|!973: Bruce and I during our St Louis Years|
I no longer recall what percentage of Webster's students were African American, but today the school would be labelled "diverse." For the most part I had a good relationship with my African American students, and I enjoyed learning about them and their life and in many cases their struggles beyond the normal adolescent ones. But I also know I brought into the classroom my white expectations and my white views --and my white fears.
Lately, I have been thinking about an experience I had then that could have turned out quite differently if it happened today.
I left school later than usual, and because it was winter, it was already dark. The parking lot was almost empty when I got into my car to head back to our apartment about twenty minutes away. We lived near Washington University, a neighborhood in the city of St Louis with mainly old apartment buildings, an integrated neighborhood, which we enjoyed.
When I made the first turn once out of the parking lot, I noticed a car behind me, but didn't think anything about it until I realized each time I turned the driver in the car made the same turn. The driver was a Black man, as was his passenger. I became increasingly nervous the further away I was from Webster Groves and the closer I got to our apartment.
I turned. He turned. I sped up, so did he. I was sure I was being followed, and I tried not to think about why, but I was nervous.
I devised a plan. I would leave my books and purse in the car and make a run for it when I got to our block. I had a whistle on my key chain for such emergencies, and I would use it.
Amazingly, when I got home, there was a parking spot right across the street from the three-floor flat where we lived. I pulled in and prepared to dash when the car that had been following me pulled up right next to me, and the passenger rolled down his window and motioned to me.
The car was close enough to mine that I couldn't open my door. I considered sliding over to my passenger side and getting out that way, but instead, for whatever reason, I rolled down my window, too.
"Hi, Ms A. We saw you leave school, and we know you live in a tough neighborhood. We decided to make sure you got home ok."
Yes, these two "scary" black men were actually two of my students. I thanked them for the escort and said I would see them in school the next day and told them to go home and do their homework.
Recently, I have thought about how their generous concern for me could have turned out differently today. In the 70's we didn't have cellphones or car phones, but today if I thought I was being followed, I would use my phone to call 911. The police would have come and these two youths would have been questioned at best and at worst….. I shudder to think about what could have happened based on my assumptions. And my fear.
Those boys, if they are still alive, are men not that much younger than me, and I wonder where they are now. What has been their life experience since then? I wonder how they are reacting to all the recent events and what they are saying to their children and grandchildren.
I was their teacher, but they were mine as well.
When have your fears turned out to be unnecessary and even based on false assumptions? I would love to know.