Coleman and the Map of the World
I could have sworn I saw Mrs. Coleman
the other day. Of course, that wouldn’t mean anything to anybody but thousands of other kids who attended Herrington
Elementary School in central Texas and me, back in the 1960s. It started me thinking, though; about the impact some people
have on our lives. It’s not like Mrs. Coleman was a celebrity or anything, but for a few fourth graders, she was a pivotal
character in a turbulent time that was referred to as integration.
No matter how long ago you went to school, or how foggy the memories,
everybody can remember at least one teacher who made a difference for them in one way or another. This teacher may not have
had any impact on our studies, per se, or had any real sway on what we chose to do with our lives, but may have had a direct
influence in what type of human being we turned out to be. Someone who helped us find our conscience, or our humanity.
For me, that teacher was Mrs. Coleman.
Integration was a tough time for all concerned. Black
children were bussed to white schools and white children were bussed to black schools. Both black and white teachers were
encouraged to teach at schools of a predominantly different race to help with the integration process. I don’t think
there was a single kid involved who went into this arrangement willingly. We were all scared, as tends to happen when you
yank people out of their normal, ordered routine, and force them to try and fit into a new environment.
In my memory, the black kids who were forced to come to our school acted out with violence and intimidation. Back then such
behavior scared the stuffing out of me. On reflection, I realize that those kids were just as scared as I was; they just portrayed
it differently by being tough. Most white kids tended to try and blend in with the wallpaper, tiptoeing around and not making
eye contact. The atmosphere was charged with electricity and fights broke out at random. It was war, plain, pure and simple,
and as in any war, we -- the soldiers -- followed
orders and tried to stay alive.
Mrs. Coleman was the first black teacher in my school and in my
experience. Not only was she black, she had other things going for her that could set a white fourth grader’s mind awhirl
with the obvious cultural differences. Her skin was the color of Hershey’s chocolate, and that is no exaggeration; she
was the darkest person I had ever seen. The contrast of the whiteness of her teeth against her skin was startling. When she
spoke, she had my undivided attention if for no other reason than that one.
She was an older woman, quite round, very short, and I suspect, most likely a happy person. But we didn’t see that part
often. There were some little clues, like the way she giggled at appropriate times or smiled at the sometimes-bizarre answers
that fourth graders could come up with to her questions, but Mrs. Coleman was a very careful person; smiles and giggles were
few and far between.
From day one, Mrs. Coleman did not have the respect of her students. I was only about ten years old, but I was savvy enough
to pick up on that even as young as I was. If she had been Mrs. Conley, for example, my third-grade, mean-as-a-stepped-on-snake,
white teacher, one little rap on her desk with the yardstick would have hushed the classroom silent as a tomb.
For Mrs. Coleman it took
a lot more work. Everybody knew that Mrs. Coleman would not dare lay a finger on us, unlike Mrs. Conley, who would happily
smack us on any fleshy surface that was available with her trusty yardstick if we so much as gave her half a reason, but things
were tense enough already, so Mrs. Coleman had to be much more creative than the average fourth grade teacher. As a result,
she taught us that school could be exciting and fun. Her class was not only informative but also it was entertaining. Rather
than appreciate her for it, we simply took advantage of it.
Basically, Mrs. Coleman was tolerated,
both by the students and the other teachers, and most especially the parents. There was an obvious tension in Mrs. Coleman’s
room on parent visiting night. Parents and children milled about the room looking at the displays of our work that she had
carefully prepared, but the number of words that passed between teacher and parents was minimal at best. I remember her alternating
between sitting at her desk, and wandering around the room, hopefully. Even though I’m sure she was brutally disappointed
in the lack of enthusiasm both from parents and students, she always had that dazzling smile and used it freely.
