Miss Bertie was his seventh-grade English teacher. Tough old nag,
from what he’d heard. He knew from three weeks in class that she was demanding…
she seemed bigger than everybody at school – Harvest of Thorns.
"Happy Birthday Miss Jones," by Norman Rockwell
No character has generated more feedback than Miss Bertie - Chan’s teacher, mentor, and friend. When Miss Bertie saw how hard life was for Chan, she started looking out for him. We’ll never know everything she did for him, but we have a pretty good idea.
How do we know? Because many of us had a Miss Bertie in our life.
I’ve been asked if Miss Bertie was based on someone from my past. Was she one of my elementary or high school teachers? A colleague? Was Miss Bertie even a Miss? Could she have been a Mister? I’m not saying. Everyone has their own Miss Bertie, and I don’t want mine to be any more important than yours. A reader sent along an email about his Miss Bertie:
Paul, my Miss Bertie was a lady named Mary Schean. 9th grade English.
We had Ivanhoe and diction drill. I still remember a bunch of her words.
Others describe their Miss Bertie as music teachers, coaches, and club sponsors. Regardless of what they teach, the Miss Berties of the world take time to really know their students. In most every case, it isn’t so much what they teach as how they teach it. Somehow, in the process of teaching, they also change lives.
So, here’s the big question – Who was your Miss Bertie? Respond in the comments section below, on my Facebook page, or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You don’t have to use your Miss Bertie’s real name if you prefer not to; just a few sentences about how they made a difference. I’ll pick one submission to receive a free copy of Harvest of Thorns.
Back in the 1990's, someone asked my friend Larry Deaton how long it takes to transition to retirement. Larry responded, "Let's see... how long does it take to drive home?"
In 2011 I turned in my keys and left behind thirty years of public education. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do, so for a few weeks I walked. And walked. For hours. Every day. Robin grew concerned. Our dog Chloe hid whenever I put on my walking shoes. That was my transition period. Longer than Larry's, but just right for me.
Then, opportunity: Proctor and Gamble was looking for a merchandiser, someone to set displays, align shelves, and check inventory. Part-time, which was perfect, as I was wanting to try some writing. For five months, I visited stores and did what merchandisers do. It was enjoyable work, until P&G announced it was outsourcing its merchandising.
At the same time, a help-wanted ad appeared in our local paper - Reporter Needed. I shot off an email and... was a day late. Still, the editor asked if I'd consider freelance feature writing. What a blast! I wrote articles about interesting locals like my friend Bill, a small-engine mechanic who jumps from airplanes and prepares award-winning barbeque that gets featured on the Food Network. Like merchandising, it was a great job until it wasn't. Within a few months, the Pointe was no more. Profitability can be elusive for small-town newspapers, and my second job came to an end.
You're probably starting to see a pattern here. Paul gets hired, company runs into trouble. I had to disprove that theory, and the best way was to go to work for the Kansas City Royals. They were already in trouble. Twenty-seven years without a playoff appearance, players leaving left and right. I couldn't hurt them, right?
Fortunately, the Royals’ fortunes turned for the better. You can read my account of the Royals years here. In addition to being around great people, I got the chance to do a little writing for Royals' Baseball Insider, the in-stadium magazine. Human-interest stuff, mostly. No player interviews or anything like that. Still, it was writing.
Along the way, I had this idea for a book. It started with Chan Manning. He'd been in my head for years, trying to find his way out. In 2012 I let him out. Unbeknownst to me, Chan had friends who came with him. Harvester Stanley, Miss Bertie, Theresa Traynor. The more I wrote about Chan, the more I wanted to know about him. Out came his father Earl and grandfather Levi. I basically wrote Harvest of Thorns in reverse, not something I recommend.
There were plenty of fits and starts. I stopped writing Harvest for a few months in 2012, moving on to the manuscript that became Shunned, my next release. A book should never take four years to finish, but Harvest did. There probably isn't another Harvest of Thorns in me. 130,000 words in one book is too much. I hope my future books, mostly in the 70-80,000 range, continue to tell stories people want to read.
The lessons have been many. I thought I knew how to write. Ha! There's still plenty to learn and I'm into my third book. Still, I wouldn't change a thing, even when my characters wake me up in the night, telling me what they're going to do next. Even when my thumb drive breaks in half and I have to pay $200 to retrieve my manuscript (Save to the cloud, folks!). Even when I attend a writer's conference and get shot down by publishers. And shot down again. And again.
