Tag Archives: the Sixties

Burn Baby Burn

My essay, Burn Baby Burn, was published this winter in WESTVIEW. It will be a chapter in my book about the days I taught in Seattle’s Central District.

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I don’t remember whose idea it was—Sunny’s or mine. One of us decided we should have a drama festival for our ninth-grade English classes. It doesn’t sound like a big deal today, but in 1968 it was completely crazy. America was in terrible conflict—the fabric of the country in tatters. Assassinations were commonplace. Nonviolent and violent demonstrations for civil rights and against the Vietnam War spread through college campuses and spilled into the community at large. “Burn, baby, burn!” wasn’t just a slogan, as we all learned to our jeopardy.

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It was almost impossible to teach anything at Meany Junior High at that time. We were located in the Central Area—Seattle’s inner city. Kids came from every ethnic and economic group, but the school was becoming increasingly African-American. So many were poor and underprivileged. My colleague Sunny and I were twenty-two—barely out of school ourselves. We were blue-eyed optimists filled with energy and ideas of how to ignite our students’ love of learning. We were passionate about what we did—we knew that education could be the ticket out of the ghetto.

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It was tough going. Sometimes you’d give yourself a high five if a few students wrote their names at the top left side of the paper. At first we used the same curriculum I’d had as a student there six years before, including Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, a complicated play with so many characters whose names began with C—Caesar, Casca, Calpurnia. If it had been Romeo and Juliet, maybe we could have sparked some interest in these teenagers, but all I saw were blank stares as I plowed through the lessons.

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It wasn’t that my students weren’t well acquainted with the concept of dramatic arc. Every day, they were involved in some drama. At Meany, we had to keep our doors locked in case the Black Panthers, Black Student Union, Students for a Democratic Society, or any other protestors wanted to hijack our classrooms. Our classes were disrupted several times a day by fire drills, making it impossible to build any momentum in the classroom. It drove me crazy and one day, I’d had enough. I marched into the principal’s office after the third drill to complain.
“How are we supposed to teach anything, Dr. Patterson?” I asked. “And why are you making us walk across the street for each drill? It’s pouring down rain.” I’m sure my hands were on my hips.
Dr. Patterson gave me a sardonic look. “Because bombs burst out,” he said.
I remember his smile when my angry expression turned to shocked fear as I registered the fact each fire drill was actually a bomb threat. I mumbled something like, “Oh,” and turned to leave.
“Also,” he said to my back, “I’d walk in the center of the hallway if I were you. Lockers make the best hiding places for bombs.”
I could hear him laughing even after I left the office and made my way carefully down the center of the hall.
Dr. Roland Patterson, who came from the East Coast, was the first African-American principal in the Seattle Public Schools. He was a short man who I thought had a Napoleon complex. Not only was he autocratic, he didn’t take well to criticism. But he did humor Sunny and me, going along with many of our ideas. In contrast, several of the old guard viewed us with derision. One ex-marine, who’d taught there when I’d been a student, snorted every time I walked into the teachers’ room. I half expected him to ask for my hall pass. While Sunny and I worked to engage the kids’ interest, he ruled his classroom as if he were still a drill sergeant. I thought of myself as my students’ coach, not their adversary. I’m not saying I wasn’t tough if I had to be—I’ve been told that my look from across the room could freeze a recalcitrant student in his tracks.
Still, I was glad that the week before the drama festival, Obie Tate chose to hold Steve Wilson’s class at gunpoint instead of mine. Obie was a recent transfer (which was what the schools did—transfer a troublemaker anywhere out of their school). Mr. Wilson was a big guy—nothing much seemed to bother him. Obie, after holding the gun to several students’ heads, had stood down. I don’t think I would have had Steve’s calmness to defuse the situation as he’d done.

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It was in this anarchical milieu that Sunny and I decided to have the drama festival. For several weeks the kids rehearsed and gathered props and costumes. Meanwhile, we decided to invite important people in the community to be the judges. One was Fitzgerald Redd Beaver. He was the editor of The Facts, an African-American weekly. A large man, his facial expression was a permanent scowl—at least it was when he looked at me. He didn’t like whiteys teaching in the black community, and he wasn’t shy about announcing it to the world. One of his kids was in my class and at Back-to-School Night, Mr. Beaver glared at me throughout my presentation.
“Why do you think you can teach in this school? You’re white,” he said afterward. “You can’t possibly relate to my son or any of the other African-Americans. You know nothing.”
I wanted to say I’d been involved in the civil rights movement for years. I wanted to explain that I’d grown up with black kids and had known them all my life. I knew our experience was very different, but I felt I could make a difference now. Being Jewish, I’d also known the sting of prejudice. I wanted to explain that we were trying to create change within the system—that we cared and wanted to right wrongs.

