If you think the traumatic incident that occurred at the middle school was the end of my teaching career… Think again.
Teaching was a chosen profession for me. After I made the decision not to attend law school but rather pursue an undergraduate and graduate degree in my first love, English, I was not content to give up on this career that I loved so dearly.
Yes, I could always return to the paralegal arena which had finally become an accepted and even lucrative profession in the South. I even did a brief stint working for the government as a legal analyst, but it was not teaching.
I had traded students for case files, and despite the significant pay increase, I was not satisfied with my 9 to 5-is-it-lunchtime-yet cube existence.
I reasoned that if I could not teach at a public school, I could seek teaching jobs at community colleges and universities. My first college teaching position was at a major Virginia university. Members of the faculty saw me conduct a workshop at a middle school conference and invited me to interview for a faculty position .
I was hired after the interview, mere months after leaving my middle school position. Following that position, I was able to parlay my experience into jobs at several community colleges and an HBCU in Virginia.
Life as a contract professor or adjunct was interesting and challenging especially teaching freshman or adult learners. However, the pay and lack of benefits did not lend itself to the needs of a single parent.
I began considering reentry into public school. But this time up North. The sting left by the uncaring administrators at the middle school was still fresh
By this time, I had published 2 history books for young people , several journal articles, received several national fellowships, and taught in higher education so I easily secured an 8th grade English position.
The school was in a bedroom community of Washington, DC with a large Hispanic population. I enjoyed the school’s diversity and the nearness of the nation’s capital. Unfortunately, an unexpected illness caused me to end my tenure there, but once I recovered, I found another position in the largest and most influential county in Northern Virginia .
After several years in this county, I relocated to a sleepy litle town in the Northern neck of Virginia where I landed a position at both the local high school and community college.
This was my last stop on the teacher train and probably most memorable because of the faculty and students who welcomed me (an urban Black teacher) into their community and their hearts.
Officially retired now, and pursuing writing fulltime, I still dip my toes in the teaching pond…subbing at local school districts (my experience working at the local Gifted School will always be a fond memory of both talented students and dedicated educators) and conducting teacher training workshops.
When September rolls around, I still feel that excitement and air of expectancy heralding the start of a new school year
No longer do I feel anxious upon entering a school; instead I feel at home…looking forward to the interaction with colleagues…and facing a roomful of new, fresh faced, inquisitive students and the promise that Learning brings.
EACH ONE, TEACH ONE.
The TV ads have already begun. Happy, smiling children dancing, doing flips to Bruno Mars, tumbling out of school buses, Ready. Faces shining, eyes glowing, backpacks bulging, sharpened pencils/notebooks/calculators/jump drives/Ipads at the ready.
As a teacher, now retired, I have mixed emotions about this time of the year. Summer is not officially over and already the brick and mortar folks are on the band wagon gearing up for the shopping binge that takes place this time of year. True, many schools around the country have begun, but Virginia (Hampton Roads) opted years ago to delay opening until after Labor Day to give the student workers a chance to serve the last tourists visiting the area.
I loved teaching, my students and being in the classroom, but I also savored every day of my two month respite (as did most of my colleagues). The mental and physical stress of teaching coupled with low pay requiring most of us teachers to work a second job takes its toll on those in this noble profession.
Generally teachers have to return one or two weeks before school’s official opening to prepare for the onslaught of new practices, new personnel, new procedures. …this year you will have to write out an individual comment on the student’s report card if the student receives a D in your class…Huh?…You mean explain to the student/parent why he/she got a D…Duh?
In teaching, it seems everything old is always new again. That’s the thing about education, a forty year veteran teacher used to say… Gurl, if you stay in it long enough everything comes back around…just with a new name and some new research to back it up. I call this the pendulum swing theory…things were going pretty good (or bad ) and now they seem headed in the other direction.
My entre into teaching was a second career move. Having exhausted the paralegal field working with lawyers of all ilk… from Hollywood medical malpractice to Virginia Legal Aid, I was ready for a career switch. My options were law school (and suit up every day in the lawyer armor) or English degree. The choice was obvious.