So here we are. It's January, 2017. Time for resolutions. Mine include publishing two more books and completing the manuscript for a third. I also plan to visit Europe for the first time. If you've been to Greece and Italy and have recommendations, send them. Oh yes, I want/need to lose the same fifteen pounds I resolved to lose in 2016. And 2015. And 2014.
How about you? Resolutions? Schemes? Big ideas? Share 'em if you got 'em!
Happy New Year!
Last week I paid homage to the substitute teachers of the world, sharing personal experiences from long ago. I wasn’t a very good sub. I bent the rules, showed up late, and usually raced the kids out the door. Somehow, despite all that, I got a job offer. The call came late in December.
Caller: Mr. Wootten, we have a full-time position we’d like to offer you.
Me: I’ll take it!
Caller: Can I tell you about it first?
Me: Does it pay a regular teacher salary?
Me: Not thirty-six bucks a day? A full salary?
Me: I’ll take it.
On January 4, 1982 I reported for work at Louisville’s Central State Hospital. Formerly it had been called Lakeland Asylum; before that, it was the Central Kentucky Asylum for the Insane. The building you see below was the original building, still in use in 1981, but since razed.
An aside – mental illness is not something to joke about. It is very real, and I’ve seen its effects. The treatment of mental illness and those who suffer from it has changed dramatically since 1981. That said, the rest of this post will share my experiences. Some are funny, others are sad. The people are real, many lost in the state mental health system. Others placed there for reasons ranging from rational to absurd.
My assignment was to teach English and Social Studies to 14-18 year-old male patients. I showed up ready to hit the road running. Dress slacks and shirt; sportcoat and tie. Tie? First mistake. The lady in charge told me to lose the tie. Ties were dangerous. Someone might use it to hang themselves, she said.
Violence was a problem, I was told. Fortunately, I had a classroom aide. Mrs. A. was in her early fifties, and probably didn’t weigh a hundred pounds. She was brought in for a quick introduction, then I started orientation.
The First Lesson of Orientation – subduing violent students. I was instructed to sweep their legs out from under them and sit on them until help arrived. We would then remove their shoes and take them to a self-containment room. Believe it or not, rubber rooms really existed. Soft rubber walls and floors that kept residents from hurting themselves. We practice for a few minutes, until they were satisfied I had it down. Fortunately, I never had to put this lesson into practice.
Next lesson – Okay, there wasn’t another lesson. I asked about curriculum, and was told there was stuff in the classroom, and to use what I could find. And that was it. Off to class I went. Fortunately, there were some GREAT teachers and support staff at Central State. As I found my way, I came to rely on them daily. Soon after arriving at my classroom, a colleague came in to introduce himself and let me know I was the fourth teacher since the beginning of school. Oh boy.
Surprisingly, the kids were pretty special too. I remember many of them, such as…
Jeff– Jeff was the only student who became physical with me, and it was partly my fault. Fourteen, baby-faced, obese, with a long record of violence, today Jeff would be in a self-contained classroom in public school, getting the help he needed. Back then he was dumped into the mental health system and forgotten. Once, when Jeff was having a bad day, I made the mistake of questioning something he said AND leaving a stapler out on my desk. When I turned my back, Jeff hit me with the stapler. He was placed in solitary confinement, and I felt bad about that. The next day it was forgotten.
JJ – A great kid. Tall, gangly, with a great white-boy afro. For some reason, we didn’t get along until I visited the outdoor recreation area one day. JJ asked if I wanted to shoot some hoops, then play one-on-one. Within a few days we were playing for money. If I lost, which I usually did, I’d put fifty cents in JJ’s store account, which he used to buy cigarettes (Most of the kids who were sixteen and older smoked). If I won, JJ had to help me clean the classroom. As the year went on, I started smuggling in cigarettes for when I lost, because of the exorbitant price they charged in the hospital canteen.
