Posted 09-22-2003 at 05:28:07
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No matter how long ago you went to school, or how foggy the memories, everybody can remember at least one teacher who made a difference for them for one reason or another. This teacher may not have had any impact on your studies, persay, or had any influence on what you chose to do with your life, but may have only had a hand in what type of human you turned out to be.
Mrs. Coleman came along at a time, the late nineteen sixties, when black teachers typically taught in black schools. Mrs. Coleman was my first black teacher. Not only was she black, but she had other things going for her that could set a white fourth grader's mind awhirl with the obvious cultural differences. Her skin was the color of Hershey's chocolate. That is no exaggeration. She was the darkest black person I had ever seen. The contrast of the whiteness of her teeth against her skin was startling. When she spoke she had my undivided attention if for no other reason than that one.
She was an older woman, and quite round, and I suspect, most likely a happy person, but we didn't see that part often. There were some little clues, like the way she giggled at appropriate things, or smiled at the sometimes bizarre answers that fourth graders could come up with to her questions, but Mrs. Coleman was a very careful person. Except with her hair. She should have had gray hair. I say should have, as it was appropriate to her age, but for some strange reason that still escapes me to this day, she had a blue rinse. Startlingly blue. So we had this very dark, chubby, older black woman with alarmingly white teeth and screaming blue hair. Trying to teach an all white fourth grade class. In the nineteen sixties.
From day one, Mrs. Coleman did not have the respect of her students. I was only nine or so, but I was savvy enough to pick up on that even as young as I was. If she had been Mrs. Hainey, for example, my third grade, mean as a stepped on snake, white teacher, one little rap on her desk with the yardstick and the classroom would have fallen silent as a tomb. For Mrs. Coleman it took a lot more work. Everybody knew that Mrs. Coleman would not dare lay a finger on us, so she had to be much more creative than the average fourth grade teacher, and as a result she taught us that school could be exciting and fun, and rather than appreciate her for that, we simply took advantage of it. Her class was not only informative, it was entertaining. Mrs. Coleman picked up on the fact that I did not have my multiplication facts down. Something that I had successfully hidden up to that point. She taught me all the tricks about how to remember the nine times table, my downfall, and I still remember them to this day.
But basically, Mrs. Coleman was tolerated, both by the students and the other teachers, and most especially the parents. There was an obvious tension in Mrs. Coleman's room on parent visiting night. Parents and children milled about the room looking at the displays of our work that she had carefully prepared, but the number of words that passed between teacher and parents was minimal at best. Regardless, she always had that dazzling smile.
Until the day before Christmas break.
Handling an excited fourth grade class, the day before holiday break, was the ultimate test of any teacher, and Mrs. Coleman was no exception. We put her through her paces, and then some. I would say that that Friday before we let out for Christmas vacation was a day straight out of he11 for Mrs. Coleman. To say that we were wild, was an understatement of the highest order. The principal had to be called in twice to help her maintain calm with threats of paddlings and all other heinous retributions. Mr. Kingsbury insisted that she take names so that he could whup butts. But Mrs. Coleman never wrote down the first name. As it turns out, she didn't need to.
Mere hours before the bell rang, things started to go very badly for Mrs. Coleman. As if they weren't bad enough already. It started when the overhead lights flickered off and stayed off about fifteen minutes right after lunch. Then the back broke off of her rolling desk chair. That was funny to everyone, even her. She laughed until I started to get the feeling that she might be laughing more out of hysterics than actual humor.
There was a large map of the world on a plywood display board that rested in the chalk tray in front of the black board behind Mrs. Coleman's desk. At approximately two o'clock, Mrs. Coleman slid back her chair to stand up and ask for quiet, as she had done numerous times over the course of the day. Due to the fact that the back was missing from her chair, she went back further than normal, her shoulders contacted the plywood map and the class watched in horror as it wobbled and then fell forward, striking Mrs. Coleman on top of the head. The room went so silent that you could have heard a pin drop, and stayed that way until the most alarming thing happened.
Mrs. Coleman, at the end of her resources, taxed beyond the limit that any human should be expected to tolerate, now in physical pain....began to cry. What started out as a whimper in reaction to pain, turned into sobs and ultimately into wails. For several minutes no one moved or spoke. We listened to the heartbreaking sobbing of this woman, knowing without a doubt that we were responsible. We were horrible bad children. Then one by one, those of us who with enough conscience to know that we had caused this, began to leave our chairs and migrate to the front of the room. Not knowing what to do when I got there, I located and offered her a kleenex, which she took gratefully.
Then the apologies started coming, and coming, and coming. Before it was over, there wasn't a dry eye in the room. Almost as one, an entire classroom full of fourth grader came to the same realization. Mrs. Coleman was a person. A warm blooded, sensitive, pain feeling, usually happy person, and we had single handedly changed all that, and we didn't like the change. We wanted the happy smiling Mrs. Coleman back right now, because we knew we were the ones who sent her away.
Mrs. Coleman was collected by the school nurse and a scowling Mr. Kingsbury took over a very subdued class until the final bell rang. The only thing worse than Mrs. Coleman's crying, was Mr Kingsbury's silent, steady, disappointed gaze. His eyes said, 'try me, go ahead, just try me, I'm old, I can retire, but not before I beat the snot out of every one of you.'
Needless to say, when school resumed after the holidays things had begun to change. Mrs. Coleman was back to her old smiling self and as a group we were so enormously grateful that it was just days before summer vacation before we actually tested her again in any significant way, but by then, it was no worse than we would have done any teacher and it took a lot less effort on Mrs. Coleman's part to calm us down. If ever there was any doubt in anyone's mind that Mrs. Coleman deserved our respect and consideration, we only had to look at the plywood map behind her desk to be reminded that she was a person just like us, and deserved to be treated so just like us. Mrs. Coleman taught us that color was only skin deep but compassion, tolerance and aceptance, came from the soul.