Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

 

 

Integration: A Memoir

 

 

In 1957, my children and I moved to Cincinnati to join my husband, who had taken a new job. Unfortunately, he had also taken a new sweetie, and a few weeks after we moved into our new apartment, he decided to move in with her. No children, no diapers, no vomit, no toys to fall over, and now no exhausted wife, whining about going house hunting.

 

Almost immediately I entered Cincinnati Graduate School with the intention of getting a degree in education so I could support us. The child support and alimony just weren’t enough.

 

I had no time to really explore the city, but my neighborhood was good, and the school seemed fine, so I stopped looking and concentrated on school and the kids. About three months into the semester, our teacher made an announcement. The Stowe School downtown needed a substitute teacher for three months while their third grade teacher took maternity leave. They applied to the teacher’s college in the hope that there would be someone more current than the staff in place. The big state board had visited, and nowhere was there a mention of Sputnik, nothing on the bulletin boards, and nowhere in the classrooms.

 

I was nervous about how fast my money was going, and I raised my hand. I was the only one. What I did not know was downtown Cincinnati was going through urban renewal, and the buildings were being torn down and the residents relocated. Almost all cooperated, but here and there families refused to move. All the schools in that area were closed, except for the Stowe School, where children of the most recalcitrant families did not cooperate.

 

I drove to the school. There was a designated parking space for the teachers. I entered the school and was immediately met by the principal, who was African American. He took me into his office, asked me a few questions, and hired me. He sent me to the Board of Education, and the interviewer made a joke. He said, You passed with flying colors. And then he added, Seeing that you’re the only applicant.

 

I was fingerprinted, showed my social security card, and gave an oath of loyalty to my country.

 

I went back to Stowe, and the principal took me upstairs and into a classroom. The teacher was a very pregnant black lady. She blinked when she saw me with the principal. This is Mrs. Kotler, he said to her and the class. She’ll be your teacher when Mrs. Washington takes care of her baby that is coming soon. I smiled and said hello. The children did not answer.

 

Mrs. Washington stood up. You have better manners than that. Stand up. Mrs. Kotler said hello to you. Stand up, all of you, this moment. They stood. Now, say hello. They all said hello.

 

I will see you Monday, I said.

 

While Mrs. Washington was scolding the children, I took a good look at the classroom and the children. The children were all black (as we used to say in those days). Mrs. Washington turned to me and said, Good luck with this bunch.

 

I walked downstairs with the principal. While we were walking down, there was another group waiting on the first floor. They were all black, as was their teacher. By the way, Mr. Abernathy said, when school lets out, I want you to be gone with your car, no later than 3:15, and I will like it better if you are gone by 3:10.

 

Yes, sir, I said.

 

On the drive home, I began to wonder what I had gotten myself into. I certainly would lose a semester of credits, but I told myself that it didn’t matter so much because I was earning money.

 

When I put my car into my assigned parking space at home, I saw my landlady. What are you doing home so early, she asked. I hope you’re not sick.

 

No, I said to her. I am not sick. I just took a three-month job teaching.

 

How nice, she said.

 

It’s downtown at the Stowe School.

 

The smile on her face changed. She looked different, not angry, but her eyes opened wide, and her smile turned into a frown. Did you definitely take that job, she asked.

 

Yes, I said. I am starting Monday. Now I have to go in and ask the sitter for more hours.

 

Why don’t you ask her for full time, Mrs. Kern said. There are maids’ rooms on the third floor, and you are entitled to one without a raise in rent.

 

Wow, I said. Thanks. I went into the apartment, and the baby, my little girl, was just waking up from her nap. I kissed her, lifted her out of the crib, and changed her diaper. How would you like a full-time job, I asked Dolores, the sitter. There is a bedroom on the third floor you could have.

 

Dolores laughed. I’d love a job full time. Can I go upstairs and look at it?

 

Sure. Ask Mrs. Kern for the key and the room number. By the way, can you cook?

 

Of course I can cook. I have done it for years, and you know how I clean. Your apartment always is in order.

 

That is how I hired Delores to be my full-time housekeeper with every Sunday off. While Delores went to look at the room, I sat down and wrote a few menus. Delores came down and said, The room is fine. There is a bed, a mattress, a closet, a dresser, and a table and chair. I need sheets and blankets and a pillow. Can I start tomorrow. Your job doesn’t start until Monday, and tomorrow is Wednesday, and we can see how you like things done.

 

That’s great, I said. I’ll just run up to the linen store next block and get you sheets and a blanket and pillow. Also, a bedspread. What color do you like.

 

Delores said, I love pink.

 

Pink it is, I said. I’ll be right back with everything.

 

I came back in a few minutes with the linens and a pink bedspread. Go home and tell your family that you took a full-time job.

 

Delores laughed again. They’ll be so glad to have me out of there. We live very crowded.

 

Delores came back shortly, and we sat down together. Our day starts at seven o’clock. I get up earlier to make coffee, but the children don’t rise until seven. We’ll go through the day together.

