In March for Women’s History Month I am presenting weekly blog posts about accomplishments and lessons from women in my village. These are excerpts from my upcoming memoir Coming Full Circle: Jim Crow to Journalism.
Our black teachers in segregated schools gave us life lessons with no apologies. Their instruction went way beyond reading, writing and arithmetic. They went beyond what we learned in books as they grounded us in culture and moral values, and sometimes they steeled us for challenges we might have as young African Americans in an era when, referred to as Negroes and colored, we were clearly considered to be second-class citizens outside the protection of our own schools or homes.
At Alfred Ely Beach High School female teachers would pull girls aside as they observed our changing bodies and let us know that “respectable” young ladies must wear the right kind of undergarments, so as to reduce the jiggles that might entice certain reactions from boys. I’m certain boys got life lessons from male teachers.
We were taught that those who sat closest to the front of the classroom had the best opportunity to learn. Today when I attend meetings or professional workshops, I still make it a habit to find a seat near the front of the room, or close to the leader of the meeting so I can see and hear well and be recognized first when I have suggestions or questions. We were also taught to be patient, to sit still and take in the entire lesson each day, instead of fidgeting or packing up 45 minutes into a one-hour class.
Stella Reeves, who taught social studies, was one of the strictest teachers in our school. I unsuccessfully tried to avoid taking her classes, because I saw her as too demanding. She kept a sign posted under the analog school clock (you know, the ones millennials and children don’t know how to read because they’re all about digital). The sign read: “Time passes, but will you?” It was a reminder that watching the clock was not the best habit for those of us who expected good grades.
Being a good learner means being an engaged learner. In my older years, I find myself quoting Mrs. Reeves’ clock message as I counsel young people who don’t seem to value time the way we were taught.
Next week: “How did you get here?”