Leslie Clark, Contestant #5: Lessons from Virginia


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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9 thoughts on “Leslie Clark, Contestant #5: Lessons from Virginia

  1. Lady Pafia Marigold says:

    In the cusps of time there often arise profound struggles where the opposing forces of the non-tolerated, the dismissed reach for a better station against people who care not for releasing any of their priviledge. Your story bravely exposes both this disruptive, puzzle piece by puzzle piece dishevel of the status quo. I found it shocking to think that as late as 1971 that segregation in Virginia was so early on. My review is meant as gratitude to a teacher whose intention & practice was to heal these wounds while dosing out education as the medicine which includes & advances civilisation towards that better opportunity for all.

    • Sunny J. Reed says:

      I actually found this quite timely. In a future post on my site, I’ll be covering an experiment done after Dr. Martin Luther King was shot. A schoolteacher decided to show her students what it meant to be different. She pitted blue-eyed kids against other-eyed kids and allowed the situation to play out.

      It’s amazing the power a teacher may have over a student and this entry exemplifies their importance.


  2. Michael Stang says:

    The one thousand previous word count threatens to pop out all over this well written peek, into the issue of segregation. Freshman year at Forest Hills High School, Queens New York, early sixties, was a real life Black people matter/in control/rule eye opener for this hayseed from Massachusetts. Got game fast.
    The little bit of history about New Jersey’s Schools was indeed indicative of major populated cities throughout the North.
    Thanks for sharing.

  3. Kyle Katz says:

    I believe that one teacher’s actions or words can lift their students through a bad day; making their good days even more fulfilling. Educators may not know the positive impact of how futures are shaped and defined, by what they do and what they say, until years later.
    So I applaud you along with my “one teacher,” Mrs. Brown who I personally have carried with me most of my life. I see vividly her smile unfolding like a rose, her brown eyes sharp, pointing her finger, saying, “I expect nothing less. Don’t let anyone define who you are. It’s up to you!” Her words still encourage me.

  4. shawnasbasement says:

    This is a compelling reminder of how far we have come, and have yet to go, in this struggle to find the common human elements we all share as a species. I am still amazed and saddened by such stories, but they must be told, for if we are ever to rise above our herd instincts to cut out those who are different, our diversity and humanity will always be at the greatest risk.

    Thank you for your story.

  5. Miryam says:

    Very powerful story Leslie… You relayed the depth of prejudice which unfortunately still exists. Gd help our youth which this hate was sowed into. Makes me sad.

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