During the mid 80s, teachers still had a measure of control over what happened in their classroom. I remember being given a course outline my first year and told that as long as I covered the material, I could be as creative as I wanted in the delivery to the students.
A year later, when I became Department Head, my principal, Mr. W told me during the interview, I had big shoes to fill as my predecessor had been on the job for 30 years. He looked at my size 9 foot and smiling said, I don’t think you will have any problem. And I didn’t.
Under his Joe Clark tempered with Old School cool leadership and the mentoring of other seasoned teachers, I flourished. The 10 years I spent at the middle school were certainly the high point of my teaching career. Not only was I able to influence the philosophy and practices of other teachers, I was able to teach I-love -you -one -day/hate -you -the- next hormonal 12 and 13 year olds, critical thinking and reasoning skills while improving their basic reading/writing skills. And also infuse their lives with some history and culture to strengthen their self knowledge. I was even voted Teacher of the Year * by my fellow colleagues. And appeared in a local television news documentary celebrating the teaching profession.
It was there that I wrote my first book buoyed by my students who wanted “to see a text about Egyptian mythology with faces that looked like theirs.”
All of that unfortunately, ended one day when a student, new to the school and upset because I had given the entire class lunch detention for misbehaving while under the care of a sub, jumped up suddenly and shouted I’m not serving any f###king detention… I’ma blow your mother F###king head off. And ran out of the room.
This incident of verbal assault signaled a pendulum shift in my own life. For weeks, I was stalked by this student even after he was finally suspended. At the insistence of the police officer assigned to the school, I took unpaid leave for the remaining few weeks of school. During this time, I found it necessary to seek medical treatment for stress, anxiety and debilitating insomnia as my bubbly personality and infectious smile disappeared.
Eventually, the case was bought to court (the school assigned police officer had filed a warrant against the student). Ironically, the state of Virginia, had just passed a law stating that verbal assault on a teacher was a crime. The judge sentenced the student to a juvenile facility and apologized to me on behalf of the Court for all that I had endured.
Unfortunately, the damage was done. Being inside a school no longer held joy for me …only anxiety. And for some strange reason, even though I was the victim of this crime, the school administration did not take my side. I think they just wanted me to let the whole thing go…after all the student hadn’t physically assaulted me.
But he had run to his locker to get something after he bolted from my class…perhaps a weapon.
..he had come to the school near the end of the year without records from his previous school and been admitted.
..he had assaulted a student in another neighboring school district.
…he had waited many days following this incident crouched by my parked car until he was chased away by security.
…He had taken away my career,my livelihood, my joie de vie…my love of teaching.
(To be continued…part 2)
Comments welcome. And thank you for Reading my Words.
*Each school selects one teacher.
Ms. Brown, this is Bill Griggs from the Portsmouth Notables Occasion. That is how our nearly 20 year friendship started in 1987. You are the only singer on the dais. Would you like to sing a song for the event? Baby, Ruth said, I’d be happy to.
Little did I know, that I had called at one of the low, transitional points in her career. In 1986, she had returned from Paris where she was performing in Black and Blue which would not be a hit on Broadway until January 1988. She had closed an off Broadway show called Stagger Lee which led to her role as Motor Mouth Mabel in the film Hairspray. The film at this time was yet to be released. And her dear compatriot, Howell Begel was helping Ruth fight Atlantic Records for her long overdue payments on recordings not only for Ruth, but for all of Atlantic artists.
At this point, she had four eyes on the stove setting on simmer. Later Ruth said that receiving the Notable Award from Portsmouth was the fuel that helped to fan the flame on her simmering projects.
After the Notables was over, Ruth and I stayed in touch by phone on a regular basis. We enjoyed chatting about her latest performances and upcoming events or just talking about family.
She always asked, Baby, what’s going on back home? We began meeting wherever she was playing: On Broadway at the Blue Note, at Wolf Trap and once at the Cinegrill in Hollywood. There I arrived without her knowledge. She spotted me in the second row, stopped the band and introduced me to the audience. With Ruth, I shared many great moments. I want to share with you, a few of them over the years.
