Wednesday, September 21, 2011

the way it was

More to come She listened as if I were telling her story, a story she had lived as a child. “Soon after I began teaching in Greenville at Sterling Jr.-Sr. High, I realized that my students had never been to the white ‘public’ library. Their parents had never dreamed of going there. That’s why I gathered permission slips from each parent to allow me to take their children to the library. It was an important step, profoundly important. Or so I thought.”

I paused to ensure myself that she wanted to hear more. “A few weeks ago, more than 40 years later, my cousin, a teacher from from Greenville, SC, told me that she wanted to have my book made into a required text for her entire school. That book, No Gold Stars, is based on my memoir about when I taught at Sterling. I was the only white person at the school, like To Sir With Love in reverse.

“Anyway, my cousin told me about one of her students who had turned in a term paper about the Civil Rights era in Greenville. When she told her student that I had taught at Sterling, that I had integrated the school, she surprised my cousin by telling her that she knew about me. In fact, the student told my cousin that her Uncle had been one of the students I had taken to the library!”

“I want to read your book,” she told me. We were at my mother’s house where she worked as a CNA who cared for Mom on a regular basis.

“You remember those days, don’t you?” I asked.

“Yes,” she told me, “they were hard.’

It was my turn to listen. She talked about growing up as a black person in Danville, VA, how there were places she could not enter, motels and restaurants she knew that wouldn’t serve black people, were not allowed into. She started to cry. She told me that she still remembered how it felt. “At the movie theaters downtown, we had to sit upstairs. There were separate drinking fountains.”

I gave her a hug.

Although those days were over, memories of them were deep and lasting. She told me about one of the women she had cared for decades ago. “She used to refer to us caregivers as her nigger ladies.” She took a deep breath. “I knew she didn’t know better.”

I listened carefully, wanted to learn how she had distilled from those bitter recollections such clarity and kindness that made her seem an angel to me. I was sure that her caring ways had extended my mother’s life, had helped make Mom’s Parkinson’s less of a living nightmare.

“I’d like to hear more,” I told her, “if you ever want to talk about those days.”

“And I want to read your book,” she said.

Both of us agreed that it was a story that needed to be told.

B. Koplen 9/20/11

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