In the summer of 1983, the eight member school board of District 97 were forced to make a difficult decision. Affirmative action had leaped into the national spotlight and they, being progressive, liberal minded elected folk, were determined to be leaders of the movement. Longfellow School currently had two African American teachers out of a staff of forty. The breakdown of minorities in the student population was just under twenty percent. Per arbitrary requirements, the board decided by a 5-3 vote to hire two additional teachers of color.
The two teachers, Mrs. Irma Haynes and Sherri Gardner, would become my fifth grade teachers.
On the first day of school, with our new clothes and backpacks, we queued up on the blacktop playground. Large yellow numbers spray paint stenciled on the pavement led us to our respective doors. Teachers stood patiently, smiling in front of their new classes and when the bell rang, echoing through the end of summer air, they led everyone inside. Except the fifth graders. We stood there bewildered for a moment until our vice-principal, Mr. Grayson pushed the bar of the heavy metal door in front of our restless pack.
"Please get in line and follow me to the auditorium." He yelled.
We jostled into position, getting near our last year friends and squeaked our tennis shoes through the locker lined linoleum hallways toward the auditorium.
We fell down the pitch of the aisles to the first four rows and filed in, pushing down the green velvet seat cushions and bouncing into place. A whispered hum was interrupted by the entrance of four women on stage.
Two I recognized, one Mrs. Revarek, had been listed as my teacher in a notice sent to my house the previous month. Another, Ms. Smith had been my sister's teacher, but I didn't know the other two. The first thing I noticed about them was they were black. One was tall and skinny and had glasses, the other was plump and the dress she wore seemed stretched around her body.
The skinny one was named Mrs. Haynes, and the other was named Ms. Gardner. Mr. Grayson explained to us that the school was implementing a new type of curriculum, instead of one teacher, we would now have two; one for homeroom and social studies, and the other for math and science. Then he read out two lists of names. Most of my friends were on the first list, and they left with Mrs. Revarek and Ms. Smith. The rest of us sat, then we counted off, one… two… one… tw..
Mrs. Haynes would be my homeroom teacher.
She seemed nice enough, but her demeanor was false, like a drill sergeant. I feared her under my skin, and that was the effect she desired. Before she led us into our classroom on the first day, she lined us up in the hallway and explained that we would be producing a school play on American historical figures that year and as we entered the room, we would pull a name out of a hat. We would research the character and BE that character in the play. She told us about respect for each other and her, if any of us lost the respect, we would all know it.
When I reached into the felt hat, I fished through the confetti expecting to draw a dead president, instead, I didn't even recognize the name. Harriet Tubman.
By Thanksgiving, We had lost and gained Mrs. Haynes' respect many times. She had a bubbled security mirror installed in the back corner of the room as her "third eye". She had taken recess away from us on numerous occasions and one special day, pushed all of our pelican desks together and demanded that we sit with our heads down all day. She would periodically throw a confiscated Match-box car across the room and hit the back black board to startle us. Mrs. Haynes was crazy and we often looked forward to going to Ms. Gardners' room next door for Science and Math. Ms. Gardner was our nice and soft and sweet teacher, Mrs. Haynes was our mean and hard and sour.
Our first report on our historical figure was due the day after Thanksgiving break and the extent of my research was a plagiarized account of a Golden Book biography I had glanced over the day before. When I discovered Harriet Tubman was a black woman, I thought Mrs. Haynes would realize her mistake and assign me someone else. Instead, she scolded me for my lackluster effort and demanded an explanation.
I played my only card right away, "I can't play Harriet Tubman"
"Why not?" She asked, over her horn rimmed glasses.
"She's a woman and bl…" I stopped myself.
"And YOU are a little boy and have an assignment. Now, when we go to the library today I want you to get every book on Harriet Tubman you can find. AND READ THEM."
By Christmas, I had read every book in the school library and had ordered three more from the Troll Book Club. I had it down. The play would be in February, and I was excited.
