy outline of a mouse head in which the ears are rounded (sort of like Mickey’s) and the snout is elongated horizontally from beneath them. Now, turn this drawing upside down so that the “ears” hang pendulously like, well, balls, and the snout extends left or right from above them.  That is how one draws a goot.

With pencil, pen, or marker, the goot can be applied surreptitiously in one continuous stroke to walls, stalls, and other flat surfaces.  A favored place was the wooden surface of a desk occupied by another student.  This way, you stuck it to The Man by shoving one of your classmates toward him. (You’ll recognize this as “throwing someone under the bus.” We were masters at it.)

Invariably teachers’ eyes would fall upon a goot and go wide in horror. “WHO DREW THIS?” And invariably, the question would be met with a silent ripple of shrugs. Such was (and is) the eighth-grade code of solidarity.

The goot looms vividly in my memory especially because of a classmate called “Whitey” on account of his pale skin and toe-headed hair. Despite those features, Whitey didn’t stand out especially. He wasn’t among the verbose kids who made C’s, D’s, or F’s in Conduct. He seemed to go along peacefully, occasionally smiling and giggling at others’ jokes. But soon we would learn that beneath Whitey’s placid veneer, there raged a powerful storm against The Man.

One night, when his parents were deep in sleep, Whitey rose from his bed, dressed himself, tip-toed into the garage, and very quietly opened its door. Then, he stuffed into his back pocket a screwdriver, a wide paintbrush, and a stirring stick. Next, he crouched down and snaked a skinny arm between the middle rungs of an extension ladder as he clasped the handle of a nearly-full gallon can of paint on the floor. Then, very quietly, he rose from his crouch, the ladder on his shoulder, the paint hanging from his hand.

I imagine him silhouetted by moonlight, marching the block or so to the school. Don’t hate me for this, but a decade later, while in seminary, I read a short story depicting Jesus carrying his cross to Golgotha, and there came into my mind the image of Whitey and the ladder and the paint.

Our school sat atop a hill, one side of which declined a great distance into a valley. From classrooms on that side of the school you could look out across the valley and see the old mines of Red Mountain which were at least five or six miles away.  Also on this side of the school a new addition had been built and left with a façade of whitewashed concrete block.  It was on that wall that Whitey painted, under cover of darkness, the biggest goot the world had ever seen, a goot for the ages, or, as one classmate gasped in admiration, “the Goot of God.”

And on that morning , after sunrise, from many kitchen windows of many houses that checkered the slope down into the valley, many mothers stood, mouths agape, eyes lifted upward to Whitey’s art.  Phone calls were made—to neighbors, to teachers, to principals, to the Board of Education, to police. Frenzy ensued.

When I arrived at school, the custodian was on a ladder taping butcher paper over the goot. But Whitey’s work was thick and many-coated, and so the custodian’s efforts worked like onion-skin on a stop sign. The goot was too mighty to obscure.

By now principal and teachers were frantically corralling students from the playground, where we normally waited for the opening bell, and where the goot was most clearly visible, around to the opposite side of the school where it was not.  The principal was shouting, teachers were shrieking, and we eighth-grade boys were exchanging gleeful glances, barely able to contain our elation. One of our arrows had finally found Achilles’ heel!  The Man was in full panic, rattled more than we’d ever seen him! Victory!

But, of course, The Man eventually prevailed. Whitey was found out. My memory is gauzy. I don’t recall if he was ratted out, or if, as I would like to believe, he surrendered himself to the authorities as Jesus did in Gethsemane. I believe he was expelled. I know that, by noon, workman had arrived from the Board of Education and had painted over the goot.

But I must confess that the episode still stands in my memory as a most glorious moment. By God, through Whitey, we eighth-grade boys had really stuck it to The Man!

Epilogue

Some four decades later, as if to prove He has a wicked sense of humor, God made me an eighth-grade teacher!

That’s right. God made me The man.

My school has a tradition in which teachers spend the first three days of the academic year reviewing rules and the consequences for breaking them. As I lead my students through relentless slide-shows and videos depicting proper and improper behavior, I see the boys exchanging furtive glances, eyes gleaming with mischief.

