Posts Tagged ‘Harper Lee’

In roughly the same year as Pat Conroy motored in his little boat out to Daufuskie Island to teach Gullah children about brushing their teeth and classical music, I attended Alice Birney Elementary School in Charleston, South Carolina and read what has remained my favorite book.  Both Alice Birney Elementary and the school on Daufuskie played an active role in the great experimentations in education of the sixties and seventies.  Daufuskie hired its first white teacher, and my school tried out block scheduling, independent learning, and sorting children by ability.  While the children of Daufuskie weren’t allowed to leave the island, I was given unprecedented freedoms.

Our Health teacher drew a grid on a sheet of butcher paper six or seven feet long.  She wrote our names into the wide column on the left and wrote the names of health-related topics in the angled row on the top.  She showed us her file cabinet, its top drawer filled readings on each topic.  The second drawer held the quizzes.  She told us to choose a topic, read the material, put it back, then take the test.  Each time we passed a test, we got to mark an X in the associated square.  We felt like we were in college, learning at our own pace, choosing our subjects without interference from adults.  Later in the year, she organized an evening field trip to see Jesus Christ, Superstar, playing the soundtrack while we read our health topics.

Mr. Simpson, our health teacher, was the only African-American person we encountered on a daily basis.  One day during square dancing, a tall ungainly boy released the hand of his partner, the only girl in the lowest class on the academic rung, in a way that signaled his disgust at having to touch her.  Mr. Simpson lit into that boy like a drill instructor cussing out a disobedient recruit.  He made clear to that boy and everyone within hearing distance that we had no business treating anyone, male or female, black or white, with anything other than the utmost respect.  Just like the poster says, I don’t remember what he was wearing or what he said, but I will never forget how it made me feel.  At Graduation, we all begged to have our mothers take pictures of us with Mr. Simpson.  We loved him.

And in the sixth grade, we received copies of To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.  Our teacher, much older than the Health teacher and Mr. Simpson, curled her lip as she handed it out.  She mispronounced Calpurnia as Calpurnicka, Zeebo as Zebbo.  We gathered that she wasn’t fully committed to the idea that we white children should have to read about this kind of thing.

This kind of thing being courage in the face of bigotry.



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