Around the same time, five white teachers were filing reverse discrimination lawsuits against the school, claiming the better qualified teachers were turned down in lieu of arbitrary quotas set by the school board. The Village Journal ran an editorial. It turns out that the school board not only hired minority teachers in the name of affirmative action, but also put ninety-five percent of minority children in their classrooms. When my mother asked me how many black kids were in my class compared to the others, I replied,
On the first day after Christmas break, our class had changed. Despite the progressive, integrated suburb our parents applauded, it seemed an undertow of racism had sucked out a third of my white classmates. No one ever said a word about it. Class (smaller) resumed as normal.
Our village didn't. PTA meetings became shouting matches about standards, and equality and other words that had too many meanings. Parents and teachers took sides and wrote letters to the Journal. A follow up article outed Mrs. Haynes and Ms. Gardners' credentials compared to their shunned white counterparts. Mrs. Haynes was criticized for her lack of experience, citing that she had been a successful marketing executive from Detroit, but only had her teaching certificate as a supplement degree in college. She defended herself with a hardened shell committed to education.
I had received a chess set for Christmas that year and was trying to teach a friend to play on the playground one day when Mr. Bitoy, a sixth grade teacher looked on in interest. Bitoy was a large Samoan with a goatee. He wore vintage button up shirts that untucked themselves over his round belly. He was a jolly sort, loved by his students, and tenured. He told me that students played chess in his room at lunchtime and invited me. I went that day, and every day for the next month. I began to crush the sixth graders and received the ultimate compliment one day, a match with Bitoy himself. Word on the playground was, that if you beat Bitoy, you got a free lunch from Mcdonalds. I couldn't wait.
He crushed me. I'll never forget that game. It was our first of many and he taught me two important lessons, one about chess and the other about race. The first was when he observed my obvious disappointment losing. He took a long look at me and explained.
"The only way to get better at chess is to lose"
The second lesson came when he used one of his famous distraction tactics and asked me about my pile of Harriet Tubman books. I explained to him that I was playing her in the class production. He smiled. I stumbled with embarrassment. I started to explain that I didn't understand why I had to play a black lady when I was a white boy when he stopped me.
"What color are the chess pieces Mr. B?" He always called me Mr. B.
"Black and white." I replied, shrugging my shoulders.
"And does it matter what color you are in chess?"
"No." I replied, hesitant. Then Bitoy finished my thought.
"But it matters with people." He said, starring at the top of my head as I stared at the chess board.
"The thing you have to understand Mr. B, is that you will always be white, and sometimes you won't always know it. And I'll always be black, but I'll always know it. Think about it B. I'll see you tomorrow." He stood up and walked out of the room as I sat there in a puddle of almost understanding.
A few weeks later on Groundhog Day, we had the dress rehearsal for the play, we all stood in the wings of the polished pine stage. It was after school and we slowly took our turns walking on stage, getting a spotlight on us, then reading a brief synopsis of our historical significance. My costume consisted of an apron and a red do rag tied around my head. The audience was a hodgepodge of teachers and parents. My performance went off without a flaw.
As I walked off stage into the audience a low rumble paused through parts of the auditorium. A few performances later and it became all too evident to the gallery that this was not just a play of historical figures, but only African-American historical figures. Parents who once tolerated the controversy surrounding Mrs. Hanes were now outraged that she had produced a one sided affair and some dragged their children out of the auditorium with sharp words. The school officials present rushed the students out into the hallway and we were told to get our jackets on and go home.
That night, Mrs. Haynes phoned my house. My parents both talked to her. I hid at the top of the stairs eavesdropping over the wooden banister, nervously running my fingers through the rust colored shag carpet. I thought I was in deep trouble. My dad came up first and sat next to me on the landing. I thought I would cry and began to tremble, hiccup. My father rested his hand on my shoulder and told me that I wasn't in trouble, but he wanted to know if I still wanted to be in the play. I told him yes.
The next day we performed for the school, four white kids, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, William Edward Burghardt Dubois and Denmark Vesy and fourteen black kids. That night we performed for a packed house of Parents, teachers, educators and journalists.
When it was all over, the journalist who had been writing the editorials came to me and asked how I felt playing a black woman, I shrugged my shoulders and told him that it was just like playing the Tin Man last year in The Wizard of Oz, except this year I didn't have to paint my face silver.
Mrs. Haynes was dismissed the next day.