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Published: October 29th 2018
Leftover from October 27
I spent 20 years, more or less, dealing with accused persons and with their accusers. Before that, I was a newspaper reporter. And, like everyone else, I have a lifetime’s experience in being fooled. Having more experience of it just makes the cut both deeper and less immediately painful when it happens.
I preface this section of the blog with those comments so you will understand that I know that I may be mistaken about the truth of the story I am about to pass on to you. If I am, there are the same multiplicity of reasons behind my gullibility that underlie everyone’s reasoning who has ever told an unverified story as if it were the truth.
And, just to lay my cards on the table: I am a privileged, straight white male who has been fortunate both in his genetics and his choice of wife. The biggest prejudicial hurdle I have ever faced is probably that I have had it too good. And I can’t really argue the point. I am a very lucky person. I suppose I would be classified as a liberal by those who care to assign labels for such things, residing in the middle? Left of centre?, on the Canadian political spectrum as I believe I do. These factors are the ones of which I am aware when I focus the lens of my perception (such as it is) upon another person’s story.
There, having got that out of the way, let me tell you that I hope all of what I heard from my lunch companion today is true. Because if it is, I was privileged to meet a remarkable human being whose courage I admire. Sallie (“with an ie,” she was quite clear on the point, “not an ly.”) taught high school English in the most expensive area of Rochester, New York for 35 years. During that time, Rochester was home to the Eastman Kodak corporation, Bausch and Lomb, and Xerox. You had to be very rich to be rich there.
She retired 21 years ago, at the age of 56 as the stresses of her job were aggravating her lupus to the point where it was becoming life-threatening. For much of those 35 years, she was the only black teacher in her school, and one of the very few black people in Rochester. She said that for her entire career, she was aware that everything she did would be observed and commented on as if she herself carried the burden of representing every black American.
She said that she made a point of working harder than everyone else, of making sure that her students always had their assignments back and marked before any other teacher would have returned them. She always made herself available to any student who needed help outside class and would give them any amount of tutoring they requested. She was still surprised and a little disappointed at how few students availed themselves of her offer.
( I know from brief personal experience that English teachers spend more of their time marking than any other teacher because they not only have to mark for content, but also spelling, grammar and, when time allows, writing style. The marking is what kept me from wanting a career teaching first year English at university because, while I loved the content and the teaching, the work load would have driven me mad. Points to Sallie for patience.)
And she managed it for 35 years. She said she knew that every step she took outside her own home, someone would be watching and judging her. Although salaries in the district were low, even lower than surrounding, less affluent communities, she made sure that she bought her clothes from New York City so that she would always be up to the minute in fashion. Even knowing that someone would be sure to hold that against her, perhaps even accuse her of getting above herself. Every parent teacher interview was always, at least to some extent, about her race. She told me of angry parents who insisted to her supervisor that their son would be getting the A’s he deserved if he were not (and this is a direct quote from her), “being taught by this nigger.”
The student did NOT get his mark raised. Sallie continued to teach in the same fashion she always did. Given her background, it is hardly surprising that name-calling, however unpleasant, barely presented a hiccup to her determination.
Sallie was born in Alabama, to a mother who raised four children by cleaning rich white people’s houses. And while the family moved to North Carolina while Sallie was still quite young, her mother still fought poverty and lack of opportunity all her life. Sallie was just a child when the civil rights movement really began in the southern States and she got involved in it through her older brother.
By the time she graduated from the University of North Carolina at 21, she had been arrested for civil disobedience 22 times. She first went to jail, she told me matter-of-factly, when she was nine years old.
She said her experiences in the movement were both the most exciting and scariest of her life. “But there were always other people there to help you,” she said. “If you were a child, all of the adults would protect you.” Even in jail, there were group singalongs and, above all else, the feeling that she was part of a community, that she could draw strength from the commitment of all the other individuals working for the same righteous cause. That, she said, made all the difference.
And, she told me, it was the lack of camaraderie which made working in Rochester such a challenge for her. “Whatever I did,” she said, “I knew I was on my own. I had friends who could sympathize with me, but none who really understood deep down what I was going through.”
In spite of the pressures, and the isolation, she persisted in the job she loved until forced from it, not by the mere threat of death, but from the actual medical certainty of it had she continued.
Her health is not great these days as the lupus gains ground with assistance of its great ally, aging. She admits that she has more trouble this years finding her way around the Queen Mary, upon which she sails quite often, than she did even last year. Her diet is extremely limited and she has had to give up dairy, meat, caffeine, alcohol and even some vegetables. In spite of this, she was perfectly happy to chat with an over-privileged white man until they basically kicked us all out of the dining room.
I thought her story was worth telling. I hope I have done it justice. And, if I got any of it wrong or allowed myself to be mislead in some detail, I still wanted to get this down on paper while it was still fresh in my mind. Because, at the end of the day, there is no reason why mere facts should get in the way of the truth.
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