Sunday, April 14, 2013

Batter up!

 42 and counting        Although I hadn’t met any of them, I felt I knew enough about them so that the South Carolina history books I’d been offered by a kind elderly woman at our school’s book depository wouldn’t serve my students. Having witnessed a sea change in America that made integration unstoppable, I refused to give my students those texts. I didn’t accept the books. That was in September of 1968.

“I won’t need these,” I’d said quietly. Although mine was an act of defiance, my protest wasn’t aimed at the woman who wanted to provide me with two boxes, filled. With matronly kindness, she, a black woman who must have handed out such books for decades, didn’t question my decision.

Perhaps that was because I was the first and only white person to have taught in her school, the same school (although in a different location) that Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr. had graduated from not that many years before.

Indeed, her eyes met mine; we shared a look of understanding that passed without words. We were on the second floor of a dilapidated old building that had been repainted. My room was next door to the depository. I left that room without books for my history classes the next day when school began.

Hoping that the kind woman wouldn’t report me, I began researching and writing my own text, a multi-colored American history. Using the official texts was unthinkable; while flipping through a copy, I’d found one chapter, much longer, on white state parks. There was a shorter chapter on black state parks. Before closing that book, I’d seen a full-page picture of Senator Strom Thurmond.

Because I’d tried not to make my revulsion apparent, I didn’t suggest tossing those into a trashcan. Still, I recalled that as an encounter with blatant racism; it registered deep within me.

Indeed, last night when I watched the movie, 42, I cried many times. 42 triggered memories of my former students that bombarded my mind and heart like a meteor shower. More than ten years after Jackie Robinson had retired from baseball, I’d seen firsthand how my students were encountering similar battles.

Fighting for them was essential. Although I had none of the resources of Branch Rickey, it pained me to hear Rickey confess that he hadn’t done enough to make right the wrongs of baseball. In the movie, Rickey told Robinson that, thanks to him, he, Rickey, was able to love the game of baseball again.

Robinson was born two years after my Dad; both men served in the Second World War. Both men, gone now, are still heroes to me, always will be. They lived and taught about the power of goodness in a world that all too often lost sight of that trait.

As I watched 42, I thought of all who had sought to emulate Robinson. By the time I was teaching in Greenville, he’d retired from baseball. Others, like Martin Luther King, had risen to prominence.

All of that history coursed through me as the movie ended; I didn’t want it to end, not then. I hadn’t finished processing all of the feelings it had generated. Since I’d gone to the last show, I couldn’t stay and view it again. It was after midnight.

Indeed, I had reason to follow through on writing a letter to the Steve Harvey show about my kids, my students from long ago. He wants to highlight those he refers to as Harvey’s Heroes; my students certainly qualified.

I will write that letter soon, maybe today, maybe after I practice with my softball team at a dirt field behind a vacant schoolhouse on the outskirts of Martinsville. When I practice there, while it’s my turn to bat, I’ll think of Jackie Robinson; I’ll try to copy his swing. I may even paint his number 42 on my jersey.

                                                B.Koplen  4/14/13

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