Kirkepiscatoid

Random and not so random musings from a 5th generation NE Missourian who became a 1st generation Episcopalian. Let the good times roll!


(Photo from TonkaToys.com)

Oh, to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be;
Let that grace now like a fetter
Bind my wandering heart to Thee:
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it;
Prone to leave the God I love.
Here’s my heart, oh, take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.

--from the hymn "Come Thou, Fount of Ev'ry Blessing"

Sometimes I look back and think about how my second grade teacher might have been the greatest act of grace that ever occurred in my life, and she came in a very, VERY unlikely form, that school year of 1967-68.

You have to know a little about the circumstances that caused Mrs. Ella Smith to intersect with my life that year.

Although my hometown high school integrated in 1955, right after Brown vs. Board of Education, and was actually written up in the African-American newspaper, the Kansas City Call, as a "model" of integration, the elementary school wasn't integrated for a few years after that, in the mid-1960's. But when the old Dumas Elementary School closed and everyone was brought to the "main" campus, an African-American husband and wife teaching pair, R.C. and Ella Smith, were also part of the package. He ended up teaching junior high science and she ended up teaching the 2nd grade (later moved to teaching the 5th grade.)

There was more than one 2nd grade classroom, and generally, students were more or less assigned by lot. But I knew something was up that 2nd grade year, because all the mothers seemed more interested in "which class their child ended up attending." Well...more like "finagling a way their child didn't end up with Mrs. Smith." Mostly very polite, you know. At its most polite, it was "their child was not used to a colored teacher." It was also an era when the n-bomb was used without a second thought, and in the less polite of these interchanges it was, "My kid's gonna have a nigger teacher over my dead body."

But it seemed suddenly many seven year old children in my hometown were "shy" or "nervous," or "had ulcers." At least that is what their mothers claimed and there was one doctor in town who seemed pretty willing to dole out "medical excuses" of why being in Mrs. Smith's class was a bad idea.

As it turned out, I was to be in Mrs. Smith's class.

I remember some of the mothers encouraging my mom to "go talk to the school." Now, my mom usually was pretty responsive to peer pressure, but to her credit, she did a very bold thing. She told them, "You know, people all over the country are having to get used to this. She might as well get used to this now. She is the one who is going to have to grow up with the changes." But my mom was actually a junior in high school the year our high school was integrated, and I guess she figured that had worked out okay. Ultimately, I think that is what kept her from knuckling under to her peers.

Now, I'll be honest. Mrs. Smith and I did not always get along. Sometimes not at all. But that probably had more to do with "me being me" than it did what color her skin was. I vividly remember a time she had wearied of me wiggling in my seat. She had me drag my desk to the front of the room and told me to start wiggling, and not to stop wiggling until she told me to stop.

At first this was great fun. I kind of enjoyed being the class comedian. She had given me a ready made audience. So I wiggled and made faces, and the other kids laughed. But after about 2 minutes of wiggling, I think my wiggler started to fade. I broke out into a sweat. The kids were bored with my wiggling, and had started reading their reading primers. Wiggling suddenly began to be hard work. I looked over at Mrs. Smith, and she sort of waved her hand dismissively and said, "You just keep on wiggling."

My wiggling got slower and slower and sllloooowwwwer. I was now wiggling at the speed of the slow motion in a Sam Peckinpah movie. My face had to be beet red. Finally, she asked, "You finished wiggling now?" I meekly nodded.

"All right, then, you put your desk back...and don't be wiggling any more."

But in between our go-rounds about my over-activity, my occasional temper outbursts, and "idle hands being the devil's workshop" (I often finished my lessons quickly, and easily became bored waiting on the other kids to complete theirs,) there was something about Mrs. Smith that I started to like. I realized I was learning a lot, and she quietly challenged me with more advanced lessons to alleviate my boredom, and she seemed to know to praise me quietly, not in front of everyone. I never liked being openly praised. It was too much attention outside of the attention I could control, like when I was being the class comedian.

I learned pretty quickly, though, not to say much in front of grownups around town that I liked Mrs. Smith. Grownups seemed overly interested to ask me how I liked her, or IF I liked her. Sometimes it wasn't even by name, it was "How are you getting along with that nigger teacher?" I remember always answering, "I like Mrs. Smith fine." I could tell that was not the answer those grownups wanted to hear. But they usually didn't ask me any more after that, and I was glad they left me alone. But I remember for some reason I would always answer them by saying her name. I didn't really understand everything this was all about, but I do remember feeling like it was important to me to answer back by saying her name.

But it was a fateful and embarrassing Show and Tell when I realized that sometimes I didn't always like her for calling me out about my spontaneity and temper, but I did love her in a very real way.

