Thursday, January 22, 2009
Having just celebrated Dr. King's 80th birthday, swelling in the background for the entire week was the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States.
I wasn't sure exactly how to go about the business of celebrating on that pseudo-double-barrell holiday. Dr. King and President Obama reminded us about the importance of public service, but I couldn't help but reflect on those of African-American descent who have touched my life over the years. Too bad for me that such individuals are so few. Yet, I'm the only one to blame for such an abbreviated list.
It was only a couple weeks ago that I remembered Mrs. Brazil, and because of these recent events, for the first time I saw her in a new light.
I never gave much thought about her as an African-American. And, to be sure, no one in my family let it be known to me that (in 1966) my foundation for reading and writing were being shaped by an African-American woman. Yes, I owe my humble beginnings in reading and writing to my first grade teacher, Mrs. Brazil.
Up until now, I’ve been rather oblivious to the unique scenario that had shaped my early years—especially in light of those tumultuous times. Only three years earlier the racial atrocities were recorded regarding the 16 Street Baptist Church in Alabama and not long after 1966, Dr. King was gone.
So, folded in between all of this racial strife, a bunch of young White kids growing up in an all-White neighborhood of East Akron, Ohio, were given the first tools of reading and writing by an African-American woman—tools that have defined the inner core of any civilization.
What a contrast from Kindergarten with Mrs. Scheatzle to the first grade with Mrs. Brazil. Mrs. Scheatzle was a petite and attractive Anglo woman who spoke calmly and evenly. When I walked into Mrs. Brazil's class on the that first day of the first grade, I knew I had graduated. She was a smart dresser, but she was big enough to play linebacker with Ray Nitschke of the Green Bay Packers (or so it seemed). In short, she was no Mrs. Scheatzle. Mrs. Brazil was gentle with us to be sure, but her voice was capable of booming across the room and she had a great, uninhibited laugh. Occasionally, when we started to become unruly she would settle us down by reminding us that we weren't in Kindergarten anymore. She conducted that class as if she were holding court.
In reflecting on that time, the other day I called my mother to see if there was anything she remembered that may have been too harsh for a first grader like myself to comprehend. She only remembers the surprise to hear about Brazil's assignment as a teacher at Ritzman Elementary where I was entering the first grade. Both of us suspect that she may have been the first non-White to teach there—and long before any African-American children attended as students. Regardless, my mother couldn't recall any controversy regarding Mrs. Brazil at Ritzman and only remembers her as a caring and friendly teacher who would call the house to check on my status when I'd been sick and away from school.
I hold a certain sadness today in that I don't know what became of Mrs. Brazil, nor do I know how many years she actually taught at Ritzman. I suspect it wasn't very long because I don't recall being aware of her presence by the time I was in the fifth grade—the last year I attended Ritzman. Like many of my former teachers, I truly regret not knowing what paths she pursued after sharing the 1966-67 academic year with her. I never learned her given name either.
Today, I find myself wondering what pressures and anxieties she experienced as a teacher working at a school that was 100% White way back then? I can't imagine it was as innocent and uneventful for her as it appeared from my first-grade perspective. How did such an assignment even come about? Whatever racial tensions she may have experienced, tolerated, suffered, it never showed. Yet, I have to wonder what would a first grader really notice? For me, she was competent, effective and influential as a first grade teacher. What more has ever been required?
Perhaps even more perplexing is that I don't recall any of the kids from the other classes saying anything about Mrs. Brazil while on the playground or in route to and from school. And the kids attending Ritzman were hardly angels—many used the various inappropriate and offensive names for those of colour and other nationalities. In fact, I remember hearing more jokes about Poles than any other race or nationality.
The fact that my first grade experience with Mrs. Brazil was racially uneventful is probably a credit to my parents who never demonized Blacks or used any of the derogatory, popularized-by-Whites terms for African-American people, although several members of our extended family did—and probably still do to this day.
I've told many people over the years about Mrs. Brazil—not because she was African-American, but because she always called me "Tyree"—my surname. I thought that was cool because my brother and his friends in high school always called each other by their last names and suddenly, my teacher was as cool as they were.
As it turned out, sometime later in the year, she pulled me aside and apologized when she realized that my given name was actually "Morgan." I'm pretty certain I told her it was OK, but had I a little more courage, I would have told her I preferred to be called "Tyree" all along.
On this week when we've celebrated the 80th birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the swearing in of Barack Obama as our 44th President, I'd like to look her in the eye and thank her for being such a powerful and influential force in my early years. Maybe I could even have her read this essay and offer me a little feedback on my writing one last time.