As always Marleesa bounded into her SAC English IV class at McMain Secondary School and pleaded to read her new essay to the class. She had interviewed her grandmother as part of our exploration of the intersection between family and civic life. She read an earlier draft of the essay featured in today’s entry.
When Marleesa finished reading, she frowned and said she still wasn’t happy with it. Using our typical class interaction structure, she called on two classmates to give her feedback and then the class continued discussing her essay.
The version she read did not have the ending you will read below. She had stopped the early draft of the essay with her being disappointed with her grandmother. As she responded to her classmates’ questions and the class explored her essay, we began to look at moments in literature, history, and our lives when we have complicated, ambiguous feelings and thoughts about a situation. Students recounted our reading of The Gilgamesh Epic, Shakespeare’s King Lear, James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son,” and Toni Morrison’s Beloved. They recalled Demetria’s essay about her mother’s murder and Shana’s on her tattoo.
By the end of the discussion, Marleesa announced that she had her ending.
It was a typical day in our class, with students learning from each other and reflecting on the range of material we have studied in class in light of a new problem posed by a student-written text. We are proud of the way students make their work public in class and then use this collective setting to think more deeply about what they are writing and reading—and then to revise their writings based on these reflections.
“Now I wasn’t no Rosa Parks, but I was Ester Thompson”
Grandma moved to New Orleans during the prime of the Civil Rights Movements. The year 1960 involved the Carnival Day Blackout, the Dryades Street Boycotts, and the start of sit ins. Naturally when I asked my Grandma about the civil rights movement, I thought that she would have never-ending stories to tell. Unfortunately her reply was, “I wasn’t involved in all that. I worked.”
Knowing that my grandmother wasn’t an active member of the anti-racist movement disappointed me. She came from a small town in Alabama, which was mainly black. My family often jokes about my grandmother being a house slave, meaning she would probably rat out the runaway slaves because of how much she respects whites.
My grandmother has worked for white people since she came to New Orleans. She would watch their children and clean their homes. She was known as Ester, even to the children. It wasn’t until their children had children that she was finally called Ms. Ester. These people grew to love her, but they never looked at her as an equal. She was just a benefit to them. Maybe that’s why my grandmother puts white people on a pedestal. She was so used to looking up at them, because in her mind they stood above her. My grandmother even changed her voice when she talked on the phone with them.
Since I was born, I’ve known these people whom my grandma worked for. I’ve made it my top priority to show my grandma that I am capable of anything their children can do. It wasn’t until Xavier University sent me my scholarship letter, revealing that my college education was paid for, that my grandmother realized the capability of black people. She was overjoyed, because none of the white family’s children received scholarships. Hearing the excitement in her voice when she told her employers brought tears to my eyes.
My grandma had been living in the 1950’s all her life. Now she is finally being released from the firm grip the past held on her.
“Look at me, child,” my Grandma said with sternness in her eyes.
“I’m looking, but I don’t see much of nothing,” I replied smartly. Shoot, all Grandma ever did was work up under them white folks.
“That’s because you’re not looking hard enough,” she said with her hands pulling my face close to hers.
“I know you wondering why I wasn’t involved in the Movement. Baby, I wanted to. Lord knows I did. But I had eight children to raise. I had to make sure that they had a better education than I did. It may have been nothing much to you, but it sure as hell was something to me. I made sure my children went far in life. Now I wasn’t no Rosa Parks, but I was Ester Thompson. You will respect me for that.”
My grandma may have not been what I thought was a leader, but she built a generation of strong black people. Never once did Grandma tell my mother that she shouldn’t go to an all-white nursing school. Never once did she tell my uncle to leave New Orleans for college. Instead, she pushed them further. People like my grandmother were the backbone to the Movement.
“Grandma, I’m sorry I underestimated you. It’s just that they don’t teach that in the schools. They don’t talk about people like you.”
“I know baby. I know.”
The opinions expressed in Student Stories: A New Orleans Classroom Chronicle are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.