This always leads me to think of Whitey and the Goot of God, and I’m reminded that the eighth-grade boy is still very much alive in me. Occasionally I’ll catch some boys throwing mischievous glances at one another, and they’ll see that I’m looking, and as I scan their eyes, I try to send a silent message with mine:

“You go, guys!  Stick it to the Man!  Even if The Man is Me.”

The Politics of Teaching Children

Decades ago, an old preacher friend offered me this pearl of wisdom. Purposefully perverting Jesus’ oft-quoted words in Matthew, the preacher said, “For where two or three are gathered together in Christ’s name, there is politics.”

Experience has taught me that the two or three don’t even need to be gathered in Christ’s name. They could be gathered to rob a bank, or unclog a commode. And, really, it just takes two to make politics. And by politics I mean very simply: the possession of power and the use of it to control others.

Because politics is unavoidable, we have hierarchies on which we agree (or say we do) that some will possess more power than others. And this brings me to the topic of public schooling.

A school makes for an intriguing study of the ways and means of power-wielding, because teachers and administrators possess all of the power in a school. This is by necessity, I’m told, for children and adolescents are not mature enough to wield power. So all of it must rest in the hands of the educators.

This sounds reasonable until one considers the wise words of Lord Acton: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

I can tell you from experience that the power I wield over my classrooms will—if I’m not on guard—seduce and corrupt me into believing that I’m somehow more valuable, more intelligent, and more deserving than my students. And, if I’m not on guard, I start to see my students as little minions who must have my permission to speak and move.

Consequently, my students are inclined to beseech me—for good grades, for mercy, for advantage over other students, for access to the restroom. And, as a result, they become disturbingly compliant, almost to the point of addressing me, “I prithee, Lord. What dost thou demand of me?”

I’ve been teaching long enough to see that this power-laden model creates considerable danger to our society—in at least two ways.

First, a system that spends such great energy indoctrinating its students to comply with whoever holds power is practically guaranteeing that its students will not think for themselves, which means that they won’t take the risks necessary to challenge existing ideas or to create new ones. In short, such a system is a surefire way to prevent society from advancing.

Second, consider what this teaches young people about how power should be used. The hierarchies won’t go away, and some of our students, by whatever means, will get their hands on the control knobs. Are we not modeling that once you grab hold of power, then you must use it to demand that everyone comply with you? Doesn’t our example send the message: Don’t dare let anyone challenge you! Haven’t the politics of government and business given us enough of that crap already? Do we really want to train upcoming generations to do the same?

I don’t have a detailed solution to these problems, but I’ll pitch three suggestions.

First, teachers need to erase the idea that they’re the unchallengeable bosses, and instead ask students about their own lives, about their aspirations and frustrations, and then listen when students answer. Doing this has taught me that “I ain’t all that,” that I’m usually not the smartest guy in the room. Sure, because I have half a century of experience on my students, I may be the most knowledgeable. But rarely am I the most intelligent. Listening to my students also shows me that those whom the system labels as “low” (as in IQ) are often among the wisest.

Second, students need to know that it’s okay to challenge a teacher. It’s okay to ask some form of “Why the hell are we doing this, anyway?” And if the teacher can’t give a solid, reasonable answer, he or she needs to ask the student what ought to be done. Teachers are not obliged to agree with or do what a student suggests, but, by respectfully listening and considering, teachers will model that it’s okay to challenge authority, and it’s okay for authority to let itself be challenged. God knows our society desperately needs this lesson.

Third, I make a plea to John Q. and Jane Q. Taxpayer to demand of city councils, state and federal governments that their dollars be used to HIRE MORE (good) TEACHERS, so that teacher-student ratio will look like ten students and a teacher gathered around a table. This will create give-and-take dialogue among students and teacher in which each person at the table (including the teacher) is a learner, and in which all may know they’re in the presence of humans of equal value. To the contrary, when teachers are faced with 20+ kids in a classroom, they’re tempted to turn tyrant—simply to survive—and that benefits no one. (I know. I’ve been there.)

