“You remember your first grade teacher’s name. Who will remember yours?”
That’s the text of a subway ad for the New York City Teaching Fellows program. I always like reading the Teaching Fellows ads. They make me feel all nostalgic about school … except for this one. I remember lots of my teachers’ names. Second grade, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, probably most of my highschool teachers, all of my college and grad school profs. I don’t, however, remember my first grade teachers’ names. Yes, plural on the teacher part. I had two.
I had a less than wonderful kindergarten year in a private Catholic school where they were less than thrilled to have me, my brother and the two or three other brown-skinned children running around. It’s a story for another time, but just understand that it wasn’t the early school experience you’d want your kid to have.
After that lonely year, I entered first grade in public school, Mamaroneck Avenue School, to be exact. My teacher was a young black woman. Perfect, right? To leave the ugliness of overt racism and find myself in a room with a woman who looked like me! I was still in the minority — just me and Roger representing in that class — but there was our teacher with her brown skin and her kinky hair.
Except that she was a new teacher. If I had to guess now, I’d say she was a very nervous, insecure teacher. Maybe our class was her first. Maybe she had to really fight to get that job and wanted to make sure she looked good to the principal or the school board. Or someone. I don’t know. What I do know is that she treated me and Roger terribly. She was mean with us, hard on us. She ignored us when she could, scolded us when she couldn’t ignore us, ridiculed us when there wasn’t a reason to scold.
I think my interest in going to school started when I was three. I couldn’t wait to get there. Pre-K had been fun, but it hadn’t been ‘real’ school, had been more of an all day play date. Kindergarten had been real … and really un-fun. But I was still gung-ho about school, still wanted to be there, was still ready to jump in and learn. So when I started coming up with any excuse to stay home from school, my mother pretty quickly figured out that something was wrong. Once I finally told her what was going on, she — in true Lioness Mother mode — took care of business.
(I like to think that this was her first solo LM moment: my grandmother and aunt had been there for the kindergarten story, my brother and I were still pretty young, Fox was only about six months old. There couldn’t have had too many opportunities to read that particular book to anyone.)
In the ensuing confrontation conversation, my teacher admitted that she was being intentionally tough on Roger and me. She felt she had to be. She didn’t want anyone to think she was playing favorites, giving us an easier time just because we were black. So her answer was to go out of her way to be mean.
My mother had me transferred to a different class.
In the new class, the teacher was an older white woman. I have a memory of furiously-dyed red hair, but that could be time playing a trick on me. What I remember most about her was that she was nice to me, that she never yelled at me, that she called on me when I raised my hand, that she actually seemed pleased to have me in the room. What I don’t remember is her name.
I don’t remember either woman’s name. I have forgotten Miss So-and-So, the first teacher, surely because my mind has blanked her out, allowed me to erase a little of that unpleasantness, a little of the person who very nearly turned me off to school. I think not remembering the second teacher’s name is a shame, but it’s understandable, too. She was MRS. KIND TEACHER, and that was all she needed to be. Her role was to help me remember why I’d been excited to go to school in the first place, to help me recapture that. Her name didn’t matter.
(I think about Roger. Still. He is always where I go when I think of this story. My mother had me transferred. Roger stayed with Miss So-and-So. Where were his parents? Miss So-and-So admitted to her superiors that she purposely treated Roger badly … and they saw no need to get him out of that classroom?)
is hosted by Stacey and Ruth at Two Writing Teachers.