(ThyBlackMan.com) Being an insecure, chubby teenager in the Jim Crow south may have been a challenge, but growing up as that same teen might be far more difficult in today’s world.
In my book, The Blessing of Movement, I chronicle the story of my sister, Sandra and how her actions impacted our family, and my life choices. Although I was teased a bit for being what was then overweight, the backdrop of my story, the latter years of sanctioned Jim Crow segregation and the years that followed, may have been my hidden savior and served as the element that would shore up my confidence and allow me to survive the teasing.
My middle school years were probably the toughest. The school work was easy; the homework was hard. My homework was never about school. My homework was dealing with the challenges that were presented by Sandra’s behavior. She was committed to the street life, its people, and the rewards that it offered. Late night drives to locate her were frequent and anxious moments dealing with my parents occurred often. We put up a good front as a family, but we suffered in silence at the life that Sandra had chosen to
There are many things that could have occurred as a result of her behavior. I chose to deal with the issue by excelling in my class work. There was no active social life to distract me and I was motivated by an unyielding desire to please my parents. I knew I was a good student, but no one had ever singled me out and identified me as a smart person. This was until our school counselor, Mrs. Willa Lee Smith, called me to her office. I had no idea why, but I secretly believed that this had something to do with my sister. She dominated my thoughts and I would not have been surprised if the meeting was to deliver some painful news or provide some insight into how I could deal with the issues that faced me at home.
Mrs. Smith was familiar with my family. Her ex-husband worked with my father at Armco Steel, and ironically several years before my oldest sister went on a double date with Mrs. Smith’s daughter Claudette. This was before we ever moved into the home where we currently lived. She respected my father and mother and she knew we were decent people. She was always kind to me, and I convinced myself that it was only because of Sandra’s behavior. I was wrong. Mrs. Smith called me to her office for a very different reason. The reason would change my life.
I walked into her office and sat down in the chair across from her desk. She came from behind her desk with a stack of papers. She sat down beside me, and spread the papers out on her desk, in front of me. Two of the pieces of paper had graphs on it. She explained that the graph was charted based on my performance on the Iowa Basic Skills tests. One line was my performance, and one line was the mean of all student’s. In addition, the scores were broken out by race. My scores were above all students, black or white. I knew I was smart, and I made good grades, but this was the first time that I had been directly compared with people on a national level. I walked into her office an insecure teen. I walked out a ‘smart’ girl that had proven herself when compared with her peers. Although I was still chubby, I had a new feather in my cap; intelligence. Somehow testing on a national level meant more to me than a report card with lots of A’s. I walked out of that office a little bit taller. I had a new found confidence. That meeting, and the manner in which Mrs. Smith presented the results made a dramatic impact on me.
Because of segregation, I was in an all-black school. The intimate connections that we had with our teachers were, I believe, a direct result of the forced interactions that segregation brought. These people were not just educators; they were our neighbors, church members, and frequently our friends. We knew them well, and they knew us. Parents were a phone call away if there were problems, and in extreme cases, you might get a personal visit with no warning.
The meeting to discuss scores would remain as a highpoint in my life. When I was tasked with caring for my sister after she became paralyzed, I was confident that there was nothing I could not learn in terms of caring for her. This was important because my parents were not always comfortable with some of the challenges of her care
Today I might be ignored. Although I am certain that there are great teachers in today’s world, whether they would have taken time to sit down with me, and explain in detail what those test scores meant is questionable. In addition, the palatable level of pride expressed by Mrs. Smith concerning my scores, which could have been because she was black, might not have been exhibited in such a noticeable manner. Certainly the racial aspect of the test would not have been discussed. We live in a ‘post racial’ society: or so we believe.
There will always be children that need a little extra attention. A spark of much needed confidence can come from anyone. Having it come from a strong, well dressed African American woman was an added bonus. Because of segregation, I didn’t have to go far to get this little bonus. Because of segregation, I was supported through the trials my young life presented. I was able to overcome the insecurities because people that looked like me cared.
I am not romanticizing segregation. Separate is not equal. What I am saying is that growing up in the south when segregation was the law had certain hidden benefits. It meant something when you knew your teachers outside of school hours. It meant something when you knew that the educators that worked with you have a personal, vested interest in seeing you succeed that went past doing what was necessary for the job. This personal interest went far beyond performance on a test. It was a deep seated personal investment in the future of the school, its students, and the community.
I often wonder what my life would have been had I been born later and attended an integrated middle school. Would I have had the benefit of knowing that my scores were above those of white students? Would I have had a counselor that went the extra mile to make sure I embraced the importance of those scores? Would I have felt the joy that she felt had it come from a counselor in today’s world? I am not sure. What I am sure of is that I am glad I grew up when I did.