Thus, the politics of teaching children is greatly in need of reform. But we can make that reform if we set our minds to it. After all, we love to extol democracy, don’t we?  And is not the essence of democracy the sharing of power?

Confederately Confused (Pt. 3)

[Conclusion of a 3-part post that begins here.]

Most rebel-flag waving Southerners never stop to examine how blessed they are that the South got its ass kicked in the Civil War. Please allow me to show why they should.

Let’s start in 1830 when Michael Tuomey, a young Irishman, immigrates to America and finds his way to Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in upstate New York. He studies geology. Then, equipped with diploma and insatiable curiosity for rocks and soil, he takes jobs in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and finally, in 1842, is appointed geologist of the State of Alabama.

Tuomey’s first objective is to carry out a geological survey of the relatively new state. But to do this, he must calm the concerns of the slave-owning powerful, or, as author Michael Fazio refers to them in his history of Birmingham, Landscape of Transformations (p. 19), “…those agriculture-minded Black Belt planters…who had little or no interest in industrialization or were opposed to it.” [The Black Belt is a massive swath of dark fertile soil stretching from northeast Mississippi through central and parts of southern Alabama. In other words, cotton plantation country.]

Tuomey did convince them, arguing that geological discovery will aid farming, too. So he goes to work, but the plantation farmers’ fears are confirmed. What Tuomey finds as he roams around north-central Alabama’s Jones Valley is a series of mountains “capped by red hermatite” that stretch a distance of 150 miles. This seam will prove to be iron ore, a coveted component in the budding American iron and steel industry, which plantation owners regard as a filthy, perverted Yankee business, not befitting a Southern gentleman.

Soon, however, the Civil War will create the Confederate army’s immediate need for iron-based industry that can produce cannons, guns, bullets as well as the expansion of railroad capacity. But the iron mills that pop up in the South are small and geared almost exclusively to the war.  Few moneyed Southerners seem to be paying attention to the long-range potential of industrialization. Why would they? Plantation owners have little incentive to look long-range so long as they’re living in literal and proverbial high cotton.

As I said in my previous post, these plantation elite are the people who created an economy that in 1860 had trapped 3,953,761 black people in slavery, and millions of white folk, like my ancestors, on hard-scrabble dirt farms where they battled against starvation. These rich families started the Civil War to protect a closed economy that offered no upward mobility, no opportunities for poor folks to improve themselves. These people sent our ancestors off to war.

And so the best thing that could have happened for us, the descendants of slaves and of those whom slave-owners called “poor white trash,” is that the North whip the South’s ass.

Why? Because that defeat blew open the door—a huge, gaping door—to Southern industrialization. Step by rapid step, the plantation owners’ complete control of the Southern economy was loosed.   Within six years of the war’s end, Michael Tuomey’s discovery of iron ore brought far-sighted entrepreneurial industrialists to Jones Valley, where they began to build a city which they named after England’s industrial powerhouse—Birmingham.

Into Birmingham will stream former slaves and poor white folks (like each one of my grandparents), and while some may rightly question how fairly these folks were treated by the new industrial barons, one cannot deny that, for the first time in hundreds of years, these families have a shot—however long it may be—at upward mobility, of bettering their lives and the lives of their descendants—of gaining dignity. And this isn’t just Birmingham. All over Alabama, all over the South, big factories pop up in need of employees, most of whom are drawn out of what otherwise would’ve been inescapable poverty. [As just one example among millions, read my grandfather’s story here.]

Again I’ll say it: the South needed to lose the war. Some have argued, “Even if the South had won the war, slavery would’ve eventually collapsed.” That’s probably true. History shows that, at least since the fall of the Roman Empire, slave-based economies always collapse because they keep wage-earners from the job market. But, for the sake of argument, let’s imagine the U.S. had a lesser leader than Lincoln who withstood pressure from many Northern politicians to accept the Confederacy’s plea for a truce. Let’s say Andrew Johnson, instead, was president, and his administration accepted the truce, so that the Confederate States were able to continue as an agrarian nation. And, for the sake of argument, let’s say the Confederacy did eventually eradicate slavery, maybe by 1920 or so, and that slowly but surely the Confederacy began to build an industrial base.

