Archive for the ‘colored school teachers’ Category

Now and Then…

Monday, July 20th, 2009

I reconnected with someone very special from my past this weekend. The experience has me still reeling here on Monday morning. And since I was too weepy yesterday in the pulpit to explain to the church who she was to me, I guess I should say here what I tried and failed miserably to say on yesterday.

First, it pains me to admit that I couldn’t place her face when she first walked up to me on Saturday after the Prayer Breakfast. You know what I mean. Someone comes up, and you know the face, or supposed to know, but you can’t remember the name. Your mind races through the files on your hard drive.  The quick search turns up empty. You sense that she was once someone very important in your life, but you can’t seem to locate the file yet with all the information on it. Something about her face told me that I once loved her dearly. The feelings came trickling back before the actual memories did.  And then it slowly dawned on me. Mrs. Vivian Thomas.  The secretary at my old high school. But Vivian Thomas wasn’t just any secretary. Mrs. Vivian Thomas  had been my guardian angel, my confidante, my friend, my play mother during some of the stormiest days of my teenage years.

In my homeroom class I was the designated person to turn in attendance sheets and lunch money to the principal’s office there where Mrs. Vivian Thomas worked.  I took the job because I always looked forward to my talks with Mrs. Thomas as she stood there across the counter with her short brown frame, her warm eyes and gentle smile, and the lovely mole between her lip and nose. I was a mother-hungry girl and knew how to wiggle my way into other mothers’ hearts, even though I never succeeded with my own. Mrs. Thomas had children of her own, but that didn’t keep her from nurturing other young people who came through the principal’s doors.

I know now that Mrs. Thomas looked forward to my morning visits as much as I did. I was a ham, a brooder, a wall flower, a girl with a quick wit who loved the attention she showered on me. Every morning I came in she’d asked me how I was doing, and our conversations about home, boys, school, and life would start from there. Mrs. Thomas knew when I was happy and she knew when I was brooding over something that left me short and snappy.  And she knew how to tease me out of my moods,  love me into submission, and scold me into behaving like I ought. Did I mention that I was something of a terror to my teachers when I was in my early teens? Don’t ask. It’s a long story. I’m just grateful I got through those years.  Fortunately there were three or four colored school teachers who in the course of my childhood  impacted my life by noticing that there was more to my brooding personality than met the eye and found a way to give me the attention and direction I sorely needed back then. I’m convinced that my life would have turned out completely different had it not been for these colored school teachers from my childhood…and Mrs. Vivian Thomas, the high school secretary.

“Renita, get in here and calm yourself down.”
“Renita, what’s this I hear about you acting up in class?”
“Renita, don’t let that boy I’ve been seeing you with talk you into doing something that ruins your life.”
“Renita, you going to college and you’re going to make something out of your life. You hear me?”
“Renita, you’re going to make it baby.”

Mrs. Vivian Thomas is in her 70s now. It was my time on yesterday to beam when she was introduced as a deacon (not deaconess) at her church. She’s also a cancer survivor, thank God. But since time will not be denied what’s due it, Mrs. Thomas walks slightly stooped over and slower than she did decades ago. But her eyes, those twinkling eyes, they are still the same.  And that smile, the one with the power when I stepped in the principal’s office to melt my heart and reassure me things would be alright, it’s still there too.

Mrs. Thomas went home and composed a letter to me Saturday night after seeing me at the breakfast and had someone hand it to me before I went into the pulpit on Sunday. In it she reminded me, encouraged me, and let me know how proud she is of the woman I’ve become. She was also thankful to God that she’d lived long enough to see her prophecy come true.


And so there we were on yesterday. Me, the preacher, standing in the pulpit sniffling and choking up, trying to find the words to thank a woman God decades ago sent into my life to save me from myself.  And there she sat on the front pew Deacon Vivian Thomas weeping and wiping her nose and shaking her head in wonder and gratitude to God.

Here and there, now and then, God allows us glances back at our past and glimpses into the future, permitting us to see a larger view of what God has in store, and has had in store, from the beginning…

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11)

When I Was A Child…

Monday, October 27th, 2008

Don’t ask me why I woke up this morning thinking back on my days as a child. My heart aches today for children who find themselves in troubled and violent homes.

Don’t ask why I’ve got a mind to stop what I’m doing right now and drive around to the middle school in the back of my house and sit in my car and pray for every child in the building. If I didn’t think the principal would call the police to have me locked up I would go in and demand that I be allowed to lay hands on each child and pray a blessing over each one.

Don’t ask me why. Perhaps it was all that hugging of wee ones in church yesterday after preaching and talking to the mischievous ones who are growing up much too fast that caused my mind to drift back to my childhood. Or, perhaps it was going to bed last night hearing the news about American Idol star Jennifer Hudson’s nephew being missing after the double murder of his grandmother and father and waking up this morning to the grim news that a child’s body matching his description has been found in the family’s SUV.

October is, among other things, Domestic Violence Awareness month.

