I’ve worked in schools off and on for the last thirty years. I’m not a teacher. I'm there to enhance learning through the arts. I use theater techniques to develop self discipline, critical thinking and creativity. We write plays based on books. Do improvs based on historical events. Choreograph dance pieces to depict the solar system. I try to find ways to help children understand how astounding the world is and how amazing they are. Sometimes these amazing creatures say things that make me want to slap them. Or hug them really hard to squeeze the crap out of them. Or take their brains out of their skulls and shake out the ludicrous thoughts that will destroy them.
One of the most tragic things I have seen is black students being teased by other black students for being smart...being accused of “acting white”. The first time I heard it I raged at the offending students and realized by their smirks and sideways looks they weren't buying it. I had no credentials. I was white. Standing up for the one being attacked did him no favor. After that, he pointedly refused to cooperate with me. I needed a new approach.
Without asking her permission, I brought my mother-in-law, in spirit, along with me. Any time I heard kids teased for being smart, or not wanting to take the effort needed to learn something I conjured my theatrical skills to tell them a true story about what happened to her when she was their age.
Her name was Elizabeth and called her "Liz". She had no middle name. Maybe they were tired of thinking up girl names. She was the sixth of seven daughters. No sons. Her father was brilliant. He built his own radio out of scraps. Let me say that again. He built his own radio. No instructions. Spent hours and hours on it. When it finally worked he shouted everyone awake. They heard music and voices. He danced and laughed with them.
As smart as he was her father couldn't get a good job. He had never gone to school. He was a sharecropper, which was a small step up from slavery. He pulled his daughters out of school to work in the fields when he needed them. One by one they dropped out. It was too hard to finish when they missed so much.
Liz knew school was the only way she would ever do anything other than have babies and pick crop. She had an important test on a day her father wanted her to work in the fields. She told him she needed to go to school that day and would work the next. He grabbed her and put her in the back of the truck. She jumped down and said she couldn't miss school. He whipped her. Then threw her back on. She got off. He beat her harder and tossed her back. Again she got off. And again he beat her. This went on and on. She has forgotten how many times, but she refused to give up. He finally left her in the dirt. She managed to make her way to school crawling most of the way. Slipping in and out of consciousness. Her teacher tended to her wounds and told her it was against the law for him to beat her like that. She didn't take the test that day. She was too weak to hold the pencil. That night she told her father if he ever beat her again he would go to jail. He never touched her after that. She was allowed to go to school from then on and was the first in her family to graduate from high school.
I asked what did they think she would say if she heard them teasing somebody for being a good student? Who would dare say to her she was "acting white" when she crawled her way to school to take a test? If anyone is that brave, I told them, I would bring her to school so they can say it to her face.
I never had any takers.
I know how to tell stories to emphasize a point I want to make. I know what to tell. And what not to tell. For those that listen carefully, you know there is more. I never tell this part to children.
"He never touched her after that." That was true. He never touched her again. Or talked to her. Within a few weeks he was dead. The police found him one night in the street pounding a hole with his fist in the pavement. They locked him up, not sure what to do with him. He had been hearing voices and knew he was going crazy. He wanted to take himself to the mental hospital, but his brother warned him against it. Said once in, he would never get out. There was truth to that. That night in the jail cell, he died.
Every time she tells the story she remembers more details. Her eyes moisten and there is an almost undetectable quiver in her voice. She still wonders why her mother heard the beating and did nothing to help her. Then answers her own question. Survival. Fear. Thinks maybe the beating went on so long because his brother was there to witness her defiance. Muttered under his breath about her thinking she was something special. She remembers the headlines that everyone saw and whispered about, "Insane Negro Kills Self in Jail".
When I first heard this story, I was astonished that she kept getting off the truck. Impressed with her determination to graduate. Now I am awed at her extraordinary courage to remain in school amidst the whispers, tucking the guilt of this away, never letting it diminish her. Never allowing it to break her spirit.
photo credit: Library of Congress, Oct. 1935, reproduction no. LC-USF35-1326