Of all the first-grade classrooms in all the schools in all of Utah, a black teacher walked into mine. She was different. And for a young Latina with an unusual name in Salt Lake City circa 1983, different was good.
Mrs. English wore a long winter coat, had a delicate frame and could crack a hilarious joke when her largely government-assisted class needed it most. Every parent who sent a kid off to the first day of school this past Monday hoped their kid would get a teacher like Mrs. English. A teacher with that rare ability to make a kid feel special. Really special.
Outside of my parents, she was the first person I idolized. For a 6-year-old, that can show up in mysterious ways. For this 6-year-old, it meant an unwavering devotion to the entire black race as evidenced through my favorite TV programs.
Once I finished my homework and chores, you could find me lounging on the couch, rooting for the black couple on “The Newlywed Game,” the black family on “Family Feud,” or the black beauty queen in the Miss America pageant.
If there was a black person competing for something on TV, they had my full-fledged support. My family took note of the biased behavior but let it slide. They knew I didn’t see an ethnic race or even a contestant. I saw my personal hero, Mrs. English.
Very similar to our country’s situation today, these were tough economic times. My father couldn’t find gainful employment and we lived in a neighborhood you didn’t walk through alone at night. Yes, they exist in Utah. I sat on the curb with the rest of the kids on my street one afternoon and watched as police cuffed prostitutes and shoved them into cop cars. We surely qualified for government assistance, but my father was a proud man. And we all know how well proud men and handouts go together.
I remember a girl in my class, her name was Tricia, who came to school a few different times sporting visible bruises. She had the kind of home life that made for plenty of long meetings with school counselors that ended with lollipops. She broke into tears one morning because she was embarrassed about facing her peers with a black eye. Mrs. English told her not to worry: “I’ve been walking around with TWO black eyes my whole life!”
It took a class of 6-year-olds a minute, but one of us finally got it, explained it to the rest of us kids and pretty soon we were all cracking up — even Tricia.
Mrs. English knew how to make us forget the bad stuff and remember the important stuff.
One Friday in January, she gave our class a special weekend homework assignment. She challenged us to find out who said the words “I have a dream” and report back on Monday. I couldn’t wait to learn who on earth made those simple words so great and tell my teacher all about him. Beating my classmates sounded good, but impressing Mrs. English sounded even better. I marched straight home, tapped my father’s shoulder and eagerly asked him to tell me everything he knew about the man who had a dream.
For my father, a former civil rights activist, that moment turned my teacher into a woman who might actually deserve his daughter’s undying admiration. He gladly accompanied my mother to parent-teacher conferences shortly after and that sealed the deal. Mrs. English was my favorite teacher, my father’s favorite teacher and my mother’s favorite teacher.
None of us wanted first grade to end. But, it did. I spent the summer cheering for the black contestants on “Supermarket Sweep” and “The Price is Right,” oblivious to the rude awakening ahead of me. As it turned out, someone forgot to tell my second-grade teacher that yours truly hung the moon. This lady rarely smiled, had zero jokes and insisted on “inside voices” at all times.
When my father landed a good gig a few months into second grade, my parents bought a house in another city to move us on out of there. I found Mrs. English at recess one day to share the news. We said goodbye as I wrapped my arms around that long winter coat. Before I skipped off, she asked me to tell my father how happy it made her to see we were “movin’ on up.” Whatever that meant.
I didn’t return to that elementary school again until just before I graduated college. I wanted to tell Mrs. English about my accomplishment and the path she paved for me, but the new teachers there never heard of her. I tried the phone book but had the same luck there.
It wasn’t until four years ago that I heard her name again, when my mother called to tell me she’d just read her obituary in the newspaper. My eyes welled up for a woman I knew for nine months of my life. I sent a floral arrangement to the funeral home and signed the online guest book, trying my best to convey to her loved ones the impact she had on me.
Her daughter Daphne got in touch with me a year ago. We had a lovely dinner when she rolled into town a month later. She told me all about her mother, Bettye English, a woman who loved to teach and retired in 1990. I told her all about that first-grade class and how we all went home every day feeling special. Really special.
Contact columnist Xazmin Garza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0477. Follow her on Twitter at @startswithanx.