Tuesday, September 1, 2009

A LESSON IN BLACK AND WHITE

Last night, I found out (on Facebook, where else?) that my eighth-grade English teacher, Ms. Powell, passed away yesterday. Queen Powell (yes, that was her name) was an extremely proper French woman who called her students "Mademoiselle [insert surname here]" and "Monsieur [ditto]." And beware the student who asked, "Can I use the bathroom?" (the proper request: "May I use the bathroom?"), or made any casual, careless grammatical mistake in her presence.

I liked Ms. Powell, but I was a little bit scared of her. My fear peaked the day she walked into the classroom after running an errand and confiscated something that one of my classmates was working on. I knew what it was, and a chill ran up and down my spine. Back in those days, before guns and drugs on campus were a far bigger problem, the biggest pet peeve of most teachers was when students worked on assignments from other classes on their time -- in this case, homework from Mr. Holmes's Social Studies class.

Ms. Powell glanced at the papers in her hand, looked at me, and said, "Oh. And I recognize Mr. Helligar's handwriting." Busted! I had loaned my homework to my classmate to copy, as I often did, being a sucker, one of the smartest kids in school, and a geek desperate for approval from the cool crowd. Now I was going to suffer both the embarrassment of being caught and the humiliation of a failing grade for the assignment. I spent the rest of the class alternately blushing (though, thankfully, my skin color camouflaged the red effect) and seething.

When the bell rang, and everyone started to shuffle out of the classroom, Ms. Powell asked me to stay behind. Oh no, I thought. Time for the hammer to really fall. After the others had left, she proceeded to give me a stern lecture -- with a twist. "Jeremy, next year you will be going to the high school," she said. "You are a very bright boy, and you're black. You have to be careful. These white kids will try to take advantage of you and bring you down with them. You can't let them do that." She gave me back my homework and made me promise not to tell anyone about her leniency with me. It was the only truly human moment I ever witnessed from her.

Despite apologies from the student to whom I'd loaned my work, and the burning questions of all my classmates, I kept up my end of the bargain. This is the first time I've ever publicly spoken of it. It would be another 20 years or so before I really learned my greater lesson and started to let go of my people-pleasing ways (still a work in progress), but I never forgot Ms. Powell's words, which might be construed by some as reverse racism and by others as a simple fact. Everyone is welcome to their opinion.

May the Queen rest in peace.
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