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This blog is provided by April Blaine and is a reflection on a past experience and how it shaped her. It is a companion to the interview on Innovating Leadership, Co-creating Our Future with Joyce Beatty, Congresswoman, and Doug McCollough titled Winning in the Face of Adversity: Overcoming Challenge with Grace which aired on 10/13/18.
One of the first steps to remove racism in the world is to remove it from our thinking. It is essential to take a critical look at our lives and see where we can update our own story about who we are and how we have benefited from systemic racism. This critical view of our stories is an integral part of our healing and allows us to make sense of what we experience now through a lens that is less biased, fairer, and more just. April Blaine, one of the ILI certified facilitators shares her experience with this process.
I’m Sorry Mrs. Skull…
I began the first grade at Fulbright Elementary School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1983. More than twenty-five years after the city’s infamous and violent path toward desegregation at Central High School, the district continued to struggle with integration, particularly in the elementary schools. While I lived less than a mile from the school, most of my classmates were bused from across town. All of them were African-American except myself and one other girl. The remaining children on my block, who swam with me at the pool went to local private schools.
My teacher, Mrs. Skull, made it clear on day one that she meant business. She was tall, thin, dignified, and serious. One of only a handful of black teachers in the school, she always dressed smartly, her hair pulled back in a bun, accentuating her beautifully defined cheekbones and smooth, clear complexion. My six-year-old memories would place her anywhere between the ages of 25 and 55… something about her felt ageless.
As adults, we can reflect on these moments in our childhood and how we made sense of what was happening around us. We can review the stories that we were told with a more critical lens… examining them with an ability to ask – was that really true?
But back in 1983, in my all-white neighborhood and nearly all-black school – with the only black teacher I would ever have in my public school experience… I didn’t have the gift yet of perspective.
My mother had started reading with me from a very young age. She is an educator by vocation, and I took to reading quickly… spending my preschool and kindergarten years never far from a book. I’m not sure who was more excited on my first day of school. My mother dressed me in a hand made purple smocked dress, both of us filled with high expectations for all that I would learn and discover in this new season of life.
In the early part of the year, Mrs. Skull began placing us into reading groups. I remember reading the book she gave me and thinking to myself, “This is easy. This is too easy.” As I looked around the room at other groups, I recognized that others were reading books that were harder. I wanted to read those. I was told no.
I don’t remember feeling angry about this… just confused. Why wasn’t I able to read the books the other children were reading? At some point, I vocalized this concern to my mother.
There are lots of words you could use to describe my mother. Strong, intelligent, generous, and loyal would be some of the first to come to mind. But close behind them would be pushy, aggressive, convinced she is right and unwilling to take no for an answer.
I can only imagine how the conversation went with Mrs. Skull.
All I know is that a battle ensued between my mother and this teacher. I wasn’t privy to all the details, but I could hear the muttering at home on my mother’s end. Mrs. Skull was not appreciative of a parent questioning her judgment. She refused to change the reading groups based on my mother’s demands.
More phone calls and visits to the principal’s office ensued. The saga ended with me being removed from Mrs. Skull’s class and placed in a 3rd-grade classroom for most of instruction for the remainder of the year.
And so the triumphant story was told throughout my childhood of our victory over prejudice and hate. In my version of the story, my mother was the hero standing up against racially motivated discrimination directed at her daughter. I was, of course, the victim in the story. Mrs. Skull was the black teacher who gave preferential treatment to her black students and discriminatory treatment to the white student. And in this story, my departure from the classroom was a picture of poetic justice.
Woven into the narrative were all the cultural stereotypes of angry black females. My serious and dignified teacher became a stern, cold, and hateful woman in the story we were writing. Even her name seemed to connect to a more primitive, dark, and negative side of the human race. Mrs. SKULL…
This story left its marks on the identity I built for myself over time, one in which, as a “victim of racism,” I could not possibly be racist or prejudiced. I even went so far as to align myself with people on the margins in solidarity. After all, I had been one of the only white girls in the class. I “clearly knew” what it was like to be discriminated against.
This story gave me a lot of permission. It gave me permission to excuse myself from anti-racism work, permission to claim the status as someone who understood racism and discrimination. Still, most of all, it permitted me never to ask any questions about the real truth of the story itself.
At least, until now.
It’s pretty embarrassing how long it took me to realize that this story had some real problems.
At 42, I’m starting to come to terms with ways that white supremacy was and is woven into my life. I’m a real beginner at this, and most days, all I’m learning is how much I don’t understand and how complicit I have been for so long.
But the work has finally helped me to start asking new questions. I’ve started to wonder about how this story might have played out from the perspective of my 1st-grade teacher.
As a child, I was bossy, outspoken, and slipped quickly into roles of leadership… whether I was invited to or not. I wonder what Mrs. Skull thought as she assessed her class and tried to create the right learning environment for each one of us.
- Did she see my early reading skills and place me in the reading group with other students so that I could be helpful to the others?
- Did she recognize that experience in a group that wasn’t the highest achieving would turn out to be valuable for me?
- Did I somehow misunderstand the nature of the reading assessment and test at a lower level than I actually was?
As a black woman of color, Mrs. Skull had probably worked twice as hard as her white colleagues to prove her worth and aptitude in the profession. She hadn’t crossed enormous racial boundaries and systemic hurdles to secure a position in the suburbs by accident.
- What must it have been like to come all this way to have your integrity challenged so directly?
- What was she thinking when this white mother was relentlessly demanding that she submit to her expectations?
I’m sure it wasn’t the first time she had encountered this kind of treatment by a white parent. I’m certain it wasn’t the last.
What did it take for her to walk into school every day with her head held high and keep doing what she intended to do… teach these children with dignity?
The stories we tell ourselves matter. They shape a reality for us that we then live in, often far into adulthood.
This is normal, human stuff. We all do it.
We need to examining our stories. They need to be taken out and explored and reconfigured and understood with the new information that we have as adults who are waking up and beginning to see things more clearly.
I don’t know exactly what happened at this moment in 1983. I don’t know what motivated Mrs. Skull’s actions.
But I do know that if there was a victim in this story, it wasn’t me.
The system of white supremacy that supported my mother’s demands and moved me to an advanced class was operating as it always had… in the interest of white people.
And in the process, a hardworking, intelligent, dignified black teacher, who might have had the opportunity to make a real impact on my life, and teach me things from a new perspective, perhaps throw a wrench into some of the ideals that would be further cemented in my mind when I moved 2 years later to an all white community… was disgraced, disrespected, and overruled by her white superiors.
And I participated in it. I participated in it at the age of 6.
Unknowingly. Unintentionally, yes.
And yet, I participated in powerful ways that made an impact on the life of my teacher.
I’m sorry, Mrs. Skull.
I’m sorry for making you the villain all these years.
I’m so sorry for not doing the work I needed to see the truth.
I’m sorry I couldn’t see you as a human being…
I’m sorry I took my power and privilege for granted.
And I’m so sorry that you had to suffer because of it.
It’s not OK.
And it’s time to start telling the truth.
The real stories.
Thank you for being my teacher… 36 years later, I’m just beginning to learn.
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About the Author
Rev. April Blaine is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. She currently serves as the Lead Pastor at Hilliard UMC in Columbus, OH. April and her partner Martin have 2 children, Eugene and Marcus. April is passionate about helping others to make their home in a sense of love and acceptance so they can discover within a spiritual depth, honesty, and courage previously unseen. She teaches prayer and meditation courses online at Hilliard UMC and is working with the Innovative Leadership Institute to develop a course on the importance of Spirituality and Inner Depth as an Innovative Leader.