My first experience with racism was in 4th-grade, and it was basically every day, all year.
In 1976, my school was “integrated” via school busing from the Rosemary Hills area of Montgomery County, Maryland. It was the first time I’d met black kids, interacted with them daily. It was also the year I had Miss H as my teacher. I won’t give her name because I don’t know whether she’s alive, and I’m not going to bother trying to track her down for a response.
This is just my own account of what the year felt like, for me. I leave it to others to give their own accounts.
Already I knew people had strong feelings about school busing. Two friends from my soccer team had left Chevy Chase Elementary School for a nearby Catholic school. I overheard my mother discussing this fact with another mother and using the phrase “white flight.”
I didn’t know what the phrase meant. I was 8 years old. But my education in racism was about to begin.
Miss H had heavy make-up, a beehive hairstyle, and circles under eyes. She looked to be in her mid to late 30s. She was already on the snippy, strict end of the teaching spectrum. But on top of that — all year long, and in a way that was confusing and stressful for me as a bystander — she was straight-up nasty to the African-American children in our class.
By nature I was an observant, anxious, peacemaker type. I came to dread the regular spectacle of Miss H scolding, embarrassing, or disciplining black students out of proportion to their perceived misbehavior.
The level of animus went beyond Oh okay, maybe Miss H is against busing. She seemed to dislike black children personally. One girl spoke too quietly for Miss H’s liking, another was dumb and basically unteachable, in Miss H’s view.
Most mornings I felt sick to my stomach entering that classroom, just from the overall tone. And then I would feel hot and claustrophobic when Miss H started to work up a tirade against the quiet girl. The injustice of it was so obvious, a grown woman going after a girl who was already on the shy side and who, in hindsight, was already dealing with the significant stress of moving to the “white” school on the other side of town.
The treatment of black students made me feel bad about almost anything that happened in that classroom, even when the event was ostensibly positive, like Miss H praising me aloud for my work or my attitude.
I never said anything about Miss H to my parents, nor to school officials. I certainly never stood up on behalf of black students.
On some level, as a member of the preferred group — white — I think I felt shame and complicity, almost like a child in a family where one kid gets hit, and you’re not that kid. It’s a relief, but you also feel guilty and stressed out.
That was 4th-grade.
My other teachers were lovely.