Kicking Up Red Clay
On the first day of the 1971-72 Myers Park Elementary School year, white faces and hands mashed against the glass of all the black-framed casement windows of the two-story, red brick building. I shoved my way through a clump of other sixth graders just in time to see its arrival—a polished, pumpkin orange bus stamped in bold black letters "Charlotte Mecklenburg County." Twenty-five Negro children dressed in stiff church clothes filed out and into our school (their new school) just before the morning bell.
Mrs. Johnston, who was also new to Myers Park Elementary, appeared in the front of my class just as the bell stopped clanging. She commanded, "Please address me as Mrs. Johnston, not Miss Johnston, or Miz Johnston. My last name is Johnston, not Johnson. You will pro-nounce your words correctly. You will e-nun-ci-ate each syl-la-ble. You will not say 'shouda,' 'woulda' or 'coulda.' And you will never say 'ain't.'"
Mrs. Johnston was a large woman—not fat, just tall, big boned. In her two to three inch pumps she appeared over six feet tall. Unlike other tall women, she did not slouch. Quite the opposite, she stretched her back and thrust her head high.
"You will act like civilized human beings in this classroom and show respect to each other and to me. You will raise your hand before you speak and you will wait until after I have said your name before you speak. I will not listen to a flock of gaggling geese when I have asked the class a question. I wish to hear from only one student at a time."
She maintained her erect posture as she strode around the classroom. Had a book been placed upon her head, it would not have dared to wobble, much less fall.
"You will not talk amongst yourselves while you are doing work at your desks and you will never talk when I am speaking. Never pass notes. You are here to learn and I am here to teach. We are not here to socialize. That is reserved for the lunch room and the playground."
She towered over us. We obeyed. The fact that Mrs. Johnston was the school's first Negro teacher and that we now had Negro kids in our class would no longer be a topic of whispered conversations among the white students. Mrs. Johnston's unflinching unassailable manner eclipsed all.
The white kids continued to discuss the bus, but not "busing," like their parents did at home. They imagined the new bus smell and wished they could ride it to school. (In the white children's neighborhoods only the older junior high school students rode buses to school. The white children trekked or rode their bikes to school from their homes in the nearby neighborhoods.)
"If these rules are observed, we will have no problems during the coming year. If not, I will be forced to speak to your parents."
We had never been addressed in this manner by a teacher. In our five previous years, schoolteachers had not been so firm or clear about the basic ground rules. Our fifth grade teacher, Miss Hailey, could not maintain discipline at all. By eleven o'clock on the day of an educational televised broadcast, she would have turned the TV on and disappeared to the teacher's lounge. We'd switch channels and watch "The Beverly Hillbillies," "Gilligan's Island" or "I Dream of Jeannie."
There were features of Mrs. Johnston that intrigued us. She was "Mrs." but wore no wedding ring. Her left front tooth was surrounded by gold; something many of us had thought was reserved for men and only for men who were pirates. But the most fantastic aspect of Mrs. Johnston was her massive bosom.
The breasts of most of the class's ten and eleven-year-old girls were flat. Formless training bras which could have doubled as sling shots were our only experience with feminine undergarments. Mrs. Johnston's pronounced bosom was a marvel to novice bra trainees. It protruded from her erect frame like the flying buttress of a cathedral and when our minds wandered, each wondered what sort of brassiere could both support the weight of her enormous breasts and propel them jutting forward like the prow of a battleship.
Every afternoon during Math period instead of concentrating on the arithmetic of fractions, Mrs. Johnston's students were held rapt by the principles of physics. It was during this lesson period that Mrs. Johnston put her formidable bosom to practical use as a shelf to support the bulky sixth grade teacher's Math manual.
She could not use her regular podium during Math period. She needed to move from each of the four math groups giving instruction, advice and corrections. So she opened her book to the page of the afternoon lesson, nestling its spine into her enormous cleavage. Implanting the book in this manner freed her hands to flip pages, demonstrate calculations on the chalk board, point to members of the groups, answer questions and shift from group to group.
