Thursday, March 03, 2005

Profound Effect on My Life

Posting that old photo of me from the 70's and thinking about Christo's art in Kansas City reminded me of how my life was profoundly changed in Kansas City. Seeing my long hair brought to mind the reason I had it cut--in Kansas City.

I went to Helena High School in Helena, Montana. We had only two African-American families in our city. The daughter in one family, Janet, was a year older than me. She was incredibly bright and popular and the year she went to Girl's State, she was elected Governor. From what I heard, she went on to have a successful career and was one of the producers of the Phil Donahue Show. But, in 1970, she was not allowed to try on clothes at the local department store.

One of the sons in the other family, Charles, was my age and was our class president. He, too, was popular, smart, and athletic. I saw him recently at a high school reunion and he has had a happy successful life and marriage. They were my friends and you tend to become blind to society's categories when you know people. I am certain Charles like Janet has experienced prejudice and discrimination which seems so incredibly stupid to me because their background is the same as mine.

Charles and Janet were my personal points of reference when we moved to Kansas City. My husband was in graduate school and I had a teaching degree--in secondary education/ Social Studies. Kansas City spreads across two states and racial issues were unresolved and tense in 1974. School integration was a hot issue and whites were fleeing to the suburbs in droves to avoid the horror of their children being in the same building as black children. I could not find a teaching job in either Missouri or Kansas because evidently, they wanted their Social Studies teachers to also coach football.

The Kansas City, Kansas school district placed me as a teacher's aide in a remedial reading program in an elementary school. Quindaro School was in the poorest deteriorated area of the city and all of the children in the school were African-American. Interestingly, the school was brand new and an obvious attempt at creating a "separate but equal" situation to escape having to bus these children to the better schools in white areas. The remedial reading program was new and the teaching staff had been integrated for the first time the year before.

The first week on the job was an enormous cultural shock for me. As a kid from Montana I had never seen black people in an entirely black neighborhood. I had never seen such massive poverty. My supervisor, Myra, was an older African-American woman who had sent her only son to private school. I didn't understand, at first.

We had 60 children in our program. Sixty children with problems I could not even imagine. Sixty children from the poorest area of Kansas City who were picked for our program because their test scores were even lower than the other two hundred kids. These children had never even been out of the neighborhood. Many of them had never seen a white person in person until some white teachers came to the school the year before.

I will admit I was frightened driving into the Quindaro district. The white P.E. teacher's car had been smashed and trashed. One of the student's had attacked her and broken her nose. The student, Ivan, was in our program and he was a big 6th grader with scars on his face. I did not know what I had gotten myself into. But, it did not take me long to realize I belonged there. Within the first week, I knew every child's name--all sixty of them. Even Myra did not know their names. I learned that these children, the throw-aways of our culture, valued being called by name--by me, a pretty young white woman with long long hair.

Not long after I learned the names, I became attached. They loved my hair and they called me Wonder Woman from TV because I guess to them, I looked like her even if I wasn't quite as buxom. Tiny little Rodney wanted to know about cows in Montana. He had never seen a cow. Little Marilyn wanted me to know her Dad was a policeman; she was better dressed than the rest of the kids. Even brooding Ivan warmed up to me. They loved "scaring" me by explaining what roaches were. I had never seen one until I lived there. The children comforted me after we had been robbed; I realized only too well they did know how I felt. The advantage I had was that my boss in the room with me was African American and I took orders from her. These kids had little familiarity with a white person working for a black person. She was in charge and their frustration, if any, would be directed at her, not me.

Myra was the one who told me to cut my beautiful hair. The children touched it and felt it and when I would crouch over them, it would brush over their heads. Lice-- Myra was afraid I would get lice. The thought horrified me and had never occurred to me so I cut my hair. Even with shorter hair, the kids still thought I looked just like Lynda Carter! http://www.amazing-amazon.com/wwlynda.htm They called me "Mizzzeaton" and it took me a while to understand when they said I drove a "baaad car" (my husband's old Pontiac Firebird) that it meant they liked it!

These kids supposedly had IQ's of 80 or less and that is when I realized that test scores are meaningless. The 60 children I worked with had a tremendous amount of potential; they had never had a chance to read books at home; to have enough food in their tummies; enough clothes; or to have experience outside four dilapidated wooden walls. The brains of these children were no different than the brains of the white kids in the suburbs. I experienced it with my own eyes and soul. It did not take much attention to push many of these children into reading. But, there was a gigantic difference in circumstances that would keep these kids from having lives like my friends, Janet and Charles. The thought profoundly affected me. And it made me angry.

And I am still angry because as a nation, we continue to throw these kids away. The number of black children in poverty has grown at an alarming rate. Circumstances, according to our government's own statistics, are WORSE now than in those days of my time at Quindaro School 30 years ago. http://www.childrensdefense.org/familyincome/childpoverty/default.asp For every six children in this country, one lives in poverty.

"That is more children living in poverty today than 30 or 35 years ago. A child in America is more likely to live in poverty than a child in any of the 18 other wealthy industrialized nations for which data exist. "

Not only have we done nothing as a country, we are moving backwards.

We have done nothing and we don't care.

We don't care about the children in America.