I judge my life - Part 2 - Go down Moses

My 17-day career in the Air Force being over (see April 20), Peggy and I returned to Mississippi where I got a job as a fifth grade teacher in Brookhaven, my hometown. The year was 1973, and Fannie Mullins had been a segregated black school until a few years earlier, so it was in Little Egypt a part of town that few white people had previously visited. The neighborhood was poor, and the streets were narrow and lacked curbs or sidewalks.

The principal (Dow) and three of the other teachers (Tillman, Brown, and Goodwin) were black men, making me the only white male. They greeted me coolly, but without hostility. Goodwin even invited me to go fishing one afternoon. I didn’t fish, but then I didn’t figure that the invitation was really about fishing anyway. I figured it was really about seeing whether I was openly bigoted. When I passed the test, no other invitations were offered. The truth was that the other men at Fannie Mullins didn’t want to socialize with me anymore than I wanted to socialize with them. We simply didn’t have much in common.

People from outside the South tend to see everything that happens there in terms of race, but things aren’t that simple because, in the modern South, cultural differences are probably more important than racial ones. Let me give you an example that might sound familiar. Compare an ordinary black church to an ordinary white church of the same denomination. The dress, the music, and the preaching style are quite different, but are these racial differences, cultural differences or a combination? How would you even know?

I’ve been to scores of teachers’ meetings during which the white teachers sat together on one side of the auditorium, and the black teachers on the other. Sometimes, a teacher might cross over, and I was never aware that anyone had a problem with it; but the fact is that the white teachers weren’t excluding the black teachers (or vice versa), but that everyone was exercising his freedom to sit where he pleased. Maybe this is hard for white people from other places to accept because they know very few black people, and the black people they do know fit into the dominant white culture. But Mississippi is roughly half black (more in places), and this enables two distinct cultures to exist side by side.

The other men at Fannie Mullins wore ties and sometimes sports coats if not full suits; I didn’t. One day, Mr. Dow ordered me to at least wear a tie, so I starting wearing a clip-on to work, only to take it off as soon as I got to my room, and not put it on again until I took my class to lunch. He gave me grief about this from time to time, but I hated ties; I didn’t see the sense in them; and I sure as hell wasn’t go to wear one in a Mississippi school that didn’t have air conditioning.

The third year I taught, a new roof was put on the flat school building, and the tar for the project was melted right outside my window over a period of weeks. This created such a smoky stench that I had to keep the windows shut, and between the smoke and the 100 degree plus temperatures, conditions were almost unbearable. No one learned in my classroom; they simply survived. When I complained, Mr. Dow said that he had ordered the cooker to be placed outside my room because I was a man, implying, I suppose, that this made me better qualified to suffer. I didn’t think it prudent to mention that there were other men he could have chosen, but we got into a bit of a row anyway. One thing led to another, and he ended up giving me hell about the tie issue. “Why can’t you just follow my orders like the other men?” he asked. I said it was because I wasn’t afraid of him like the other men (Dow was big and gruff). The other men had hardly confided in me, so I couldn’t be sure that this was true, but I was pleased to see that it very nearly made him apoplectic.

I finished my third year as a teacher in 1976. I had wanted to grow a beard for months, but put it off until summer. I was actually na├»ve enough to think my beard wouldn’t be a problem when school started back in late August. My reasoning was that three of the four remaining men (Goodwin had died) had moustaches, and so I wasn’t introducing facial hair, I was simply extending its range. I went to the school a few days before classes started to get my room set-up, and in less than five minutes Mr. Dow was on the intercom ordering me to his office. I knew from experience that this boded no good.

“Snow,” he said (of course he really used my other name), “I see that you grew a beard over the summer, and I want you to know that it looks mighty fine, but I’m assuming you’ll be shaving it off before school starts.”

“No, sir, I hadn’t planned to.”

“Well, I just don’t know if Mr. Trammel [the area superintendent] will let you teach looking like that.”

“Well, sir, I don’t intend to shave.”

I went back to my room and waited to see what would happen next. A few minutes later, he summoned me back to his office, and said that Mr. Brumfield wanted me to call his secretary and make an appointment to see him. Mr. Brumfield was the assistant superintendent. Both he and Mr. Trammel had been working their way up the career ladder when I was a kid, and this meant that they both had occasion to spank me from time to time for fighting.