Until the day before Christmas
Handling an excited fourth grade class the day before holiday vacation was the ultimate test of any teacher, and Mrs. Coleman
was no exception. We put her through her paces, and then some. Looking back, I suspect that the Friday before we let out for
the Christmas holiday was a day straight out of hell for Mrs. Coleman. To say that we were wild was an understatement of the
highest order. We used every trick in the book, from throwing things, to popping in and out of our chairs, and in one dazzling
display of recklessness, Johnny Richards actually snuck out of the classroom and had to be bullied back by Mr. Gomez, the
principal had to be called in twice to help maintain calm with threats of paddling and all other heinous retributions. Mr.
Simsbury insisted that Mrs. Coleman take names so that he could “whoop butts,” but Mrs. Coleman never wrote down
the first name. As it turns out, she didn’t need to.
If things weren’t
bad enough already, mere hours before the bell rang a series of mechanical failures began to occur. It started when the overhead
lights flickered off and stayed off for about fifteen minutes right after lunch. Then the back broke off of Mrs. Coleman’s
rolling desk chair. That was funny to everyone, even her. She laughed until I started to get the feeling that she might be
laughing more out of hysterics than actual humor.
There was a large map on a plywood display
board that rested in the chalk tray behind Mrs. Coleman’s desk. At approximately two o’clock, Mrs. Coleman slid
back her chair to stand up and ask for quiet, as she had done numerous times over the course of the day, and due to the fact
that the back was missing from her chair, she went back further than normal. Her shoulders contacted the plywood map, and
the class watched in horror as it wobbled and then fell forward, striking an unsuspecting Mrs. Coleman on top of the head.
The display board was comprised of almost a full sheet of three quarter-inch plywood and had to be very heavy, and consequently,
very painful. The room went as silent as a church during personal prayer time, and stayed that way until the most alarming
Mrs. Coleman, at the end of her resources, taxed beyond the limit that any human should be expected to tolerate, and now in
physical pain ... began to cry. What started out as a whimper, turned into sobs and
ultimately into wails. For several minutes no one moved or spoke. We listened to the heartbreaking sobbing of this woman,
knowing without a doubt that we were responsible. We were horrible, bad children, and we knew it. Then one by one, those of
us with enough conscience to know that we were behind this sad display began to leave our chairs and migrate to the front
of the room. Not knowing what to do when I got there, I located and offered her a Kleenex, which she took gratefully.
Then the apologies started coming, and coming ... and coming. Before it was over,
there wasn’t a dry eye in the room. Almost as one, an entire classroom full of fourth graders came to the same realization.
Mrs. Coleman was not just a teacher, or even a black teacher. She was a person ... a
warm blooded, sensitive, pain feeling, usually happy person, and we had single-handedly changed all that, and we didn’t
like the change. We wanted the happy, smiling Mrs. Coleman back, right now, because we knew we were the ones who
sent her away.
The school nurse collected
Mrs. Coleman and a scowling Mr. Simsbury took over a very subdued class until the final bell rang. The only thing worse than
Mrs. Coleman’s crying, was Mr. Simsbury’s silent, steady, disappointed gaze. His eyes said, “Try me, go
ahead, and just try me. I’m old, I can retire, but not before I beat the snot out of every one of you.”
Needless to say, when school resumed after the holidays, things had begun to change. Mrs. Coleman was back to her old smiling
self, and as a group we were so enormously grateful that it was just days before summer vacation before we actually tested
her again in any significant way. By then, it was no worse than we would have done any teacher, and it took a lot less effort
on her part to calm us down.
If ever there was a doubt in any of our young minds that
Mrs. Coleman deserved our respect and consideration, we only had to look at the plywood map behind her desk. Ironically enough,
it was a map of the world that reminded us that she was a person just like us and that she deserved to be treated so, just
like us. She taught us that color was only skin deep, but compassion, tolerance, and acceptance came from the soul, a lesson
that I have carried with me all this time, and will never forget.
Sometimes it takes years
before we have such a revelation and are reminded of those events and people who helped shape our lives. I will never be able
to look at anyone and judge him or her on the basis of skin color again. Thanks to Mrs. Coleman, and an unfortunate incident
with a map of the world.
By C.J. Mouser