A Woman Who Changed My Life

I've been clearing out some of the clutter in the room I've been using as a recording studio for the last 17 years or so, and had begun to empty out a filing cabinet when I came across a file folder marked "Misc" for miscellaneous. It was thin, with not many papers inside, so I opened it to see what the folder held. In it was a letter that I wrote to my third grade teacher in November of 1995. Her reply to me was also inside. She was an important figure in my life, which is why I'm writing this post about her. When I saw that today, May 16th, is her birthday, I knew I had to stop what I was doing and bear witness to what this woman meant to me.

This post has nothing to do with cancer. It's more autobiographical, which I why I'm making it a page in this blog rather than a post. But this is an essential part of who I am, so I hope you'll stay with me.

I was in the third grade in 1963-1964. You may remember that some major historical events happened during that time. More on that later. That time period was not only marked by events that shaped my whole generation, it was a time of self discovery for me.

For one, I got my first transistor radio for Christmas in 1963. The Beatles came to America in February of 1964, and my love affair with Rock & Roll began. Also, in the third grade, I figured out that I could sing. As I said in my post, Counting My Blessings #3: My Career, I used to stand on a tree stump in the school yard and sing to the girls at recess. I discovered at a very early age that girls like singers!

My third grade teacher was a kind, good-hearted woman, who I didn't know at the time was a Christian, like me and my family. Her name was Rose Marie Christopher, though she began the school year as Miss Hayes. She was African-American, which was much more unusual for a teacher in the early 1960's than I realized at the time. She made a huge impression on me, and shaped my view of people.

For some reason, in 1995, I felt moved to try to find her so I could write to her and tell her the impact she'd had on me. My dad helped me get her address through his mother, my Grandma B. Both she and Mrs. Christopher still lived in the Flint area at the time.

I began the letter by introducing myself, and sharing a few things I remembered about her and our class. I told her what I was doing for a living and where I lived, and about my life in general. Then I wrote the following paragraph to her about a particularly memorable day.

I remember that our class had been especially noisy that day, and you had been warning us that if we didn't settle down, we wouldn't get recess. Then, that afternoon, you got a phone call. Of course, while you were on the phone, we got noisy again. After talking on the phone, you said, "Class, I'm very, very sorry to tell you this" and I thought you were going to say, "but you've been too noisy, so you're not getting recess." Instead you said, "But President Kennedy has just been killed." It seems to me that we had a moment of silence. I think you answered some questions we had about it, and told us we had a new President whose name was Johnson. Some of the girls were crying. Then school was let out early. I'm sure you remember that day vividly as well.

Every kid of my generation remembers that day. Every one of us can tell you where we were when we first heard about it. But that wasn't the reason for my letter to her. Her grace in handling such tragic news to a bunch of third graders was not the way she changed my life. I talked about that in the following paragraphs of my letter to Mrs. Christopher.

But the main thing I remember about you is the impression you made on me racially. I remember one of the kids asking you, "Why don't you talk Colored?" That was the term we used then, and kids don't know any better than to ask questions like that. I remember you saying it was because you had been educated. I don't remember a lot of other specific things you said or did, but I remember you were very kind. In case you hadn't guessed, I am white. I think our entire class was.

I, like a lot of people, have become concerned over the state of race relations in our country in recent years. How the division between our people has been deepened by our perceptions of of news events, from Rodney King to O.J. Simpson. I think those of us who grew up in the 1960's are really surprised by this. We had the mistaken impression that we "took care of racism" back then. And I know that I have always deeply felt that we are all the same. We all want the same things; to love and to be loved, to be respected, to be happy at work and at home. And I'm pretty sure I got the idea that people are people from being in a classroom with you every day for nine months.

When you're with someone who treats you with kindness, respect, and intelligence for that length of time, whatever differences you have tend to melt away, don't they? I think if more of the adults I know had had you for a teacher, they wouldn't have the racial attitudes they have today.

I'm sorry if this makes you feel old, but I turned 40 this year. I feel that I owe the racial sensitivity I've had my entire life to you, and I want to thank you for being the teacher and person you are.

I signed my name, along with my address and phone number, and mailed it to her. December and January went by with no reply. I started to wonder if it had gotten lost in the mail, or if I'd offended her in some way. But then in February, a letter came in the mail from her.

She said what a pleasant surprise it had been to receive my letter, and told me about her life the way I'd told her about mine. I learned that she was the first black full-time teacher in the Flint school system. She began teaching in 1961. She told me about her children, about her work in her church and at a local food bank. Turns out this woman was a genuine saint.

Towards the end of her letter, she wrote these two paragraphs.

Yes, racism and the divisions within our country is a great concern of mine. So much is caused by severe lack of knowledge, misinformation, the unwillingness to accept the truth, and the absence of love and respect for one another even though differences exist. Many in leadership roles are instrumental in allowing many to continue to believe that others are not equal, capable, deserving or worthy.

By the way, I allowed several people to read your letter. They were very impressed by it, and it has been read at the "Save The Children" group. Several principals plan to read it at their faculty meetings with the underlying questions for the teachers being: "What will your students think of you in 10, 20, 30 years from now? What kind of impression have you left behind? What kind of seed have you planted?"

As you can imagine, I was very moved by her letter. Since I now had her home address, and she had mine, we each got added to one another's Christmas card list. So each year, we kept in touch during the holidays. I knew that she remembered me, and was proud of me. This went on for fifteen years, until 2010.

In 2010, my wife and I lost six people in our lives, most notably, our dear friend Galen Koch. But with each of those deaths, I never broke down emotionally. Not until I received an envelope in the mail from my third grade teacher's son, Chris. The envelope contained a note saying that Mrs. Christopher has passed away. When I read that note, I couldn't contain my sorrow. The floodgates opened, and the accumulated losses from that accursed year came down on me with full force.

The saddest part of this story is that today, in 2017, even after having elected the first African-American President twice, race relations in this country seem worse than they were when I wrote that letter. But there is hope, because the generations younger than mine, the Millennials in particular, don't think about race the way previous ones have. They are truly colorblind.

We rightfully celebrate figures like Dr. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. But I had my own personal Rosa Parks. Her name was Rose Marie Christopher. She would have been 88 years old today. She made a big difference in my life. I owe her more than I can ever repay.

If you have a teacher who changed your perspective and molded you the way she did me, I encourage you to seek them out. Let them know what they mean to you. You'll be glad you did. #bearingwitness

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