The theme for this issue’s Short Takes is Getting an Education. Something that most Americans take for granted – except when it is threatened by outliers like Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos. He, a man whose only memories of school are probably the hours he spent alone on the playground, ignored by the people he wanted so desperately to be. She, a woman who not only has never been to a public school herself, but doesn’t seem to know anyone who has.
There have been – still are – plenty of reasons to criticize public schools. Any of us who taught in them, or in the colleges their students went to, criticized endlessly the overcrowding, and the lack of books, materials, art classes, and sports teams in New York’s endlessly impoverished public schools. It was so sadly easy to see the gulf between them and the cornucopia of educational delights that bubbled from the rich, high-achieving schools in wealthy, suburban neighborhoods. Nor could we ignore that the students hobbled by the sub-standard education offered in New York City (and a hundred other cities around the country) were, by and large, black or first-generation, while the pampered darlings of the suburbs, bound inevitably for lustrous private universities, were, almost to a person, white.
Still, despite all the well-deserved criticisms, we do understand that universally available education is the great engine of democracy and social change. And that without it, neither is possible. We know this partly from the experience of people in other countries. For example, in countries that generally limit education to boys, development NGOs find that the most productive use of their funds is educating women. As women become educated, they gain independence; domestic violence rates go down, there are fewer children in poverty, and small businesses flourish.
And we understand the importance of education from the history of our own country, as well. Nothing changed the American economy more – nothing fueled more that great economic tide that raised all boats from the end of World War II through the 1970s – than the G.I. Bill.
As Trump rampages through the destruction of every meaningful institution in America, Persimmon Tree provides a welcome response – and, for when your soul needs to escape for a moment, a respite. And the Short Takes in this issue demonstrate both. Though none speaks directly to the depredations our latest President intends to wreak on education, each is a Troublemaker simply in remarking on the importance of getting an education. At the same time, though, precisely because none speaks directly to the ugly politics that lambast us most of the time, these are a wonderful respite. They transport us out of the political lambast; indeed, most of them carry us out of schools entirely, reminding us, gently, that there are many ways to get an education, and that schools, while a basic necessity for almost all of us, aren’t the only place where education is happening.
They flung pennies at her. Well, not at her, but onto her desk. Every day at the end of fourth period, Frankie and his disciples tossed loose change toward the tiny pale woman whose job it was to teach us everything eighth-graders needed to know about ancient history. She looked like she’d witnessed the carving of the Rosetta stone personally, but seemed unprepared for the likes of us.
Frankie’s slick quickness and dark good looks allowed him to assume leadership of a cohort of awkward boys. But where would such a notion come from, to chuck pennies at a teacher? I guess they thought it’d be funny to see how she reacted. But she didn’t react. Just stood in her shirtdress, belt drooping around her meager body, one hand reaching across her front to encircle the elbow of the other arm, gray head tilted, a pained smile on her soft face as coins bounced off the blotter on her desk.
I was not a contributor, nor did I speak out against the practice. I watched and felt ashamed – of myself for remaining quiet, of my classmates for behaving cruelly. And ashamed too – or was it more embarrassed – to witness another’s humiliation. Because that’s what it looked like and felt like to me: Frankie and his followers seemed to want to diminish this already meek woman, a teacher commonly referred to as “Whispering Mary” because she never raised her voice.
From my perspective, Mary Stokes was a good enough teacher. She planned our lessons and presented them consistently, following an established routine. She spoke slowly and yes, softly, and made certain we all took precise notes. I penciled new words and phrases like The Fertile Crescent and Tigris and Euphrates, filling the blue-lined pages of my notebook. I sat near the back of the classroom but was able to hear her every word. We all could. During the forty-minute period, we sat quietly in our rows of desks and did as we were told. It was only at the end, when the bell rang and Miss Stokes dismissed us that Frankie’s prank began anew. As students filed toward the door, pennies flew from quick hands to land on her desk, or close to it, while Miss Stokes held her ground, face forward, silent.
Eventually, Miss Stokes and her quiet dignity triumphed. On the final day of school, she broke her silence. She did not tell us what she thought or how she felt. She told us what had become of the pennies. She’d bought a book and placed it in the school library with a dedication to the fourth period “Penny Pitchers.” She invited us to feel proud to have contributed to a worthwhile cause. I felt proud of Miss Stokes. I think we all did. Even Frankie.