In January 2002, I asked Ruth to dinner at the Palms Hotel in Vegas. This would be her first venture into the public after spending over a year and a half learning how to speak again. Ruth said she would be there and that her son and manager Earl would bring her to the hotel. We agreed to meet at the entrance at 7 pm. When my good friend Claus Ihlemann and I arrived at the front entrance there she was, draped in a black cape with fur. She looked stunning. There was the queen of rhythm and blues sitting at the slot machine in the center of the main entrance. We had a wonderful dinner at the top of the Palms. The patrons who came by the table to wish her well was an early birthday present to Ruth.
Caesar’s Palace at Terrazzo
In February of 2004, I once again found myself in Vegas on business. Again, I called Ruth and asked her to join us for dinner at the restaurant of her choice. She chose Terrazzo’s at Caesar’s Palace. Ruth told me of a great pianist named Galeebe Galab who played at the lounge there. I met Galeebe the day prior to the dinner and we arranged for a private table in the restaurant behind Galeebe’s lounge. After another two hour dinner, Ernie Warinner and I escorted Ruth to the lounge, coming in the back behind the audience. As we reached the half way point to our table in the back, Galeebe announced: Ladies and Gentlemen, the Queen of Rhythm and Blues, Ms. Ruth Brown. All of a sudden, a surge of strength came over Ruth and she headed to the stage. She sat at the edge of Galeebe’s piano bench and began to sing lyrics to the blues riff that he was playing. For four minutes she glowed and sang. There was not one hint that she was recovering from a stroke. When she brought the song to a close she said, I don’t know what I just sang, but they call it The Blues. The audience rose in applause.
In the fall of 2003, Lightning in a Bottle, a film about the makers of the Blues had just been filmed at Radio City Music Hall. Director, Martin Scorcese was very pleased with the success of the film and wanted Ruth to front a show of the fellow blues artists for a 40 city bus tour of the US. She was thrilled. A few months later, I asked how the tour was. She said, Oh baby, we didn’t go. With the ages and the conditions of all of us, Martin found out it would take too long to load and unload the bus!
I called Ruth in mid 2004 to check on her. She was happy and sounded terrific. Guess what, she said, Ray called me. He said Ruth they are making a film of my life and you are in it. I am! Well, honey, I want Holly Berry to play me, Ruth replied. Ray was quick on the uptake, Ruth I’m blind, but I’m not that blind.
In the fall of 2004, I called Ruth with some good news. WHRO and the Virginia Arts Festival want you to appear at the restored Attucks Theatre in Norfolk. Oh Baby, that’s where Daddy pulled me off the stage. I’ll be there.
Ruth is there anything you want? Baby, there are only two things I don’t have. You know B.B.’s got a blues festival named after him. I would love to have the Ruth Brown Rhythm and Blues Festival. What’s the other, I asked. One day a club called Ruth’s Place. Well, I replied, we can do a test run at the Attucks. That night at the Attucks was magic. A cameo moment as her fan Cabot Wilson called it.
I don’t have my friend to call anymore. I do have her number. She was honesty, sincerity, wisdom and determination. R not only stands for Ruth, It stands for Resilient. She endured all the hardships of life, yet she rose to the top of it all. Racism and segregation. Poverty and constant leg pain. Rejection and thievery. There is no wonder she sang the blues as only she could. The tears in her voice, the wailing of pain were her trademarks. Trademarks of a life that only the power of Faith, Family and the adulation, applause and never failing acceptance of an audience could heal.
I know that today you are walking all over God’s Heaven, free of pain and as light in flight as the Butterflies that you loved. When I hear the Robin sing and his voice begins to wail, I know you are singing just for me. Know that you will always be in my heart. Ruth, thank you for your song.
Readers, Windows 10 has struck again… and this time don’ run off with some of my saved documents!
Fortunately, I had a hard copy of my original post on Ruth Brown, but the guest post by Bill Griggs, local Renaissance man who knew and loved Miss B fiercely, along with comments from her long time Band member/friend the famed New York saxophonist Bill Easley is MIA.
