Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Day Sixteen: Inspiration

I'm now over the half-way hump.  Part of me kind of regrets committing myself to this, but at least I'm writing every day.  I'm ready to get this done and start focusing on more serious writing.  It is nice to reflect on my life, though, and to take the time to tell some special folks how much they mean to me.

Today's assignment is to post a picture of someone who inspires me.  My mom immediately pops in my head, but since this is a blog I invite people to read and not my personal diary, I probably don't need to do another post about her so soon (plus, I'm feeling kind of emotional and will totally bawl my eyes out tonight if I write anything too personal).  So I love you, Momer, and YOU know you inspire me :)

The person I've chosen is from my past.  She passed away several years ago, and I still grieve over the fact that I didn't have the opportunity to come and pay my respects.  Her name was Mrs. Gay Robertson, and she was my teacher in 4th and 5th grade.  She taught me my multiplication tables, states and capitals, and life lessons that I carry to this day.

Following integration, Mrs. Robertson was one of the first African-American students at the high school in my hometown.  She used to talk about that experience and how difficult it was for her.  Before I go further, however, I need to back up and provide a little background.

I grew up in a small Southern town. I had a very loving, supportive family, but let's just say that diversity most definitely wasn't a priority.  I hate to talk about my family for fear that people will get the wrong idea.  Let me say that they weren't hate-filled or malicious people, but they were very "Old South" in many ways.  I grew up hearing my share of racist jokes, comments and slurs, especially from the older members of the family.  I wasn't encouraged to hate anyone, but I was definitely taught that there were distinct differences and necessary divisions between "us" and "them."  I'm not trying to make excuses (even though it's tempting since they are my loved ones), but this was just "normal" for my family.  My grandparents came from a totally different time and there was no use in arguing.  As for my parents, it was part of their background and I don't guess they'd ever questioned it.  Again, I want to stress they aren't bad people, just products of the Southern "heritage" that is so prevalent in this area of the country.  They had black friends or acquaintances, but their relationships with them were just different from their relationships with other whites. 

At the school I attended from kindergarten through fifth grade, I had exactly ONE student in my class who wasn't white.  My few black friends (or friends of any color) were on my summer league softball team.  I was allowed to be their friend at the field, but it pretty much stopped there.  The only people I was allowed to bring home for playdates or slumber parties were white, and I was not allowed to go to my black friends' houses.  When I was younger, I just accepted this as the way it was, especially since so many of my friends had the same rules enforced in their own homes. 

Even then, though, I had already begun to question these ideas and attitudes.  I was confused by the duplicity I witnessed all around me.  We were instructed that there were certain words we were never to use in the presence of a black person (I specifically remember an incident with my toddler brother pointed at another child and called him a "Nutter"--the word he thought he heard adults say).  We were taught the "difference" between "regular" black people and those that were referred to by the word I still cannot bring myself to even write.  There was a great deal of mistrust bred into us.   Sometimes I learned lessons the hard way, as I did when I was punished by my grandmother one day while we watched Young and the Restless  and I made a comment about Shemar Moore being "cute."  And though I didn't buy into these "lessons," I didn't openly challenge them yet.  Since 99% of the people around me on a regular basis were white, there weren't really any chances for conflict.  I didn't have many opportunities to put these ideas into practice, so to speak. 

Everything changed in 1988.  I began 4th grade with my two best friends and a teacher named Mrs. Robertson.  She was a robust woman who was the perfect mixture of no nonsense and compassionate.  However, I remember going home the first week and telling my mother I could not understand Mrs. Robertson.  Please understand, it wasn't because she spoke improperly or wrong in any way; her huge voice and quick cadence were just alien to my little white ears.  It took about two weeks get with the flow of things, but when I did, it began the best two years of my education. 

I fell absolutely in love with Mrs. Robertson, soaking up everything she taught us, both from the book and from her life's experiences.  If every classroom today had a Mrs. Roberson, our education system would be vastly different.  I had been under the instruction of some wonderful teachers up to that point, but I had never felt more challenged or encouraged or loved than I did with Mrs. Robertson.  I adored her, even when she had to discipline me.