Girls Don’t Need College
Raised during the Great Depression, after high school my parents chose work over college. Classified 4F during World War II, my father stayed home and supervised women workers. In 1945, when I was born, he was training returning soldiers who were cashing in on the G.I. Bill earning degrees. They received promotions; he did not. Bitter, he vowed to send my brothers to college. Not me. Girls did not need college.
We lived in a blue-collar neighborhood of Levittown homes within a wealthy Philadelphia suburb. Consistently placed in advanced classes, I was an outsider socially. I worked after school and summers when my classmates enjoyed clubs or sports. I graduated in the top ten percent of my class; I was labeled an “over-achiever.”
Undaunted, using my savings and a scholarship, I went south to the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where tuition – even for out-of-state students – was cheaper than Pennsylvania State.
I learned about segregation at my work-study assignment in the dining hall. Students from North Carolina Agriculture & Technical College carried heavy food trays, but did not touch the food. Told not to converse with the A &T guys, we snuck in conversations, sometimes eating together at the Woolworth lunch counter where sit-ins had occurred two years earlier. Violence was down, but I could taste the hostility.
Because tuition cost the same for up to twenty-one hours of coursework, I took the maximum per semester. I graduated in three years, at twenty, cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. None of my family attended my graduation.
I married – mostly to avoid going home or living alone. When UNCG offered me a Ford Foundation Fellowship to study for a Ph.D., I declined because my husband had accepted a commission as a Green Beret. We moved to Okinawa. Two toddlers and almost three years later, I was accepted for graduate studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Like many soldiers returning from Vietnam, my husband had anger issues. He refused counseling and left us. Once again, I thought I must stop my education. But UNC found me more funds and a low-rent home in Victory Village. In 1975, I finished my Ph.D. None of my family attended my graduation.
I taught at university until 2015. Along the way, I married a wonderful man. Our three sons have college degrees. I have four granddaughters; we contribute to their college education.
Before my father died, he commented that he “might have been wrong” about girls going to college.
on the Left Bank.
New to me
were bowls of tea
to wallow in.
So I let myself go.
I’d never experienced
a mash of orange
in a glass
where it willed.
a woman’s hands unfolding
tender as a promise.
Tiny pots of cultured tang
nothing my mouth
had ever known.
On a bench
in the Parc Montsouris
we’d slip slices of peach
into open baguettes.
With every crunch
juice would find
our arms, our legs.
The day we had to part
into Parisian soil
an herb bouquet
buried in a cassoulet.
We motored out a little before sunset, my Uncle Jake in the back of the first skiff with young Pete up front. Junior and I followed. We cut the motors in a little inlet, and, as the tangerine sky began to turn dark, a breeze touched the hairs on my arms, raising gooseflesh and anticipation. Girls were not usually invited on alligator hunts, and this was my first time.
We waited for what seemed like an hour. The breeze died down and a cloud of mosquitos drifted out of the mangroves. I rubbed Cutter’s onto my arms and passed the tube to Junior.
Finally Jake gestured at a pool under an overhanging limb. An old bull loitered like a rumpled pile of gray-black boulders, flaming red eyes the only sign of life.
“Okay, Junior, move in closer. Angie, you and Pete crawl up in the bow, and when I sign, you take your shots.”
I crept forward while Junior negotiated the current, his eyes darting from the gator to the overhanging mangroves to his father’s boat. At Jake’s signal, Pete and I fired. Both shots were true, and the bull rolled belly up, front feet just out of the water.
Junior and I were trying to hook the alligator before he sank, when Jake’s skiff grazed a submerged log, tumbling Pete, whose attention had been on our efforts with the dead bull, into the tea-colored water. Pete bobbed up almost before we realized he’d gone in, flailing some kind of crazy dog paddle and screaming bloody murder. He splashed to our boat, and tried to scramble over the side, almost capsizing us, as two small alligators came off the bank. Jake maneuvered his skiff around to the hysterical eight-year-old, reached down, and pulled him in.
Junior and I were pointing and jabbering, and Pete was crying; Jake just shook his head.
“Weren’t coming after you, boy. All that ruckus scared ’em into looking for deep water, was all.”
Pete stifled a sob, wiping his nose on his sleeve. Lesson learned.