Jessie – Jessie had a violent past AND a love of anything related to the Civil War. We could never get him to do any work, until Mrs. A. had the idea of tying all his work to the Civil War. Bang! Civil War math problems, Civil War reports for history, everything was Civil War. After I’d been at Central State a couple months, we moved to a new classroom facility. State-of-the-art, they said. Shatter-proof glass panels on all sides, so the hospital staff could see and respond quickly to problems. Sadly, no one bothered to make sure the shatter-proof glass was really shatter-proof. One day, angry about something, Jessie decided to find out for himself, by picking up his desk and throwing it against the shatter-proof glass. Guess what? It shattered. A couple students decided to follow Jessie’s lead. Mrs. A. and I hid under our desks until it was over. Five of sixteen shatter-proof windows were shattered. After that, we were an open-air classroom.
Dino – Dino was a spitter. Staff members were directed to spit back, but I could never bring myself to do that. The night of a full moon, Dino jumped a fence and ran away. I never saw him again.
Robert – Robert shot his father, supposedly for cheating on his mother. A good boy. A quiet boy. At seventeen, he was classified as criminally insane.
Bryan – I never knew Bryan’s clinical diagnosis, but he swore he had a pencil in his head. “I can’t work today, Mr. Wootten,” he would say. “This pencil in my head hurts too much.” One day Bryan fell asleep in class. Unbeknownst to me, while he dozed, JJ placed a pencil on his desk. When Bryan woke up, JJ exclaimed, “Hey Bryan, look! The pencil fell out.” We never saw Bryan again.
Raymond – A sweet boy of fifteen. His father, a jockey at Churchill Downs, had badly abused Raymond, including force-feeding him soda laced with tabasco sauce and red-pepper flakes. Despite that, Raymond was sent home after an eight-week stay. Two weeks later, he was back, as delighted to see us as we were to see him. A mental hospital was preferable to home.
Donnie – Donnie was mentally retarded, as it was called back then. Nothing else. His presence made me fully aware of the deficiencies in the mental health system of the time. Donnie came to class every day, but could do little more than color and read his ABC’s. Had there been more staff and more time, he could have learned more. Years later, I saw Donnie’s picture on the front page of the Louisville Courier-Journal, in a story about the city’s homeless population.
The job could be grueling, and one reprieve was a ninety-minute lunch break when fellow teachers and I bolted from the building. As the year went on, The Middletown Pub became the destination of choice. The pizza was good and the beer was cheap. By May, several of my colleagues were returning to work intoxicated. Somehow, they pulled it off. The school supervisor either didn’t see or didn’t choose to see.
Then, there was the curious case of Mrs. N. A mousy woman of sixty who rarely spoke to anyone, Mrs. N. taught art. As the year progressed, Mrs. N’s attendance and appearance started to slip, and she became more and more distant. One Monday in April, she didn’t show up at all. By noon we discovered she had left work the previous Friday, gone to the adult side of the facility, and checked herself in as a patient. She returned after a couple weeks and resumed teaching.
There was no summer school at the hospital, and as June approached, I was pulled into the principal’s office and offered a position for the next school year. By then, I had committed to a teaching job in Missouri, but it was still a tough decision. I’d taken the usual education courses in college, student taught, substitute taught, and worked as an elementary school aide. Nothing prepared me more than my six months at Central State Hospital. When the last day came, I was sad. For a couple years, I kept up with some colleagues. Thirty-five years later, all I have are the memories. Most are sweet.
Hey everybody, THANKS for reading!
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This is my last blog post of 2016.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
What's the toughest job in America?
Brain Surgeon? Explosives Tester? Restaurant Attendant at the State Fair? Not even close.
Substitute Teacher? Ding, ding, ding!
And while I’ve never operated on brains, test-fired TNT, or cleaned bathrooms at the state fair, I have substitute taught, and let me tell you, it is HARD.
Let's start with a quiz - which of the following is the substitute teacher?
The first? No way. Look at how hard those kids are working, even while she has her back turned. She spent hours planning this lesson. The middle? No chance. Subs don't get to lecture. They get worksheets. The third is probably the sub.
My sub adventure was thirty-five years ago. I'd graduated and couldn’t find a job, so I decided to sub in Louisville, Kentucky.
Several of my friends today are subs. They log onto school websites, browse through available assignments, and choose the ones they want. Too easy! They probably sip tea and listen to light jazz, too.
It wasn’t that way in 1981. Back then, the ringing phone jarred you from a deep sleep at five in the morning. “Mr. Wootten, can you sub at _____ High School today?” If you wanted the thirty-six bucks, you said yes.
Yep, you read correctly. Subbing in 1981 paid thirty-six bucks a day.
