Not only did I not know what it took to succeed as an inner-city teacher, but it also wasn’t clear to me if a white teacher even could succeed.
A person needs mentors and role models to succeed in any career. To succeed in a particularly difficult one, he needs guardian angels as well. Guardian angels are those people who show up briefly in our lives, help steer us in the right direction, and then disappear, sometimes forever. Their time with us may be slight, but their impact is powerful and permanent.
Three such people appeared in my life between December of 1968 and May of 1969, during my senior year at Carleton College, in Northfield, Minn. Only one ever reappeared.
My goal then was to become a high school social studies teacher, perhaps in an inner-city high school. It was clear to me that my academic preparation for this challenge was first-rate. Carleton’s faculty members had taught me to think like a social scientist. My courses in economics were superb; those in history, sociology, and government almost as good.
But the question that troubled me was whether I had what it took as a person to succeed in an inner-city school. Sure, I had participated in a study group to learn more about race and race relations, and being part of Carleton’s exchange program with Fisk University had certainly helped. But my personal background was strictly Midwestern-small-town. Much of my contact with black Americans had come through basketball and baseball games. Not only did I not know what it took to succeed as an inner-city teacher, but it also wasn’t clear to me if a white teacher even could succeed. Did I have anything to contribute, I wondered?
My first guardian angel was a classmate, Rey Harp. An African-America, Rey had graduated from a Chicago high school with publicity so negative that it traveled as far as my hometown of Plainfield, in rural Illinois. Rey was and still is quiet and reserved. We said hello to one another and had spoken briefly a few times since our freshman year, but I didn’t know him well. When a Carleton dean, who chaired the student-faculty committee on expanding course offerings on race and race relations, suggested that students visit classmates from different racial and ethnic backgrounds, I approached Rey and asked if he would take me to visit his high school.
What I saw in that two-hour visit both depressed and inspired me. Rey’s school had over 5,000 students. Not one that I saw that day was white. When Rey and I entered, police were removing a student in handcuffs. No one seemed to notice. In the classrooms, students seemed listless and uninvolved in the lessons. But Rey’s guidance counselor and former teachers seemed overjoyed to see him. Out of his earshot, the guidance counselor told me that Rey’s family was the pride of DuSable High School. After visiting there, my commitment to urban education still wavered. But my gratitude to Rey for taking me did not—and never has.
When Rey and I entered, police were removing a student in handcuffs. No one seemed to notice.
In May of 1969, my second guardian angel appeared. A large group of students was watching a Sunday-morning interview show in the dormitory lounge. On the screen, I saw the leader of Harvard’s Black Student Association telling the world that there was no room for white teachers in black schools. His contempt was palpable. Dejected, I made my way slowly into the dining hall. Then, Yvonne Jones, class of 1970 and someone I barely knew, came over to my table and sat down across from me. “I know you’re thinking of becoming a teacher,” she said. “Don’t let that jive guy stop you. He’s not going to teach. He’ll go to work on Wall Street.”
“My mother is a teacher,” Yvonne continued. “She says our black communities desperately need good teachers of any color. Good luck.”
The words were like a gift. Yvonne’s kindness that day, and what she said, have inspired me for the past 35 years, every time my commitment to urban teaching has temporarily faltered. At the time, though, I still did not know whether to listen to her or to the angry guy on national television.
So I decided to ask one of my teachers. Roger Abrahams was Carleton’s first visiting professor in African-American studies. His appointment had created quite a stir; he was not black. But Northfield, Minn., as a dean reminded the campus, was not the most attractive location for the handful of African-American scholars who might have considered a visiting professorship. And Abrahams’ book American Negro Folklore was already a classic in the field. Carleton was fortunate to have him teach for a term.
Professor Abrahams’ first class was the best I have ever attended. He entered the auditorium wearing a sports shirt and a thin gold chain around his neck. I thought the chain contained a chai, a Jewish religious symbol. Right off the bat, the professor told us when he would use the word “Negro,” when he would use “Afro-American,” when he would use “black,” and when he would use the taboo word “nigger”—that being reserved for direct quotes from folk tales he had collected. Then he launched into detailed descriptions of two stories, “The Signifying Monkey” and “The Legend of Stag-O-Lee.” His analysis of the Stag-O-Lee legend was as scholarly as it was fascinating. A then-popular rock ’n’ roll song by Lloyd Price, the professor explained, was only the latest retelling of a story that had been around a long time.
Roger Abrahams used this and other African-American legends to demonstrate the black culture’s verbal creativity and ingenuity—and to implicitly criticize other white scholars who had labeled black children “nonverbal.” After that first class, the issue of his being white never surfaced again.
In retrospect, Roger Abrahams was an important role model for me. His very presence, and his dynamism, made me realize that my goal of becoming an inner-city teacher might be attainable. He was my third guardian angel. The day after Yvonne Jones had encouraged me, I knocked on the professor’s office door. I told him about the angry television exchange I had witnessed, as well as what Yvonne had said afterward. And I asked him what he thought.
I had reminded Rey of how much his small gesture in 1968 had meant to me. He shrugged off his impact on my life.
“Most black Americans agree with Yvonne,” he said. Then, after a pause, he asked if he could ask me a personal question.
Of course, I said yes. “Are you Jewish?” Taken aback, I nodded quizzically. The professor then told me of how young Jews’ zealousness within the civil rights movement had created a backlash among blacks. They resented the power Jews wielded in the movement and responded by saying, in essence: “This is our struggle. You are welcome to play a supporting role. Otherwise, please leave.”
The professor then looked at me and added knowingly, “If you are willing to work in a supportive role as a teacher, your efforts will be appreciated.” We shook hands, and I left his office pondering the advice. I decided it made a lot of sense.
A committee selecting the Connecticut Teacher of the Year came last fall to the urban high school where I have taught since 1980. They were there to interview my students and their parents, my administrators, and my colleagues. I knew the process would be emotional, but I also knew that my school district strongly supported my candidacy. So it did not surprise me when my supervisor walked through the front door. It did surprise me, however, that she brought along her brother, Rey Harp. We had seen each other only rarely, once at a funeral and later at a party, where I had reminded Rey of how much his small gesture in 1968 had meant to me. He shrugged off his impact on my life.
But Rey’s presence that October morning made my eyes well up with tears. And it reminded me of others whose actions spoke louder than they knew. I don’t know if guardian angels come to us through divine intervention, but I do know how much my three have meant to me. Without them, I might not have followed my head and my heart into such a rewarding career.