As a young woman, brimming with idealism, Leslie Clark came to Virginia to teach middle school. Instead, it was she who was taught a lesson. She admirably played her part defending the students in her charge, but the question remains, how many years must pass before what we call history truly is history, something relegated to the past? (While I am hesitant to even print the “N” word, to me, as Editor-in-Chief, it seems appropriate to allow for it here in the promotion of understanding the depths of our problems with racism. My apologies to those pained by the word.)
Here is the memory that was rekindled when she saw our contest prompt:
Lessons from Virginia
by Leslie Clark
“We’ll never get the nigger stink out of these halls,” said my English department colleague, Sally Moore, one day in the teachers’ lounge.
I sat there open-mouthed for a minute, then replied, “That’s rather harsh, don’t you think, Sally?”
She sniffed. “No I don’t, Miss Jenny-come-lately. You don’t know the half of it. Just you wait.”
This exchange was only one of many things that astonished me in 1971 Virginia, the first year schools there were integrated, and my initial year of teaching.
My husband, Daniel, and I had moved to Virginia from New Jersey just four months before, shortly after we both graduated from our different colleges and got married. He got a job as an electrical engineer in Newport News, Virginia, and I applied to all the local school systems, looking for a way to earn my own money with my teachers’ college English/reading degree.
I didn’t find any openings for an English teacher in the public schools at the beginning of the school year. Finally, I got a call in November from the principal of a public intermediate school—serving eighth and ninth graders. He was seeking a replacement for an English teacher whose military husband had been suddenly transferred.
This particular school had been all black before that year. What that meant, I soon discovered, is that supplies were very low, and the principal spent much of his time playing catch-up to get the school properly equipped. The white parents were up in arms, picketing, writing outraged letters, with many transferring their kids to newly-minted private schools. Many of the transferred teachers, like my colleague Sally, were also outraged by their change in fortune. What is wrong with the people in this place? I wondered; I had grown up in a small town in New Jersey, where schools had always been integrated. As a child and teen, I had black as well as white friends. Southern attitudes were a revelation—and not a good one.
Somewhat surprising to me was that the students themselves seemed more accepting of their new situation. They segregated themselves in the cafeteria, but seemed to have no problems with seating charts in classrooms that mixed them up, or with conversing with those of the other race.
By spring I felt well in control of my teaching. Some students still shook my composure, though. When I caught Vernon West sleeping in my class one day, and asked him why, he told me, “I couldn’t sleep last night, Miz Callahan. Some man my mama brought home was chasing her around with a gun.” My heart went out to him.
After class, Charlie Martin came up to my desk and said, “Don’t pay no mind to these lazy black kids, Mrs. Callahan.”
“Vernon was having a bad day, Charlie. Race has nothing to do with it. And please don’t use double negatives. It’s any mind.”
He just smirked and walked away, searing my heart.
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