Mr. Brumfield had no better luck getting me to shave than had Mr. Dow, so he passed me along to Mr. Trammel who found me equally recalcitrant. As my superiors saw it, their main weapon was to threaten my advancement into an administrative position. Little did they know—and scarcely could they believe—that I didn’t want to advance. They then threatened to take away my students and leave me in an empty classroom all year. The image of being paid to sit around and read sounded as appealing as it did unlikely, so I offered no protest about that either. Finally, they said that I was a disappointment to them, an embarrassment to the Brookhaven Municipal Separate School District, and intimated that I might be fired. This option was also appealing because I had by now talked to someone from the ACLU, and was pretty sure I would win if we went to court.

Why did they object to your beard?

Most white Southerners in 1976 associated beards with dope-smoking hippies (which wasn’t far off the mark in my case). I assumed that black people felt the same way, so I was surprised to learn that they associated beards, not with peaceful hippies, but with violent militants. Even so, no one in the administration ever admitted that he personally had an issue with my beard; they were simply concerned about what the community at large would think.

School started without anything more being done. I waited. Weeks passed. I finally realized that nothing was going to be done. My superiors would probably hate me and maybe even look for an excuse to get rid of me, but they had no doubt seen their lawyer and decided that it wouldn’t be cost effective to go to war over a beard.

Meanwhile, I struggled within myself over whether to shave in order to placate them. The consensus among people who I talked to was that the job was more important than the beard. Yet, I knew that if I shaved, I would become so resentful that I would probably quit the job anyway. I turned to nature, marijuana and Thoreau—all at the same time. Everyday after work, I would retreat to the woods with a joint and my compendium of Thoreau.

I saw a lot of Mr. Dow that year because he was forever on the intercom, summoning me to his office to give me hell about one thing or another. He even said that parents complained more about me than they did about all his other teachers combined. I doubted this because I had never been told of a single complaint in previous years and only one specific complaint after I grew my beard (someone objected to the relaxation exercises that I gave the kids on the grounds that they were un-Christian). Indeed, I had always been popular with students and parents so far as I was aware.

The year passed and contract renewal time came around again. I didn’t sign on for another year for various reasons. The hostility of my superiors was one of them, but just as important was a reason that makes no sense to most people. Contracts make me claustrophobic. Even though I had every intention of seeing the job through, the knowledge that I had to sign a paper promising to be in a certain place at a certain time on a certain day months and months in advance gave me the willies. Now that things were especially tense at work, the prospect of signing a contract weighed on me even more heavily.

Were you a good teacher?

Not especially. I liked the kids, and the kids liked me because I was creative in my teaching and my assignments, and because I made them laugh. The problem was that I didn’t take my responsibility seriously. I taught 150 kids a day, 30 at a time for 50 minutes at a time, and although I wanted to help the underachievers realize their potential—no one had helped me, and I failed three grades—I felt powerless to make a difference. And, as with every other job I ever had, I hated taking orders; I felt underpaid; and I thought I deserved a job better suited to my genius. Unfortunately, I never figured out exactly what job was better suited to my genius or even where my genius lay. I just knew that I had a sense of destiny, a feeling that I was meant for greatness, but I lacked any sense that I had to work for it. I believed that if I waited long enough, the universe would drop success into my lap.

Another major problem that I had was shyness. I simply couldn’t pull off speaking to groups of adults, and I was even afraid to speak to my students’ parents at open house nights or during conferences. I cannot overstate the severity of this problem. I can but report that I overcame it around my fiftieth year. If I had been able to overcome it decades sooner, it would have opened doors that were completely closed to me. For example, I might have gotten an advanced degree and become a professor.

If you were so shy, how were you able to stand up to people who opposed you?

I was also principled and stubborn. If I thought someone—or some group—was trying to run over me, I could find the strength to resist simply because I feared being unable to live with myself if I knuckled under. I remember but one occasion when I let someone intimidate me, and I tortured myself over it for many years.