 

Delores was a lovely Negro woman about my age, or a little older. I was going on thirty years old. We went through the routine of my son going to the neighborhood school, to which we walked together. We packed lunches, took the baby out for a walk, put her to nap after lunch, started dinner, and picked up my son at 3:00. We seemed to work well together, and the kids liked her.

 

On Monday, I drove to school early because I had no idea of the traffic. There were very few cars in the neighborhood, and almost no traffic. When I thought about it, I realized that most of the buildings were empty, except for the few holdouts whose children were in Stowe. I parked and next to my space, I saw a white man get out of his Chevy. Wow, I said to myself. There are white people here.

 

Hi, he said.

 

Hi, I said. I am Stephanie Kotler.

 

I am Jim Byrnes. I was hired to be assistant principal.

 

Oh, I said. I was beginning to wonder how many white people are here.

 

Don’t wonder, he said. There are two white people here. You and me. The big shots came down and nowhere in the school was anything current, including Sputnik, and they decided that Stowe needed a pep up. We’re it. I’m supposed to fix that? How? He grinned. I don’t know. I am going into my office and try to stay out of trouble. He ran into an office on the first floor and closed the door.

 

That was the last time I saw him for the three months I was at Stowe.

 

I walked upstairs to my room. It was neatly swept; the chairs, which were attached to the desks, were in neat rows. I sat at my desk, opening the drawers. One drawer was full of lined loose-leaf papers. There was a book entitled Third Grade Syllabus which I leafed through. It seemed to spell out what third graders should know before moving on to the next grade.

 

I pulled up the shades, and the room was brightened. The children started coming in, and by 9:00 the room was full. Take your seats, class, I said. They paid no attention, kept standing around and talking and laughing. I raised my voice. Take your seats, now, I almost screamed. They did get seated. Will one of you raise your hand and, when I call on you, tell me how you start the day. A big boy raised his hand. Yes, I said to him. Stand and tell me.

 

We take attendance, salute the flag, and say the Lord’s Prayer.

 

I took the register and I called their names. They were all here, all twenty-six of them. Now stand and we will salute the flag of the United States of America, which is our country. They looked surprised and at each other. Is there a problem?

 

One child spoke up. We just salute the flag. We don’t know about the United States stuff.

 

Well, I said, that’s a good place to start. After we say the Lord’s Prayer, I’ll explain it to all of you. The children rose, raised their right hands to their eyebrows, and recited the Pledge of Allegiance. Don’t sit down, I said, as some of the children had returned to their seats. We say the Lord’s Prayer standing. They did, some of them mumbling, some speaking clearly. Be seated, I said and rolled down the map. This is your country. It is the United States of America. It is often called the USA.

 

One girl raised her hand. We know we are in the USA, but we never heard it called the United States of America.

 

We spent the morning doing map work, locating where we are, and about the other states. At about 10:30 the principal came to the classroom. The children stood straight up. Sit down, and do your work, he said. I just wanted to know how things were going. I am glad to see that you are all busy. You know what will happen if one of you is sent to my office. He turned to me and quietly asked how things were going.

 

Fine, I said, but I cannot find any lesson plans.

 

Just keep them quiet and busy, and if you can teach any of the crowd to read, I will give you a gold star. He smiled broadly and left the room.

 

These eight-year-old children taught me more than I could possibly teach them.

 

After a few days, I noticed that a few children did not go to the lunchroom. Lunch was twenty-five cents. I got twenty-four quarters and put them into the cap of a jar. This is my loan to you, I told them. Anybody who needs to borrow, just come up and take a quarter. In what looked like seconds, the jar top was empty.

 

The next morning one of the children asked, Where’s the money?

 

I said, You all borrowed it, and some of you don’t need it. Just return it so others can have it. All that morning I heard the clink of coins when my back was turned, writing on the blackboard. Lunchtime came, and the cap was almost full. Two kids took quarters.

 

One little girl, Taneesha, ran out of the room but not to the lunchroom Where was she going in such a hurry, I asked. Does she go home for lunch? Some of the kids laughed, and one boy said, She go down the block to Mr. Alden, and he do her for twenty-five cents, and she come running back to the lunchroom with the money.

 

Pretty much the same thing happened with the paper in my drawer. When I showed them where the paper was stored if they needed a sheet, it all disappeared in a minute. The same thing happened the next morning. One of the kids said, She do us like she did with the money. Again they put most of the paper back during the day, and the paper lasted for the three months I worked with the children.

 

Every morning I pulled up the shades to brighten the room, and within an hour the shades were all pulled down. What is this, I asked. I raise the shades for us to get good light, and you kids pull them down.

 

One of the boys said, Don’t you think we is dark enough already? From then on we worked with the shades down.

