Wishful Thinking of a Former Teacher
Your photo at the bottom of the page
shows me you are too young
but your words above it
told of a Christmas night
in an Indianapolis ghetto.
And wouldn’t it be nice to think
that I gave one child that start?
My presence there was the first jab,
inoculation to numb
the pain in the plan to integrate,
to put just a few white faculty
into your hard-scrabble
world of no choices.
The girls combed my hair
as I played the piano at rainy-day recess,
said they would have hair
just like mine when they grew up,
said I looked like Julia,
an early TV heroine of their race.
Too little of everything there
except children and trouble.
But for a moment, I felt hope …
until I saw your photo … hope
that one boy walked away
from that terrible year we shared
with some loose change in his pocket,
that perhaps it jingled as he moved,
and somehow, years later, it made music
of our stress-filled days together.
But you are way too young.
And they were wrong.
It was not our color that mattered.
It was all those emptied dreams
ahead of us.
Poet’s Notes: I won't name the city, but it was a terrible year personally, and the work situation was as bad as the personal problems. I was one of the few white teachers integrated into the faculty of a downtown ghetto school. The school had good teachers but a terrible principal who was cruel to the children.
All classes, grades K through 9, were way too large. The older classes in science had no water for experiments, the textbooks were ancient, and the playground was a big slab of concrete surrounded by a chain-link fence. Meanwhile, the whole system had rigid rules that were militantly enforced by a system of "supervisors." We attended workshops in all-white schools at the edge of the city, beautifully equipped, and one even with ruffled covers for the reading group chairs. I was told, when I did not follow the rules, "We always have more trouble with experienced teachers."
I felt even my children with the most promise had little chance. My most gifted boy had a mother who worked with him faithfully and an older brother in prison. He was doing so well, but one day as my class walked down the hall, the principal pulled him out of the line because his too-big, hand-me-down shoes were making a flapping noise, so our passage was not perfectly silent. She told him he was a troublemaker and he would grow up to be just like his brother.
It was a year of fighting the supervisor and the principal, who wanted me to make a big chart for each child to mark every night how they had cared for their two issued pencils with no erasers. I was caught letting them use pencils with erasers. At the end of the year, my supervisor said to me, "I don't know how you did it, but the children have developed self-discipline." The children and I had a hard year, but how could one not hope and pray that some of them made their way in the world.
I recently saw a photo in a journal with an article about a young man whose life was changed by something that happened to him at Christmastime in that ghetto in that city. It was not something that happened in school. But I leapt to the hope that one of mine had managed to find some inspiration for a good future. Of course, it was way too many years later for any of my students to be that young man. But teachers always hope.
Editor’s Note: The narrative reminds me of the stories I used to hear from my mother-in-law who once was a lonely white teacher in the Bronx with similar hopes and dreams for her all-black ghetto students. The narrative also reminds me of the stories I used to hear from my mother who used to work as a long-term substitute teacher for the poor rural white children one town over from mine. Those were challenging days for both of them with few if any happy endings for the underprivileged children--black and white.
Some people, especially in these racially charged times, will point to the narrative of “the smart, pretty white lady saving the poor, helpless black children” as being racist. In my opinion, those people are the true racists.