Many of you who follow my posts know of my affinity for Music. I am a listener/sing alonger/lover of all kinds of music especially Jazz, soulful R&B, Blues, Hip hop, Country… did she say Country… Yes. Country. Especially folk like Sugarland, Brad Paisley, Zac Brown Band, Rascal Flats, Reba, Bonnie Raitt, Darius Rucker and even some Rap… T.Payne’s It’s a Circus, The Notorious B.I.G (my road song thanks to JoanG), Mos Def (did you know he has left the country?), Common, and on quieter, reflective occasions straight-ahead-jazz (thanks Dad) and classical including my extremely talented cello/guitar/ piano playing grandson Khalif, Regina Carter, and Vivaldi, to name a very few .
My favorite music, of course, playing as I write, on my ipod (used to be CDs), are the renderings of various bluesy, jazzy, soulful Male and Female crooners, the latter ranging from Bettye Lavette, Phyllis Hyman, Ledisi, Oleta, Rachelle, Farrell, Fantasia, Nina, Billie and of course, Miss Rhythm herself, Ruth Brown.
When I was a pigtail and bang, crinoline slip, black patent leather shoe wearing puff of innocence living in Norfolk, just across the river in Portsmouth, hometown phenom, Ruth Brown aka Miss Rhythm was making a name for herself in the world of music. That bluesy, “torchy, church and jazz schooled voice” that helped build Atlantic Records in the 50s to the music giant it would later become had her start singing in church and later won a contest at Harlem’s Apollo Theater that propelled her to become winner of a Tony, Grammy ( 1990, 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award), W.C. Handy, and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee during her long career.
Little did I know skipping up and down the streets of Victory Manor that one day some 50 years later our paths would cross and this musical wonder would leave a lasting impact on my life/heart.
Ruth Brown became the voice of Atlantic Records making chart topping hits like So Long, Tear Drops in Her Eyes, and (Mama) He Treats your Daughter Mean. Her more than two dozen hits, including Blues, R& B and later Rock and Roll, turned AR into a record giant and it was dubbed The House that Ruth Built. Her relationship with AR ended in 1961 following contract disputes when like so many black artists, Ruth discovered she was not being fairly compensated for the hits she was making.
Undaunted, Ruth Brown reinvented herself in the 70s and began recording blues and jazz again. She won a Tony for her role in Broadway’s Black and Blue. And had a starring role in the film Hairspray where she played the feisty DJ. She also showcased her hosting talents on two NPR shows, all the while continuing to perform at concerts and nightclubs in the U.S and overseas to throngs of adoring fans.
It was during the resurgence of her career in the early 2000s that I met the famed Miss Ruth Brown. At 77, she was preparing a return to the newly renovated Norfolk Attucks Theater (where she had performed at age 16 without her father’s knowledge). A friend at local Public Television station, WHRO, told me that a California director was looking for a local person to assist with research for a documentary on Miss Brown’s life. I quickly contacted Him and offered my services, and for the next few months was launched into a worldwind of activity researching the life of Ruth Brown from a variety of local sources.
I spent hours searching dusty files tucked away in the rich archives of the Portsmouth Public library (thank you Mae H.) and the microfilm viewers at the Norfolk Public library, hunting down pictures, newspaper articles, memorabilia, anything I could find on this Portsmouth native. Thanks to archivist at NSU library, I was able to obtain black and white photos from the 60s taken of Ruth Brown and radio personality Jack Holmes at a local event. I even stumbled across a beautiful 8×10 of her, at of all places, the Portsmouth Naval Museum…who knew? One of her most ardent fans (and high school sweetheart) even had a delicate, crumbling autographed B&W photo of her taken at Sunset Lake Park (remember that spot) hanging on his Portsmouth garage wall!
For weeks, I worked the phones talking to people who knew Ruth Brown, folks from her teenage days at Norcom High School who included the likes of Mayor Holley, Councilman Whitehust, former School Supt. Horace Savage, jazz player Johnny Day, and distinguished, retired Mr. Sanford (a former RB suitor) and a host of other likeable, gracefully aging seniors who all had fond memories of Miss Brown. We made arrangements to have a surprise ‘class reunion’ backstage after the performance at the Attucks.