Which brings me back to the earlier part of my story.  Mrs. Robertson sometimes talked about her experiences in school following integration.  It was the first time I'd ever heard about segregation or integration from someone who was on the "other side."   I was too young to understand the significance then, but I now marvel at how there wasn't the first trace of bitterness when she talked to us.  She didn't badmouth anyone or try to gain sympathy.  She was just very matter of fact.  I remember being horrified that anyone could ever mistreat Mrs. Robertson in any way.  Couldn't they tell how special she was?  It was then as a nine year old that I began thinking about everything I'd been told.  I remember feeling embarrassed and guilty.  It was then that I decided that I would be different; I would not share the beliefs of those around me.  People were people, regardless of their skin color.  Some people were good and some were bad, but there was no way to tell which was which just by looking at them.  At that point, I decided I would never use the words I had heard.  I would not laugh at the jokes.  I would not believe anything until I had my chance to form my own opinion.  A big decision for such a young girl, but my heart was so full that I was determined to follow through. 

I finished up the 4th grade and was excited when I found our Mrs. Robertson would be teaching 5th grade the following year.  For two years, I thrived under her instruction and her guidance.  She had such a heart for kids, a trait which was only made better by her ability to look at us and know when we were lying, when we were hurting, or when we just needed a hug.  She changed my life forever by not only altering the way I viewed the world around me but also by inspiring me to become a teacher.  Though I resisted for years, deep down in my heart I always knew it was my calling.  I had seen the lives she'd impacted, and it left a definite impression on me. 

My little town provided a bubble in which many of us could live a fairly sheltered life.  In many ways, were still living in a different era in our town, the reflection in our schools where the students would often naturally segregate themselves.  As the years passed, though, I continued to adjust my views of the world and to see people through different eyes.  I even began to openly challenge many of the adults in my life.  This initially caused quite a few conflicts since my passion could sometimes verge on being disrespectful of my elders.  I do think it made a difference, though.  Eventually, the adults realized this wasn't some "phase" and that I wasn't trying to be rude or insolent.  Most of them began to respect my feelings and refrained from saying things that would upset me.  I like to think that they don't just do this to placate me but that they possibly have reevaluated their own beliefs. 

There have been many times over the years that I've thought back to Mrs. Robertson and recognized the impact she had on my life.  I hate to say but there have been situations in which it would have been easy to throw my hands up and say, "Maybe all those people were right."  However, each time I would picture Mrs. Robertson and remind myself that there are bad people of every color.  I can only form an opinion on a person by person basis.  For example, when my roommate didn't return to college one semester, I was assigned to a new room where I was the only person of my color.  People thought I was crazy, but I was actually excited about the experience.  On move in day, I unpacked all of my belongings and set up my bedroom. Not one of my new roommates greeted me or spoke to me unless I addressed them directly.  That night, they blared music outside my door all night, laughing and talking about me loud enough that I could hear them.  The following day, accepting I was not wanted, I requested to be moved to a new room.  As I moved out, none of them spoke a word to me.   I remember that dark, cynical part of my brain saying, "You should have listened all those years."  But I chided myself and focused on moving to my new room.  I was hurt and a little angry, but once it was said and done, I accepted it and moved on.  I honestly don't think the way they acted had anything to do with color; they were three friends and did not want another roommate.  They just went about telling me in a really hurtful way.  I told myself that Mrs. Robertson would be proud that I took the high road and didn't resort to turning it into a racial issue. 

When I moved to Memphis in 2001 and began teaching at a predominantly African-American high school, I often thought of Mrs. Robertson and wondered how different the beginning of my teaching career would have been had I never met her.  I struggled at first with students who made assumptions about me based on my own color and my accent.  But I hung in and did my best to convince them that I didn't care if we were different colors.  I was going to teach and treat them equally and I cared about them all.  I don't think I would have survived the first semester if I had come in carrying those old notions I'd heard so often as a child.  How can you teach someone you see as beneath you?  How can you teach someone you fear?  How can you teach someone you dislike before they ever even speak?  I loved those students just as Mrs. Robertson had loved us.  She didn't see our color, only our need to be taught and to be loved. 

I hope Mrs. Robertson realized that she prepared me for my future in so many ways.  Not only did she educate me in my school subjects, but she also inspired me to be a better person and to open my heart and mind to everyone, not just those who looked like me.  Because of that, she has continued to be an inspiration throughout my life and has made me a better teacher, woman and human being.  I wish I had the chance as an adult to tell her how much she means to me even now.  I just have to believe that she knows. 

1 comment:

mother said...

I've always told everyone that she was one of the best teachers you ever had. She was so interested in her students succeeding. A remarkable lady.