Where would this have left our American history as we know it? Without Southern industrial plants augmenting those in the North, would the United States have been ready to play its pivotal role in the victories of World War 1 and especially World War 2? Absolutely not. If the Confederacy had survived the Civil War, we would likely be dealing with a strong legacy of Nazism in Europe today. And we would not, by any scenario, be the world’s most powerful nation.

So, what in the hell is up with all this Confederate-flag-waving nonsense?  What’s with admiration of figures like Gen. Nathan Bedford Forest, a slave-owning Klansman—in short, an asshole? Why do we venerate a flag that represents an event in which our ancestors were used and abused by people who called them “white trash”?

I think there are two inter-related reasons. First, most of us white Southerners were, in our youth, subject to an unrelenting indoctrination in which many of us were convinced that our ancestry looked a great deal like the O’Haras in Gone with the Wind.  This indoctrination, passed down from the plantations, convinced us—as it did our ancestors—that “Y’all are just like us,” that “Y’all need to help us defend our sacred land.”

Second, because many of our ancestors (like my great-great grandfather Nevil) did sign up, the propaganda is strengthened by this sentiment: “If you criticize the Southern cause, then you turn your back on your beloved ancestors, which makes you a damn traitor!”

For me, this second reason was the more powerful.  How could I turn my back on Nevil, my grandmama’s granddaddy? And, honestly, if I had not begun to read and think more clearly about the Civil War, I would still be harping that line today.

But somewhere in my twenties, there emerged in my mind an image of Nevil, my felled Confederate ancestor. He’s lying on his back, bleeding out, from his Yankee-inflicted wounds. Greater than his physical pain is his agony that he’ll never again see or hold his wife or his newborn son. Though he doesn’t yet know that his side will lose, he begins to wonder what the hell he was fighting for. Neither he nor anyone he knew ever owned a slave. All he had was a little dirt farm, a little shack, and a little family that no one, especially not a Yankee, ever threatened.

Over the years, I’ve imagined him looking down through a celestial window, watching his grandchildren, whom he never met, move, one by one, to Birmingham where the men take up jobs in steel mills and train yards and the women raise children or become school teachers. He smiles and scratches his head as he watches them build lives in houses with electric lights and indoor plumbing. He continues to watch as his grandchildren’s children and then their children go to school and learn things he never dreamed of. He watches them get even better jobs than their parents had. As I see him, he draws his right hand to his heart, shakes his head in amazement, as tears of joy stream down his face.

I think of him also when I’m driving down Interstate 459 and a pickup truck blows by me with a huge Confederate flag rippling behind.  I watch that flag, and, faintly I hear Nevil’s voice say, “Don’t believe it, my son.  Don’t you believe it for one second.”

Confederately Confused (Pt. 2)

[The second part of a three-part posting that begins here]

 1977 (Home from college):

Me: Frankly, I’m glad the North won the Civil War. They were right and we were wrong.

Them: But your grandmama’s grandaddy fought in the War and was killed by Yankees!

Me: He should’ve never been there in the first place.

Them: [Gasps, followed by silence.]

1967 (A day trip with grandparents to ancestral turf around Vincent, AL)

Me: Hey, where are all the plantations and mansions?

Them: What? There’s never been plantations and mansions ‘round here.

Me: Well what about Gone with the Wind?

Them: What about it?

Mid-1960s

I’m ten years old in a cushiony seat at the ornate Alabama Theater to see Gone with the Wind. Moments before the film starts, the Mighty Wurlitzer emerges magically onto the stage. A slender, bowtie-wearing man flails his arms and legs like a marionette across the organ’s keys and pedals.

Oh I wish I was in the land of cotton!  Old times there are not forgotten!

Hundreds of us sing with lusty, amphetamine-level enthusiasm that makes the place pulse.

Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixieland!

