Close to tears, I reached for the phone to call my teaching supervisor. Quitting seemed the only option. But Someone stopped me.
Whispers in the hallway and the cold dark stares almost succeeded to shake the core of my feigned courage to keep walking. Being the first white teacher at Bethany High in the fall of 1968, I hid behind a manufactured smile, hoping to shut out panic.
Austin, Texas, still segregated, was on the heels of change. The University’s Education Department asked for volunteers to student teach in minority high schools. The brief window of opportunity surprised me before I could control my upraised hand, and before reason birthed an excuse.
It was the decade to fight for a cause. Hating the racial barrier of prejudice, I was determined to make a difference. I had two Junior English classes and three months to reach my goal. I was young and idealistic with lots to learn.
I noticed Shayla as she walked in laughing with her girlfriends. At first she didn’t see me, but the moment our eyes met I saw the fear and felt her disgust from her body language.
Shayla’s face collapsed into a scowl, as she cursed, and threw her books down, letting me know she was unhappy with my presence. I tensed up, cowering inside, but not wanting it to show.
I was swimming in a fishbowl as every word I spoke and move I made was scrutinized by Shayla’s rigid judgment of me. I felt frustrated as she spoke directly to me through her written assignments that “all whites were evil and not to be trusted.”
Afraid to confront her, I hid behind “niceness.” I wondered if she picked up on my fears as well. After two weeks, my attempt to befriend her to help dislodge her resentment towards me was failing. Turning the other cheek and letting her beat me was only creating more distance between us. I was confused and doubt was creeping in. Maybe I wasn’t cut out for this.
Time was running out, and I was desperate for an answer.
Shayla’s class was taking an important true and false test. I just happened to be grading the previous period’s test with the answer key, when I noticed Shayla was peering onto my desk, relaying the answers to the rest of the class. I decided to trick her. Instead of calling her on it, I rewrote the answer key , making sure she provided the class with all wrong answers.
When the students graded their own test in class moments later, all who had cheated failed. The look on Shayla’s face was priceless as I smiled and winked at her.
There was a shift. Behind her hard exterior, I noticed a slight softening.
This seemingly insignificant victory empowered me. I remembered my favorite teachers were not my friends, but I loved them. Those who enforced their rules consistently without apology won my respect. Color, age, or gender had nothing to do with it. I had been walking down the wrong path with Shayla.
In trying and failing to overcome the racial barrier, I neglected to realize the invisible barrier between teacher and student was my first priority. I couldn’t change Shayla’s heart without first winning her respect as a teacher, not as a friend.
The gradual change I witnessed in Shayla’s behavior towards me was like watching a drama unfold when each character starts to come out of hiding behind fascades, like watching a rose bloom in slow motion. I had to change first. My teacher’s hat started to fit, as my confidence in my role grew. I was falling in love with all of them, but especially Shayla. We were meant to bond, but not as friends.
The relationship between Shayla and I grew steadily the next few weeks. One day she asked to talk to me after class. She apologized for the essays she wrote about whites, and told me the horror story about the landlord who had abused her family, causing so much tension her dad took off and never came back. With tears in my eyes, I told her I was sorry, and would pray for them. The moment was bittersweet as it was time to go.
Shayla organized my farewell party with a request for me to dance. It was hysterically pitiful.
She may remember me with a chuckle, but I know Shayla and the lessons she taught me are emblazoned forever on my heart.
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