I saw this same resistance in my father who was even shyer than I. His voice would break simply from trying to order food in a restaurant, but if he was mad enough, he could fill a football stadium with profanity. His problem was that his anger was consistently misplaced and misused. I have made a valiant effort to correct that in my own life, and as a result, I seldom lose my temper.

I was too immature to be a good teacher. Yet, if I were teaching today and the beard issue came up, I would struggle with it now just as I struggled with it then. Would I give in to the silly rules of silly men who valued conformity and public relations over freedom and education, or would I deprive my students of a good teacher—and I think I have it in me to be a good teacher? My choice is not immediately obvious. Here is what Thoreau wrote about his experience. At the time I taught, it mirrored my own.

“I have thoroughly tried schoolkeeping and found that my expenses were in proportion, or rather out of proportion, to my income, for I was obliged to dress and train, not to say think and believe, accordingly, and I lost my time into the bargain. As I did not teach for the good of my fellow-men, but simply for a livelihood, this was a failure.”

23 comments:

Beth said...

I love that you wore a clip on tie and grew a beard. Your are painfully honest here and I think you were probably a better teacher than you gave yourself credit.

Mim said...

Agree with above - and also - you look great with a beard - not militant at all.

L.J. Boldyrev said...

"I just knew that I had a sense of destiny, a feeling that I was meant for greatness, but I lacked any sense that I had to work for it. I believed that if I waited long enough, the universe would drop success into my lap.

Another major problem that I had was shyness."

You described me in a nut shell, friend. I really enjoyed reading this.

Gaston Studio said...

I suspect Beth is correct in her assessment of you as being a better teacher than you may have thought you were.

Good on you for being a nonconformist; and I think you look very studious with your beard!

Renee said...

I really am enjoying these glimpses.

You also look so young and handsome too.

But it is the glimpses of you; the boy that becomes the man that I am really finding interesting.

Hope you are not in too much pain today.

Love Renee xoxox

Chrisy said...

I enjoyed your post Snow...I think just by you being you ie a free thinker means that you would have been a better teacher than most...i loved teaching but the cost was too high physicially and emotionally...30 young people all with their own needs, academic and social, who are with you for 40 minutes, the bell rings and the next lot come in...i was in a perpetual state of exhaustion...i'm pleased i did it for a few years...there wer some lasting rewards....unfortunately the good teachers don't often stay...and why would they...I remember going from high school teaching to a project role and oh the excitement of airconditioning! going to the toilet when you wanted! getting a cup of coffee if you felt like it! just the basic things that most workers take for granted! And of course once you get a taste of that well you don't want to go back! Oh and re the blogging remember that it's supposed to be a pleasant experience...don't go forcing yourself to comment on others blogs...people read yours because it's enjoyable and thought provoking and hopefully not so that you'll comment on theirs!

Natalie said...

Snow, I imagine that you would have had much to teach people - even little ones.

I am interested to see how you have addressed the problem of:

"I just knew that I had a sense of destiny, a feeling that I was meant for greatness, but I lacked any sense that I had to work for it. I believed that if I waited long enough, the universe would drop success into my lap."

I would love for you to expand on these thoughts someday.

Love to you and your shoulders.x

Rob-bear said...

Hey, you look great with a beard! I finally grew one when I moved and quit being a fire fighter. I wonder what would have happened if you had decided to grow your hair as long as George Washington's? Yeah, that was a different time. People freak out about different things these days -- especially the "politically correct" among us.

Interesting observation: "I liked the kids, and the kids liked me because I was creative in my teaching and my assignments, and because I made them laugh." That, in fact, is what makes a great teacher. You cannot "help" them all, but you can inspire them.

On the other side, I was "born wearing a shirt and tie," so I don't have a problem, with or without one. The tie is occasionally exchanged for a clerical collar, but not that often (except on Sunday mornings, and not always then).

I always love the simple honesty and thoughtfulness of your posts. You're a great writer. Maybe that's where the universe has dropped success into your lap. If you have the stamina to keep writing.

P.S.: thanks for the e-mail note. Will respond after we sort out the problem of the tree that has fallen on son's garage and threatens his house.

Bella Sinclair said...