Dixie wraps up in a flourish of foot-stomping, standing applause. Yee-hahs explode here and there like firecrackers. A whiff of righteous rage wafts through the house. The Mighty Wurlitzer and the bowtie man descend now beneath the floor as, above, plush velvet curtains part to expose the screen where appears the image a post-hanging sign that reads, “A Selznick International Picture.” Church chimes sound as the camera pans down to reveal the plantation mansion of Tara in all its gleaming glory.

This isn’t merely a re-showing of a 25-year-old film. No. This is an event of indoctrination, a sort of worship service where the Gospel reads “This is our past. This is what the Yankees did to us.”

Only it isn’t.

2018

I’m a fifth-generation Alabaman. Follow the tatters of my ancestry back to the 1750s, and, while you’ll find more than a few closeted skeletons, what you’ll not find is money. My people crossed the Atlantic hungry and empty-pocketed. Having been an economic burden on England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, they were in that mass of poor folks lured away by promises of wealth in the New World.  In other words, they were a bit like today’s urban panhandlers who cause city councils and business leaders to scheme ways to shove them outside city limits.

The American roots of the Confederate soldier Nevil, my grandmother’s grandfather, of whom I wrote in the last post, trace back to around 1750 when it appears that his grandfather arrived in Charleston, South Carolina. From an 1840 census, we know that by 1836, when Nevil was born, his father had arrived in what’s now Shelby County, Alabama.  We also know by oral history related to and from my grandparents that these ancestors were dirt farmers. They lived hand to mouth on what they could eke out of increasingly depleted soil.

I’ve also learned from copious reading and chatting with others that most multi-generation Alabamans have a similar family history. They may root back to continental Europe instead of the British Isles, but their people were also dirt poor when they crossed the ocean and drifted into Alabama. And here they also struggled to stay alive for several generations.

They were still struggling on January 11, 1861, when the Alabama legislature voted 61-39 to become the fourth state to divorce itself from the United States of America. At that time, barely 35 percent of Alabama families owned slaves. But a betting man who wagered that those 61 winning votes would be cast by legislators from the slave-owning 35 percent would’ve won his bet.

The argument that the Civil War was about states’ rights and not slavery turns out to be half right and half wrong. The truth: The war was about states’ rights to uphold slavery.  You don’t believe me?  Well, here’s another Stephens (no relation, I’m sure, as he was loaded with money and therefore with slaves) to prove my point. Destined to become Vice-President of the Confederate States of America, Alexander Stephens writes,

“The new [Confederate] constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us, the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the ‘rock upon which the old Union would split.’ He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. [Our] foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.”  [Source]

Did you catch that line? “This was the immediate cause of the late rupture.” Confederate President Jefferson Davis voiced similar sentiments, as did other politicians from the well-heeled, plantation-owning minority of Southerners. Folks, no getting around it: The Civil War was about protecting slavery. And this would make it “a rich man’s war, but a poor man’s fight.”

In the South disenfranchised people—first and foremost the slaves, and then folks like my poor white ancestors—were working and/or fighting to prop up an economy that actively suppressed upward mobility. All of the rich, good soil was taken and seemingly forever occupied by a plantation-owning elite.  The hard-scrabble land was tossed to  our ancestors.  Obviously, for the slaves, there was no escape from this closed economy.  And there was little, if any, escape for the dirt farmers, too.  God wasn’t manufacturing more and better land. And the good stuff was taken.

Very strange, because, as Americans, we claim to hold sacred the values of free enterprise and entrepreneurship. We point to these values as the cause of American abundance. But these values were not welcomed by the slave-owning elite because the upward mobility of slaves and poor whites would have destroyed the plantation owners’ closed economy (as it eventually did). To protect what amounted to a country club of aristocrats, the elite incited the poor against the North by demonizing the industrial revolution in which entrepreneurialism was flourishing and providing Northern poor with jobs leading to upward mobility and self-improvement.  Here’s an 1856 segment penned by an Alabama newspaper editor in the pocket of the plantation elite:

