Applying weight to the memories that feed our souls

[Six years ago I posted this on another blog. I’ve long since abandoned that blog but it still resides in the Internet. One day it will probably die of neglect. So I’ve decided to migrate some of my favorite posts to this blog. ]

DID YOU EVER wonder how your elementary school teachers pictured you?

Not many of us ever get the opportunity to go back into the minds of those old teachers to find out what they thought of us. A year or so before The Houston Post folded, I wrote a column about some of the great teachers I had in my hometown of Crystal City, Texas. (See previous blog post.) I wrote primarily about my junior high teachers, but I also mentioned Lucille Busby, my second-grade teacher.

A few weeks later, I received a copy of a letter written by Mrs. Busby to the town’s newspaper editor. Apparently somebody had already mailed a copy of the column to where she lived, in an Austin nursing home. This is what she wrote:

“I’ve a friend … who once lived in Crystal City, briefly, several years go. She is now in Baytown and has been sending me articles by Juan occasionally from the Post, including this one. I feel very proud of that little second-grader that I taught many years ago at Zavala [it was actually at Grammar School]. He was a little migrant child, cute, quiet, very bright, hard-working and has always been at the top of a long line of mostly second graders that I’ve remembered thru the years – Hispanic and Anglo…

“I lost track of [Juan] after he reached the higher grades and desegregation had begun. But I can see the hurt, even anger that might have been growing in the mind and heart of a middle-school migrant child. They [migrant students] usually came in weeks [after school started] and left weeks early, feeling second-class and trying so hard to catch up and keep up. That hurt applied to his classmates, both Hispanic and Anglo. Oftentimes the Hispanic child had less understanding and tolerance than the Anglo.

“I wish Thelma Ford and Mary Campbell [teachers I wrote about in the column] were around to read Juan’s tribute to them. They were deserving and would have appreciate his feelings so much…

“Emma has sent me a few of Juan’s Post clips in recent weeks on various subjects. I especially remember his tribute to Carmela López on her death that you printed in your paper several months ago. Rubén López is his maternal uncle. It was well done, tho I seem to feel a heartbreak in his writing that was deeper than sadness of the occasion. Maybe I’m reading something into it.

“Since leaving Crystal City in June, ’70, just at the beginning of La Raza [La Raza Unida Party, which took over control of local government in the early 70s and ruled for about a decade], I know nothing of my children’s (Hispanic) grown-up years, pro or con, or of their leanings in their adult politics.

“I’m proud of Juan and of his efforts in reaching the goal that he has set and hope for only the best for him. I know that he has worked hard to gain what he has against mighty odds. I wish that I could know that second grader as a man…”

I’M SORRY TO say that I never took the opportunity to pay a visit to Mrs. Busby so she would get to know me “as a man.” I would have liked to ask her what she meant by “hurt, even anger that might have been growing” in my heart. Did she actually see that when I was in her class? Or was that what she read in me through my columns, many of which, I have to admit, were filled with anger at the many injustices suffered by Hispanics and other minorities in my home state.

I would have loved to learn what she meant by “the Hispanic child had less understating and tolerance than the Anglo.”

Frankly, I don’t recall any of my teachers ever asking us what we understood or thought about what we saw around us – the segregate schools, the outright and intentional discrimination, and the institutional neglect of the Mexican kids by the school district.

ONE OF THE reasons Mrs. Busby may have lost track of me was that after spending second grade in her class at Grammar Elementary School, which was three blocks from my house and was attended by all the Anglo and non-migrant Mexican kids – and a few of the migrant kids, including my two sisters – I was told the next year that there was no room for me and I was dispatched to Airport 2 Elementary (so called because it was near the town’s airport, which during World War II was part of the Japanese-American internment camp that also housed German POWs and South Americans of Japanese descent), which was a couple of miles away. The school was one of two that had been used to teach the camp kids; we called it El Campo. Each year I tried again to enroll in Grammar and each year I was again sent to Airport 2, a drafty school equipped with leftover desks and no playground equipment – and which no bus service. Some of our teachers were certified; others had received emergency teaching certificates after a year or two of college (some of these teachers were better than the certified teachers).

In the fourth grade, we had four teachers. The third was an ex-jock named Darrel Bailey, who’d attended two years of college, if that much. To his credit, he never pretended he knew anything about teaching. The only academic topic he liked was spelling. We were expected to memorize the words from the spelling book and then wait of him to call on us to spell a word. If we got it right, we got an “OK.” If we misspelled it, we’d get a paddling. Of course, he knew who the better spellers were, so people like me never got called on and some of the other students would be honored with several paddlings by the time the spelling lesson was over.