That she used her bosom in this manner was both titillating and embarrassing to her prepubescent charges.
Of course, it would be no surprise to anyone who saw her method of transporting her teaching material that it might lead to some sort of class disruption. What was surprising, to her especially, was who would be its source.
I could tell Mrs. Johnston liked me. She worked with me on more difficult math problems after I finished the assignments early. And when she found out I had read all the biographies in our school's library, she had the librarian order more. Mostly, I think she secretly liked that I was not intimidated by her and spoke my mind, like when I hissed at Tommy, "Stop it. He's got a right," when Tommy was pointing and pulling faces at Leroy for not standing up and reciting the "Pledge of Allegiance."
In turn, even though it was not "cool" and I would not have admitted it to my peers, I liked her. She didn't put up with a bunch of stupid nonsense and anyone could tell she truly cared about teaching every one of us something. I admired her.
Our unspoken mutual regard was sorely tested one day when she bestowed upon me what I'm sure she viewed as a great honor. She told me early in the day that she would be placing me in charge of Math period later that afternoon while she left the class to attend a meeting with the principal.
I felt sick. This "honor" would just serve as another source of ridicule by my fellow students. "Teacher's pet" was already ringing in my ears. I had been taunted a lot about my weight, my "Re-tard" sister, and my too good grades. I fretted the rest of the morning, scheming a way around being teased.
Finally a plan occurred to me. I relaxed. I waited.
When Mrs. Johnston left, I wasted no time. I strode to the front of the classroom, picked up the enormous Math manual, thrust my chest forward and placed the book squarely upon and perpendicular to my flat chest. The class roared with laughter. I loved their reaction and wanted more. So I took big long prancing strides into the center of the room bending back as far as I could go without losing my grip on the mammoth book and without toppling over backwards. More peals of laughter! I loved it and wanted to make them all roar again so I tried my best to imitate her speech.
"Now class, I will not tol-er-ate any horse play or fun-ny bus-i-ness during our time to-ge-ther. Your eyes should not leave this book I have placed here (I thrust my chest out even further) upon my ba-zoom-ies!"
Dead silence. I had expected another roar of laughter, but instead, just as I shouted "ba-zoom-ies," everything went still.
I turned to face Mrs. Johnston. She must have still been in the classroom's corridor when she heard our loud outbursts and hurried back to our room.
She came at me like a swarm of hornets, snatched my wrist, jerked me out of the room and down the hallway without saying a word. Her eyes flared like Uncle Jake's right before he beat the tar out of my cousin Jim for messing with his power saw. We turned the corner at the end of our corridor and she was pulling me towards the flight of stairs that led down to the principal's office.
As we turned the corner, she stopped pulling me for a moment, kept hold of my wrist, her face scrunched up like she smelled curdled milk, "I can not believe you, Sarah. Of all of them, I thought I could trust you."
She stared at me real hard, as if considering what to do, "I'm taking you to Mr. Dove's office. We're calling your mother the minute we get there to come pick you up."
My mother? I couldn't breathe, like after Tommy chased me all over the playground, tackled and pinned me in the sun-hardened cracked hard red clay beside the slide, then spat "nigger lover." I expected a long visit with our principal and a note to my parents. Not this. I could not let them call my mother.
Mrs. Johnston started pulling me towards the stairs holding on to my right arm. I was stumbling along behind her. Just as we started down the stairs, I managed to catch hold of the upper banister rail with my free hand and held on with everything I had. By then Mrs. Johnston was already a couple steps below me. She pulled.
I held tight. She pulled more. I held on. Still pulling, she came back up the two steps between us to pry my fingers off the railing one by one. As she was doing this, she'd briefly loosened her grip on the wrist of my right hand. When she pried my last finger off the railing, I grabbed the railing with my right hand.