She had told us for the next Show and Tell, to bring our "most favorite toy in all the world, that we could bring on the school bus." Well, the photo above is a Tonka farm set that was very much like one I had at home--a nice selection of trailers and trucks. I loved playing with that farm set. I would make barns and fences out of Tinkertoys and Lincoln Logs, and place all sorts of plastic farm animals in the "pastures," and haul them around from one place to another with my Tonka Farm Set. One of the advantages of being an only child was that I didn't have little siblings to tear my farm designs up, and I could play with "my farm" for hours. (The sad memory about that was that unfortunately, on occasion, my dad would tear up my farms when he drank too much, and by the time I was seven, I had already figured out I should lie to my mom and my grandparents when they saw my farm in disarray. I would tell them I was playing that a tornado hit it, and was rebuilding it. Well, you know, that wasn't exactly a lie.)

I decided the whole farm set was a little cumbersome to bring, so I would bring the panel truck and the horse trailer, and a couple of plastic horses for good measure--a brown one and a white one. My grandparents thought that was a fine choice for Show and Tell.

But when I got on the bus, I started to feel a little nervous.

I looked around, and every other little girl on the bus had a doll. Every one.

When I got to my class, I very quickly put the truck and horse trailer in the back corner of the coat closet, and covered it up with a box. As I watched the other kids bring their favorite toys, my heart sunk. ALL the girls had brought dolls.

As we went through Show and Tell, it seemed that each girl's story about her doll got louder and louder, and I felt more and more ashamed. Eventually we got to my turn. I simply looked at Mrs. Smith and said, "I forgot to bring a toy. I'm sorry." She said nothing and went on to the next child. I knew she knew I had lied to her. I knew it. The other kids looked at me dumbfounded.

You see, I was "the kid most likely to bring an odd thing to Show and Tell that would make the other kids giggle and shriek." I was the kid who brought a real chicken foot and showed how you could make the foot "work" by pulling on the tendons. I was the kid who brought a Kotex when the assignment was "bring something in the house your mom uses a lot." I was the kid who brought my tonsils in a jar of formalin. I guess I was already displaying signs that I was destined to be a pathologist, even back then. I was no stranger to bringing something "different" to Show and Tell. But somehow, I knew this "different" felt like a "bad kind of different." Taking a zero on Show and Tell seemed way preferable to showing that truck and horse trailer.

At the end of the day, I wasn't sure how I was going to escape on the bus unnoticed with my truck and horse trailer. I took the "second bus"--the kids who lived in the country always had to wait for the "late" bus and the town kids took the "early" bus--so there would be fewer people watching--but I was already scheming how I could take it home, a piece at a time over three days, smuggled in my book bag.

But when it was getting close to the time of the bus, I was busted.

Mrs. Smith came up to me and said, "Don't forget to take home the toy you forgot to bring."

I didn't know anything to do but cry. She whisked me out in the hall. I was so afraid I was in trouble for lying. But a miraculous thing happened. She said, "If I put your toy in a box and bring it out in the hall, would you Show and Tell it with me? I can give you credit if you do, instead of a zero."

I agreed, and she brought out a box with my toys. I don't remember a lot, but I remember showing how the trailer hooked on to the truck and how the horses fit inside. I remember just saying off the cuff, "I have a lot of plastic horses. Here's a brown one and a white one and they fit right in here and they ride around together just fine."

That's when I looked up and saw her crying. "Oh, child," she exclaimed. "You don't even know what you just said...and I pray to God there is a day that all the brown horses and the white horses can someday all ride around just fine." I remember she stroked my hair as I put the toys back in the box. I could tell that somehow I made her feel good, even though she was crying, and I really hadn't even tried to do that.

But when I look back, and I think about all the things that were going on in our country in 1967 and 1968, it was a moment of shared grace. She made me feel valuable when I had previously felt ashamed, and she had seen hope at a time there certainly must not have felt like there was a lot of it.

I'm ashamed to tell you I never really kept up with her life as I grew up. I was just another of many 2nd graders she turned loose to the 3rd grade, and, eventually, the world. She passed away several years back and I really don't know how much she kept up with my life, other than seeing my late grandmother at the grocery store at times. I often wish I had made room to tell her how years later, I figured out how important it was that our lives had crossed paths. But I never did. Never even considered it until it was much too late.

But I believe with all my heart she is part of the great cloud of witnesses I will meet in Heaven, and I like to think she'll greet me with a brown plastic horse and a white plastic horse.

2 comments:

Oh, such a great cloud of witnesses. Thanks for this.

Thanks for telling this story, Maria. Deeply moving in lots of ways for me, too.

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Kirksville, Missouri, United States
I'm a longtime area resident of that quirky and wonderful place called Kirksville, MO and am wondering what God has hiding round the next corner in my life.

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