It will surprise anyone who knows me well that I can remember the names of my second and first grade teachers. But I have no difficulty whatsoever remembering Miss Lawson who taught seven- and eight-year-olds at Hillandale Elementary School in Durham, North Carolina.
What I remember most about this tall, slim, attractive African-American teacher, is that she had grace. It’s not something you can easily put into words. She was eloquent, patient, and quite serious. Physically, she was the exact opposite of my first grade teacher Miss Efird. Miss Efird, a former Miss North Carolina, was the equivalent of a Barbie doll. She had long, flowing blond hair, a waist so tiny it baffled children, and little boys followed in her wake. She giggled and talked with a bit of a squeaky voice. Miss Efird had a big engagement ring and was soon to be married. Little girls thought she looked just like a princess—exactly like the kind Disney portrayed back then. Every day little girls walked into Miss Efird’s class wanting to be like her and imagining what it must have been like at the beauty pageants or asking questions about her wedding dress or upcoming wedding day.
After that year, I walked into Miss Lawson’s class and was met by a woman in stark, dark clothes wearing her hair in a large afro—something I had never seen before. She often had pants on. In contrast, Miss Efird always wore floral dresses or pretty long skirts. My friend from first grade, whom I was made to partner with in reading exercises, suddenly began to talk. She didn’t talk much in first grade. This little African-American girl that I now can’t remember her name (why some may be surprised that I can remember my elementary school teacher’s names!), began asking questions and following Miss Lawson around. I remember her asking Miss Lawson why she wore her hair that way. Miss Lawson smiled and replied that it was beautiful.
The other thing I remember from second grade is not having everything sugar-coated. That year, I learned about Martin Luther King, Jr. Miss Lawson let us seven and eight-year-olds know that just four years before we were born, Negro (the term used back then) children in Alabama were hosed and beaten and met with snarling dogs. She talked about the churches bombed in Mississippi and the children killed there. We learned about how Negroes who tried to vote were killed in that state also. Miss Lawson then explained that on an April day the year we were born, James Early Ray shot and killed Martin Luther King, Jr. in Tennessee.
I remember that I cried and painted a picture that my mother kept for years. I also wrote a report on Martin Luther King, Jr. on the anniversary of his death. I was so shocked anyone would hurt him for helping people like Miss Lawson go to college or to vote or to sit in the same restaurants as I could. Certainly Miss Lawson must have witnessed racial hatred first hand while growing up in the South or when at college. My mother, a social worker in Durham for years, wasn’t concerned about how her shy eight-year-old daughter digested this information. It was the reality of life in the South. I knew that Miss Lawson was reaching out to us mainly white children at this school located fairly near Duke University to shake us up. I knew she had to reach out to us to see for herself that all children are born with the capacity for compassion. We are taught hatred, just as we are taught our ABCs.