We wrestled with each other's hands. She kept pulling and trying to pry my fingers off and had half-lifted me off the ground, but I was squirming and wiggling and would not let go of the railing.
She pulled. I held on.
As we struggled on the top of the stairs, I pleaded with her. "Mrs. Johnston, please don't call my mother! Oh, please don't. I'll do anything you want—anything but that. Please. I didn't mean it, I'm so sorry. Just please don't call my mother. Please."
My entreaties were falling on deaf ears, and I was terrified that she would call my mother, so I went on. "You don't understand. The kids all tease me. My sister's real sick. The kids call her 'RE-tard' and they call me 'fattie' and 'smarty pants.' I didn't want them to tease me more about being 'teacher's pet.'"
Mrs. Johnston was still trying to pull me down the stairs. I started to cry. "Wait. If you call her she won't be able to come. My sister's just had another brain operation and my mother has to stay home with her all day long. Mom can't leave her alone. She's already sad and upset, please don't call her."
At these last words about my mother, I watched Mrs. Johnston. Her eyes no longer held Uncle Jake's blind fury. They'd softened, like Aunt Issy's eyes right before she hugged my sister, Cassie. When Mrs. Johnston's eyes changed, so did her steel grip. It loosened. By the time I stopped talking, she had let go of me entirely and sunk down to sit on the top step. She let out a low groan as she slouched forward, put her elbows on her knees and her face in her hands.
Not trusting her, I continued to grip the rail and catch my breath. She didn't turn, just patted the spot beside her on the top step and said, "Come here Sarah, sit down."
Still not trusting her, I continued to hold the rail. She motioned to the spot beside her again and said, "Come here. Sit down Sarah."
I was reluctant to let go of the railing, but her tone and posture seemed so deflated that I felt safe. I let go.
As I sat down beside her, she said "Alright, I won't call your mother." She paused and shook her head, "I'm really sorry about your sister, Sarah, but, you of all people know everyone's got tender spots they don't want people to poke. Good Lord, you think I don't know what it feels like to be different, what it feels like not to fit in, to be teased?" I didn't answer.
"But just because you're afraid of being teased or laughed at doesn't give you the right to make fun of someone else." She was quiet. Her expression looked like my mother's face when she was looking at my sister when she thought no one was around.
"I won't take you down to the principal," then mumbled under her breath, "he would probably tell me that I'm too strict with you and that he's already got too many parents complaining to him about how strict I am with their children."
"Let's go." We stood up at the same time. She took a big inhalation of air, let it out real slow and straightened herself up to her fullest height. I treaded back to the classroom at her side. As we walked, she said, "Go in there and apologize to me in front of the class for your reprehensible behavior."
When we got back to our class, I went to the front of the room and with my class mates staring at my bright red tear-stained face, I apologized. My head hung low on my thoroughly deflated chest.
Later on after school, the girls, and the boys too, crowded round me asking what had happened. Had I been sent to the principal's office?
I considered telling the truth, but didn't want to share the exchange Mrs. Johnston and I had on the stairs. I felt closer to Mrs. Johnston, like we shared a secret, but I sure didn't want the kids to know that, so I fibbed.
"Oh my God," I whispered for emphasis, "she whipped the tar out of me on the landing at the top of the stairs. When she started to haul me down to Mr. Dove I told her, I said, 'you know you can't hit me like that, I'm going to tell Mr. Dove how big a beating you gave me.' So she let me go."
They liked my lie. I did too, until the kids lost interest and I was alone. Instead of feeling proud of thinking fast and lying good, my stomach hurt and my hands clenched up. I left the main courtyard to sit alone on a bench at the far end of the playground. My feet swung back and forth, the toes and heels of my Keds kicking up little clouds of orange dust from the hard caked red clay. Remembering the crushed expression on Mrs. Johnston's face, I kicked harder and harder, wishing she had beaten the tar out of me.