Free Society! we sicken at the name. What is it but a conglomeration of greasy mechanics, filthy operatives, small-fisted farmers, and moon-struck theorists? All the Northern men and especially the New England States are devoid of society fitted for well-bred gentlemen. The prevailing class one meet with is that of mechanics struggling to be genteel, and small farmers who do their own drudgery, and yet are hardly fit for association with a Southern gentleman’s body servant. This is your free society which Northern hordes are trying to extend into Kansas. [Source]

The aristocracy sowed the seeds of this fake news among the poor, including my ancestors.  And, apparently it worked.  For on April 11, 1861, when Confederate cannons opened fire on Ft. Sumter, a great many poor white Southerners believed they were under attack and needed to enlist in the Confederate Army. (Dare I mention the well-documented fact that plantation owners enjoyed the option of paying to have their sons exempted from military service.)

So Nevil, my grandmother’s grandfather, laid down his life to protect the lifestyle of men who sipped single-malt scotch, puffed expensive cigars, and called him “white trash.” And somehow they had found the audacity to persuade him to charge onto battlefields—all to protect their wealth.

Poor Nevil. He should’ve never been there in the first place.

[This series will conclude in my next blog post.]

Confederately Confused (Pt. 1)

For decades Southerners were trained to distrust and dislike Yankees, by which was meant anyone raised anywhere outside the eleven Confederate states. So, like most Southern kids of my generation, I was instructed in the Dixie catechism, which varies only in that each family has its own tale of why the Civil War is personal.  Here’s mine as passed down from my maternal grandmother.

***

Her grandfather, Nevil, fought in the Fourth Alabama Cavalry. Somewhere in Tennessee in 1863, he was commanded to transfer a couple of captured Union officers to Georgia. Along the way, the Yankees got the upper hand. Wresting away Nevil’s gun, they shot and killed him.

But wait, the story doesn’t end there….

Fast-forward to 1908. My grandmother, now seven years old, watches her father, Ben, open an envelope from the mail. As he withdraws a letter, something falls out and clacks across the floor.  Grandmother picks it up—an old ring engraved with a square and compass surrounding the letter “G.”

The letter writer states that he is one of the Union soldiers that Ben’s father was transporting to Georgia, and that it wasn’t until after he had shot him that he noticed the Masonic ring on his finger. He writes that he would never have killed him had he known he was a brother Mason, and that the killing has haunted him every day since. He closes the letter without signature but with great remorse and the desire that, somehow, by God’s grace, Ben will forgive him.

Ben takes the ring from my grandmother, examines it closely, then looks again at the envelope. Grandmother’s mom, Molly, has been watching and listening. She asks if the letter is postmarked.

“Just says it come from Ohio.”

After some silence, Molly asks, “D’ya wish he had signed it?”

“Nope,” says, Ben, “‘cause if he did, I’d have to hunt the sumbitch down and kill ‘im.”

He’s not kidding. A few years later, he will murder a man for insulting his eldest daughter, and, a few years after that, he will be murdered himself.  This is rural Alabama dirt-farmer Southern code, and Yankees, especially, are not exempted from due justice.

***

This story reached me when I was barely older than my grandmother had been when the letter came to her father.  The tale had, however, lost some of its desired effect because I responded with, “That poor Yankee man, feelin’ bad all those years.”  Oops. Error on my part.

I was instructed:

  • That “poor Yankee” [two words that must never be placed side-by-side!] killed Grandmama’s granddaddy. How would I feel if a Yankee killed my granddaddy?
  • This was a war of Northern aggression. We didn’t attack them. They attacked us!
  • Don’t let anyone tell you the Civil War was about slavery. It was about states’ rights.
  • Besides, our slaves were treated well and respectfully. Most of them didn’t want to be freed.
  • Forget, hell! We owe it to our fallen ancestors to stand up for the Confederacy.
  • The South’s gonna rise again!

Thus was I duly corrected in my Dixie ideology, and dutifully did I hold to it until

I started reading lots of history books and learned that what I’d been told and what had happened were often radically different.

Then I made my biggest mistake: I opened my mouth about it—in the South.

[To be continued]

“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]