Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Miss Sarah Thornton: This Day Is for You!

Like so many Americans, I can remember when things were very different. I can remember when there were segregated schools, restrooms, and water fountains. Worse, I can remember racial jokes and epithets spoken as everyday social currency, accepted and encouraged. I can remember lawyers and politicians and educated professionals turning a superior, patronizing eye toward any person with black skin, not stopping to consider that person as real human being, unless he or she had on a service uniform or cared for and loved the family’s children or cleaned the floors and toilets of their house.

I grew up in the rural Deep South. I remember when the college I attended accepted its first two black students, who so bravely made their way to class, almost always alone and often taunted on the way. I remember the triumphant passage of the Civil Rights Act. I also remember my job as one of very few white teachers in a previously black middle school in a small town in northeastern Georgia as court-ordered desegregation rolled into town, changing it forever. The local all-white academy slurped up large numbers of white students from the community, and fear, mystery, and the tingle of change surrounded this new, and to some of us, exciting and formidable endeavor.

I also remember Miss Sarah Thornton, one of my fellow teachers or her “colleague,” as she liked to describe me. Sarah, an experienced English teacher, loved her job, rejoiced in her students, and enthusiastically embraced learning and change. Sarah was pretty, young, professional, smart, and always meticulously dressed in skirts and blouses, high heels, a good watch, and tasteful jewelry. She exuded enthusiasm about her great responsibility to help build young minds, encourage thinking and right doing, and lay the groundwork for life-long intellectual curiosity, especially using reading as an avenue to that end. Sarah Thornton was Black, when it was just beginning to be cool and progressive to use the term “Black,” just as the description “Negro” or usually “Negra” in the south, began to pass out of existence in everyday language, and before “African-American” replaced both.

Sarah and I had the same prep hour and so usually found ourselves alone in the tiny teachers’ lounge on a daily basis. We began to talk, at first sharing our lesson plans and teaching ideas. We were both determined to succeed in this new and different world of integrated schools. We wanted our students, our colleagues, black and white, our school principal and superintendent, and especially the parents to be proud of our students and even more proud of the great education they were getting from us. As time went by, we began to share more and feel more comfortable with each other. Our conversations evolved into discussions about life, family, beliefs, and hopes for the future. We found we had similar values. We each wanted to understand the other. We could see a time beyond the divide of color and we knew we were important soldiers in that war. We were exhilarated with our insights and plans and shared our hopes with each other. We became good friends.

As I moved on to new places, new degrees, new careers, Sarah continued teaching in our school, always enthusiastic and eager to learn. She kept up with me via irregular, late-night calls to where ever I happened to be--Boston, Manhattan, and Westchester. I remember her last call to me. She had had a mysterious illness, which she refused to name or describe in our conversation and she obviously was not feeling well. But I knew she really wanted to talk even though her voice was a wisp of its former self. Sarah always asked questions about my work. Business was not really something she understood. But she wanted to and I felt that deeply. Because it was my work and she cared about me. As the late night crept by, Sarah said a long good-bye, softly but earnestly. I can see her in my mind’s eye holding the telephone to her ear in her bed in her small house by the railroad down the dirt road off the highway rimmed by pine tress and cotton fields. We connected as people important to each other as we always had. Sarah died shortly after that call.

The inauguration of our new president, Barack Obama, is a moment, a time, an era that Sarah would have loved. In fact, she would have gone wild in her professional, actually quite conservative, and appropriate way. She would have known, as I do, that this huge change in this country is symbolic—it is one incredible man at an incredible time. But it happened. It’s a huge step I did not think I would see in my lifetime. And Sarah would have agreed with me. We would have buzzed on the phone about the platform that at least allows people of all backgrounds to come together and talk about our problems and issues and work hard to figure it out. Just as Sarah and I did in that hot, small room with the old lumpy sofa we called a teachers’ lounge so many years ago.

I contributed to the campaign, worked on it, and voted for Obama. I was also a volunteer at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. Every step of the way, I thought of Sarah. And today, as President-elect Obama becomes President Obama, a tear comes to my eye. I’m talking with Sarah in my mind. We’re excited and challenged by these incredible events. We know it will be difficult to translate these feelings into the reality of making it all work. But we are ready to chip away at this task together. We know the drill, Sarah and I.