Of all that’s going on with the economy and in the world of politics, let’s not hold the next President’s feet to the fire on policies concerning the safety and welfare of children. Not just some children. Not just individual children. All children.  Vulnerable children and seemingly privileged ones too. Children who are afraid of the dark. Children in war torn areas. Children whose parents can’t afford insurance. Kids caught in the crossfires of adult demons. Children who go to bed hungry.  Children who don’t know what it is to have the unconditional love of a grandparent to run to after being scolded by a parent. Children who are sad over the death of a pet. Children with a parent in jail. Children in jail. Children in the foster care system. Children who can’t sit still and pay attention in school. Children with a parent who lost a job in this recession. Children with a parent deployed in the Middle East. Children living in refugee camps. Children living with HIV/AIDS. Children who are different from other children. Children who know someone who was murdered because they witnessed the murder. Children who murder other children.

little black boy

Don’t ask me why? Thinking about children sent me on a search for some of my favorite Saturday morning cartoons when I was a child.  Back when the most I had to worry about as a child was waking up early enough on Saturday morning to get to the television before my older brother did so I could turn the channel to my favorite animated shows:  The Jetsons, Casper the Friendly Ghost. Porky Pig. Magilla Gorilla.  As someone who fancies herself today something of a serious commentator on religious and political affairs, I suppose I should be embarrassed to admit to spending hours as a kid watching such hokey cartoons on tv. But I’m not. I was a child. “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child…” (I Cor. 13:11).   That’s what it means to be a child. Besides, that’s what adults are for: to do everything in their power to let children be children for as long as they can before the harsh, soul crushing world of adulthood comes crashing in.

No. I did not get all the protection I needed when I was a child growing up in a violent and alcohol-ridden household. But thanks to a village of teachers and neighbors, and a church to call home, I got enough protection — to limp out of childhood with my soul reasonably in tact enough to go on and build a productive life for myself.

The following prayer “Protection” can be found in a book of prayers for children, I’m Your Child, God  written by my friend and a long time national advocate and voice for children,  Marian Wright Edelman of The Children’s Defense Fund.  (Edelman coined the  phrase “Leave No Child Behind” long before the Bush administration coopted it and used it as  platform for some bogus education reforms under the name “No Child Left Behind.“) I include here this prayer asking God’s protection over children even though I believe it’s adults responsibility to protect children, not just their own but all children, and even though I believe it’s grown ups who hurt children, who put children at risk, who leave children unprotected, who wound children who in turn wound other children.


For ghosts and goblins
and snakes under the bed,
please deliver me, God.

From guns and gangs
and big scary things,
please protect me, God.

From bullets and bad people
whose tease and abuse and make me afraid,
please keep me safe, god.

From those who don’t see or hear me
or care whether I exist,
please shield me, God.

From doubt and despair
and the low expectations of others,
please lift me, God.

Colored School Teachers

Friday, June 29th, 2007

I’ll pass right now on snatching up one of those Bill Gates’ iPhones that hits the stores today. But if Gates is as serious as he seems to devoting $2 billion dollars from his foundation to saving public schools then I probably won’t delay too long in dropping by the Apple store to check out his latest toy. True, my trusted Motorola does everything I want a cellphone to do. But the last time I checked, the CEO of Motorola hasn’t said a word about losing sleep over the high school drop out rate in the U.S.

It should gall all of us that 1 in 3 high school students in the U.S. quits school. Among black and Hispanic students, the rate is closer to 50%. They say that kids who quit school don’t just suddenly drop out; it’s more of a slow fade. Researchers believe that you can predict with 66% accuracy a student in elementary school who will go on to drop out from high school. Poor reading skills in elementary school is one indicator. Poor interaction and relationship with teachers is another indicator.

I am one of the lucky ones. I grew up when it was still possible to go through elementary and high school and be taught almost exclusively by colored school teachers, as they were affectionately called back then. Though in 1954 the Supreme Court had ordered all public schools to be desegregated, things were slow to change in my neck of the woods. I was in school, in fact, back when colored teachers were still gods and goddesses. They were our dreamkeepers. Motivated by a strong sense of mission, teaching was their calling, even among those who chose teaching because there were few other career choices available to them. Teaching was a way to uplift the race and make dreams come true. They weren’t perfect, not all teachers anyway. But enough cared about students that you were bound to run into one or two who would go out their way to reach you before the school year was up.

Colored school teachers saved my life. Besides making sure I knew my 9x tables and how to diagram a sentence, they saved me from boredom, from laziness, and from the excuses I had about why I couldn’t learn. They also saved me from the restlessness and aimlessness that prey on young adolescent black girls from working class families who dream of being rescued by love. They couldn’t keep me from falling in love with the wrong boys at the time. But they did manage to convince me that if I applied myself I had something to look forward to other than becoming an 18 year old bride and working downtown at Rich’s Department store. I’m grateful to those who took turns in elementary school beating me and hugging me, braiding my constantly loose hair and applying Jergens lotion to my perpetually dry legs, and those from high school who went to great lengths to search for things for me to do after school in the hopes of keeping me busy, determined to penetrate the heavy armor of protection I dragged around with me from one class to the next.

Thank God, Alice Doanes, Lewis Smith, Roseann Pope (bless their souls) would not be defeated by a womanish acting 14 year old whose socks could not stay up on her legs. “Don’t you know there’s something within you that’s special?” each asked. I wanted to believe, but I was too young to know how. All I could do at the time was believe in their believing in me. Convinced that I could make something of myself, my teachers were determined to see me graduate from my high school of 400 students (where less than 10% of the student body went to college) and leave Atlanta and go away to college, away from the hulky, weight-lifting, underachieving boyfriend I was dating at the time, away from whatever demons were nipping at my heels.

You and I don’t have Bill Gates’ billions to overhaul the educational school sytem in the country. We don’t need Gates billions to make a difference. We can impact a child’s education by doing for one of them what some colored school teacher did for us. Care. Teach. Reach. Encourage. Advocate for. Mentor. One hurting, hard-head, seemingly unreachable, child (of God) at a time. Here’s a shout-out to school teachers everywhere.