Teaching About the World

by on September 24, 2019 · 4 comments

in Education, From the Soul

Photo https://www.flickr.com/photos/29852529@N04/11416916336/sizes/m/

by Ernie McCray

I’ll always remember my first year of teaching, back to the very first day.

There I was standing before close to 40 sixth graders and I don’t recall at all what I had planned to say to start the day.

But before I could say anything I noticed that my students were looking me up and down like somebody assessing a used car at “U Can Trust Us Autos.”

I could tell they had questions on their minds, and then it dawned on me what they wanted answers to and I answered their questions before they asked me to:

“Six-five. Size fourteen. And, yeah, I play basketball.”

That set the tone for that year and for the rest of my career, a career well chosen because it fit me to a T, allowed me to totally be myself: to teach the way I wished my teachers had taught me.

I went on in a few years to become the principal I wished I had.

Now, that’s not taking away from all the beautiful educators who touched my life in classrooms, but it never made sense to me how the world I was living in seemed to be ignored at school.

At school we were learning about a president who “never told a lie” and one who “freed the slaves” but there was very little mention of Harry S. Truman who was the president of our times, dealing with the social and political issues of our times. “Fair deals” and such.

We drilled on the Civil War and nobody said anything about the Korean War that “shell shocked” a neighbor of mine and caused him to lose his mind.

We didn’t get to take Joseph McCarthy to task in a classroom after the attacks he made on American citizens’ civil liberties or get to praise Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophies regarding resisting oppression and making peace non-violently. And I was itching to discuss such things.

However we hardly talked about anything. And we sure needed some serious debriefing from the images we saw on the screen at the picture show: bug-eyed Negroes, trembling in fear in haunted houses, shuffling their feet comically, crying ”Feets don’t fail me now”; Asians portrayed as “coolies” or someone who is exceptionally exotic and remarkably wise; our cowboy heroes chasing “Injuns” and “Bandidos,” our favorite bad guys…

Seems somebody could have helped us counter such “racial identity” stereotypes so we could better learn how to distinguish truths from lies.

So there was no way I was going to deprive any students of mine the opportunity to look at their world and analyze it and question it and make sense of it.

And there was much going on in the world in 1962 and we were on it.

Marilyn Monroe had died from a barbiturate overdose and we had a stimulating discussion about street drugs and how we might “Say No” to them.

Some of my students had fathers fighting the Viet Cong in Vietnam so we gave each other comfort through talking about the war, on occasion, and writing essays and poems about what we were feeling.

We broke down the Cuban Missile Crisis and brainstormed how people might better get along.

In the previous school year, John Glenn had orbited the earth, signaling that President Kennedy’s dream of putting a man on the moon could become a reality and that had us more than ready for the premiere of “The Jetsons” TV show.

Such a silly cartoon show might seem like a waste of classroom time but we  weighed in on it with very mixed opinions regarding whether or not some of what we were viewing could become an actuality someday and now, 57 years later, robot bosses and maids and flying cars are underway. And the Air Force has a space command today.

We gave into our imaginations in those conversations.

One day somebody mentioned that Wilt “The Stilt” Chamberlain had scored a hundred points in a basketball game the previous spring and they wanted to know if I had ever done such a thing and the answer, of course, was “No” but I let them know that I had scored the most points in a game (46) at the University of Arizona and overnight, to them, I became a hero and when they saw me do a reverse dunk I was promoted to a superhero and when I hit a softball from the upper playground to the lower playground I was treated like I could leap buildings in a single bound.

But the real bonding came every time I’d share my life, who I was, with them like the day we talked about the problems James Meredith faced as the first black person to enroll at the University of Mississippi.

That dialogue lead to me telling them about my experiences with racism, about traveling around in the south with my mother and growing up in a town, Tucson, where I didn’t go to an integrated school until I was in the 8th grade; where I couldn’t eat in a white café or swim or skate or sit with white folks at movies.

And in the background of our lives, George Wallace, the governor of Alabama, right after our Christmas break, told the world where he stood on integration: “Segregation now… Segregation tomorrow… Segregation forever.”

And three months later Martin Luther King was arrested in Birmingham for simply protesting the way black folks were treated in the state.

Those incidents really opened my students’ minds to how invasive racism was in our country.

“Bummer!” they sighed. “Got that right!” I replied.

“Doesn’t that make you angry?” they asked. “Sure does.”

But just being mad, I explained, doesn’t bring about change and we talked about the power of love, of “Doing unto others as you would have them do unto you” and we learned a popular Peter, Paul, and Mary song, “If I Had a Hammer,” and we’d really sell the line:

“I’d hammer out love between

My brothers and my sisters

All over this land”…

That was one of the best years of my life and when it came to an end I was drained, ready for my first full summer in San Diego.

At the Sixth Grade Promotion Ceremony I was sitting in the auditorium, daydreaming about body surfing and playing ball and hanging out with my family, barely listening as my colleagues were taking their well-earned bows for having a good year, to nice applause, and then I heard “And last but not least, Mr. Ernie McCray.”

And the room rang with cheering and the hand clapping of people rising to their feet.

To be validated like that was, in a word, heartwarming, nearly knocked me off my feet.

It meant the world to me.

Our world is an open lab and all I had tried to do was simply turn children on to it in a spirit of love.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Judi Curry September 24, 2019 at 12:37 pm

Nice Ernie – those first years of teaching were the best for me too. Opened my eyes to what we were not teaching; how to teach it; and how important meeting the needs of the people in our classroom were to me. After all, you can’t “recall” them because you forgot to put in a missing part.


Dave Beekman September 24, 2019 at 6:00 pm

Great Story Ernie… This goes a long way to help explain why… ‘Teaching is the Nobel Profession’… You were there at the right time, doing the right things, making a difference. One cannot wish for more than you have been able to accomplish… I’m proud to have an opportunity to say to friends and family; you were a classmate of mine at Tucson High. D


Thomas Gayton September 25, 2019 at 5:48 pm

We need teachers like you in our schools.


Robert Moss April 4, 2020 at 8:53 pm

HI ERNIE: Wow! What a story from your archives of golden years gone by! Like you and Judi, I have designed my own legendary collection of innovative and timely student friendly sagas too. In my earlier teaching years. I had the honor to learn as much from my students as they learned from me. Some of the strongest inspirations for me were several quotations off the ebon-hued lips of these Black Gibraltars: “The creative pioneer is worth more to their community than silver or gold.” (Ancient anonymous African proverb). “The race (African Americans) needs workers at this time, plagiarists, copyist or mere imitators; but men and women who are able to create, to originate and improve, and thus make an independent racial contribution to the world civilization.” (Marcus Garvey). “We cannot continue to adhere ourselves to the failing of empires, our resources are too valuable.” (Alfredia Smith, a dynamic former Lincoln High School teacher and counselor, who left our presence way to early).


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