But I was not so lucky when it came to art class, which consisted of Manuel Palacios and me – the other class “artist” – drawing pictures with colored chalk on the blackboard. When we finished, the class would vote on the winner. Unfortunately for me, Manuel was a much better artist, so he got the prize – a Coke – and I got the loser’s reward: you guessed it, another paddling. (The one time the class chose my drawing, Mr. Bailey exercised his veto power and I got a paddling anyway.)

The rest of the class day, Mr. Bailey would sit on his desk, holding a softball in his hand and looking up and down the rows of desks. With no warning, he’d toss the ball at one of us. Those who failed to catch the ball got a paddling. When he got tired of these games, he’d sit down to write love notes to a cute female teacher whose classroom was at the other end of the school. It was then up to Manuel or Hector Sánchez or me – or a few other students – to deliver the notes to the teacher, and wait for her reply.

Fortunately, Mr. Bailey didn’t last long. Without explanation, he was gone one day and he was replaced by a wonderful, caring teacher, Mrs. Jett. She was everything Mr. Bailey wasn’t and I will never forget how quiet the classroom became when she would read to us – “Lassie Come Home” and other classics.

I’ve often wondered why none of us ever complained about Mr. Bailey – to the principal, or to our parents. But I realize that none of us knew we could complain. During my entire 13 years in the public schools (grades 1 through 12 plus what was called pre-primer, the year before first grade when we were supposed to learn English), it never once occurred to me to complain about anything that happened in school to my parents. Our families, our church and our culture taught us that we should be subservient, that we should never rock the boat. And even if we were to tell our parents, what could they do? Most of them didn’t even speak English, and most of them never imagined that, as parents, they had a voice, much less one that would be listened to.

As for the principal, how could he not have known what was going on in his school? What would complaining to him have accomplished?

So, with all due respect to Mrs. Busby, intolerance was not exactly one of our vices.

IN THE COLUMN that prompted Mrs. Busby’s letter, I wrote glowingly about some of my teachers, most of them Anglo. Like Mrs. Jett, all of them were superb and cared deeply about their Mexican students. At least that was what I saw. How they treated the Mexican kids in other classes, I don’t know.

However, their excellence in the classroom does not erase the fact that they were also part of a school district – run by Anglo administrators and Anglo trustees – that systematically and unabashedly treated us as second-class citizens. Why would such otherwise God-loving, church- going teachers never bother to speak out against the injustices that were committed against the Mexican kids? Did they believe that doing their duty inside the classroom was all that was required of them? Wasn’t at least one of them ever moved to say, even in a private, whispered conversation with another, This is not right, what we’re going to these people?

Maybe these teachers privately hated what was being done to us. Maybe they quietly worked to end the institutionalized apartheid. If they did, none ever chose to confide in any of us after La Raza Unida liberated the schools about their quiet protests. None, as far as I know, ever expressed joy at finally having the opportunity to work in a free school. Indeed, most of them quickly packed their bags and moved to neighboring towns – still under Anglo control – to pursue their teaching careers.

I often fantasize of sitting down for a long conversation with one of those teachers and asking her these questions. Not in an atmosphere of recrimination and accusations, but in the spirit of shedding light on a great mystery. I fantasize about that because I’ve always been curious about how large numbers of people are able to turn a blind eye to wrongdoing, or rationalize it to themselves.

You may be asking yourself, “Why doesn’t he just get over this? Why can’t he forgive and forget? What can be accomplished by re-living all that?”

Good questions, all. I am quite capable of suppressing many of those memories for long periods of time. I do have a life to live and I don’t spend much time dwelling on the past. However, it is impossible to forget that which helped shape who I am and what I am. The soul feeds on memories, the good and the painful. It is up to us to assign weight to those memories to determine how to react to today’s realities.

NOT LONG AGO, I read how National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, an African American whose family is a product of the Old South, believes that it wasn’t the Civil Rights movement that toppled and desegregated the South. Rather, she believes the Old South was already on the verge of collapsing from its own weight. She’s a perfect example of someone who assigns no weight to the memories of the injustices suffered by her family. In doing so, she dishonors not only her family, but also the thousands of men and women – black and white – who were beaten, imprisoned, intimidated, insulted or killed to ensure that she would have the opportunities she’s enjoyed.

My bad old days may be gone, but it would be foolish for me to claim they never existed, or that they’re over for everybody. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t read about somebody somewhere in this country taking advantage of somebody else, of those who lack the power to fight back. It is important that, every once in a while, we are reminded of what one group of people is capable of doing to another.

About juanzqui7

Former Texas reporter, columnist and editorial writer.
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