From Chicken Soup for the African American Soul

Hand-Me-Down Love

Character is what you know you are, not what others think you have.

Marva Collins

It was a typical spring day in my local high school science class. Each student was to show proficiency in anatomy by dissecting a frog. We were called up in alphabetical order. My day was today, and I was ready for the task.

I wore my favorite power shirt—the one I knew I looked good in, the one everyone told me I looked good in. I had studied and was ready for the assignment. When my name was called I walked confidently to the front of the room, smiled to the class and grabbed the scalpel to begin the task.

A voice from the back of the room said, “Nice shirt.”

I beamed from ear to ear, when suddenly another voice from the back of the room said, “That shirt belonged to my Dad. Greg’s mother is our maid and she took that shirt out of a bag headed for the Salvation Army.”

My heart sank. I was speechless. It was probably one minute, but it felt like ten minutes of total emptiness and embarrassment in front of my peers. Vice President of Student Government, born with a gift of gab, I stood for the first time in my life speechless with nothing to say. As I looked to the left, another African American whose mother was also a maid, looked down; to my right, the only other African American in the class laughed out loud. I wanted to crawl into a hole.

My biology teacher asked me to begin the dissection. I stood speechless; he repeated the question. After total silence, he said, “Mr. Franklin, you may be seated. Your grade, a D.”

I don’t know which was more embarrassing, receiving the low mark or being found out. At home, I stuck the shirt in the back of the closet. My mom found the shirt and brought it to the front. This time I put it in the middle of the closet. Again, she moved it to the front.

A few weeks passed and my mom asked why had I not worn the shirt. I responded, “I just don’t like it anymore.”

She pressed with more questions. I didn’t want to hurt her, but I had been raised to tell the truth. I explained what had happened in front of the whole class.

Mom sat in total silence while tears fell from her eyes. Then she stood and called her employer, “I will no longer work for your family,” she told him, and asked for an apology for the incident at school. My mom was quiet for the rest of the day. At dinner, where she was typically the life of the family, Mom was totally quiet. After the kids were down for the night, I stood outside my mom and dad’s door to hear what was going on.

In tears, Mom shared her humiliation with my dad— how she had quit her job and how embarrassed she felt for me. She said she couldn’t clean anymore; she knew her life’s purpose was something greater.

“What do you want to do?” Dad asked.

“Teach children,” she answered with sudden clarity.

“You have no education.” Dad pointed out.

With conviction she said, “Well, that’s what I want to do, and I am going to find a way to make it happen.”

The next morning she met with the personnel manager at the Board of Education, who thanked her for her interest but told her without an education she could not teach school. That evening Mom, a mother of seven children and a high school graduate far removed from school, shared with us her new plans to attend the university.

Mom started her studies by taking nine hours. She spread her books at the dining room table, studying right along with the rest of us.

After her first semester, she immediately went back to the personnel manager and asked for a teaching assignment. Again she was told, “Not without an education.”

Mom went back to school the second semester, took six more hours and again went back to the personnel manager.

He said, “You are serious, aren’t you? I think I have a position for you as a teacher’s assistant. This opportunity is dealing with children who are mentally challenged, slow learners with, in many cases, little to no chance of learning. This is the highest area of teacher turnover due to sheer frustration.”

Mom leaped at the opportunity.

She got us kids ready for school in the morning, went to work and came home and fixed dinner. I knew it was tough, but it is what she wanted to do and she did it with so much love. For almost five years my Mom was a teacher’s assistant at the Starkey Special Education Center. Then, after three teacher changes during that five-year period, the personnel manager and the principal showed up in her classroom one day.

The principal said, “We have watched you and admired your diligence over the last five years. We have watched how you interact with the children and how they interact with you. We’ve talked to the other teachers, and we are all in agreement that you should be the teacher of this class.”

My mom spent twenty-plus years with the Wichita Public School System. Through her career, she was voted Teacher of the Year for both her work with the Special Olympics and the special education center. All of this came about because of the thoughtless comment made in the classroom that day.

It has been said children learn not from what you say, but what you do. Mom showed me how to look challenging situations in the face and never give up.

As for me, my biology teacher approached me as I gathered my books to leave the classroom that day. He said, “I know this was a tough day for you, but I will give you a second chance on the assignment tomorrow.”

I showed up, dissected the frog, and he changed my grade from a D to a B. I challenged him for an A, but he said, “You should have gotten it right the first time. It would be unfair to others.”

As I grabbed my books and walked toward the door, he said, “Do you think you are the only one who has had to wear used clothes? Do you think you are the only one who has grown up poor?”

I responded with an assured, “Yes!”

My teacher put his arm around me and shared his story of growing up during the depression, and how on his graduation day he was laughed at because he did not have enough money for a cap and gown. He showed up with the same pants and shirt he wore to school every day.

He said, “I know how you felt; my heart went out to you. But you know something, kid? I have faith in you. I think you are going to be something special. I can feel it in my heart.”

I was speechless again. Both of us were fighting back the tears, but I felt the love from him—a white man reaching out to a young black student who had been bussed across town.

I went on to become President of the Student Body, and my teacher was my mentor. Before I opened assembly, I would always look for him and he would give me a thumbs up—a secret only he and I shared.

It was at that point I realized that we are all the same— different colors, different backgrounds, but many of our experiences are the same. We all want to be happy; we all want great things in life. My teacher and my mother showed me that it’s not what you wear, your education or your money, but what’s in your heart that counts.

Greg Franklin

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