Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Civil Rights, up close and personal

The rest of the story   Months ago, I gave a copy of my book, No Gold Stars, to one of my Mom’s most competent and caring sitters, Betty. Because she works at least two jobs, I doubted she would find time to read it. For almost six months, I’d ask her about that. “I just haven’t had time,” she’d tell me. “But I will,” she’d insist.

But she never did. That’s why I offered to read it to my mother and her. Although I knew my reading would require fifteen to twenty days to complete, I knew the time would pass quickly because Betty, a black woman from Danville, is the same age my students (in the book) would have been now. I reasoned that memories I would stir in her with my reading  might be profoundly important and probably painful. As my readings continued, that proved to be true for both of us.

No Gold Stars is based on my memoir of my first teaching experience. In Greenville, SC, in the fall of 1968, I integrated that city’s school system. The school was Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr.’s alma mater, Sterling Jr.-Sr. High. I was the only white person in the school.

“I met Rev. Jackson,” I told Betty, “when he was here for President Obama’s first campaign. I told him about the book and sent him a rough draft. He signed a testimonial; it’s on the back cover.”

I told Betty that because I wanted to remind her that my book was a true story about the Civil Rights era, near the end of its darkest days. That explained Rev. Jackson’s interest. I’d hoped, that by telling Betty about him, she would be more involved in the reading.

She was. From the start, she identified with my students in their segregated, but for me, environment. She told of living conditions that would have terrified me. As a child, she lived with her family in a tiny rental home owned by a negligent landlord. “Rats would come through holes in the wall near the floor when I was taking a bath,” she told me. “It was scary, but the owner wouldn’t fix it,” she said.

When I asked where the home was, she was reluctant to say. “I’ve never taken anyone there to see it. I have such bad memories.” Her voice trailed off.

I couldn’t tell whether she was crying. As I read about the outdated textbooks I’d refused to use, she recalled the tattered books she’d been given.

At the chapter about taking my students to the “public” library for their first time, she winced. She remembered not being allowed to go to ours.

She talked about having to go to the back of the city buses, about menial jobs her relatives had to take. None others were available to them.

At times, while reading, I would get tearful. My memories, too, were that searing. When it seemed I couldn’t read another line, Betty would quietly get up to pour a glass of water for me. Time and again, her kindness helped me through the hard parts.

Always, when I finished, I would listen to her stories, so important yet hard for her to tell.

“When my husband and I were first married,” she said in her honest and genteel manner, “we lived in a trailer court. Everyone there but us were white. At night, we would hear things hit our trailer. Drink bottles. Beer cans. People would call us niggers, would tell us to leave.”

I grimaced at hearing her story, felt like cheering when I heard that they got away from that trailer park.

Last night, I finished the book. I sensed that Betty didn’t want it to end. I wondered how many more stories she might have told had there been more chapters to read. That’s why I told her that I’m working on its sequel.

“Another book?!” she exclaimed more than asked. She wanted me to read that one too. Its story will be a lot like No Gold Stars. Its setting is St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. My students were wonderful kids, the same ages as those I taught in Greenville.

Many were just like Betty. That good, that kind. I’m sure she’ll ask about my progress. For me, they’ll be no better reason to finish it than that.

                                                                 B. Koplen 1/10/13

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