This “teacher” took every opportunity he could create to show us just what he thought of us, and to prove to us that we were exactly what he thought of us. He attacked everything about us, especially our speech, saying that we could not pronounce words with “sts” or “sks” at the end, such as posts or desks. I had left the school after 7th grade and just returned for my senior year; so, I was not sure if this was his first year at the school or if he had been there awhile. In retrospect, I imagine it had to have been his first year because in all of his calculating of our ignorance and ineptitude, he did not consider, Die Gruppe, or, perhaps, he dismissed it as a fluke, a minor exception to the rule.
Die Gruppe boasted, at one time or another, the best of everything: the best speakers and debaters in the State, the best actors, but most of all, an undying unity. Protest over sub-par teachers two years before had been led by Die Gruppe. Always ready for a good debate, when Mr. R began his monotone attack on our speech patterns this particular day, Die Gruppe, comprising about 1/3 of the class, presented its first rebuttal, me, but not before coercing Mr. R to make the classic mistake of generalizing, putting all of us into the same pot, and trust, it wasn’t the melting pot he threw us into. Why F.W. was in that class, I’m not sure; he was a junior and this was a senior English class, but it was not uncommon for Die Gruppe to be ahead of the curve. So, F.W. and K.L. pointed to me.
“Say it, Norma.” Norma can say anything.
And I could. It was a blessing and a curse.
“Posts. Desks.” I said, careful to hit the “t” in posts and the “k” in desks.
“I didn’t hear her say posts, or desks”, Mr. R insisted, and the entire class went crazy.
“You just want us all to be ignorant, don’t you? You can’t deal with the fact that all of us are not dumb, and we’re not stupid either.”
K.L. was as outspoken as he was sharp. He was one of the top debaters that year, usually cool and confident as most Die Gruppe members were. The right had been earned, having proven our ability to write, orate, recite, dramatize, and debate over the past 10 years, winning every competition we entered, boasting the reputation of having one of the best Educational Theatre directors in the region, honors that many did not want to bestow upon a group of poor, Black children from the isolated community of Acres Homes, and a tall, slue-footed, soft spoken smart ass from Louisiana, filling our heads with crap. Though our records spoke for themselves and us, we were always under attack, and Mr. R seemed to be waging his own personal battle against us. As I mentioned earlier, I had been in attendance there, but was forced to leave. I had been attending Summer Workshop there every summer, and was now returning as a senior. Being a member of Die Gruppe, though the use of the name had played out a couple of years before, was a 7th grade dream come true.
We were reading Macbeth, with Die Gruppe leading the discussion, bringing relevance, for the rest of the class, to a task which had no meaning whatsoever, except to demonstrate our ability to read and interpret literature. Mr. R decided we would read in small groups. I was placed in a group with three young men. One was a student leader on campus, outgoing enough to mask his academic deficiencies; another, who, had I today’s labels instead of yesterday’s, I would have labeled LD and not retarded. For some reason, the third guy totally escapes my memory. So, our little group began to read. Mr. R walked over to our table, and in my 17year old judgement, certain that he had divided and conquered, reminded us that each person in the group must be given a turn to read. Having stumbled and fumbled for awhile, our Group Leader, passed the torch to LD. It was an act of futility. LD simply could not read; no matter how hard the Group Leader tried to help him, mispronouncing half the words himself, it simply was not happening. We had not gotten far in our reading, and with all the word calling, had no idea what had been read. I sat quietly, watching, listening, not wanting to embarrass the Group Leader by consistently correcting him as he tried to assist LD. Die Gruppe sponsor and teacher had told us time and time again that the strong must bear the infirmities of the weak if any of us were going to make it. He said that what we learned, we did not learn for ourselves, but for all of us. I wondered what to do. I looked over at LD sounding out words in a senior English class. I thought about his aunt and how hard she had worked in elementary school with him and, I believe, a couple of cousins who might also have been LD. I thought to myself. I know his family has already determined what he will be doing after graduation, and it will not require any knowledge of Macbeth. So, I touched his hand. He looked up.
“It’s my turn”, I said. He smiled. I smiled back.
“When I’m done”, I knew I had to get us caught up, “why don’t we all read together, in unison?”
LD smiled and nodded, relieved, I was sure. Group Leader agreed that we’d get through faster. He looked over at Mr. R; I looked over at Mr. R. We looked at each other. I’ve wondered to this day if we were thinking the same thing.
“Yeah, we got you this time.”
