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.

Never As Good As The First Time

April 12, 2011

I know. Today marks 150 years since a bunch of rebel rednecks besieged a fort in South Carolina after months of talk of civil war across the South and North, beginning the bloodiest conflict to date in American history. I’ll get to this in the next couple of days. Today, though, marks a more personal and bloody anniversary for me. You see, today’s the twenty-ninth anniversary of experiencing unadulterated child abuse for the first time.

Although much of what I’d gone through prior to April ’82 in terms of my parents’ and stepfather’s use of discipline would be considered abusive now, I wouldn’t have seen it that way when I was twelve. You run away from home, you get an ass-whuppin’. You tell a lie about your brother, you get whupped with a belt. You don’t clean up the kitchen properly, you stand in a corner of your room with the lights off, with one leg up in the air and your two arms balancing books for an hour.

Yeah, that was life at 616 before Maurice, Judah, whatever you want to call the man, became almost psychotic (based on my experience, actually bipolar) after becoming a Hebrew-Israelite in ’81. And, in the process, also making us Black Jews. Poor, misguided, conflicted Hebrew-Israelites we were. But not him.

Suge Knight Mugshot. Face and beard of my ex-stepfather from 30 years ago.

My idiot stepfather’s ego was stoked in this religion.

And it came out in the worst way on this second weekend in April ’82. It was a week after a freakish late winter/early spring storm had dumped 12-18 inches of snow on the New York City area — Mount Vernon included — and kept the schools closed for a few days. In the previous couple of months, Maurice had become a hanger-on at a newly opened Karate studio down the street from 616, next door to the old dry cleaner business on East Lincoln Avenue. He made me come to the studio because he wanted to show me “how to be a man.”

But when I’d see him on my almost daily runs to the grocery store, he mostly hung out with young Turks and wannabe thugs from the Pearsall Drive projects across the street. Maurice smoked up a storm of Benson & Hedges Menthol while talking about women, being a Hebrew-Israelite, and about me as his “book-smart kid,” at least when I happened to walk by.

I knew what that meant. My stepfather was making it known that he thought of me as soft. This would have disastrous consequences for me later on in ’82, as I’d come to be robbed by a guy called “Pookie.” But as far as this part of Mount Vernon was concerned, it was nothing like the poorer, almost exclusively Black South Side. At least where we lived, people didn’t go into parks with baseball bats attempting to put people’s heads in orbit, like with my father Jimme the year before.

Maurice had tried to teach me and my older brother Darren Isshin-ryu Karate two years earlier. Beyond that, he’d been showing us a variety of basic moves since ’77. Despite myself, I did pick up a few moves. Now he decided that I would learn how to fight no matter the consequences. It was all about breaking bones and inflicting maximum pain. When I told Maurice that I didn’t want to learn, he said “You will

D'Angelo Mugshot, circa 2010. A slightly better doppelgänger for idiot Maurice Washington from '82.

learn because I’m your father” as he started to throw hard punches into my midsection.

After I yelled “You’re not my father!,” he drop-kicked me to the floor. Maurice, all six-foot-one and 270 pounds of him, then pulled me up by my arms, slammed me back-first into a mirrored wall, and punched me several times in the head, chest, and stomach until several of the men in the studio surrounded him. My stepfather, completely exasperated and winded, yelled “Don’t you EVER say that again, muthafucka! I’ll kill you next time!” I ran for home with a knot on my forehead that didn’t go down for almost a week.

By the time that knot on my forehand began to shrink, I’d been feeling lonely and betrayed for nearly a year. It’d been exactly fifty-two weeks, a full year, since the asshole had come back into our lives with this earth-shattering religion. Now we were more broke than ever, I had lost my best friends, and in fact, had no one I could call friend. With this latest karate episode, I knew I was cursed, at least, that’s how I felt back then.

I wasn’t a normal kid before the Hebrew-Israelite period in my life. So I didn’t have a natural progression toward adulthood — I was struggling to remain a kid but succeeded at only having adult issues by the time a drop-kick knocked me to the floor of a karate studio. So, because of my virtually photographic memory and those terrible times, I often flip one of Sade’s refrains from “Never As Good As The First Time.” The thorns I remember, the roses, I forget (except for Crush #1). And Maurice second stint as a husband and father “didn’t live up to the dream,” ‘cuz his second time with us was “not quite what it seemed.”


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