I may have told this story before, but it bears repeating. When I headed a teacher’s union, years ago, I defended a black member whom the school district longed to dismiss. Her hair, greying enough to appear dusted with ash, surrounded a leathery face that seemed incapable of forming a smile. A courageous woman, she spent much of her life as a civil rights activist, and the weight of that struggle she reflected in the droop of her shoulders. I’d had to defend her more than once, but this time, we both feared she’d crossed a line. An elementary school teacher in a predominately black neighborhood, she’d inserted an unauthorized subject into her lessons. It was called, “Black English.” Management objected, arguing she was putting her students at a disadvantage. The woman disagreed, and so, the administration charged her with insubordination.
The person sent to represent them in mediation was also black. I noted the irony of that choice and swallowed my smile as the young woman tottered into my office on six-inch heels, her grey suit buttoned at the waist to secure a white blouse and black tie. Settling herself in a chair opposite my client, she spent a minute shuffling papers, avoiding all eye contact. Her behavior was a tell — a sign she was new at her job and felt nervous. Nothing was timid about her opening gambit, however.
“Who told you to teach Black English in your classes? Your students don’t need it. Not in this world. Or do you want to see them held back?
“Black English is a part of their culture. They have a right to know it exists. You can’t see that?” The voice that answered struck me as battle-worn: firm but not defiant. The younger woman failed to note the difference.”
“What I see or don’t see doesn’t matter,” she snapped. “We’re talking about preparing your students for the future. You care about that, don’t you?”
The older woman leaned back in her chair as if bored by a question she’d heard before. “Depends upon what kind of future that is. Is it one that requires our children to be ignorant of their heritage and pretend to be white?”
“Like me, you mean?” As she spoke, the younger woman threw down her papers, so angry her nostrils flared as if she smelled smoke. Next, she pointed her fingers like a gun. “You know, it’s old people like you who hold us back. Not wanting to change. If you’d stop to think for a minute, you’d realize I’m not the problem. You are.”
Half expecting my client to rise from her chair, stung by the insult, I put my hand on her arm as a sign of caution. But she didn’t move. Instead, she slumped back against the slats, as if she’d been stuck with a pin and all the air inside her had escaped. The flame in her eyes had gone out, too. By outward appearance, she had died, and in part, I think that was true. Her years of rebellion and protest had opened a small path through which the young woman opposite her had made her escape. She had a long way to climb, but a few years earlier, a career in management was unimaginable for a black woman. Did she realize she owed her small success to the old person she’d just spat upon?
What I said on that day in the teacher’s defense, I don’t recall. How I felt I shall never forget — sad and a little broken. Nonetheless, justice prevailed. The teacher kept her job.
(First published 11/17/18)
I recount this story as a cautionary tale to millennials, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, newest and youngest person to be elected to Congress. The Universal Clock didn’t begin with their first, primal screams. Others fought for the future while they suckled at their mothers’ breasts. A little respect for the trailblazers would be nice. To the young Turks of Congress eager to overthrow Nancy Pelosi as their leader, I’d advise them to hold their fire. A better use of their time might be to locate the bathrooms.