By Carole Duff
On the first day of faculty orientation, I walked alone into the school cafeteria. Hired by a Baltimore-area private school to fill a new position as curriculum technologist, I was to implement their one-to-one laptop-to-learner program. That meant working closely with faculty. Strange as it might seem today, with access to virtual learning essential, not everyone was on board twenty years ago.
I had met a few staff members prior to the opening of school and familiarized myself with faculty pictures in the school yearbook. Yet, when I saw the sea of faces in the cafeteria that morning, for a moment I felt like a kid on her first day of grade school.
Who am I going to sit with?
My heart beat faster. My hands broke into a cold sweat, and my mouth went dry.
Lord help me, how am I going to do this job?
I grew up in a suburb of New Haven, Connecticut in the 50s and 60s. My elementary school classmates were predominantly white Protestants with increasing numbers of Catholics and Jews as I progressed into the regional junior high and high school.
In the 60s, Irish, Italian, and Jewish neighborhoods in New Haven were razed to make room for a multi-million dollar, federally-funded urban renewal project. City leaders envisioned New Haven as a “Model City.” Many displaced families left the city and relocated in the suburbs. Instead of eliminating the slums as planned, New Haven’s top-down initiative created a concentration of poverty, mostly Blacks living in grim public housing with substandard schools and fewer employment opportunities. And increased racial tension between whites and blacks.
On August 19, 1967, a white restaurant owner shot a Puerto Rican man who had attacked him with a knife. Word of the incident spread, and violence—fires, vandalism, looting—exploded in black communities and beyond. State and city police worked round-the-clock to protect citizens, their businesses, and members of the fire department as they responded to calls. I remember the city’s curfew during those tense days and my family worrying about our father, on call at the hospital and driving in New Haven at night.
Women and children, trapped in the violence, were evacuated by school buses to a Girl Scout camp, private homes, churches, and synagogues. Thereafter, daycare and other grassroots organizations were established to provide stability in affected neighborhoods. Though the riots were a wake-up call, residents who lived through those days say not much good came of them. Most of the damage took place in their own communities. Some businesses returned, others did not. Fifty years later, poor housing, poor schools, poor employment opportunities, and poor race relations remain.
When I page through my high school yearbook, I note pictures of Asian, Latino, and Black classmates whose number I can count on two hands—the only non-whites among 450 graduates in the class of 1969. I can’t imagine what it must have been like being a minority, walking the halls and sitting in class and in the cafeteria among that sea of faces.
The number of diverse faces increased in the yearbook of the small, New England college from which I graduated in 1973, in part because my classmates drew from populations across the country and around the world. A similar trend toward diversity is noticeable in the high school yearbooks of the independent, Catholic, girls’ school where I taught in Dallas for twenty-five years. The school’s motto is Serviam, “I will serve,” and I did so with great pleasure.
During my tenure, the school stepped up recruitment of Latino students and students of color to better serve the greater community. We also implemented a pilot laptop-to-learner program, to give all our students access to learning anytime, anywhere. My new employer, the Baltimore-area independent, Catholic, girls’ school, had embraced both goals. So now those initiatives included me.
In the school cafeteria on that first day of faculty orientation, I looked up and read the verse upon which the school motto is based, written on the wall:
Act justly, love tenderly, and walk humbly with your God. Micah 6:8
My nervousness disappeared. What does the Lord require of me, of all of us? Humility first, then grace and just action. A different top-down. That’s how and why, no matter who, what, or where.
I spotted a table with an empty chair. “Excuse me, I’m new here, may I join you?”
Carole Duff is a veteran teacher, flutist, and writer of narrative nonfiction. She posts weekly to her long-standing blog Notes from Vanaprastha, has written for Brevity blog, Streetlight Magazine blog, and The Perennial Gen, for which she is a regular contributor. Currently, she is seeking publication for her manuscript titled Wisdom Builds Her House: A Memoir of Finding Grace in the Third Stage of Life. Carole lives in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains with her husband and three, large overly-friendly dogs.