Mr. R’s efforts were not to be thwarted. Time for solidifying college plans was upon us. Recruiters were visiting the Die Gruppe shack with greater frequency. Former students were returning to tell us about their college experiences. Very much afraid, very much unsure of myself, I had never said aloud that I really wanted to audition for Carnegie Melon University in Pittsburgh. I did not tell anyone that I thought Smith would be a good fit for me. I had the grades and the SAT Score; I had the financial support to go anywhere, but I feared I was not good enough, not smart enough, not talented enough. I had only said aloud, once, that I really aspired to be an actress and a dancer; that experience taught me to keep my dreams to myself, that and a few harsh words of criticism from a couple of peers. But from nowhere came the courage to move beyond it and believe in myself. Somehow, awards and accolades, leading roles were not enough to compel me in the direction I desired. I wondered, much later, if Mr. R had won after all. In his effort to show us what he thought of us, did he actually convince me that he was right? I might have been a shining star, but how bright is a star, really, when shining next to shards of glass. Yes, there were many bright students in our school, but the message I received was that they and I paled in comparison to rest of the world we would be soon entering. Somewhere, at some point, this became personal. The divide and conquer that had not worked on Die Gruppe, seemed to be working on me.
Posters from Oxford University, Harvard, Yale and other top universities suddenly papered the walls of the classroom. As many times as I have tried to not place blame for my insecurities at the feet of Mr. R, the gut feeling that this was yet another opportunity to taunt and belittle us. I imagine if he had covered the bulletin boards with posters from Community Colleges, I would have felt the same; so, why not throw in a U of H banner, Howard, Hampton, Georgetown even? For this reason, I listened to my gut.
“You really don’t think any of us could get accepted or even get enough money to attend those universities, do you”? I asked. Of course, he gave the teacher answer, that we could go anywhere we wanted to go. He was right. I could go anywhere I wanted, but not many others could So, I told him he might as well take his little posters down because most of us had made up our minds about where we were going, but I asked for Oxford, Harvard, and Yale brochures in case I needed a second choice.
Second choice? Did I really say that? Second choice? No choice, actually. I prepared to attend a University that was not even on my mental list of choices. Too afraid to say what I really wanted for myself, too afraid to go against the grain, too afraid I’d be criticized for thinking I was better than the others I had decided to follow the three other Die Gruppe seniors graduating that year. Give me a break, after years of being told, “You think you’re smart. You talk white. You think you know everything. Shut up Funk & Wagnall”, enough was enough.
Yeah, deep inside, I knew Mr. R had won. The attacks and assaults against Die Gruppe were not new to us; they were easy to spot and easy to confront, but the personal head game was proving too much for me. Had I been a different kid of a different time, I might have reasoned that what Mr. R had mistakenly shown me was that I really wasn’t like everybody else. I had options and opportunities most of my peers didn’t have. There was an exception to the rule and I was it. I was not a voice of the masses; I was the voice for the masses, but I was 17, weird, artistic, pretty damned smart, a late-bloomer, a step-child, and I couldn’t handle feeling any more alienated from the rest of my world. I was 17; I needed to belong. I needed that identification with Die Gruppe. I had wanted it since 7th grade.
“There’s no such thing as a truculent bill, Mr. R! You know this sentence says ‘truculent bull’. You know that’s a u, not an i.”
His argument was that I never dotted my i’s, so how was he to know if the word was bull or bill. My argument was that as the teacher, rather than be so committed to proving me wrong, put forth the same effort to prove me right. Look at the rest of my writing.
“My u’s clearly have two sides; the i’s have only one. You’re trying to cheat me out my points. I’m not stupid Mr. R. I’m not a fool. I’m not just here; I’m paying attention.”
He grabbed a pen and hurriedly changed the grade on my paper from 90 to 100. I stormed out of the room, hurrying to the next class. I was just entering the door when it occurred to me that he had only changed the grade on my paper, not in the grade book, where it mattered most. I was obviously no match for Mr. R. I consoled myself by telling myself, “at least he knows that I know, there’s no such thing as a truculent bill”, but I knew that wasn’t enough.
In truth, Mr. R was just a monster under the bed. He represented all of my childhood fears and insecurities and actually held the spotlight so that I could see them clearly. I felt they were being used against me; I felt alone, “an island unto myself”. At the age of 17, that was not good; it felt like divide and conquer. Thanks a lot Mr. R.
At the age of 56, “Thanks a lot Mr. R.”