Archive | January 2018

This Is A Beautiful Woman, III

IMG_6846

Glamor portrait, 1953 in a borrowed gown.

The program Sunny and her students presented that October night broke all recent records for both attendance and enthusiasm. Most of the children she taught had never had any of the extra curricular music, dancing, or sports classes that are so common today.  Performing for an audience was a first for them, while cheering was a first for their parents.  Most who came that night to see their youngsters recite poetry, hadn’t even thought about poetry since learning nursery rhymes. But they drank in the words from their own children because they communicated emotions that had never been spoken.

So naturally, the principal immediately put Sunny in charge of the Christmas program,  changing all her previous lesson plans.

For that occasion, she put most of the students into a Greek Chorus reciting passages from Luke to tell the Christmas story while others, in makeshift costumes, pantomimed the drama. On the other side of the stage, the school chorus presented Christmas carols at appropriate intervals. Once again the auditorium was filled with cheering families, creating the second major victory accomplished by a novice in her first semester of teaching.

Ever so slowly a new attitude toward school began emerging.

Probably the main reason for Sunny’s immediate success at this particular school was that while students and teacher shared the same financial status, Sunny staunchly maintained a totally different attitude. Her mantra since becoming the sole bread-winner for her family was, “I may be broke, but I refuse to be poor.” With that attitude she lived a lifestyle of great anticipation coupled with hard work far different from those who saw themselves as “I-can’t-do-anything much-because-I’m-so- poor.” While Sunny had reveled in developing her mind with good music, great books,  and lofty ideals, most of these families had  cheated themselves by considering such as frivolities only for the “rich people.”

But, as you recall from previous posts, Sunny reacted to financial roadblocks by looking for ways around, over, or through them. Such as:

  1. Slowly stashing away enough money to pay for one year of college, so she could at least get a taste of higher education whether or not she got to finish a degree.

  2. Choosing a college in a town where a relative owned a house that she could live in rent free if she fixed it up and kept it up, unlike many renters.

  3. Taking advantage of every concert, play, and program that her Student Activity Fee covered. And insisting the kids take advantage of these chances for enrichment with her.

  4. Cheerfully giving up owning a car while living in a small city, realizing that walking is healthful for the whole family.

  5. Eagerly accepting any part-time or temporary position to make enough money to continue her degree program.

  6. Completely  understanding that attitude is far more important than bank account status. It’s never about how much money you have.

Seeing someone in the same boat financially as their own families, but with great energy and a can-do attitude, probably did more to help the student body that year than any subject matter she taught.

Unfortunately, January, 1954 brought a little known infectious disease to the school and Sunny was one of several victims. She was sick a week before her mystified physician put her in the hospital. There they diagnosed her problem as hepatitis, probably what we now know as hepatitis A.  After a week at Methodist Hospital in Oak Cliff, she came home for eight weeks of recuperation before returning to school in March.

Copyright 2018 by Kaye Fairweather

This Is a Beautiful Woman, II

IMG_1871

 

Sunny and her children had spent four years daydreaming about the easy life to come — when Mother graduates. With no tuition bills or textbooks to buy and a steady income,  everything was certain to come up smelling like roses.

And it did seem that way in the fall of 1953. Teachers were in high demand, so Sunny could easily pick the school district where she wanted to work. Ever the gambler, she selected Dallas, Texas, leaving some friends mystified and others angry that she didn’t return “home” to New Mexico. But having “conquered” college, Sunny was eager for new challenges. They found a small frame home in the South Oak Cliff section to buy and began life in Big D by mapping out nearby bus stops and grocery stores.

This unsuspecting newbie’s first assignment was in the same school in the same slum area that had produced Dallas’ most infamous young couple, Bonnie and Clyde, a few years earlier. Even worse, Sunny was to be the assigned auditorium teacher, rather than receiving the more usual classroom assignment that she had expected. It was her duty to teach speech/theater to groups of up to 60 students in 45- minute segments throughout the day.  Most teachers who had gotten  that assignment in the recent past, quickly declared a truce with the unruly students and allowed them to do whatever they wished, as long as they didn’t create a ruckus or cause trouble for her.

That particular solution, however, never occurred to Sunny. The first day of school she stood up as straight and as tall as her five foot, one inch frame would allow and assigned seats for each student for the rest of the semester, carefully leaving the first row empty in case anyone misbehaved and needed to move closer to her.  Then she unequivocally announced they would study poetry and oral interpretation their first eight weeks. Furthermore, the best students would perform for a parent – teacher meeting in late October.

The students had wanted to like her because she was attractive and still fairly young, but poetry? They left those first classes shaken to the core by this unexpected turn of events.  And none of them had ever performed in public before, even for a small group of  parents and teachers.

She began their immersion in poetry by having all read  Vachel Lindsay out loud because his powerful poetry is meant to be sung or chanted. As they gained familiarity, she added clapping, stomping, or drums to emphasize certain parts. Then some verses became solo recitations, or the girls chanted while the boys answered. And all during these days the students absorbed the emotion and the story in ways they would never forget because it became part of them.

The last verse of Lindsay’s General William Booth Enters into Heaven,  one of the poems they learned during the first few weeks:

[REVERENTLY SUNG. NO INSTRUMENTS] 

And when Booth halted by the curb for prayer   

He saw his Master thro’ the flag-filled air.   

Christ came gently with a robe and crown   

For Booth the soldier, while the throng knelt down.   

He saw King Jesus. They were face to face,   

And he knelt a-weeping in that holy place.   

Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?

Later, they moved on to  James Weldon Johnson’s The Creation. While all performed it in class, she chose only the older, bigger boys to present it at the PTA performance. Many of these kids had already failed a year or two, so she took advantage of the ‘problem,’ believing their larger size and deeper voices, would add gravitas to God’s soliloquy. Besides they needed a boost in confidence.

The last verse of Johnson’s The Creation:

Up from the bed of the river

God scooped the clay;

And by the bank of the river

He kneeled him down;

And there the great God Almighty

Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky, 

Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night,

Who rounded the earth in the middle of his hand;

This great God,

Like a mammy bending over her baby,

Kneeled down in the dust

Toiling over a lump of clay

Till he shaped it in is his own image;

Then into it he blew the breath of life,

And man became a living soul.

Amen.      Amen.

And the last poet they had time for that semester was Langston Hughes, one of Vachel Lindsay’s proteges. Reportedly, Lindsay helped him get a better job than the busboy position he had when they first met, introduced him to a publisher, and assisted in several ways during those early days. Hughes became known as a Jazz Poet, a new art form in the early twenties.

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.

They send me to eat in the kitchen

When company comes,

But I laugh,

And eat well,

And grow strong.

Tomorrow,

I’ll be at the table

When company comes.

Nobody’ll dare

Say to me,

“Eat in the kitchen,”

Then.

Besides, 

They’ll see how beautiful I am

And be ashamed–

I, too, am America.

Langston Hughes

While schools were still segregated in Texas at the time Sunny taught,  both white and black reached out, offering understanding to the other; after all they lived together in the same slums.

Copyright 2017 by Kaye Fairweather