 

I learned about fighting. When the boys were fighting, I walked into the middle of the melee, and they stopped immediately so I would not get hurt. When the girls were fighting, I tried the same tactic, and what it got for me was hair pulling, a few punches and scratches. They paid me no attention. I learned to walk over with the big ruler, tap it on the floor in the middle of the group, and yell, Stop, or I’ll use this ruler on you. Stop and take your seats.

 

A sure way to start a fight was to insult anyone’s mother. Nobody, but nobody could say anything about a mother that was in any way derogatory. I learned fast not to call anybody’s mother. I called one and asked her to come to school to talk with me about her boy, who was constantly uncooperative and seemed not to care when I scolded him. The mother came in the next day with her son. I told her that James was not behaving. She looked at me, surprised. You called me to school for that? I am losing a day’s pay because my kid is acting up? Take a ruler to him. Smash him up good. Do what you have to to make him behave, but don’t make me come here to tell you how to make my kid behave, and lose a day’s pay.

 

I’m sorry, I said. I just didn’t think.

 

I heard about you, she said. You’re the new teacher. You just don’t know our ways.

 

I’m sorry, I said again. I cost you a day’s pay.

 

It’s okay, she said. He will behave himself from now on. Isn’t that right, James?

 

James replied, Yes, Mama. And he did behave for the most part, and I never called another mother again.

 

The other teachers were all nice to me. I was nervous when I went to the teacher’s room for the first tune. Their heads turned, and many smiled and said hi or hello. I looked around the big table at a few empty seats, and one of the teachers said, Here. Come sit here next to me. This chair is available. I unpacked my lunch and started eating, just as they were. I listened to their conversation. It was all about shopping and what was on sale and where to go for the best buy on clothes, for themselves, their husbands and children. When they asked me where I shopped, I explained how new I was to Cincinnati, I had no idea of where to shop.

 

A few other things happened during those three months, when I was trying to teach the children to read. We worked with pre-primers, and a few moved on to primers, and one child became an almost proficient reader. Arithmetic was easier because we used money, pennies, nickels, and dimes. The kids seemed to enjoy the arithmetic much more than the effort of making sense of the hieroglyphics on the page, but we spent some time on reading every day.

 

One day the children were supposed to be lined up in the hall outside of the class, and it was a mess. I yelled, Get in line. Get in line, right now. This instant.

 

The door next to my classroom popped open, and the teacher came out. Now, she said and smiled, now you sound like a Stowe School teacher. I returned the smile and thanked her.

 

One day I told the children I didn’t feel so good, and I couldn’t yell at them. They behaved like little angels for three days, and I told myself that I finally had them behaving. The next day, I told the kids I was fine, and thanked them for their cooperation.

 

Are you all better? one of the children asked.

 

Yes, I said. Things were instantly back to normal, with the usual bedlam.

 

When a person came to observe, she sat quietly in the back of the room. For the hour that she stayed, I had a model classroom. Everyone raised their hands. Each child stood when called on. It was wonderful fun. I said to myself, These children really like me and want me to look good. It was a wonderful feeling.

 

One day I needed to stay home because I felt a little ill due to a woman’s monthly process. When I returned the next day, the principal came to my classroom. Say good morning to Mr. Abernathy, I said. They rose and said good morning.

 

Mr. Abernathy said, You all sit down. Let me tell you, he said to me, it took two substitute teachers to keep these children from breaking up the place. He turned to the class. You are a bunch of monkeys. Look at you. Your hair is nappy. Your shirts are unbuttoned, and not tucked in. You should be ashamed of yourself. With that he walked out of the room.

 

All too soon my time at Stowe School was up. I had a full tin of quarters. Only three were missing. The paper drawer was half full. I told the children that this was my last day, and I told them, You have done very good work. You all are readers, some better than others, but I am happy that you have learned. Now, before you leave, I would like a hug from anyone who feels like it. And to my surprise and joy, every single child gave me a hug, which I returned.

 

After dismissal the secretary came to my room and said, The principal would like to see you. I went into his office.

 

Well, he said, with a smile, you have done a very good job. I sent a reference to the Board of Education, and here is my personal record. I compliment you on your timely arrival and leaving and your control of the class. I understand you even have some of them reading. He handed me an envelope.

 

Thank you, Mr. Abernathy, I said. I enjoyed most of the time I was here. Good-bye.

 

And so, I left Stowe School, and driving home, I knew that I was never going back to school full time. I liked earning money, and I liked how I felt.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stephanie Kaplan Cohen is the author of a memoir In My Mother’s House, published by Woodley Books and the poetry books Additions and Subtractions and Body Work, published by Plain View Press. Her poetry has appeared repeatedly in The New York Times, and has appeared or is forthcoming in 96 Inc., Aura/Literary Arts Review, The Coachella Review, Columbia Journal, Confluence, CQ (California Quarterly), Crack the Spine, Folly, Hawai’i Pacific Review, and Iconoclast, among others. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She has done many public and private fiction and poetry readings, and her work has been read on NPR.