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I wanted to say I was changing the curriculum to include African-American authors like James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and Langston Hughes. I wanted to say that just because I was Caucasian didn’t mean I couldn’t teach everybody of every color. I started to say, “I’m here because this is what I know how to do—it’s what I can do to help,” but he cut me off. How we had the guts to ask him to judge the drama festival, I don’t know.
The other judge was Roberta Byrd Barr. I had seen her at the Cirque Playhouse when she starred in A Raisin in the Sun with actor Greg Morris. (She became principal of Lincoln High School in Seattle in 1973, the first woman principal of a high school in Seattle.) She was an outstanding woman, a busy and multitalented person who generously agreed to “judge” this tiny endeavor. We felt honored.
The day of the drama festival I woke to sunshine. A good omen, I thought. I drove my husband to work because the car was filled with props. “I know it will be great,” he said as he got out.
“I hope so,” I said. “The kids deserve it.” We were all tired, all burdened by the assassinations, by the civil rights struggle, by the Vietnam War and the protests. I loved that the kids were getting to just be kids having fun, if only for an afternoon.
My first period was ninth-grade English—almost everyone was participating, which was an amazing feat in itself. Students broke up into groups and rehearsed for the final time. I felt so encouraged to see their focus and also the camaraderie building between the kids, no matter their race. We can do it, I thought.
We met in the auditorium right after lunch. We’d gotten permission from the other teachers to let participating students leave their classes for one period. The kids were excited about their scenes, their costumes and makeup, and being on stage. You could feel it—the energy, the joy. As for Sunny and me, we had the feeling that we were actually doing something constructive. Learning was taking place—amazing!
Mr. Beaver was late and I remember pacing back and forth, getting more agitated with each passing minute. Should we start without him? I wondered. Would that make him angry? We only had an hour and a half to get all the acts in. Ms. Byrd had been early. She’d smiled and given my hand a squeeze when she came in. Just her presence gave me confidence.
Mr. Beaver walked in just as I was about to start. Surly, he didn’t offer an excuse. Only when he saw Roberta Byrd and sat down beside her did his sneer lessen, but not by much.
We began with a condensed version of the 1943 radio play Sorry, Wrong Number. Certainly it was an old play, but it still had a punch. And it had the advantage of being in the textbook. The kids stood with mikes as if in a recording studio and read their lines from the “script” they held. The audience loved it and so did the actors. You could feel the excitement and it was contagious. I stole a look at Mr. Beaver—even he looked entertained.
Next came the scene from A Raisin in the Sun. This required scenery and costumes. It was in the middle of this act that Dr. Patterson came in. My first thought was that he was going to sit in on the judging after all.
Instead he came up to me, frowning. “You’ll have to leave the auditorium,” he said in an undertone.
“What? We’re right in the middle of the drama festival.” I shook my head. “No, we can’t leave. We’re doing something wonderful here!”
“The school is on fire,” he said in a slow staccato. “We need to evacuate.”
“Fire?” I said. I was terrified of fire. Three years earlier I’d walked past someone’s room in the sorority house and seen the curtains on fire behind her. I’d screamed something incoherent and then run down the hall to the fire alarm. I had to break the cover to set it off, and it seemed like hours before I’d been able to. I still had nightmares about the flames licking around Jackie’s head. I dreamed that we didn’t get out safely and it was my fault.
Now I turned quickly to the kids. I had to make sure they were safe. “Everyone, we need to exit the building. Please follow Dr. Patterson out the rear door,” I said.
“What? Why do we have to leave now?” one of the boys asked.
“Yeah, we were just getting to my part,” a girl said.
