Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Mrs. Booker

When I was eight I lived on Creekbend Dr. in the southeast side of Houston. At one end of Creekbend was a park; I lived at the other end. To find the house that I lived in, head up the long first block, then cross a street, which ended at Creekbend. Ours was the brick house with brown trim, second from the corner of the second block.

Other than the community swimming pool, the park at the end of our street wasn’t necessarily the fun kind of park, with swings, trees and such. It was just an open, grassy area with a few basic baseball diamonds and plenty of room for a football or soccer game. And at the opposite end of the park from the street on which I lived was the elementary school at which I attended third grade.

Thinking back on those days has always given me warm feelings. I’ve often felt that the time I spent in third grade was my favorite time in life. The oppressive Houston heat never bothered me then. I had a yellow Schwinn bicycle that I loved to ride. I was active in Cub Scouts and played soccer. I enjoyed school and remember many of the things I learned back then to this day. In fact, I seem to remember more of the things I learned in the third grade than any other grades. I’m not saying I didn’t learn much outside of third grade; after all, I did graduate high school with honors. But the things I learned when I lived on Creekbend have always stuck with me.

It was in third grade that I learned such things as the basics of geography and of the four directions. I also learned the basics of astronomy, which in college would be my favorite subject, along with history. It was in the third grade where I first learned about the concept of time, and how we would be reaching the year 2000, when I would be 32. I got my first wrist watch during this time; it was a racecar watch; a gift from my grandparents.

Every day, after school I would play with Robert, my best friend who lived two houses up from me. We used to watch TV shows and make tin foil boats to float in make believe rivers flowing through worlds created in the sandbox in his back yard. He and I created a language of code that no one else could understand and we often found ourselves playing in the hills of construction dirt, hiding behind them as we threw dirt clumps and small rocks at one another--war. Star Wars was our favorite movie and my C-3PO impression kept all the kids laughing. And it was during the third grade that my brother was born. Ah, Creekbend- so many great memories. I even convinced a dim neighborhood kid that I was from Pluto when he asked where I had come from after jumping out of a tree just behind him. Good times.

Since we lived so close, I would walk to school each day. It wasn’t far at all, but back then, to a nine-year old, it sure seemed to be. Parker Elementary was shaped like an E, with three wings extending from a main wing with the cafeteria and auditorium near the bottom wing of the E. My classroom was at the end of the hall and looked into the courtyard between the top wing of the E and the center. In command of this square room was Mrs. Booker, our teacher.

Mrs. Booker was a short-thick woman with light colored hair. Thinking back on her now, she was probably in her thirties. The one thing that always stands out to me about her was the way she wore her sweaters. Her bosom was ample and the sweaters were tight. She used a wooden pointing stick and at times, like when waiting for a student to give her an answer, she would bounce it off of the stretched material between her breasts. The stick would bounce back and forth- to and fro. She used the resilient force of her sweater to bring the stick forward and let it fall back again on its own, keeping me mesmerized as she did this. There were times she didn’t have her stick, but instead a ruler. But just as with the stick, Mrs. Booker would bounce that ruler on the sweater between her breasts, oblivious to the amazement going on in my head at the sight.

I loved Mrs. Booker – and no, not for the sweater trick. I loved her for the things she taught me. One day I did poorly on a spelling test. After she passed the results back to the students, she came around to go over them with most of us. One of the words I missed was “creek”. When she reached my desk she pointed this out to me with the question: how could I miss that word when I lived on Creekbend?

At first I was amazed that she knew the street on which I lived. But what she had just done was helped me realize how the world, or learning, was inter-connected. It hadn’t dawned on me to utilize my knowledge of spelling my street’s name to figure out how to spell creek. There were numerous resources at my finger tips. I was now on the path to super genius status thanks to one question from my third grade teacher.

When I think back on Mrs. Booker, it’s not for this that I most remember her, however. That was but a small example of the impression she left on me. It’s not for teaching me east from west, nor for her role as teacher during what I now call my great brain expansion. What I remember her for, more than anything else, was opening my eyes to color. Not the spectrum of color, but in people- skin color.

During what I must now presume was February, since that’s Black History Month, I recall Mrs. Booker getting us all quiet and settled down one afternoon and she started telling us about black people. She said many had been brought from Africa and been enslaved. She said blacks had endured many hardships living in America, but since the late sixties, had come a long way in gaining equal rights. But then she got more serious, her eyes squinting and her head moving closer to us, and she said there was still a long way to go.

For the first time since I’d met her, I saw that Mrs. Booker was a black woman. I looked around the room at my classmates and saw that some of them were also black. Others, I realized, were brown. And at the front of the class, my black teacher then thrust her left arm towards us and with her right hand showed us that the color of her skin doesn’t rub off. I thought this was silly, and had she not been so stern-looking, I might have let slip a laugh; the thought of skin color rubbing off. But the image was one that kept with me for many years.

That day, as I walked down Creekbend Dr. on my way home, I studied the people I passed to see who was white and who was black. Then I started to remember people in my past, friends of my mom and the bus driver at my previous school, who were black. I had never noticed.

I recalled my paternal grandparents, who grew up in the Texas Hill County, referring to some people as colored, or as worse. Those terms would never again sit well with me. I understood about prejudice being in the world without even having to study it. Not to say that my grandparent’s were necessarily prejudiced. They grew up in a world where that is simply what they called black people. I never recall them saying anything untoward of a black person. They used the terms as they would to call someone a German or a farmer or a bus driver…colored.

As I got older I could see the prejudice others had towards people who were different from them all around me. And it wasn’t just directed towards blacks; Jews, hicks, Asians, Muslims, anyone different. And as I was witness to it, I would often study it, much like a dog might study a new person in their midst. I wanted to better understand how people could feel a certain way about a group of others without any sound reason. As you can see, before Mrs. Booker, it was quite foreign to me.

What I found, especially in my friends or acquaintances, was that it appeared to be passed down from their parents. Mom never allowed me to judge a book by its cover. I was taught to look things up when I went to her with questions; to be independent and free-thinking. So I realized how fortunate I was not to have picked up bigotry from my home, as so many others around me had.

So I’m quite proud that it took my third grade teacher to open my eyes to skin tones and prejudice. It’s not something I learned at home. And for that I thank my mother…and Mrs. Booker.

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