11: Embracing Colors

11: Embracing Colors

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Teachers

Embracing Colors

We need to give each other the space to grow, to be ourselves, to exercise our diversity.

~Max De Pree

I had been teaching for two years in a small rural community, but my new husband and I wanted to move to an area with greater business opportunities for him. I also wanted to teach in a private Christian school where I could openly pray with, and for, my students. After searching the Internet and putting out applications, I received one call for an interview, in Michigan.

I was picked up at the airport by the school’s health and physical education teacher. As he listened to me nervously babbling he didn’t say much, but what he said remains in my memory: “You have to be tough to work here.” Little did I know then how true this would be.

The interview was amazing. I loved sharing my passion and enthusiasm for English and for my students, and hearing about the mission of the school. I was given a tour by a freshman who beamed with pride as she led me down the hallway. As I followed her, asking questions and looking at the pictures of the alumni, I wondered, Could I fit here? Could I make a difference? Could this be home? Would others be able to see past the color of my skin?

“They’ll never hire me!” I told my husband while waiting for my flight back to Omaha, Nebraska. “The entire school is black, teachers included. I wouldn’t fit in. I’m definitely not what they’re looking for.”

And so I was completely surprised a few days later when a call came from the academy superintendent with the job offer. Not being one to back away from a challenge, I accepted. When I tearfully told my current students and co-workers goodbye, several of my students were positive it was not safe. From the way the media had portrayed the Detroit area, they were certain I would be mugged, shot, or even worse. Many of my peers were also concerned. They knew about Detroit’s economic situation and weren’t sure my husband would find a job once we got there.

It was initially a culture shock. I had never been the minority before. I remember going to church with my students and co-workers, being a dinner guest at people’s houses, and attending various school events, always feeling different, like I didn’t quite fit in.

As often occurs with teaching, it was my students who taught me, and it was my new school family that helped me fit in. They showed me how to get past these obstacles and loosen up. I vividly remember meeting some of my students for the first time. It was clear they were all wondering what my agenda was… Why was I really there? I admit I wondered myself. I later found out many had wagered how long I would last, some giving me as little as a month. And yet, it was one of these same students who helped break the ice.

One day, I was struggling to get my seventh and eighth grade students to focus. Which seemed to be a daily battle. I think I had gotten angry and lost my patience, which caused my face to turn bright red. A brave seventh grade boy with a wide smile and big heart raised his hand and caught me off guard. “Why do people call us colored? You turn more colors than anyone. You’re red when you’re angry, and you’re pale white or green when you’re sick.” I didn’t know what to say, and it seemed as if all the students were waiting for my reaction. Finally, I just laughed, and it was this laughter that helped me break through.

As a result, I found myself embracing the cultural differences between my students and myself. What used to feel like a barrier became multiple opportunities to learn, grow, and change.

And I learned from my school family. I learned that church will not end at noon, but can keep going until two or three in the afternoon. I learned about greens, sweet potato pie, soul, and “swag.” I learned not just about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks, but also about Thurgood Marshall and Bessie Coleman. And I learned that when my students and co-workers said they had my back, they meant it.

Likewise, I grew with my students. We learned together, both inside and outside the classroom. We cried together. We laughed together over things others just wouldn’t understand. We worked together on various projects for the betterment of our school. We also succeeded together, reaching goals we carefully set for ourselves.

Finally, I changed… for the better. Looking back after six years there, I realize now how limited my perspective had been and how much clearer it is now. As I have watched the news, with story after story of racial tensions and prejudice in our country, I realize how limited the perspective of others still is.

My teaching experience there wasn’t easy. If it had been, I don’t think it would mean as much to me as it does.

Before I left my school, while reading the writer’s journal of one of my seniors (that same brave seventh grader with the wide smile and big heart), I was touched to read the following:

I was in the 7th grade and this year was a new new year. Now the reason why I said new twice, well duh! It was a new year, but something new was coming. A New Teacher! Mrs. Harsany was not just a teacher; she was a very special teacher. How could this teacher be special when I had no clue about her? Well, she was white! Mrs. Harsany was our first white teacher here that I know of. As the years have come, she has been the best teacher and unexpected mom.

It was students like this who taught me more than I probably taught them. Though we all are various shades of color, what matters is what is in our hearts — and what was in the hearts of my school family was pure gold.

~Elizabeth Ann Harsany

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