Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Jackie Robinson of Public School Teachers

On “teacher appreciation day,” as on many others, I think of Ida Peterson, my 5th and 6th grade teacher, and one of the most remarkable people I have ever known.  Mrs. Peterson taught at Spruance Elementary School in a white working class neighborhood of Philadelphia in the 1960s.  She taught the “advanced” class—this was in the days of tracking.  Teachers, parents, and students held her in awe because she was brilliant and such a gifted teacher.  All the students knew that we were lucky to have been selected for her class, and to get to experience her for two years. She spoiled us for the classes yet to come because she made us think that learning was fun and interesting. We were all very competitive and she encouraged us to get through as much reading and math as we could. I was surprised to learn in later classes that teachers wanted students to stay on the subject of the day, rather than sprint ahead as Mrs. Peterson encouraged us to do.
I remember her telling us about second-generation Americans, which most of us were, and how we would realize the dreams and aspirations that had driven our grandparents to this country. She taught us to memorize the Emma Lazarus poem inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty.  She seemed to be enormously hopeful about the promise of America.  In retrospect, this is all the more impressive, because I’m pretty sure that Mrs. Peterson’s grandparents did not enter Ellis Island full of hopes and dreams.
Mrs. Peterson was an African-American at a time when racism was pervasive. Almost surely her ancestors came here in shackles.  Back when most southern colleges barred “negroes” from attending and elite northern schools routinely had quotas, she attended Spelman College, the historically Black college for women in Atlanta (graduating in 1946) and later earned a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate school of education in 1985.  She joined the faculty of Spelman after she got her Ph.D.  (I’m piecing all of this together from fragments I found on the internet so the timing may not be quite right.) When she died, her will created the Ida Gartrell Peterson and Roosevelt Peterson Endowed Scholarship at Spelman to support young women pursuing degrees in education.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but Mrs. Peterson was the Jackie Robinson of teachers.  I only have a vague sense of what she must have quietly endured.  Even though the civil rights movement was at its apex while we were in her class, she rarely spoke of race.  I remember her speaking movingly of Marian Anderson singing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial when the DAR refused to allow her to sing at Constitution Hall.  But we didn’t learn about theblack girls who were murdered in church in Birmingham a few years earlier even though Mrs. Peterson must have cried at that heinous act of terrorism.  I imagine that Mrs. Peterson must have felt like she was walking a tightrope. Teaching us about race might have gotten her fired.
She was beautiful. I wasn’t aware of that at the time.  I thought, like all adults, she was old. The picture above is from my Bar Mitzvah photo album.  As in all of her forays into Northeast Philadelphia, she was the only black person there.  I just remember being so proud that my favorite teacher came.
A couple of years ago, Mrs. Peterson’s class organized a reunion. I’ve never attended a high school reunion, but I couldn’t miss the Peterson reunion. Sadly, our teacher had passed away years earlier (in 1999), but I was surprised to see how we had mostly achieved the dreams that she urged us to pursue. I think everyone in her class graduated high school and attended college.  Many pursued advanced degrees. We were doctors, college professors, accountants, financial advisors, consultants, and even a few teachers. Given that many of us were from families where nobody had graduated college, this seems kind or remarkable.
But it palls in comparison to what Mrs. Peterson accomplished.  Thank you, Mrs. Peterson.
To celebrate Teacher Appreciation Day, I’m giving a gift in Mrs. Peterson’s memory to Spelman College.  If you’d like to join me, you can do so here.

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