I didn’t drive, so I’d hurriedly shower and hop the city bus to wherever I was going, showing up just as school was starting. Louisville’s city schools were a hot mess back then. Kids were bussed across town, parents were unhappy, teacher morale was low. And there I was, showing up to take over Mrs. Bradford’s high school history classes so she could have her root canal.
Lesson plans? Sometimes. Mostly I improvised, becoming the master of trivia contests. We’d divide the class into groups and play our own version of Jeopardy. Think Alex Trebek’s job is hard? Hah! His show is only thirty minutes long. The sub teacher version of Jeopardy lasted fifty minutes, and questions had to be easy enough for all kids to have a chance (I invented No Child Left Behind). If the theatrics and offbeat lessons didn’t meet the principals’ expectations, they never said anything. I was a warm body, and that’s as good as it got.
The mandatory after-school conferences with principals were always interesting, too. “Mr. Wootten, I realize that the students cheated on the exam, and most left before class was over, but we’d really appreciate you coming back for the rest of the week.” The sub list must’ve been pretty short.
But, guess what? Despite all that, I received a call in mid-December with an offer for a full-time job. It seemed too good to be true, and as it turned out, it was.
More on that next time.
I would love to hear your favorite sub teaching stories. Share on Facebook or leave a comment below.
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Last week, my Facebook friend Jen posted that a parent complaint led to the removal of To Kill a Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn from library shelves in Virginia's Accomack County Schools.
For me, this resurrected some unwelcome memories.
First, full disclosure: I found The Adventures of Tom Sawyer to be okay, but Huckleberry Finn never did it for me. To Kill a Mockingbird? Now there’s a great book.
Anyway, the parent, Marie Rothstein-Williams, wasn’t disputing the books’ place in history, but rather the racial slurs and offensive language. “You can’t get past that,” she said, “and right now we are a nation divided as it is.”
It appears the Accomack County School Board is following proper procedures in response to Ms. Rothstein-Williams’ complaint. A committee of school employees and community members has been convened to determine the next step. They will take their time and make the decision they feel is best. Whatever that decision is, some will like it, some won’t.
Book banning is nothing new. Huckleberry Finn is the most banned book in America, Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye. Shoot, even the Harry Potter books have been banned by some schools. Years ago, I faced my own book banning dilemma, and it turned out badly.
The book is called Julie of the Wolves. Here’s the Amazon blurb about it:
To her small Eskimo village, she is known as Miyax; to her friend in San Francisco, she is Julie. When her life in the village becomes dangerous, Miyax runs away, only to find herself lost in the Alaskan wilderness.
Miyax tries to survive by copying the ways of a pack of wolves and soon grows to love her new wolf family. Life in the wilderness is a struggle, but when she finds her way back to civilization, Miyax is torn between her old and new lives. Is she Miyax of the Eskimos—or Julie of the wolves?
Julie won a Newberry Award in 1973, and has been read in Middle School Communications Arts classes for decades. Despite all this, I’d never heard of the book until the complaint.
It came from a parent who was also pastor of a small church. His issue was a scene that is said to describe the sexual attack of Julie by her husband. It’s a common complaint about the book, as you can find through a Google search. You can also Google the excerpt in question. Author Jean Craighead-George, is emphatic that the scene is not a rape. I felt it was strong language for an upper-elementary/middle school book. But my opinion didn’t matter. What mattered was policy. Here’s the policy:
It’s a good policy. A smart policy. It allows discussion and consideration rather than a knee-jerk reaction. It ensures that one person's viewpoints can't impact an entire school.
But on a cold night two decades ago, a school board violated its own policy. The meeting convened to a packed house, as word of the complaint had leaked out. When it came up for discussion, the school principal stated that a review committee would be meeting the next week.
The response? After a few moments of silence, a board member angrily said he didn’t need a committee. The book was inappropriate and that was that. He made a motion, received a second, and a majority of the seven board members voted to disregard their own policy. Julie of the Wolves was no more.
As a school administrator, you expect to be overruled on occasion. After a while, those kinds of things don’t bother you. You do what you can do, and that’s all you can do. Julie of the Wolves, however, has stayed with me all these years. Book banning is wrong. Deciding to keep objectionable or age-inappropriate material out of kids’ hands isn’t. Where one ends and the other picks up isn’t a decision to be taken lightly.
I wish the Accomack County School Board only the best as they carefully follow their policy.
