This Is a Beautiful Woman, II

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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

2 thoughts on “This Is a Beautiful Woman, II

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