“I know. And I’m sorry. But the school is on fire,” I said, my voice shaky. I’d begun to smell smoke.
It was important to get the kids safe. We led them outside and across the street to where other students were already gathered. We all stood watching the smoke rise from the west wing of the building. I noticed some of the African-American kids had white cloths in their hands. At lunch, one of my seventh-graders had come up to me to ask if I’d wetted my cloth yet. I didn’t attach any significance to it at that time, but now I realized that this fire was no accident. It had been well planned.
I’m not sure how long it took, but the fire department succeeded in putting out the fire. Eventually we returned to the building. There was chaos, of course, with the smell of smoke and fear hanging in the air. School was dismissed immediately for the day. I didn’t see Ms. Barr or Mr. Beaver—they must have left immediately. I met Sunny in the auditorium, where the props and scripts lay abandoned.
Sunny looked close to tears. “Let’s take a walk around the school,” I said, trying not to cry myself. “Maybe the fresh air will clear our minds.”
It was a warm day, so we didn’t need jackets as we headed out. We walked side by side without talking. When we rounded the corner on 19th, we saw a big group of kids coming toward us. As they got closer, we realized they were throwing rocks at the school. The sound of broken glass filled the air.
Sunny and I looked at each other. “Oh, shit,” I said.
Here we were, these two very white women, and approaching us fast was an angry mob.
“What should we do?” Sunny asked.
We didn’t have time to consider options, which turned out to be okay. Because we were wrong about the group—the kids weren’t angry at all. They were just having fun.
When they saw us, they called out: “Hi, Mrs. Anderson. Hi, Mrs. Muscatel.” They stopped throwing rocks as they came closer, smiling and waving. I smiled and gave the occasional wave as they continued through us. A half a block away, they started lobbing rocks at windows again.
In those days in the Central Area, if the fire department was called out, the Seattle Police Department’s riot squad came too. Sunny and I had just breathed sighs of relief after surviving the rock throwers, when we looked up and saw the police marching up the street toward us. I’ve never been so frightened in my life. They were in full riot gear, their pink faces very piglike in the afternoon sunshine. I could feel their menace from three blocks away.
“We better get the hell out of here,” I said to Sunny.
We quickly turned onto school property and headed for the double doors. I felt we made it inside just in time. I have no doubt that the police would have grabbed us and maybe even roughed us up. We’d probably have been arrested before we could say who we were.
Sunny and I went to the teachers’ room, where many of the teachers had gathered, some angry and some in shock. No one talked—almost everyone smoked. After a while, we were told it was safe to go to the parking lot for our cars. In my mind’s eye, I saw the rock throwers and the riot squad and wondered who I was safer from.
“Let’s go to my house,” I said to Sunny.
It was a short drive to my studio apartment. I turned on the radio as soon as we’d started the car, wanting to hear if they were reporting the fire. There was nothing.
At the apartment, even though it was 3:00 in the afternoon and neither of us was a big drinker, I made us gin and tonics. Our nerves were shot.
We took our drinks and sat on the couch.
“We almost did it,” Sunny said after a few minutes. She had red hair, and fair skin that freckled and flushed easily. Now she was deathly pale.
“The kids were loving it,” I said.
Sunny nodded. “I know. You could see how excited they were.”
“It was the most positive thing I’ve seen for a long time,” I said.
“Now I don’t know what will happen. School’s almost over for the year.”
I leaned my head back on the couch. “I am so tired,” I said.
We continued to talk about our confusion and despair until it was time to pick up my husband. He and I took Sunny back to school for her car.
In the spring twilight, the school sat as if untouched. You couldn’t see that the windows were broken or that something had broken inside of us.