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If you attend sporting events, be it major or minor league, you see them. Or maybe you don't. They check your ticket and, if you get too adventurous, they gently remind you that the seats you're sitting in aren't yours. For most of my life, I scarcely noticed them, other than to check where they were before sneaking down the aisle to better seats.
Then I became one.
My son Cody and I applied together. He wanted money for college. I liked the idea of a part-time retirement job that allowed me to watch baseball for free. Robin encouraged me. "You're going out there anyway," she said. "You might as well get paid for it."
Cody and I were both hired. He worked the first base side. I worked the third, behind the visiting team dugout. After a couple years Cody moved on to bigger and better things. Five years later, I was still there, in the same spot I'd occupied throughout. Section 123.
The Royals weren't very good the first couple years. Crowds were small and much of my time was spent chasing people out of the same seats I'd snuck into a few years before. There were games - lots of games - when fans from visiting teams outnumbered our own, including Yankee games when Bronx cheers drowned out Midwest twang.
But then, the team started to get good. Real good. A World Series in 2014 ended with the tying run on third base in the bottom of the ninth. Then, in 2015 the Royals won it all! As you can see from the photo above, Kansas City loves a winner. That's the World Series parade held 13 months ago. The sea of blue is people. Hundreds of thousands of people.
2016 was my final year as a Royals usher. I want to write a little more and travel a little more; the time requirements cut into family get-togethers sometimes. Then there is the physical wear and tear from standing on concrete for hours every night. But man, am I glad I had the chance to be an usher.
A week doesn't go by without someone asking what the job is like. So, I'm going to answer that question here, one last time, for everyone.
It's one of the greatest gigs ever.
I don't use the word, 'awesome' very much, but man did I work with some awesome people. Our usher crew was tight, and made coming to work fun. We were a melting pot really, with all backgrounds, lifestyles, and colors represented. None of that mattered. We were a team.
But, you want to know something? Even better than the crew I worked with were the people who turned out for Royals games. Especially the regulars. My section was populated by season-ticket holders. Most had been showing up since the dark days. Celebrating playoff championships with them was an indescrible experience. Over time, we moved past being usher and fans. We became friends. One couple visited us in Florida. Others have become dining partners. We know the names of each others' family members. We graduated kids together, married off kids together, and became grandparents together. We mourned the losses of a few of our regulars, but celebrated our memories of them. I'm gone from the park, but these friends stay with me.
And what are the most common questions ushers get? I heard these a lot:
Thank you Kauffman Stadium. It was a great ride. Next time I visit, it will be with a ticket. I can't wait.
There's a lot in Harvest of Thorns that's near to my heart, but that portion of Earl Manning's life that takes place at the Howland Maternity Sanitarium might be closest.
Today we don't know much about places like Howland; I certainly didn't. While talking to people a generation older, however, I learned of a time when a female student might suddenly leave school without telling anyone. "Gone to stay with relatives," or "taking care of a sick aunt" were typical reasons. Months later, the young lady would return, offering little in the way of explanation.
Then, I learned of a place called The Willows. It was in Kansas City, at 2929 Main Street. There's a Residence Inn there now, but I never pass the corner of 29th and Main that I don't think of The Willows. It was gone long before I arrived in Kansas City, but its ghost has touched my life completely.
My wife Robin was born there.
Her story still grips me. A young woman, a girl really, became pregnant in the early 1960's. She was given train fare to Kansas City and took up residence at The Willows. It was a different time, a time anyone under forty will struggle to understand. Girls who became pregnant couldn't continue attending school in many areas. Places like The Willows thrived.
The arrangement was simple. Young ladies came to The Willows to wait out their pregnancy. When their babies were born, they were put up for adoption. The new mothers were sent home, with little more than a passing glimpse of the life they'd carried.
Its almost incomprehensible to think that The Willows and similar facilities actually advertised, but here are a couple ads. The first from the Kansas City Star in 1906, the second an undated ad likely placed in an eastern city newspaper. Click on them to enlarge.
Since getting the itch to write, I've felt the need to pen an homage to The Willows. I hoped to base an entire book around it, and still might. Howland Maternity Sanitarium's appearance in Harvest of Thorns came after hours of research. I wanted to make sure I got it right. When you read about the long walkway leading to the street, the catcalls from passersby, and the manner in which rooms were assigned based upon wealth, know that I made the Howland Maternity Sanitarium as close to real as I could.