Hey, great portraits, both the painted one and the photographs. You are a man of principles and follow your own direction, and that is to be admired.

Interesting thing about shyness. I consider myself shy and dread attending social gatherings. But when I taught undergrads as a grad student, something about standing in front of the room and trying to inspire minds would spark me to life. I would have loved to teach, I think. You probably were a good teacher, too. If anything, you taught about principles. :)

BT said...

What an insightful read soulbrush, I enjoyed it so much. Gosh, you were a stubborn devil, weren't you. You are my husband Jim! He was a real hippie at work, long hair, bandana, beard. A proper rebel. He did get to management but was always a bit of a thorn in the side of his employers. The owner of the company was a government Tory and Jim a staunch Labour, so that didn't help! Jim even stood for parliament.

I like the beard, it's very neat and trim and cannot see its relevance as to your teaching ability. You must have suffered with all the conflict in your life, especially being so intrinsicly shy. I can't wait for the next episode to see whether the greatness was 'thrust upon you'.

Snowbrush said...

Beth " I think you were probably a better teacher than you gave yourself credit."

Well, thank you, Beth. It would be rather silly of me to argue, eh?

Mim "- not militant at all."

I was looking more for a retro look, something that would hearken back to some imagined era when men were thought-filled.

Renee "it is the glimpses of you; the boy that becomes the man that I am really finding interesting."

I am, of course, recording my life story little by little now that I am too screwed-up physically to do much else; and it's interesting to me that I started with drinking in high school. Eventually, I guess I will get back to my boyhood.

Natalie, I'll bear your request in mind. Thank you for your good wishes. I see the doctor tomorrow.

Hey, Rob-bear, you gave me a belated idea. I should have gotten ordained by the Universal Life Church and worn a clergyman's collar to work. Boy, would that have ever thrown them. It would gone over worse than a beard in fundamentalist Mississippi.

Bella Sinclair, I know what you mean about rising above shyness when you are fired by purpose.

BT "What an insightful read soulbrush,"

You're not the first person to get her brushes mixed-up. Happens all the time, I still have the beard, BTW. I shaved it off when it was turning gray, but grew it back when it became gray.

crone51 said...

Great post. As both the wife of a teacher and the daughter of teachers I can, as they say, relate.

I didn't go into teaching because until my forties I was absolutely incapable of speaking in front of more than three people at once. Even little people. I did it when necessary but always under duress.

I like the beard but then I also like my husband's beard. A lot.

Snowbrush said...

L.J. "You described me in a nut shell, friend."

I just hope they discover our greatness while we're still young enough to enjoy it, rather than to do us like Schopenhauer and not catch on until we're near death--or like Van Gogh, and already dead.

Chrisy, wow, your periods were only 40 minutes long! Hardly time enough to settle in. I didn't experience the trapped feeling (not being able to go potty or get coffee when I wanted it) while teaching anymore than I did on other jobs, but I can see what you mean.

Jane "I think you look very studious with your beard!"

Thank you, that was what I was looking for. The hair was to get a good bit longer, BTW.

julie mitchell said...

Hello,
I read your post with a lot of interest because of the time you're reliving...Igrew up in an all white community in Northern CA...there was one black man living somewhere in the area and all of us teens where sure he was the dj Wolfman Jack! Silliness....Anyway I went to Arkansas in 1963 for a summer with sort of relatives...I was very young and very naive..one of the teen boys took me to the 'other side of the tracks' to see some of his black friends. I saw cardboard houses and dirt floors..just overwhelmed me. Then in 1968 I was living in Houston TX...hippy to the core...registering voters and working for Operation Bread Basket..It was a pretty violent time and I often felt threatened by white men in pick-up trucks. At the time there were posters up on telephone poles depicting generic hippies with the words, 'Wanted Dead or Alive"...crazy times.
I'd also like to hear, "
"I just knew that I had a sense of destiny, a feeling that I was meant for greatness"...I think on some level we all feel that...it's just a matter of rather or not we follow that inner voice...don't you think?
What'd the doc have to say?
hug, hug

neetzy said...