Too Cool For School? Not Me

I don’t know about you, but I have an affliction: when I try to be cool, I end up looking like a fool.

I think this all started at the end of junior high. Until that time I was a confirmed bookworm who never had time to think of things like being cool—my nose was always in a novel so I rarely registered where I really was in time or place. Nor did I care about how I looked or what I wore. Not until the day I saw Gloria wearing a cool sweater with a dickie collar. Wow, I really wanted one!

The poodle skirt phase was before my time, but I craved having a dickie collar.

I think I probably also wanted to look like the girl in the picture below. She was so white–so American. From her loafers to her plaid skirt to the shutters on her house, she personified the kind of girl who scared me to death. But I wanted to imitate.

Next thing I knew, I really wanted to shop at the Bon.

None of this was happening for me as my mother was against all of it. She thought shopping at Lerner’s was just fine for me. Somehow I wangled white bucks out of my dad.

The coolest was the white buck bag that accompanied them—it came out in almost every class so I could apply a little of whatever that powder was to my shoes, whether they needed it or not.

My mother did loosen up enough to buy me pedal pushers and saddle shoes, which was a great victory.

I was 14 when I started high school—being young was a disadvantage to coolness. I joined this high school sorority to be cooler and started smoking to be cooler still. But it really didn’t work.

I still wasn’t cool. Which was fine at Garfield High School. Just getting to go to school there was cool enough.

In my heart of hearts, I was still a nerd who loved being in the library more than anything.

This continued on into college. I loved to study. Well, maybe not loved—but I admit to liking it a lot. At the University of Washington, I used to study at Balmer Hall—it had big tables where I could spread out my books, notebooks, three pens with different colored inks, index cards and ruler. I remember one day acting very cool as I walked by a group of guys, pretending not to see them. I walked straight into a huge ash can that tipped over, spreading sand and cigarette butts across the floor. I can still hear the clang of the metal as it bumped over the floor. Not so cool, after all.

As I get older, a lot of my “too cool for school” episodes involve falls and/or being a know-it-all. My mother always said, “Pride goes before a fall,”—it seems my karma is to act that out again and again. It’s not that I’m unsteady on my feet…yet. I go to yoga to practice my balance and work out to keep my strength up. No, it’s more that I don’t pay attention to my surroundings.

Usually, before it happens, I’ve just congratulated myself on my fitness, and that my skinned knees and elbows have finally healed. (It takes so much longer now.) I’m thinking things like, I’m doing pretty darn well for a 70-year-old!

Like on our 50th anniversary. I wore a flowing dress and my new diamond ring—I felt youthful and beautiful.

As we walked up a few stairs into the oceanside restaurant, I was handed a glass of champagne. How sophisticated and cool is this, I thought.

I stepped forward to take the champagne, not realizing I was on the edge of the lanai. Yes, I stepped into empty space. I tried to get back onto the stair and keep my balance, but couldn’t quite do it. I started falling backwards and decided the wisest course was to just go with it. Fortunately it was only a short distance into the flowerbed. The horrified onlookers did give me points for the gracefulness of my descent. Except for a few scratches and a rip in my dress, I was just shaken, but unhurt.

My final point about being cool or being a fool concerns my fondness for getting things right. It’s not that I say, “I told you so,” (although I do roll my eyes quite a bit). Like when we were traveling in the Galapagos and Peru with friends. I was wise and ate according to the rules we’d be given. The rest of them ate off the street and tried the national dish, guinea pig. What fools, I thought, as they all succumbed to Inca Revenge, and asked to borrow Imodium.

I, on the other hand, was so cool that I had nary a stomach cramp. Until we got home. Then the 105 degree fever that goes with malaria hit me. Not so cool after that.

Another problem is that I try to stay current technologically: I’m so cool that I use the Internet all the time. This leads me to buy gadgets, which I can’t figure out how to use. Like this electric wine opener. You have to admit it looks cool and very high tech, but I can’t even figure out how to put it in the charger unit. Now, I don’t know what to do with it.

I hate to say it, but being cool is just not my thing. At this point, it’s a battle to keep from making that old saying true: There’s no fool like an old fool! 🙂

 

 

 

True Confessions

This is going to be a confession of sorts—or an admission, at the least. First, though, a disclaimer. This blog is not about politics even if it is about Barack Obama. I don’t know about you, but I am sick of politics, politicians and Talking Heads—especially the Talking Heads. This blog is about me—about who I was in 1967 and who I am now.

The President of the United States.

When I began teaching in Seattle’s inner city, I’d just turned 21 three days before. I admit I was a wide-eyed optimist who believed I could help change the world. No, at 21 I was sure I could. I wasn’t alone in my mission to right the wrongs of America. The Late Sixties was the beginning of a cultural revolution that would shake up our society. My way was not to protest in the streets. I chose to work within the system. I believed education was the key to getting people out of the Ghetto.

1970–my last day teaching at Meany. I was seven months pregnant–in those days you were supposed to quit by six months!

Teaching at Meany Junior High during this time was an education for me, as well as for the students. When I walked in the doors as a teacher, only six years had passed since I’d left for high school. Many of the same teachers and administrators remained there. The intimidating Miss MacPherson was the librarian, and I was still afraid of her. The curriculum, too, was the same—but as Bob Dylan pointed out, “it was the times they are a changing”. And changing at warp speed. Within two years, most of the former teachers were gone, and the old texts were replaced with books that attempted to be more relevant. Rather than teaching Shakespeare, I’d be happy if I could get some students to write their name on a piece of paper.

My personal goal was to be the best teacher I could be. I wanted to reach each student—to teach them the fundamentals of English and also the love of learning. I had another agenda, as well. I wanted every student in my classes to know that he or she could succeed. That the chains of poverty and racial prejudice could be broken—yes, that even an African American could be President of the United States. (The idea that it could be a woman probably didn’t even occur to me.)

