Is there a difference between perception and reality?
The story I am about to tell is true. It describes an event that took place early in my teaching career, and it is one that I will never forget.
First, some background.
I taught sixth grade at IPS School #26 beginning in November 1986. School #26 was predominantly Black. I did not have much experience working with Black students; I didn’t have much experience working with any students. I also did not have much experience working with Black teachers and para-professionals–teachers’ assistants, if you will. I had recently graduated from Penn State, hardly a bastion of diversity when it comes to Black and White.
Eventually, though, I became better at recognizing and appreciating the differences between me and my African-American students and colleagues, and an easy symbiosis evolved among us. In the spring of my third year at IPS School #26, I was on playground duty with another staff member, the venerable fifth grade teacher Mrs. Edwards. Mrs. Edwards was at least 70 years old if not older and had more seniority in the entire IPS school system than any other teacher. She was also the most beloved member of our staff, and rightly so–her students were well behaved, her classroom was immaculate and thoughtfully organized, and her bearing was formidable if not intimidating. She dressed each day for work as if she were attending church–sky-high heels and all–minus the hat. And she never, ever was seen without a Bible in her hands. She often used it to beat children who got out of line while waiting for their breakfast, intoning, “Oh, I do so hate to hit you with my good Book!” One swat with the Bible for every word in the aforementioned sentence. I loved her. And she scared the hell out of me.
Mrs. Edwards had a cloak hall in her classroom–not everyone had a cloak hall. Her cloak hall was used to store coats and boots and backpacks and naughty children. Mrs. Edwards also had a paddle–nothing special, just a paddle with her name emblazoned on the handle in perfect Palmer penmanship. If you had a student who needed paddled, Mrs. Edwards was your go-to lady. Don’t judge: This was 1989.
Back to playground duty or, rather, I should call it “parking lot” duty. Because we didn’t have a playground at IPS School #26. We had a blacktop parking lot. We had some balls–a couple of basketballs and a kickball, and in the past we had had some jump ropes, but they were lost somewhere along the way. There wasn’t much for the kids to do, and there were a lot of kids to keep busy. Three sixth grade classes, one special education classroom of fifth and sixth graders, three fifth grade classes, and another all-fifth grade special education class. Remember, it was 1989, just before Inclusion.
What did the kids do for thirty minutes of what was supposed to be recess? Some kids played with the few implements we had available for them, but most of the kids–pre-adolescents–stood around and talked, or stirred some unseen neighborhood pot they had dragged to school, full of hatred, jealousy, and vindictiveness. As you might have guessed, then, on this particular beautiful spring day, a fight was brewing. The antagonist, an African-American student named Glenn, started posturing in front of another male student, also African-American. Mrs. Edwards, heels and all, started toward her student, the one who was being confronted. I managed to get myself between that student and Glenn.
In the back of my mind, all I could think of was, “She’s wearing heels! She’s going to get shoved to the pavement and break a hip! She’s old!” I, on the other hand, was dressed in a t-shirt, jean skirt, bobby sox, and white Keds. I positioned myself in front of Glenn–a young man the same size as me–and held him by the shoulders, looked him in the eye, and said, “Not today, scooter.”
Apparently, that pissed him off enough that he decided to take a swing at me–in the ensuing confrontation, he managed to relieve me of a rather sizable chunk of my hair, tore off my necklace, and ripped my t-shirt enough so that my bra was exposed. That pissed me off enough to turn him around, get his arms behind his back, kick him in the backs of his knees, and force him onto his belly. Whereby I sat on his butt, pinning his arms behind him until the paddy wagon came. I am sure I surprised him with my chutzpah.
Between the time I forced him to the ground to when the paddy wagon (IPS Security, not IMPD) arrived, I do remember telling him that he f***ed with the wrong person. Yep, I tossed the f-bomb at a sixth grader. Countless times.
After IPS Security relieved me of my duties as butt-sitter and f-bomb tosser, I found myself in the principal’s office, giving a statement to one of the officers. I did not wish to press charges, but I did want the kid suspended for the remainder of the school year.
After IPS Security left, my principal unleashed a torrent of fury against me that stunned me speechless. I had just saved Mrs. Edwards from a dangerous situation that could have hurt her, and I broke up a fight that would have most certainly disrupted the educational environment for the rest of the day if not for the rest of the school year. And here was my principal ripping me a new one for doing what any sane person would have done. Through the roar in my ears, all I could hear was him saying, “Racist, racial, race, relations.”
The rest of the day was a blur–I do remember my students’ ooh-ing and ah-ing when I returned to the classroom; I summarily I turned off the lights and read to them from Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor. None of my colleagues came by to ask if I was okay, no one asked me if I was hurt. No staff member talked to me for the rest of the day.
The next day a fellow teacher who happened to be White pulled me aside and whispered, “You’d better be careful. The paras (teachers’ assistants–all of whom were African-American) have told everyone that you whipped Glenn with a jump rope then tied him up with it.”
Jump rope? WE DIDN’T HAVE JUMP ROPES!
It got worse. The para-professionals had spread the lie that I called Glenn a ‘n*****, that I was indeed whipping him with a jump rope, and that after I was finished whipping him, I tied him up. They knew this because they were all watching out the window while it was happening.
Another staff member, also White, pulled me aside and told me that Mrs. Edwards had stated that she was disappointed with me. When this staff member, who had also watched the entire tableau the previous afternoon, asked her why she wasn’t standing up for me since she was right there and saw everything that had happened, apparently she replied, “I will always stand with my race.”
That was my first experience with racism. Moreover, it was a lesson in perception. What those para-professionals perceived and what Mrs. Edwards perceived were one in the same–even though what Mrs. Edwards saw was what really happened. And she knew it.
I’ll never know why Mrs. Edwards’ and the para-professionals’ perception of the incident was so different from the reality I experienced that day. In my mind, the only thing I did that I should not have done was swear in front of a student. To them, though, I did everything wrong. I was the privileged White girl asserting my authority in the way that, historically, they remember White people asserting their authority over Black people.
Why tell this story today? While I don’t agree that the officer who shot Michael Brown in August 2014 was guilty of any wrongdoing, I also understand that others’ perceptions might be different. This is because my experience with Glenn at IPS School #26 located at E. 16th and Martindale on the near eastside of Indianapolis in 1989 was perceived by others as a racist act of aggression when I know in my heart that all I was trying to do was to protect Mrs. Edwards. It broke my heart that she sided with those who made up the story about the jump rope, but then again, I had not lived her life, I had not experienced her experiences, and I had never walked around in her skin, so from her vantage point, what I did was just another instance of a White person beating down a Black person.
I learned that day that you don’t have to agree. Just understand.