Hey Snowbrush,

I started teaching at age 45. I could never have taught in my twenties. I have been teaching for five years and I have developed an attitude of "if you don't like what I do..." I don't care. I started in the corporate world and came to teaching late. We have a new school this year and there is a bathroom I can get to between periods. Of course I teach art. Everyone expects me to be somewhat eccentric.

All Consuming said...

It's so interesting reading about such different social attitudes. Where I live we have so many different cultures mingling that a local school has been noted as having the most amount of languages spoken in the country. However on the North side of the city where I grew up, the only people I ever met or indeed saw were black, and and I can count that number on my hand.

I'm impressed about the beard stance, and I can identify with the stubborn streak.Individuality shouldn't be steam rollered over.

I also think you looked better with the beard,though I think I am a little biased that way heh.

Snowbrush said...

Julie, I really enjoyed hearing about your experiences in the South. Certainly nothing in your life prepared you for them. You probably found out in later years that Wolfman Jack was white. The doc hasn't said anything yet. I see him in 55 minutes.

Neetzy, I know what you mean about your 20s being too young to teach. I'll be writing some about Peggy in regard to that.

All con, I didn't know that you were in such a culturally mixed area (maybe because I don't know just where you live in England). Sounds like you're in a really big city. A lot of women are biased about beards, but hardly in the same direction.

Bill said...

I can't believe all the riff raff over facial hair. Would that have happened in today's world, I wonder? One thing I always worry about with new jobs is that they might make me shave off some or all of my facial hair.

nollyposh said...

i think you would have been a fab teacher X:-) ...and at least you saved your 'smoking' for after class (!) unlike my high school social~science 1st form teacher (The classic hippy with the long hair and equally long beard) who would have one right before class, and then hand out a test paper, write all the answers on the board and then as he put his feet up on his desk and pulled his hat over his eyes for a snooze, say offhandedly i'll leave it up to you to do what you think is right X:-o! HEY now that i think about, it was social~science... and there is something kinda clever about that scenario (i think!) Lol! X;-)

rhymeswithplague said...

I enjoyed this post, but I don't understand the "Go down, Moses" part in the title. Can you elaborate? It's probably as plain as the nose on my face and I am just too thick to get it. All I can think of is "Way down in Egypt's land, Tell old Pharaoh to let my people go" and I just can't seem to make a connection.

Or is it about your beard versus Charleton Heston's in The Ten Commandments? (I told you I was thick.)

Snowbrush said...

Bill, I'm sorry that you too have to worry about that kind of thing.

Nolly, your teacher sounds like he was getting paid for not doing much of anything. By making students who didn't cheat the losers, he was doing worse than nothing.

Rhymes, the title just came into my head. The connection, now that you've made me think about it, is that Moses was told to go to the pharoah and demand freedom for the Israelites. "Speak truth to power" you might say. By not shaving, I struck an ever so small blow for freedom, and spoke my own truth to power.

When it comes to titles, I often go with whatever pops into my head as being right. I don't necessarily examine the relevance in any detail. If I were to think of the title of this piece in more detail (which is a little hard to do as I sit here in pain despite two Norcos and one Flexeril) other nuances might come to mind, but it would be in retrospect.

VioletMind said...

"I just knew that I had a sense of destiny, a feeling that I was meant for greatness, but I lacked any sense that I had to work for it. I believed that if I waited long enough, the universe would drop success into my lap."


Every now and again, I get caught up with a thought similar to this one. Because, in school, I've always been one of, if not the brightest student in the class; and definitely a teacher's pet, and now, even though I'm still usually one of the brightest, I'm lazy. And I get caught up in thinking "Hey, if I'm SUPPOSED to end up successful, then I WILL, despite my laziness." I guess its just that subjects became more difficult and I become more lazy as the days progress...

But before I even began thinking that
I was meant for greatness in the future,
there were always teachers and random
other adults in my life that foresaw the
same thing within me..

What is it with this kind of expecting things
to JUST HAPPEN despite effort, but by faith?

Snowbrush said...

"But before I even began thinking that I was meant for greatness in the future, there were always teachers and random other adults in my life that foresaw the
same thing within me.."

Which might be why child prodigies often lead rather undistinguished adult lives. I've observed the same about children who grow up wealthy. When we feel entitled, we aren't likely to work.