And the kindness and gentleness of the staff, especially Earl Manning? I created them as I hoped the staff was at The Willows. After all, who doesn't want to believe that the first breaths of the person he loves more than anything were taken in a nurturing environment?
For more about The Willows, including pictures and first-person accounts, look here.
Birmingham? Selma? Nope. Cambridge Maryland in 1963-64.
Last week I shared some personal remembrances from the 1969 integration of schools in Dorchester County, Maryland. Based on the responses I received, others had similar experiences.
But there is more to the story than the recollections of a ten-year-old boy. Much more. Several years ago, I ran across a document prepared by the United States Commission of Civil Rights in 1977. This document, which you can read here, shares the not-so-pretty things that went on behind the scenes.
Cambridge, the county seat, experienced a long and unflattering period of racial strife. A decade ago, NPR featured Cambridge in one of its reports. Many locals remember the visit by H. Rap Brown, a civil rights leader at the time, whose challenge, "If Cambridge don't come around, Cambridge got to be burned down" led to the torching of a black elementary school. These actions brought national attention, and sadly reinforced the racial stereotypes of many whites. Lost in all this was the segregation experienced daily in Cambridge. In the same NPR story, resident Sylvia Windsor spoke of one of the main business districts in town:
"One side of Race Street was for the whites and one side was for the blacks,
and they never crossed over and we never did either,"
That segregation carried over to the schools and like many communities of the time, black schools were underserved. Resident Enez Stafford Grubb told NPR:
"Whenever we received a textbook, it was a used textbook,
and there was always a slip with the name of white students by the time we got it."
Dorchester County's first effort to abide by Brown v. Board of Education was a "freedom of choice" plan that would allow students to attend the school of their choice, regardless of racial makeup. Not much changed. That year, 1963, just two black students enrolled in white schools.
Pressure mounted, The State Department of Education and the NAACP cited Dorchester County for ineffective desegregation efforts. In March, 1966, the county school superintendent was directed by the state to "prepare immediately for complete desegregation" by the 1967-68 school year. Very little happened. Black high school students continued to be bussed past white high schools. When pressed by the state, the superintendent stated the the district would go to court before meeting desegregation mandates. He defended the freedom-of-choice plan despite lackluster results. In 1967 a biracial steering committee was formed to study remedies, but the superintendent disregarded the recommendations. Two-thirds of Dorchester County's black students continued to attend segregated schools, and many were bussed excessive distances to maintain the status quo.
It took the threatened loss of federal funds to finally get things moving. A deadline was set for September, 1969, the year my classmates and I started attending integrated schools.
If only the story ended there. Sadly, continuing into the 1970's there was evidence of discriminatory treatment of black students and educators in Dorchester County. In 1971, the federal government gave the district 90 days to remedy inequitable employment practices. The superintendent's response:
"There isn't any teacher, child, parent, or otherwise who feels discriminated against . . .
I reiterate there isn't any way within 60 days we can tell you who is going to be in what school."
The school board had had enough. The superintendent's resignation was accepted in June, 1971. Within a month, the new superintendent met all federal mandates. Three weeks later, he submitted a plan for total integration of county schools. What had dragged out for years, was completed in a few weeks.
None of this was known by the sixth graders entering their second year at integrated Hurlock Elementary School.
I can't count the number of times I've gone back and reviewed the report I've shared with you. It had that kind of impact on me. More to the point, it carried over to my writing. In Harvest of Thorns, you'll read of images and attitudes similar to those in Dorchester County a half-century ago. You'll read stories of hope and triumph, too; also like Dorchester County.
Comments and similar experiences are welcome. I particularly welcome those from my classmates who may have experienced the other side of segregation in Dorchester County schools all those years ago. Leave your comments below or on my Facebook page.
Thanks for reading!
It was 1969 when Dorchester County got around to integrating its schools. Entering fifth grade, I was unaware of the history being made or the struggles involved. The small community where I attended school previously had two elementary buildings; one for black children and one for white. That September, students in kindergarten through third grade attended the formerly black school, while Grades 4-6 went to the school I'd attended all along. That school, long gone, is pictured below.
It seemed like a minor thing. That's how oblivious I was. Recently, I ran across something on the internet that made me realize how un-minor it was. I'll save that for my next post.
