MALCOLM CAWTHORNE METZGER FELLOWSHIP ESSAY

Black Man in Front

I left Brookline.  I went to Louisiana where I knew no one.  It was an odyssey to find the experience I never had in Brookline Public Schools.  I had great teachers but I was not satisfied!  I was looking for the Black Man in Front.

I struggled not seeing “me” in front of my classrooms!  I had phenomenal teachers, but none looked like me.  I had Mr. Cradle, Mr. Robinson the METCO coordinator and my basketball coach Lance Tucker; but they never stood in front of me to teach quadratic equations, the theory of evolution, verb conjugation, nor slavery.  This ate away at my being; this began my procession to teaching.

I finally saw the Black Man in Front of me at Grambling State University, a Historically Black College.  I was a Spanish major.  I took an Intro to Teaching course in the spring of my freshmen year because, while I loved Spanish, I had no idea what I would do with a Spanish degree.  It was sophomore year that teaching took root.

Dr. Charles Brooks became my mentor and it was his intuition that challenged me to be the Black Man in Front.  I was 19 and the World Language teacher at Grambling High School fell ill.  In rural areas, there aren’t many substitute teachers; let alone substitutes that could teach Spanish.  Dr. Brooks called me to his office.  I obliged!  I admired him, his work ethic, the exchange program he created, his meticulous dress, and his slow Mississippi draw.

Dr. Brooks explained that I was to go over and teach that day.  “Why me?”  With typical seriousness, he reminded me that I was a Spanish Education major and I should be excited about this opportunity.  I reluctantly agreed to teach students barely younger than I.

My senior year, I shadowed Dr. Brooks.  He decided that I would teach his Spanish 101 class amongst the student body.  Dr. Brooks gave me the textbook, his syllabus and his tests.  He would come in from time to time, but the class was mine.  It wasn’t the same as teaching high school, but I now had a little confidence in being the Black Man in Front from my short experience and his endorsement.  I fell in love with teaching!

*****

I student taught at Manual High School in Peoria, Illinois.  This is a family school.  My wife’s grandparents, Frank and Iris, met there. The 1932 football team picture was still in a display case.  I gazed at the picture and saw the name “Frankie Campbell”.  I immediately noticed that he was the only black student on the team.

Frank Campbell was the only grandfather I have known.  He shared life stories with me.  He too left his hometown to go to college.  He attended the University of Michigan beginning in 1933.  This took a while to absorb – a Black man attending college during the Great Depression.  Despite graduating with a degree in education from Michigan, Mr. Campbell couldn’t teach in Peoria.  “Colored folks couldn’t teach white kids at that time.”  This was a blessing in disguise.  He worked at the George Washington Carver Community Center with black youths on the South Side of Peoria; his community.  Here, he lead a Boy Scout troop, took kids on camping trips, held social events, provided space for the performing arts, and coached a multitude of sports.

Manual, like many city schools, had changed greatly since the 1930s and was now almost entirely Black and Latino.  While the school still had strong athletics, very few students went on to college for academics and those kids were segregated in honors classes.  Teaching Spanish allowed me to see all of Manual’s kids – high achieving, athletic, and struggling.  I made connections through my identity; gender, language, race and youth.  The only other African American males in the building were the Security Guard and the Physical Education teacher who was the assistant basketball coach.  What if Frank Campbell had been their teacher?  An alum from the same neighborhood, a star athlete, a college graduate and a teacher – what might that mean to this school.  I thought about the impact Mr. Campbell had on hundreds of children at the Carver Center.  At his funeral, a 75 year-old Black man spoke about how Mr. Campbell motivated him to become an Eagle Scout, to work in law enforcement to help his community – he was the retired Police Chief of Peoria.

*****

A job opened at another family school, in Des Moines, Iowa.  North High School had a history position that needed immediate filling.  While I had hated pursuing Social Studies in addition to Spanish at Grambling, my “2nd certification” has made my teaching career.

My grandmother had moved to Des Moines in 1960.  Two pairs of aunts and uncles met each other at North High but North had changed.  The wealthier part of North’s district had created a neighborhood high school and the low-income housing had become filled with Black and Southeast Asian families.

By my 2nd year, I taught Spanish, US History, African American History and coached football; I was in close contact with about 150 kids.  The school had one African American woman, the Librarian.  I was the second black man teaching an academic class; the other taught Chemistry.  There was a Physical Education Teacher who was the basketball coach, a Special Education Teacher who was the baseball coach, the Dean of Attendance who was the track coach, and a Counselor in a program for the neediest kids.

Corey Pinks is the 3rd of four boys.  While Corey has a close family, I never met his father – only his mother Hazel.  Corey was a sophomore in my US History class.  He failed first quarter!  He kept asking, “How could you fail me?  You are cool!”  I kept explaining that I wasn’t that cool; he would need to do better.  Immediately we worked so he could pass for the year.  By the time Corey graduated, I had worked with him in US History, African American History, Spanish I & II, and football.  Corey joined the Marines.  He then used the GI Bill to be the first in his family to graduate college.  In this African American boy, I began to be the Black Man in Front.

*****

We decided to move to Boston.  This was not an easy decision.  I had left unsatisfied.  Yet, there were professional and personal things that my family couldn’t accomplish in Des Moines.  Brookline High School was my first interview and I jumped at the opportunity to teach history here.

BHS was professionally different.  Teaching in the South and Midwest, I had become accustomed to bells and schools that didn’t send many kids to college.  I had never worked so hard to simply fit in.  Just as I found my niche, the expectations rose - Jimmy Cradle retired.  I inherited “his” class and the unofficial title of school historian.  Mr. Cradle began teaching in 1972.  Most of his career, he was the only Black man who taught an academic class.  That fact had changed by the time I returned, but I was carrying this history.  I felt like I was holding a place along the historical arc of BHS. I had become the teacher who knew the historical changes to the school, culture and teacher population.  When staff queried about racial issues, or when quick, simplistic explanations to solve racial disparities were presented – I became the teacher to explain this history at BHS. I thought this was a burden until Maddie Walker walked into my class.

Maddie was tough, obviously smart, and in my standard US History class.  Despite her gender and whiteness, we had found commonalities between our existences at BHS.  It took Maddie five years to graduate while dealing with the demons of her childhood; I had denied mine.  Dealing with alcoholism in our families, in our teens, made our lives unstable.  I had never shared this with a student until Maddie returned from hospitalization during her 4th year.  I admired her for dealing with issues in real time while I was still dealing with mine.  Maddie and I would talk to make sure the other was on track.  Maddie brought her yearbook to show me her senior quote, “Cawthorne you saved my life!”  We cried!

Maddie’s perseverance and strength taught me about my own.  I knew what the Black Man in Front would have meant for me.  I knew what it meant in an all Black town in Louisiana.  I knew what it meant to Peoria and my grandfather.  I knew what it meant to Corey.  But, Maddie taught me that the power of teaching, something deeply rooted in my racial identity, impacts everyone.  I learned how important it is to be the Black Man in Front of every student.