In the fall of 1968, the Dayton school district assigned me to an inner-city grade school. I can’t remember how many seventh-grade students were in the classroom I entered so nervously. In my mind, however, I still see the rows of students staring at me. A white teacher.
The first weeks were rocky. The students tested me to see who would lead them that year. Riotous noise frequently erupted from the room as the students acted out their frustration with someone who knew nothing of being black or poor.
One student in particular tried to take over the classroom. In my teaching career I’d encountered this kind of rebellion only once, eight years before. I’d made first vows on January 1, 1960. The next day the Mother Superior sent me to Omaha, to a seventh-grade classroom in which the fifty students called themselves “Nazi Storm Troopers.” They intended to take over the school.
At that time, the superior on mission told me I had to win the students over without any outside help. “If I come into that classroom and warn them to stop their shenanigans, they’ll never respect you.”
At the end of that school year, I returned to the motherhouse. Exhausted, I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The mother superior assigned me the obedience of taking a long nap every afternoon between Vespers and Matins.
Now it was eight years later. I’d left the convent, taught at a Catholic girls academy, and sought out this inner-city school in Dayton. Here, I found myself once again unable to establish a classroom routine. This time I sought help from the vice principal in charge of discipline. He encouraged me to use physical punishment “to show them who’s boss.”
For many weeks, I resisted, but teaching became increasingly difficult in that disruptive atmosphere. The year would be lost if I didn’t do something, and the students weren’t responding to respect or kindness. The vice principal told me they understood only a strong stance and physical discipline.
One October day, he arrived at my classroom door carrying a thick, eight-inch-wide, wooden paddle. It was about two feet long with a nine-inch handle at one end. Holes had been bored through the “business end” of the paddle.
He beckoned me out into the hall. “Today’s the day, Dee,” he whispered. “You need to show them you mean business. They’re respect you for this.” I couldn’t imagine showing these students their importance to me by paddling one of them. But the vice principal assured me this necessary.
He asked the offending student to come out into the hall. The young boy stood up, waved to his expectant audience, and swaggered from the classroom. The vice principal told him to put his hands on the wall and to assume “the position.” Now the student’s buttocks faced me. I gripped the paddle. “Paddle him five times,” the vice principal advised.
My first swat was gentle. I didn’t want to hurt this child.
“Dee, put some heft into it.”
Each swat was hesitant. Fearful. But by the fifth swat I’d swallowed my distaste and just wanted to get this over with: I hit the child’s buttocks squarely. The paddle dandling by my side, I told him to return to the classroom. He gave me a cheeky grin and said, “I never thought you had it in you.”
In this strange way, I won over the students. That was after I rushed into the bathroom and threw up. The vice principal waited for me. “They tested you, Dee. And you just passed the test.”
For the rest of the year the students and I worked amiably together. They shared their stories with me before the first bell rang. I learned that the school had no money for sport teams, extracurriculars, or buses; that some of the students’ families were on welfare; that the mother of one of the girls was a prostitute and so this seventh-grader often got little sleep; that most of the students spent their evenings babysitting their siblings and had no time left to study; that many parents worked at least two jobs to support their families.
Most of all, I learned that these children had the same dreams for their lives as all the children I'd ever taught. The only discernible difference between them and the youth I'd taught in Omaha, Seneca, Baileyville, Kansas City, and at the Catholic academy for girls in Dayton was . . . poverty.
What I quickly came to understand was that the students divided themselves into four groups: poor blacks, poor whites, destitute blacks, destitute whites. The whites were mostly new arrivals from Tennessee and Kentucky. The long-time residents of Dayton called them “rednecks” or “crackers.” The former because when they left their farms and moved to Ohio they had red necks from working in the fields; that latter because they were poor whites.
Students of the two poor groups, whether black or white, came to school with bagged lunches. The destitute groups didn’t. They often started the day without breakfast. Hunger was part of that classroom, and it taught me quickly that black and white wasn’t the issue at that inner-city school. Poverty was.
A few years later, I taught in another classroom—in New Hampshire—where poverty influenced learning. The Dayton students had taught me what I needed to know so as to help those high school students in New England.
On Saturday, I’ll share with you just what those students and I did together in that inner-city classroom.
(Continued on Saturday . . . )
Photo of building wall by federico stevanin for freedigitalphotos.net
Photo of child’s hand by africa for freedigitalphotos.net