In celebration of African American History Month, I think of those who shaped me, planting, with the witness of their lives, the seeds of love and justice within the soil of my soul. And as much as our American nation rightly honors the lives and legacies of known and notable civil right pioneers, I consider and revere “the grassroots folk” who, in my daily existence made a difference. Today, my elementary school teachers.
Benton Elementary School, named after Thomas Hart Benton (1782-1858), a U.S. Senator of Missouri, who, as a champion of western expansion, was one of the progenitors of the principle of Manifest Destiny, was my home away from home during my kindergarten through 8th grade years.
Under the benevolent autocratic leadership of the principal, Frederick H. Pruitt, this all-black, citadel of learning, two city blocks from my childhood dwelling, was a place where, in addition to “reading and writing and arithmetic”, I was taught, reaffirming the lessons of my household, that there was nothing that I, a black boy, with the effort of industry, could not accomplish in a world governed by white principles of privilege. Daily, a through-the-years stable band of teachers, the same who taught my brother advancing two years before me, inculcated the values of academic application and the virtues of racial pride. I remember them with greatest gratitude:
- Hortense Hawkins, Kindergarten; unfailingly patient, taking time to tutor each of us in a class of 30+, and to whom I owe my virtual-ambidexterity, for she encouraged, insisted that I, a natural left-hander, learn to use my right hand!
- Dorothy McDuffie, 1st-2nd Grades, an incessantly kindly, caring soul, who impressed upon us the necessity of mastering the art of language and the language of art.
- Jayne Brown, 3rd-4th Grades, a rigorous disciplinarian who, though slight of stature, in an era of corporal punishment, to which my parents, knowing my native insouciance, always consented, effortlessly wielded a rattan switch to great effect if and when her usually patient admonishments “to pay attention” could not stem our rambunctious, easily distracted (and distracting) energies.
- Ethel Washington, 5th-6th Grades; a brainy, Dorothy Dandridge-beauteous mathematician and linguist who made requisite our acquiring and employing English’s vast vocabulary.
- Vera Nowlin, 7th-8th Grades, a military-veteran, who, with a bard’s soul transmitted with tenderness her love of poetry, demanding that we learn, interpret, and recite verse, including Shakespeare’s sonnets, John Greenleaf Whittier’s Barefoot Boy, Robert Frost’s Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening, and the complete oeuvres of Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes.