A Three-Part Series (Part I)
I was born in Virginia Beach the year that Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. My father was stationed there in the Navy. After he was discharged, we returned to Maryland where both of my parents grew up. I was raised in rural Carroll County.
When I turned five, I went to kindergarten at the church down the street. Kindergarten wasn’t mandatory in 1969, but my parents made sure I went anyway. At age five, I walked to and from school every day by myself. My mother had two younger ones to care for, so I became independent. I loved being independent. I don’t remember my kindergarten teacher’s name and I don’t know how much I learned, but I do remember that it was fun. I remember trips to the farm, finger-painting, and creating a shadow picture of my head.
Like many baby boomers, I can’t always remember what I did yesterday, last week, or last year. For some reason, however, I can remember first grade. I remember Mrs. Butler. At the age of six, she was the first African American person I remember meeting. She was also my first grade teacher.
I loved Mrs. Butler and she loved me. She taught me to read and write. She taught me how to add and subtract. Mrs. Butler gave me a foundation that led to a life-long pursuit of learning. In June of 1971, when school ended, I cried. I was never a crier, but I cried big tears when first grade came to an end. I remember kissing Mrs. Butler on the cheek and giving her a long hug. I felt a little lost. It was the saddest moment of my seven-year old life.
Fifty years later I still remember Mrs. Butler. The faces and names of many teachers have faded with the years, but not Mrs. Butler. Some say it takes three significant relationships with a teacher to ensure that a child will succeed in school. Mrs. Butler was my first and I can never re-pay that debt.
If it takes three significant relationships for a child to succeed in school and life, how many does it take for them to care for others? How many significant relationships with people of other races does it take for a person to see the value in all human life? I think three is a good number. More would be better, but let’s go with three for now.
Mrs. Butler was my first significant relationship with a Black person. She was the first non-white person that I loved. Life is a little simpler when you’re six. You base how you feel about others on how they make you feel, how they treat you. Mrs. Butler made me feel good about myself.
I don’t know what challenges Mrs. Butler had teaching in Carroll County in the 60s and 70s, but I am sure that she regularly faced bigotry and racism working in a largely white school district. That never stopped her from taking care of her students. What an honor and privilege it was to have her as my first grade teacher. Mrs. Butler is one reason, the first reason, that Black lives matter to me.
Next up: Part II. It Took Faith