The Curious Case of Mrs. O’Daniel

June 30, 2011

I meant to do a post on this last month, but got caught up in other work and other posts. This one’s about the unique experience me and about thirty of my William H. Holmes Elementary School classmates had between ’77 and ’81, and my unique experience in particular. That experience, at least for me (and to a slightly lesser extent, for my classmates), was in having a number of caring, highly qualified Black teachers before we went off to the vicious worlds of A.B. Davis Middle School, Nichols Middle School, and Mount Vernon High School.

Starting in first grade in ’75, I had Ms. Griffin at Nathan Hale Elementary (now Cecil Parker Elementary), Mrs. Shannon — my first teacher crush — in third grade at Holmes, and Mrs. Bryant, a great teacher, in sixth grade. But the toughest and yet very caring of all the Black teachers I had in K-6 in Mount Vernon was Mrs. O’Daniel, my fifth grade teacher. She was the teacher that made me realize how troubled the world around me really was.

I and we learned early on how not to cross Mrs. O’Daniel. Once early in the school year, when our class was wound up and acting out, Mrs. O’Daniel threatened to “introduce [us] to the Board of Education. Do y’all know what that is?” After raising my hand, I said, “Yeah, it’s the building next door to us.” “No, not that Board of Education,” Mrs. O’Daniel said with a slight smile, “this one.” This Board of Education was three yard sticks taped together, and she tapped the palm of her left hand with it to emphasize what it was for — our behinds.

She used it on me one time, because I happened to take something that wasn’t mine from her nook in the classroom, what, I don’t remember. Five taps with the Board of Education across my hand was quite enough for me in the ’79-’80 schools.

Mrs. O’Daniel, though, did much more than provide discipline for our classroom. She spent a lot of our time that year on history, American history, African American history, reading and writing. I read parts of W. E. B. Du Bois’ Souls of Black Folk in her class that year and wrote a small and wholly inadequate book report on it. I learned about the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki for the first time in May ’80. I learned so much about MLK and Malcolm X that year, more than I’d learn all through middle school and high school.

I also discovered how far behind some of my classmates were. We had two twelve-year-olds and a thirteen-year old in our class, and all of them read well below the fifth grade level. Mrs. O’Daniel assigned me and two other classmates the task of working with the older classmates to help them build up their reading and writing skills. That spring, I spent a month working with the oldest member of our class, going over words that I once struggled with in second and third grade. I felt bad for him, but even more puzzled about how a teenager could be stuck in fifth grade reading only on the second grade level.

There was a mystery to Mrs. O’Daniel as far as I was concerned. I still can’t remember if she’d grown up in North Carolina or Alabama, or if she had any kids or grand kids, or if her husband was still alive. When she announced in the early spring of ’80 that she had just turned sixty, we were stunned, thinking of how old sixty was compared to ten, eleven or even thirteen. She seemed a bit strange, but certainly not old beyond our knowledge that she was born in 1920. Mrs. O’Daniel was as tall as teacher as I ever had, but hardly frail or old outside of her salt and less salt hair.

She died in ’83, sometime during my first weeks in Mount Vernon High School. Some of my former Holmes classmates, who were now in Humanities in ninth grade, broke down and cried when they heard the news. I must admit, I was stunned. I’d never known anyone who had contact with me and died before. All I knew was that an older person who cared about me, about all of my classmates, had passed away.

It made me sad, but it didn’t sink in until much, much later how fortunate I was to have had Mrs. O’Daniel and Mrs. Bryant, Mrs. Shannon and Ms. Griffin as my teachers early on. I had no idea that the only teacher of color that I’d have until I reached the University of Pittsburgh would be Ms. Simmons, a first-year, seventh-grade math teacher I stood toe to toe with by Xmas ’81. I think that my understanding of African American history and culture would’ve been much more limited prior to my Pitt years if it weren’t for Mrs. O’Daniel. And for that, and so much more, I thank her.


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