I was young and green and this was my first “real” job. I had worked several part time jobs before – organizing research data for a chemistry professor in Ann Arbor, selling clothes in a department store in my home town, selling hardware and heavy-duty locks in a bicycle shop in Ann Arbor and as a Kelly Girl in Detroit for one long, hot, un-air-conditioned summer.
I had just been hired to teach English and social studies to seventh and eighth graders in the Livonia Public School system. Yikes! This was serious employment.
I had just moved into an apartment with three friends and we were getting settled. We moved the few pieces of furniture we begged and borrowed from parents and relatives into the bare spaces. The TV set was cheap, but new. We painted old tables and chests and cleaned old rugs and raided our parents’ basements for sets of dishes and pots and pans and flatware. We had just finished buying a week’s worth of groceries—an investment of $20 apiece! We were sharing summer experiences and unpacking our belongings. The TV was mere noise.
I was making lesson plans; reading curriculum guidelines; driving back and forth to my new school – Emerson Junior High School in Livonia – to prepare my classroom for the first day.
I would soon face two groups of 30-plus seventh graders and some smaller classes of kids who needed help with reading skills.
Would they like me? Would I like them? Would I be able to teach them what they were supposed to learn in seventh grade? Would I hold their attention? Would I be able to keep classroom highjinks under control? Would I inspire them? Would I be a successful teacher?
I was thrilled to be given this chance.
I was also scared to death.
My focus, that day, was on lesson plans, classroom bulletin boards and my own self confidence.
The TV was tuned to a rally in Washington, DC, and Martin Luther King Jr. was on the steps of the magnificent Lincoln Memorial giving an impassioned speech to thousands of people. I glanced occasionally at the TV.
I had tunnel vision in those days. The fits and starts of the Civil Rights movement was a static-like noise buzzing along the edges of my consciousness.
The 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered on that day when I didn’t pay attention, has triggered these memories.
In 1963, I had no idea how bad things were for black people in the South. Neither did most of the people I hung around with. We grew up in Michigan, vacationed in Canada and had very few black acquaintances, none of them from the South.
Looking back on the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 60s and 70s, I remember supporting the peaceful pushes for progress, but I must admit I did not contribute anything of significance to any of the important advances that have taken place.
President Barak Obama recalled King’s famous speech and the landmark 1963 rally last week and noted that many institutional barriers are yet to be overcome, but he said, “We’ve made enormous strides.”
No thanks to me, however. I was a wuss.
And I am ashamed.