After immersing myself in all things Ruth Brown, I finally met the great lady as she rehearsed with her band a few days prior to the Attucks performance. Don, the producer, introduced us and she graciously greeted me like I was an old friend. She was delighted to learn I was a ‘hometown’ girl and invited me to join her backstage on the night of the performance. It was at that time, I also met Bill Easley, her long time NY friend, band member and sax player extraordinaire whose resume included recording with the likes of Issac Hayes, George Benson, Jimmy McGriff and other jazz greats including Ruth Brown. Our friendship continues today bonded by the initial connection to Miss B.
Despite needing a cane for support (she had injured her knees in a car crash years ago), Ruth Brown was still a fireball of energy, had an infectious smile, sophisticated style, and a voice that filled the 600 seat auditorium of the Attucks Theater.
On the night of her performance, I was busy greeting the ‘class reunion’ members and getting them seated, shopping for flowers for her dressing room, ‘rehearsing’ the presentation by her classmate that would follow Portsmouth Mayor Holley and Norfolk Vice Mayor Hester’s presentation of her cake, and overall just trying to be helpful to the staff of the Attucks.
When Miss Brown came backstage, her Assistant asked me if I would sit with her while she was waiting to go on. I was both floored and honored and quickly pulled up a chair next to the exquisitely gowned Miss B. We held hands tightly and talked quietly as she ‘calmed herself’ for this ‘debut back in front’ of her hometown some 50 years after she had ‘left town’. When the band played her intro, she released my hand and said, “Honey, I got this…I’m walking out there on my own.” She squeezed my hand and in true Ruth Brown style gracefully glided onto the stage.
The next time I saw Ruth Brown was about a month later when I traveled through the snow to join Director Don and his friends at a New York nightclub, Le Jazz Au Bar, where Miss Brown was performing. When we went backstage to greet her, she noticed me standing off from the group and said, “There’s my hometown girl, what you doing up here in the big city?” We both laughed and warmly embraced and spent some time catching up on Portsmouth goings on.
Sadly, almost a year later, following a stroke and heart attack while living/performing in Nevada, Ruth Brown’s light was extinguished. I along with hundreds of others attended her funeral services at Willet Hall in her beloved Portsmouth where she had returned on many previous occasions to see a street named in her honor, a scholarship established in her name; a star placed on Granby Street; and a parade and banquet recognizing her as a Notable.
Although, I only knew her a short time, this sassy, blues, R&B and Rock and Roll lady will always be in my heart and music collection! She was a survivor who like my muse writer Zora Neale Hurston overcame challenges of racism, sexism, and health to realize her dream.
And to my friends Bill Griggs and Bill Easley, if you are reading this, I am sure the Readers would love to hear from you!
Stay tuned and as always….thanks for reading!
Don’t you know
They’re talking about a revolution
It sounds like a whisper…
While they’re standing in the Welfare lines/
Crying at the footsteps of those armies of salvation/
Wasting time in unemployment lines/
Sitting around waiting for a promotion/
Poor people gonna rise up/
And get their share.
c1982. SBK/purple rabbit music
Many folks think that we have come a long ways Baby and that the circumstances of America’s poor, disenfranchised, Not the talented 10th (or the Well heeled 10%) has improved since Tracy Chapman penned this song in the 80s.
Having been a card carrying member of the Movement during the 70s, And a poor person (I was a college student in Los Angeles working 3 part-time jobs, an unwed mother (now pc term Single Mom), a culture seeking, I love My People sistah who volunteered many wee hours growing food, cooking stew , sewing dashikis, teaching reading, tutoring and Workin’ for the People of Watts.
Often in the company of members of the Real Black Panther Party who were laser sharp serious about feeding hungry children in the city of the Angels only a stone’s throw from Holly weird, Shoppers- paradise-Rodeo Drive and right up the road from the Happiest place on earth.
Is it possible that things really do change while remaining the same?
Fast forward to 2016 and the country is immersed in holiday cheer, spending $ like water for a day that is supposed to honor a King/healer/leader/ Teacher and not an obese man in a redsuit.
