Elementary, my Woe

If I were to take an honest look at my early-childhood education, I would have to admit I was more blessed than I’d previously believed. Despite going to a public zone school in one of the many hoods of west Baltimore, I had teachers who showed me genuine care, support and love. For the most part, I felt respected, safe and guided.  I went to school close to my home in Easterwood with many of the other children from this low-income, African-American neighborhood. My classrooms were usually led by Black women who looked like me and the women in my family. They spoke to us in the language we spoke. They identified with our struggles, and did not judge us for going through them. Even with all the awkwardness that a young child feels as they adjust to an environment outside the comforts of home, I felt at home.

From the teachers, to the administrators to the volunteers, I was surrounded by Black women and men who cared at least a little bit. I never fully appreciated the diversity of the staff and parents at this school.  We had people from an array of cultures, family structures, age groups, gender identities and personal styles. The teachers and parents sported various hairstyles and colorful clothing. I particularly recall one administrator named Ms. Bullock, about mid-50s, who rocked this glorious, curly gray high-top fade. The fade stayed clean, okay? I think she even had hard curls at the top. The haircut was very much reminiscent of the Living Single and Martin-esque styles of the time. Thinking about this definitely reminds me that I started school in the ‘90s. A different time.

There was a queer, masculine woman named Ms. Florence who volunteered at our school almost every day. She was very kind and funny, but also delivered the necessary stern approach that teachers could not. She would remind whatever unruly student like “Hey, I’m not your teacher, I’ll beat your butt and tell your muva I did it!” Despite the opposing opinions of people who never have to deal with children, you do in fact have to be firm with them sometimes. And they will live if you roast them back a little. Anyway, Ms. Florence was probably around from grades K-4th, and made every lunch time, recess and movie time a fun, yet structured environment. For those of you who use the “my children will be confused” excuse in attempt to keep the existence of queer or same-gender-loving people away from children, I’ll tell you some of us were confused. I wondered why we called her “Ms.” even though her clothing and persona were more masculine than I had been taught to associate with women. Perhaps a better word would be curious, because that’s how I would describe my thoughts at the time.  I certainly wasn’t afraid to ask questions, and one day during movie time, I did. It went like this:

Me: “Ms. Florence, are you a boy or a girl?”

Ms. Florence: “What are you?”

Me: “A girl.”

Ms. Florence: “Well, okay then.”

That answered my damn question! No more confusion and I went on about my third-grade life. It was that simple. Talk to your kids!

There was also the very colorful, young, gay Mr. Ellis. He was the best art teacher I ever had. I loved his bold, sarcastic sense of humor and how his pastel crayons matched his many pastel sweaters.  He somehow planted a seed of confidence in me that snuck up on me later in life. He taught for a couple years then left after being struck by a car for the second time in two years. From what I heard, he was fine but no one really answered our questions about this situation. I certainly never forgot Mr. Ellis.

We had a classmate’s mother volunteer with us as well. This woman was the poster child for Lexington market in the early 2000’s. If you know, you know. She was a very kind, gentle, and funny woman. Every time I saw her, she was sporting a long, greasy dark brown ponytail, a black bubble coat and a big Styrofoam cup full of half-and-half (iced tea and lemonade). She was an either white or biracial woman who stood close to six feet tall with a very slim figure. Her teeth were somewhat crooked and discolored, but she still had one of the brightest smiles in the whole school. She, like many other parents, often brought her daughter a fresh chicken box for lunch a few times a week. She may not have been an official volunteer, but rather a parent who showed up often and shared her warmth with the other students. Her daughter was one of my earliest friends, and stayed my friend despite the fact that I threw up on her a little when I had the flu in kindergarten. She was as kind and gentle as her mother. Of all my memories of loving parent-child relationships, they will always stand out to me. I hope they are doing well.

I could go on through the entirety of my elementary school experience and the impact of each teacher because it was just that important to me.  So many kids in this city grow up ahead of the average child in traumatic experience, yet behind in all the resources deemed necessary for success. Somehow these teachers, administrators, and parents managed to provide me with a hilariously unconventional education that has kept me grounded two decades later. This is where I fell in love with the passion that would never leave me: writing. I saw my friends fall in love with drawing, dance, and music. I had no idea how fortunate we really were.

To many people (likely including my classmates) this school would be dismissed and condemned for both its location in central west Baltimore and the backgrounds of the students and parents who attended. It would be deemed unworthy of mention and assumed to offer nothing of value to its students. Just another ghetto Baltimore school. To be real, the school did have its fair share of issues, and maybe some things happened there that should not have. I’m pretty sure we shouldn’t have watched Scary Movie 3 AND Set it Off in the same week, but we didn’t die. I understand that many of us have been hurt at our schools in ways we believe others cannot understand. I understand that many of us feel that we have been cheated and abandoned because being born Black and poor disqualified us from a quality education early in life. I also understand that we look to our wealthier and whiter counterparts for what a good school environment should look like, and see that we didn’t have that. No, we did not have horseback riding and state-of-the art computer labs. We did not have organic chicken nuggets in the cafeteria and luxury hypo-allergenic reading rugs in the classrooms, but we had people like us who cared. We had the benefit of being under the care of people who were reflections of us. They effortlessly related to us and never had to be reminded of our humanity.  We were educated within our own culture, and never had to question our identities in the process. We were enough for ourselves.  This is an important difference between knowing and being proud of who you are, and having to spend your adult life trying to discover it. Two and two makes four no matter where you learn it. It’s everything else that counts.