We were educated mainly by the Irish teachers of the Boston Public School System. I actually was well into my high school years before I ever was taught by a teacher of color in the public school system. Yet we learned to read and write and reason; and we set personal and educational goals as we grew. Many of the teachers recognized and honored our gifts when they were evident, and many others struggled with us and our parents when we were slower to understand aspects of a particularly critical discipline such as math, or reading or writing.
I always demonstrated a proclivity for language, both written and spoken. I understood almost inherently the phonemic idioms and sounds of the English language from a very early age. I was often recognized and encouraged by my teachers for this ability. As I grew up, my abilities for language and speech transformed from the academic arena into the social arena that often dominates pre-adolescence and beyond. In this social arena, my communication abilities generally never wrought me much outside of some hurt feelings, lost friendships, some scrapes, and once even a bloody nose.
With my penchant for word recognition and spelling, I was, however a frequent winner of Mr. Coyle’s spelling bees. Mr. Coyle rewarded spelling bee winners with a chocolate ice cream sundae outing. To my dismay, Mr. Coyle never allowed me to collect on this award even though I won more than once. Very possibly this was because I always carried some extra pounds, even in those days, and he probably didn’t want to add to my condition. I also am reminded, probably because we are presently in the Lenten season, that Mr. ‘C’ used to give up his beloved chocolate for Lent every year. I’m sure that these Lenten efforts will serve to atone for the small disappointment of an overweight student.
One time Mr. Supple, my fifth grade teacher gave me the ‘crown of Caesar’, actually only a verbal accolade, for an essay that I wrote to summarize our historical study of Rome. Basking in my laurels, I decided to read from our next essay assignment the following week, whatever it was, and was greeted by a scathing critical analysis of my effort. I suppose one of the very key lessons of academic excellence and overall success is humility. This plate of ‘humble pie’ was dished up with alacrity from my honored teacher.
I continued to write productively in the poetic genre as well as short stories and essays as I grew. Some of these were published in high school. One of my greatest promoters was a high school teacher named Mrs. Galvin. She always encouraged me to write and publish. She even had me enter a public essay contest which I did not win. I had even at this point established a social editorial bias to my work and the contest panel decided on a more neutral essay. Ms. Galvin, however, assured me that she thought my essay deserved to win.
In and around all of these great learning experiences blazed the whirlwinds of the sixties’ racial and school busing crises in Boston. At least twice I, along with other African American students opted out of the public school system and attended ‘Freedom School’ for a day to protest the decisive racial politics that often plagued the Boston public education system. However, when we returned to school after our day of protest and reprieve, it was generally ‘business as usual’ as far as our teachers were concerned.
Finally, in high school, we were introduced to a small number of teachers of color–actually no more than four, if I remember correctly. Most notably, Ms. Gail Washington, now Gail Della-Piana was an art teacher that took a strong interest in all of her students. Gail, as we were permitted to call her outside of school, arranged and led trips to art exhibits and even a senior trip to New York City. She often welcomed us into her home for social events and remained friendly and in contact with us well into our college years.
One time while traveling in Ghana, West Africa, I ran into Gail Della-Piana and a group of her students who were touring the country. I was amazed to see her and quite interested to note her entourage of mostly or all white students. Ms. Della-Piana was clearly taking her teaching role internationally in a very impressive way. She has always been a role model for me, even in light of the dedication and excellence of my many other teachers.
Sometimes now, I reminisce on my education that occurred in a racially tense and culturally stratified community. It would seem that the tensions and stressors of the time would have negatively impacted the educational deliverables. However, I remember so many highly committed and diligent educators, that any exceptions to access to competitive education were for me, the exception, not the rule.
I want to thank my teachers and their families for rising beyond the pulls of the times and bringing their dedication as a whole; and very specifically, their Celtic commitment to educating thinkers, writers, leaders and other teachers like me.
March 6, 2013
For Linda Tauhid’s Journal