February 1981 was an interesting month. I was smack in the middle of my very first year as a teacher, during my very first time living in the deep south in the beautiful state of Georgia, listening to my faculty’s arrangements with my mouth hanging open.
My school was preparing for the annual Black History Month Assembly… during which the White students would attend a study hall held in the cafeteria.
That confused me. Was that normal? Did that mean that in the south Black History was just for Black students?
I certainly wasn’t going to ask. As a brand new teacher, I never said anything in the faculty meetings. However, when I did say something, it was later, and just to the principal.
“Why aren’t the White students going to the Black History Assembly? I thought the school policy was that every student had to attend every assembly, no matter what the topic.”
“Well, now, Miss Galiano,” he drawled at me kindly. “Things work a little differently down here in the south. We’ve always done it this way so’s we don’t cause a stir among the parents of our White students.”
A stir? I didn’t get it, but I let it go.
However, I just had to bring it up again after enjoying a truly wonderful presentation by the Black History Month Assembly’s guest speaker. After all, there had been nothing controversial in his speech. It had been completely uplifting and filled with a message of hope for the future.
“Well, now, Miss Galiano, why don’t we talk about this again next year.”
Yes, my toe was in the door!
A New Year… A New Policy
The next August, when the administration asked for “volunteers” to be on the various committees for the new school year, I signed up for the Black History Committee. As it turned out, the speaker had already been chosen, a Black anchorman from one of Atlanta’s prominent news stations. All the committee had to do was handle the logistics.
Now that my whole foot was in the door, the first thing I did was go talk to the principal.
“Well, now, Miss Galiano, people don’t care much for change. Are you going to handle the irate parents?”
“I-I will… if I have to.”
He grinned at me. “That’s alright, Miss Galiano. Maybe it’s time for a change.”
And just like that, everybody would be going to the Black History Assembly.. Needless to say, I was very pleased with myself… until the assembly that February morning.
When Good Assemblies Go Bad
As the entire school population, including the 20% who were White students, shifted uncomfortably in our seats, we listened to a completely different type of speech, one that was angry and hate-filled.
He said things like, “Don’t trust anyone who is white” and “To listen to me, you might think I hate all White people. I don’t. Some of my best friends are white.” You get the idea.
It would have been just awful, even if only the Black kids had attended. But now… I just knew this was going to bite me in the butt.
The assembly ended, and the students filed out, not bubbly and excited the way they typically were for any disruption to the school day, but quiet and whispering. It was so weird.
I shelved my science lessons for the rest of the day to do damage control. Providing a safe space for the kids to discuss what had happened allowed them to grapple with their reactions.
“When we were going in, the Black kids kept asking me why I was there. I didn’t know.”
“I felt funny listening to him bad mouth White people because I was sitting next to some White kid.”
“I felt funny because I was sitting next to my best friend who’s White.”
“Once this girl told me I had something in my hair, and I asked her to take it out, but she said she didn’t like touching White people’s hair. That made me feel bad.”
“I kept wondering who we’re supposed to trust if we can’t trust the White teachers.”
It was a great Teachable Moment.
We talked about how this predominantly Black middle-to-upper-middle class neighborhood they all lived in was a unique setting, which most likely, they would not experience in the outside world.
Our White kids, who made up the minority in our school, would be entering a world where White people were the majority, and it would seem strange.
Our Black kids, who made up the majority in our school, would be entering a world where White people were the majority, and it would seem strange.
And, as uncomfortable as the speaker’s words had made them, the silver lining was the conversation that it produced.
All of my classes that day were devoted to reducing the angst caused by the speaker’s messages of hate. When my last class of the day left, I heaved a sigh of relief… right before I received a message to report to the principal.
Miss Galiano, Please Report to the Principal’s Office
It was the first time I had been called to the principal’s office… in my entire life!
“Well, now, Miss Galiano.” The principal sighed and laced his fingers behind his head. “Do you know what I learned from today’s fiasco?”
I nervously shook my head. Did people get fired for something like this? Was he going to yell at me? What kind of trouble was I in, anyway?
“I learned that we need to screen our speakers better. No doubt, I’m gonna get an earful from some parents. And, I’m gonna tell them what I’m telling you. From now on, all students go to every assembly, no matter what the topic is.”
That was it. The change was permanent… my own little personal contribution to Black History Month back when I was 23 years old.
Going forward, the Black History Month Assemblies all had appropriate and interesting speakers for the rest of my years at that school because we screened our speakers based on topic, and not reputation. And, you know what? The parents didn’t complain. Change doesn’t come easily, but it does come.
(I probably should mention that would not be the last time I’d be called to the principal’s office for causing a stir.)
Talking to your Kids about Black History Month
Topics like Black History make great Conversation Starters as a way for you to engage your kids. I’m Deborah Ann Davis, and as your Parenting Coach, I’m eager to help you put happiness back into parenting. I’ve helped hundreds of families over the years, and I’m prepared to use my experience as an educator and a mother to benefit you.
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