Saturday, April 5, 2008

4th Grade, Indian Village Elementary - Mrs. Crowley

I told you earlier that 4th grade was an important time for me. Here is the first of many recollections re: that period of time in my life.

In 1976, I was nine years old and entering the fourth grade. I had attended Indian Village Elementary school since kindergarten and had felt pretty comfortable in my surroundings, although - and I know you'll find this hard to believe - I was an extremely introverted child. I had fantastic teachers for K-3rd and for fourth grade, I was looking forward to having Mrs. Mitchell. She was an older woman who ran a very strict classroom setting but I heard, she was the best.

Imagine my surprise when two days before school, we stopped by to pick up my books, and found out that my teacher wouldn't be Mrs. Mitchell. It was to be a new teacher, Mrs. Crowley. I was shaken up a bit but forgot about it quickly as I wanted to enjoy my last two days of freedom.

But so much for peace and quiet because rumor around the neighborhood was that Mrs. Crowley was black. This upset my parents - mostly my father - tremendously. Although I knew my father said horrible things about black people, I thought for some reason that a teacher would be exempt from his wrath. But no. The 'n' word was used like it was a typical part of everyday conversation. By the time school started, my stomach had a great ole pit in it.

On our first day of school, my sister and I caught the school bus and sat for the requisite 20 minute ride. When we arrived, there was a school bus already there, sitting directly in front of the school with curtains hanging in the window. How odd I thought. Why doesn't my school bus get to have curtains? The whispers inside the school halls was that a handful of black children had been bussed in to our school system. I was really confused. All of this chaos was a lot for me to handle on my very first day of school.

I walked down the hall to room 21 and stepped into the newly decorated classroom. I found my desk, took a seat, and then looked around to see if I recognized any of my classmates (hi Beth! hi Tom!). But then all of that became a moot point when I saw my teacher walk in the room.

Mrs. Crowley was an attractive woman with a hair-do that was pretty common for a white woman in 1976. I call it the Miss America hair-do. Her skin was black - and not light-skinned but dark black and that frightened me. Didn't it hurt to have skin that dark? I knew that when I stayed out in the sun and my skin got burnt, it really hurt! I was worried for her. Throughout the day, it was very difficult to concentrate because I kept on looking at Mrs. Crowley, trying to understand her. She looked so different but sounded so much like my other teachers.

Over the next couple of weeks, I still found myself stealing glances at Mrs. Crowley and once in awhile, she would catch my stare and smile back at me. About two months into school, I was picked to work on a special project which required that I stay after school. When I went back to pick up my homework, Mrs. Crowley was still there, cleaning up, and setting up for tomorrow's class. For the first time, I was face to face with the teacher that I was both fascinated with and scared of. We were alone and I could tell she was going to initiate conversation. It was a very casual conversation - she asked about my project I was a part of and I commented on how late she was staying. Whew! I had escaped.

Meanwhile, back at home, my dad still had not let up on the "n" word. Every day he still made it quite clear to me and my sister that our education was in jeopardy because the school system had hired "her". The hateful messages I received from home were so confusing because my gut totally felt the opposite. I was learning so much from Mrs. Crowley. She was a fantastic teacher. It got to a point that I needed to know, once and for all, what the real story was.

One day, I volunteered to stay after school to re-arrange the desks. I did it on purpose and I even lied to my parents about it. They thought that I went to my best friend, Beth's house (and to this day, Beth has kept my secret). When Mrs. Crowley and I were alone, she asked me some questions.

Kris, I see you staring at me throughout our day and I was wondering if there's something you want to say to me.

She said this all with a smile. For the first time, there was no fear in my body.

Mrs. Crowley. Does it hurt to be black?

She looked at me and crooked her head, looking for more information.

How do you mean, Kris?

I told her that her black skin seemed so dark and that it reminded me of someone who had been burnt. Did it hurt her? She smiled from ear to ear and gently touched my shoulder.

Sit down with me.

She then talked to me about everything. We started with skin color and she continued answering any and all questions I threw at her.

Why do people call black people the "n" word?
Why does my daddy hate "n" people?
How come my school bus doesn't have curtains?

I touched her hands. They were smooth and soft. Her nails were painted a dark color - maybe a brown. They were perfectly manicured. I touched her hair. It felt so much different from mine. It was straight like mine but it didn't feel nearly as soft as mine. I hugged her and it felt so nice. And she smelled incredibly good, a smell that is still with me today.

It's absolutely, one of the most memorable moments of my elementary years. I was anxious around my teacher because of her skin color. Can you imagine that? Can you imagine any one in the year 2008 saying the stuff that I said and thought as a nine year old fourth grader??!! I can't. It just totally blows my mind.

It's hard to believe that 32 years ago, I had these types of questions because today, skin color is so irrelevant to me. But it's that way because Mrs. Crowley took time to answer the bizarre, but innocent questions of a nine year old girl raised in a very ignorant home. By the time the next semester rolled around, my parents had pulled me and my sister out of Indian Village and placed us in a Catholic school. I only had Mrs. Crowley as my teacher for four short months however, it was an extremely valuable four months for me.

In 1976, Mrs. Crowley influenced and inspired me more than any other historical black American figure has. Here was a woman who was willing to subject herself to the ignorance of an entire community just so that she could teach and make a difference. And she did. Probably more than she ever realizes. Her influence and actions has had a rippling affect on my life. It's because of her that I never thought twice about dating someone of a different color, race, or religious background. It's because of her that I'm a better parent. It's because of her that Ethan's outlook on life is to evaluate every one by their actions and not by their physical attributes. She taught me that what was inside mattered most, a lesson I should have learned from my parents.


Colleen said...

"Does it hurt to be black?"

Yeah, it does.

Wow. We're the same age, and it's amazing that we learned totally opposite messages from our parents. My sister's 5th grade teacher died, and they hired a black woman to replace him. They had a meeting of the parents beforehand to talk about that "issue". My mom came home and I asked "WHY would they have a meeting about THAT?" Her answer "I have no idea." It was an absolute non issue to my parents.

Anyway. Hey...did you get the pic of Charly and Tony I sent?

Kevin Whaley said...

Nicely written!

Donna Quandt said...

Indian Village Elementary, just a mile or so down Brooklyn Ave from St. Joseph Catholic School where I went. I have a few years on you though; it was 1961 when I was in 4th grade. But my situation was similar; a father who did not want his children to have "colored" friends and the best part was a mother (my girl scout leader) who encouraged me to befriend Gwen, from the only black family in our school. The lessons I learned from my mom and from Gwen were invaluable.

Thanks for sharing this memory.

Just another FW native said...

I second the "Nicely written" comment.

I'm sure that misconceptions about race still continue for children today. As late as 1990-ish, I was a friend of a neighbor kid about my age; he told me that spicy foods tasted spicy to me because I was Mexican and that he was "immune" to it.