But first, a history refresher: The Supreme Court ruled in 1954's Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that separate but equal schools were no longer acceptable. States and local school districts were mandated to eliminate segregated schools "with all deliberate speed."
Note that date - 1954. Note that mandate - with all deliberate speed.
Anyway, in 1969, Hurlock schools integrated. What I remember most were the differences. Scores of black boys and girls where there had only been two or three; a climb in enrollment, that resulted in my fifth grade class being placed in the school gymnasium; names like Odise and Cordell appearing next to Bobby and Lisa on the class roster.
Oh yes, and the black teachers.
My fifth grade teacher was Mr. B.D. Lake. Not only was he the first black educator I'd encountered, he was the first male. Mr. Lake wore light-blue dress shirts, white shoes, and socks as colorful as the rainbow. He figured out pretty quick that the Wootten boy couldn't see very well, so he moved my desk right up next to his. That's where it stayed.
I don't know if Mr. Lake was a good teacher, at least in terms of what we learned or didn't learn. Some classmates liked him, others didn't. I loved Mr. Lake. At Christmas, I convinced my mom to take me shopping for some colorful socks that I gave him at our classroom Christmas party. And what a party it was! Mr. Lake shut those gym doors, fired up the phonograph, and allowed us to dance to our favorite Christmas records. I brought a single by Alvin and the Chipmunks. Walter, one of my new classmates, brought "Funky Little Drummer Boy," by Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, fueling my lifelong love for funk and soul music.
Before the school year was over, I had my own pair of white dress shoes. I also remember Mr. Lake telling me that I was his favorite. Now I know that he probably told every child the same thing, but at the time. . . I would have run through a wall for Mr. Lake.
So you can imagine, with fond recollections like these, how dismayed I was to run across a report detailing the actions leading to the integration of Dorchester County Schools in the 1960's. It's the kind of stuff you thought only happened in the deep south during the turbulent 1950's. It involves adults turning their backs rather than doing what's best for kids. It also, among other important times in the history of civil rights, inspired me to write Harvest of Thorns.
I'll save that for another day.
Some good eating from Harvest of Thorns - Boiled Crawdads and Lamprey Pie
One of the characters I think will stick with you from Harvest of Thorns is Professor Joshua Handy. The Louisiana-born, UCLA-educated scholar is the toughest of taskmasters at the Alabama State Agricultural College, Here's a selection from Chapter Twenty-One:
Students in his Introduction to Agriculture class, including Harvester, had been overwhelmed to the point of tears when he laid out his expectations. Hundreds of pages of reading prior to each class. Exams every other week. Papers. Oral reports. Half of the fourteen students in class threatened to drop, before being advised by President Drake that the class was required of every student pursuing a degree in agriculture.
Over time, Harvester comes to know Professor Handy quite well. In his role as the Professor's assistant, one of his most important duties is to make the daily trip to Gussie's Fish Shack to pick up a pound and a half of boiled crawdads. I'll let Harvester tell the story:
Harvester would report back to campus just before twelve, handing the bag to Professor Handy who would invariably open the sack, inhale deeply, and pour them onto the day old newspaper covering his desk. Then the show began. The Professor Handy that the other students didn’t know was a marvel, pinching heads, sucking meat, and drinking tea, all while smoking and carrying on a non-stop monologue that Harvester wouldn’t miss for the world. Fifteen minutes later, the slender, middle-aged academic would sweep the remains into the trash, gingerly wipe his face and hands, straighten his bow tie, and revert to the Professor Handy the students knew and loathed.
I don't know about you, but I've tried crawdads. It was a long time ago, in New Orleans. It involves sucking juices from the head and... I'll never try them again.
Later in the story, Professor Handy pays a visit to Harvester's family in Missouri. Harvester's mama, having heard about the his affinity for unique dishes, whips up one of her own:
Harvester’s mom beamed. “I knew that any man who eats crawdads four days a week would enjoy some lamprey pie.”
Lamprey Pie. Ever had it? Know what it is? It turns out, it's quite a delicacy. British Royalty used to pine for it. Today, it's available in a few very exclusive restaurants in Europe and Canada. Not so much in America, though it wasn't uncommon back in the early part of the 1900's, when Professor Handy was tormenting students in Alabama.
Which begs the question, what is a lamprey?
I'll let you look that up, but I must warn you! One look and you'll never touch lamprey pie!