Uh uh, here she go humbugging Christmas.
Readers, Like many of you, I luv the holidays and all the lights and carols and decorations and eggnog and gift giving/receiving and baking and hosting and TV specials and excitement on the faces of little ones opening their gifts on Christmas eve…
Remember I’m a Boomer and grew up in a Black household modeled after Leave it to Beaver, Father knows Best, and My3Sons. We DID Christmas thoroughly and enjoyed it.
But that does not mean we and America get to take a pass just because it’s the Holidays and the cofers of capitalism need replenishing.
And before you think it..I’m not talking about the seasonal well meaning middle class gestures of throwing some loose change (do they take debit cards now) in the armies of salvation kettles, or buying a pair of socks for the angel tree.
Hunger, Virginia is a 24/7 proposition. Being poor for too many children is a lifestyle handed down from previous generations and like crack, it’s hard to break the cycle.
Like Dredlocked wearing, folk song singing, visionary Tracy Chapman says…
Oh you better run/run/run//run/run …talkin’ bout a Revolution.
Merry Christmas to all and to all a good nite!
Okay, it’s finally here, February…the month I love to hate. And no, it’s not the 25,000 calorie consuming Super Sunday event that makes folks fanatical and grown men cry. Nor is it that cutesy bow and arrow kid all dressed in red taunting us to Buy, Buy, Buy even when there is No Significant Other for some of us to buy for. And it’s not even the days spent watching the weather forecast, checking the Farmer’s Almanac praying that the cold front from Canada doesn’t descend on Virginia and kill all my early budding perennials.
It’s the celebration of history and culture in February that has me wondering just who the *** am I ?
Lawd, this gurl done only wrote 10 posts this year and she already threatening a breakdown…
Reader, The 28 or 29 days of remembrance/activities associated with the history and culture of My people, frankly causes me to ponder. And now that I have left teaching and begun this journey as a writer, it has given me even more pause.
You see, in the early years, Black History Month was a time when I could legitimately get away with talking about the contributions of Black authors, poets, playwrights, rappers, etc. in my classroom without getting those raised eyebrows from an administrator who happened to stroll by my door.
Okay, I admit, I was a radicaluncoventionalgetitdonebyanymeansnecessary kinda teacher and culture abounded in my English class…year round. My walls were covered with the requisite grammar/writing/poetry/nod to Shakespeare, Keats posters. But they were also decorated with pictures of Zora, Langston, Alice, Baldwin, Tupac and Alicia Keyes. I practiced equal opportunity teaching every chance I got. And Every good teacher knows in order to Really teach and reach your students, said students must be able to identify with the subject matter. And I knew/learned how to accomplish that.
In fact, the walls not only reflected African American artists, but artists from all ethnic/racial demographics…and not just in the month in which this Society has allocated for their recognition.
The result: My students were the liveliest, most well informed, high scoring, inquisitive make the school look good bunch (I and Principal W. knew). And They actually looked forward to coming to Rm 10, 3rd period English.
We got to talk to her about this horn tooting…do you think we should have an Intervention…call Dr. Oz? Oprah?
These same students in the person of an intensely serious 7th grader named Janeen (who announced during her introduction the first day of class that she was going to be a Medical doctor) inquired politely during our yearly study of Greek Mythology why we weren’t learning about the Egyptians whom her dad said really had the first myths. And nearly took over my laser pointer that day and challenged me to find the stories of mythological figures whose faces looked like theirs. This challenge by Janeen and the entire class..you always tell us to search for information, Ms. Goss ..led to the writing of my/their first book. (The book Dedication, accordingly was ascribed to that class and the cover drawing credited to a student who didn’t care much for writing… but enjoyed hearing about those Egyptian myth guys.
So, with 25 days left to go, Reader, and a calendar that’s overflowing with all kinds of delightful cultural offerings (only someone on speed could conceivably attend them all), I have to question why this Celebration has to be squeezed into OnE month and can’t be spread out all over the entire year. I mean we are Black every day, aren’t we?
Mercy…This chile need help…Can’t be her upbringing..des Presbyterians..umph, umph, umph.