My elementary school was a very short distance from my house: down a great bicycle hill, (well, great one way—up), around a corner to the right, past the patch of bamboo shoots and sweet-smelling honeysuckle bushes, through a church yard, across Oglethorpe Avenue, and down another hill, directly into the schoolyard. Until recently, I thought that I walked home by myself every day until Dad confessed that this was not the case—somebody, either he, or one of his cronies, (the same cronies who reported to him my various locations through high school and college), made sure I entered my front door safely.
I’m not sure what experiences other elementary schools provide for their children, but mine offered some incredible ones. In kindergarten, my class spent the night with our two teachers; we made macaroni and cheese for dinner and picked up Dunkin’ Donuts for breakfast the next morning. In third grade, our teacher brought a barrel of horse bones to school for us to study and put together in a way that resembled a horse’s skeleton. In fifth grade, we were very involved in 4-H and therefore spent a lot of time putting together our projects for the county competition. I felt, and still feel confident that my presentation, “How to Wash a Dog,” would have won if I’d had a pointer stick to use as I showed off my posters. Janet had a pointer stick, she won—I was the runner-up.
Occasionally, all of a grade’s classes, or even the whole school, would get together for an activity like the school spelling bee. In third grade, I came in third, tripped up by the pesky word “doodling.” (Spell check just took care of the possibility of a repeat offense.) The weatherman from an Atlanta news station flew in on a helicopter, landing in the school’s immense backyard, and talked to us about meteorology. Well, I guess he talked to us about meteorology; we were all a little taken by the helicopter.
We gathered items from our school rooms, bedrooms, and toy boxes, and planted them in time capsules in one of the schoolyard’s clover patches. We learned how to use Apple computers, some of the first school computers, the ones with the true floppy disk drives. We “bought” stocks and followed their gains and losses daily in the newspaper. Some organization brought a large domed tent to the school, and when we went inside and lay down on its floor, we found ourselves stargazing and learning about constellations.
I am grateful for my public school education at Oglethorpe Avenue Elementary School. I think that our mascot was the fierce unicorn. As I write, the school’s song is playing in my head. O-g-l-e-t-h-o-r-p-e. . .
The whole 4th grade sat together for one lesson about the Civil Rights Movement. I distinctly remember sitting on the floor amongst my classmates, knees pulled up to my chest, listening to a teacher speak something to the effect of, “Many of the slaves held the last names of their owners. To show that no one held ownership over him, Malcom X ‘x-ed’ out his last name, Little.” She continued, but I heard nothing after “Little” because I felt like every set of my classmates eyes were now turned around to me. That’s Stephanie’s last name, whisper, whisper. . . My brain added to their whispers, her family must be some of the bad white people. She must be one of the bad white people.
Despite my fears, I don’t recall anything that occurred afterwards or in the next few days, though I don’t believe that anyone ever showed that they were mad at me, or that they laughed at me, or anything else. I guess everyone had good differentiation skills, thank goodness. I certainly remember those few moments though, and I don’t believe they will ever leave me. Not only did I feel singled out, a feeling that no child, especially a shy child, wants to feel, but I also felt a sense of responsibility, of belonging, of a connection to the past. Those feelings were not good feelings. Did my family own slaves? Could they have owned slaves? Could they have been bad people? I don’t think that I’m a bad person. The possibilities were terrifying to me; I wanted no part of that evil.
I have been watching the TV show, Who Do You Think You Are, where celebrities research their genealogical history. As I watched the other night, the thought struck me how many of their histories included slavery. That thought immediately brought me to the elementary school memory. Again, I felt those senses of responsibility and connection. I would love to think that neither side of my family owned slaves or supported the brokerage of humans. Unfortunately, the more realistic side of my brain knows that this is not likely the case. To believe that all members of my family, extended and long past, have been righteous and moral folk is unrealistic, and maybe a little egotistical. I want to feel connected to the slave, to the thought of liberation, to the thought of being oppressed—but those are odd desires. Is the desired association there just because the oppressed are seen as the “good” side? The truth is, I am connected to the “bad” side and the "good" side, regardless of whether I want to be or not. I have both the ability and the capability to be both good and evil, free or enslaved, oppressed or oppressive. Yikes.
Similarly, I think about the mind of a slave owner, perhaps related to me, and try to imagine her in her time and culture, and I wonder what must have been going on in her brain. How could she have thought that owning someone was okay or just? It is scary to think that some of those genes are some of my genes, just as physiologically binding as the red hair on my head.
I think to the mind of the slave and try to imagine her in her time, but away from her culture, and wonder what must have been going on in her brain. How could she have lived, how could she have made it, bound to laws and cruelty for which she had no vote and no control? It is scary to imagine her because I can hardly imagine her. Not only am I too removed, but I am also too privileged. Yikes again.
Though remembering that 4th grade moment, 20+ years ago, still hurts the child inside me, I am glad that I have the memory. While I did not directly have a role in that part of history, I am responsible for recognizing oppression in this age, the oppressive hands of those around me as well as my own oppressive hands. I am responsible for the recognition of oppression and the action that aids liberation. My childhood memory and my name serve as catalysts for me to be a better human.
I hope that I leave behind more valuable artifacts than the Happy Meal toys that lie underneath a patch of clover, my contribution to our class’s time capsule. I hope that one day, as my three-times great-grandchild breathes underneath the same stars as I breath under, she will start to read about her family and feel pride and not guilt, compelled—no, bound, by a nurtured instinct to be a good human and to care for all of humanity.