Today Gabrielle Turner joined other SAC staff members in a featured presentation at the national convention of the Association of Teacher Educators. Gabrielle has been working as a student and staff member of SAC for over seven years, and she is planning to enroll in the Master of Arts in Teaching program at Emory University next fall.
In her comments to these university education professors, Gabrielle talked clearly about her decision to become a teacher—after receiving a college degree and numerous job opportunities in film and video production—as rooted in her commitment to social justice and educational equity struggles in New Orleans.
Gabe wrote the essay that follows about her mother when she was a junior in our SAC class at McDonogh 35. The essay indicates one of the sources of her commitment to social justice in New Orleans—and it continues this week’s series of students writing about their parents.
We also want to give a special thanks to the Georgia Association of Teacher Educators, which has been a good friend and supporter of Students at the Center since Hurricane Katrina and with whom we shared the panel at today’s presentation, where we agreed that teachers in training and teachers in general needed the sense of history and mission that Gabrielle expressed today, the roots of which are described in her essay, “Ordinary Hero.”
“Every time I’d hear his voice I’d run to the television and plop down in front of it. I would take in every word he said. Dr. King was mesmerizing. I didn’t always understand what was going on. I knew it was big, important, and exciting. I knew I wanted to be a part of what was going on.
“One cold morning I got up early, threw on some jeans, and caught the Desire bus to Canal Street. I knew that there was a boycott on Canal. There were hundreds of people standing on the neutral ground. I wandered through the crowds and listened to the conversations. I got more excited as the minutes passed. Someone wanted a break. A man beckoned for a replacement. I found myself in the picket lines.”
These are the words of my mother. She was taking part in a movement for equality and job opportunities. She was barely out of high school. They were picketing because African Americans could spend their money in stores and restaurants but couldn’t sit and have a meal in them. They had menial jobs that paid next to nothing.
My grandfather had one of the better jobs a black man could have in the sixties. He was a postal worker. He watched white men who were often less qualified and equally educated pass him by as they moved up the pay scale. The only difference was that he was black.
A year later my mother found herself at Loyola University. This university was private, prestigious, and practically all white. She later got a good job with the government. These opportunities are what the civil rights workers were working for.
“One morning I walked in my Sociology class late. No one had noticed that I had just arrived. Everyone’s focus was on the television. I didn’t know what was going on. On television there was a crowd of black men protesting. I soon learned that the police were trying to shut down a program that was led by the Black Panthers in the Desire Project. A young white student turned with his face six inches from mine. He confronted me, saying ‘if these men were at work this wouldn’t be going on.’ I was the only black person in the class, and I was from the Desire Project. Everyone began to demand explanations and make accusations against the protesters. I looked up at the teacher for her to rescue me. She stood at the front of the class with her arms folded and a strange smile on her face. Finally, class ended, and everyone left. I stayed behind in the quiet lonely classroom and cried. I was so upset I went back home.”
I could hear in my mom’s voice when she was telling me this story that she was hurt and angry. My mom is a very strong person. But a person can only take so much. My mom was very courageous to have been the only black in the class. I know my mother, and even though this was a hard situation to deal with, she wasn’t going to let it stop her from doing what she had to do. The incident in the classroom was only the beginning of an unforgettable experience that affected the rest of her life. She finished the story, telling me what happened later that day.
“To make things worse I was about a half a mile from home. On the way home, I was met by a police roadblock. The police said I couldn’t take my car any further. I had to walk home. I grabbed my bag and walked six blocks in deep thought. When I reached the grassy courtyard outside of our building, I heard a swishing noise in the grass. I looked down to see a white police officer looking at me from behind an outstretched rifle. He looked at me and then looked away giving me permission to go on. I was incredulous, furious, but for some reason not afraid. I was too angry to be afraid. I walked in my house to the hushed voices of my family telling me to get down because the police were everywhere. The same event that was on the television in the class had escalated.’'
Later that night, my mom joined hundreds of protesters on the streets outside the Panther building. She said she had mixed feelings. She really didn’t support the Black Panthers because of their talk of violence and hatred. They were one of those groups that thought Dr. King’s way would never work. But the anger from the experience earlier that day and the sight of tanks, assault weapons, and enough policemen to fight a small war swayed her sympathies.
She is like so many other ordinary people who got caught up in the civil rights movement. She joined in with other unknown heroes and helped out. Today we all reap the benefits.
I am truly grateful for my mother. I think I am the kind of person I am because of her. I am not afraid to take a stand for the things I believe. In my own quiet way, I fight against those things that are wrong.
If no one else sees my mother as a hero, I do.
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.