Fast forward thirty-eight years. Barack Obama is running for President. Our country was at war. There was in a financial melt-down. And the Republicans couldn’t stop the bleeding. I voted for Obama because I thought we needed change, and I didn’t think McCain could do the job. I was elated when Obama won. I didn’t expect him to create prosperity out of chaos, but I knew he’d do a good job. But also, on a personal level, I was thrilled. Even though those years were hard, I thought, we did accomplish something during the Civil Rights struggle. Our work was validated, and I felt pride that Americans had moved beyond past prejudice and stereotypes. Again I was naïve.

Four years later, I’ve seen the proof of the hatred and disdain many whites still have for people of color. At first I’d attributed the antipathy to Obama as a desire to get even by the Republicans who had been humiliated by McCain’s drubbing. But then I began receiving emails that hinted at something more. It started with assertions that Obama, the socialist slime, wasn’t really an American. Then the racial overtones became more overt. My idealistic notions took a dive. Last week, John Sununu’s remarks actually made me cry. He felt he could disparage Colin Powell on national television and get away with it—that Americans would be willing participants in racial profiling of this man who has served his country in war and in peace. I felt so disheartened.

But I am in my sixties—I can’t be the girl of the Sixties. I took my dog for a walk and calmed down. I reminded myself that our society has moved forward in many ways, that pettiness is part of human nature as is Xenophobia. We aren’t perfect and never will be. But I felt I couldn’t be silent—that I had to share my real feelings.

Again, I reiterate that I am sick of politics. I felt sad today that it was news when Bill Clinton said that President Obama “has been a good commander-in-chief without regard to race.” Or maybe I should feel good that he just put it out in the open. I don’t know. My HOPE this year is the politicians will get over themselves and start working for the welfare of our nation instead of their party. Bi-partisanship. Now that’s a word I’d like to hear more often. (Okay, so I’m still an idealist. What can I do?)

Bi-partisanship in action.

Teaching in the Sixties, One Regret

I don’t really regret much in my life. I’ve always believed I had a strong moral compass that led me in the right direction. And I almost always try to do the right thing. But today, my confidence in the belief that I have known what the right thing is was shaken.

I was in my workout class doing crunches to the Marcels singing Blue Moon when I was hit with a hammer of regret. I remembered back to the late Sixties when I was Talent Show director at Meany Junior High in Seattle.

 

Meany Middle School location.

It was a crazy time period—rapid social change fueled by good intention and bad, resulting in a lot of chaos. Just doing a talent show was unusual. Some of the kids had gotten up acts lip-syncing to the music of that era.

“No,” I said. “Lip syncing is not a talent. You have to sing the song with your own voices. Then you can be in the talent show.”

What stupidity on my part! Now I know it would have been so beneficial for these kids to just have participated in a show. So what if they lip-synced (ask Madonna, etc.)? They would have had fun doing something positive in school.

But, oh, no! Judgmental little twenty-one-year-old me showed them the door. Was “True Art” so almighty important to me?

I don’t remember the acts that were in the show. I do remember that my husband came, and he was one of the only people to stand for the flag salute. And roving bands of kids overturned a lot of cars in the parking lot. (Ours was untouched so I don’t think it was a Lip-Sync Vendetta.) It was just that kind of era.

I was pretty rigid in my standards back then. Things were right or things were wrong—black or white. I hadn’t had the life experiences to know that there are many shades of gray having validity. I gained some of that insight in the next few years. By the time I left teaching at Meany, there weren’t talent shows anymore. Instead there were lock-downs and riots, and kids coming to class stoned. I was happy if I could get people to just put their name in the top left-hand corner of the paper. I was grateful that the Obey Tate decided to pull his gun on Mr. Wilson’s class instead of mine the next period. (Funny how you never forget some names.)

The Year Book.

I know I cared about my students, and believed in them. (except for the guy who scared me spit-less when he did show up. Usually he didn’t because he had taken over his brother’s job while he was in Vietnam. The brother was a pimp so Virgil worked all nighters and didn’t come to school much.) I know I wanted to teach my students how to read and write and speak. I felt these were tools to success for everyone. I still do. I know I encouraged people to think for themselves. I think I did a good job. But I do wish I’d let those kids lip-sync. My apologies to any of them reading this.

There’s a blue moon on August 31.