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.

The Turd Dream

January 24, 2011

Russet Potatoes, January 23, 2011. Source: Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws because of the limited use of picture and because its use is for illustrative purposes directly related to the topic of this post.

I found myself at a party one cold and starry evening, standing in an equally cold kitchen. It was really bright in the kitchen, almost to the point of overpowering my eyes. The walls and cabinets were all-white, the counters made of formica, and the floor light blue-and-white tiled. This was in stark relief from the adjacent living room. It was in a red-brown, ’70s dimmed-light den mode, with beads hanging over the doorway leading out of the kitchen to it. It was the kind of party I never had the chance to go to in high school.

But everyone was there. Even people I hadn’t seen since my Davis Middle School days. The class valedictorian and salutatorian, the affluent and middle class types who went to Pennington Elementary, Crushes #1 and #2, members of the Italian Club, and so many others were there. Two of them were peeling potatoes and throwing them into big pots of boiling water. They started slicing and dicing them, laughing as they were throwing the pieces into the bubbling clean and clear liquid.

Except these weren’t potatoes. These were turds, each shaped like a large Russet, being peeled and chopped, looking white but quickly turning crappy-brown upon contact with the air. The two turd-peelers shared the boiled and mashed turds with my former classmates, who were smiling in glee and eating them up with delight. I then looked at this six-foot, trapezoidal pyramid of a rack in the middle of the super-bright kitchen. It was full of turds, stacked on each one of its seven levels. It was enough to feed the guests several times over.

When I sat up from this dream in my small room in a shared row house on Welsford in Pittsburgh and found myself in the present, the first Saturday of February ’90, I gave Mom a call. I told her about the dream in all of its strange details. I asked her what she thought of it. “You’re friends are full of shit,” she said. After laughing so hard that I nearly rolled out of bed, I said, “That can’t be. It’s got to be more complicated than that.”

Yet I knew that Mom was absolutely right. Most of the people I knew during my years in Humanities — classmates, teachers, administrators, family members and neighbors — were full of crap when it came to me. I certainly included myself in that category. I might’ve made sure of or accidentally given myself a couple of enemas between 7S and the University of Pittsburgh. But it would’ve been hard to stay clean around all the filth on which we dined growing up. This was thanks in large measure to our community leaders and all of the racial and socioeconomic strife that was part of everyday politics and conversations at school and at city hall.

What Mom said was ironic, too. For better and mostly for worse, Mom, father and ex-stepfather had crapped up our lives with their baggage. The turds from their lives were the reason why my dreams had grown to be so vivid, so complicated by the time I reached adulthood. Mostly, my dreams and nightmares brought me to anger, as if someone were trying to steal my life from me, which, as it turned out, was how I felt most of the time when I was awake. And that also made me resolute whenever I left my dreams for the conscious world.

This was the final break between my immediate past of Mount Vernon, the whole Hebrew-Israelite and Humanities thing, and all of the ridicule, ostracism, poverty and abuse that came with those things. My past experiences were all now a part of my dream world. It was an occasional reminder that I wasn’t really myself in the relatively recent past.

That was nearly twenty-one years ago. Except for the occasional email from an ex-teacher or ex-Humanities classmate, the only reminders I have of the time before I became myself again are my Boy @ The Window project and manuscript. And though I don’t necessarily see the people whom I grew up with and around as being full of crap these days, I do see how our collective community baggage would make it difficult for many of us to find our way, our calling. Even in the midst of the best education our city had to offer.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 776 other followers