Old Man James- the Hero

by Angie

So here is the story. As I said I am new to wroting. I have a 7th grade education until just recently. So please dont be mean, just tell me how to fix it. My teacher approved me getting help this way.

Many years ago, Vernonigent, Alabama was a very busy place as people passed through to the bigger cities, but since they built the bypass, it is almost like a ghost town. The buildings are crumbling, houses are falling down or boarded up, there are no jobs, and there are homeless people and animals running about the streets.

If you were a stranger coming through this little town, everyone knew it. They would stare at you as if you arrived in a brightly lit spinning alien space craft. You would swear that you were looking at an old zombie movie as all the homeless people's faces were dry and white from dust, you almost couldn't tell a black person from a white person.

I was from a nearby town, a bigger town, but had visited Vernonigent often because my grandfather lived there, so the people who I was. I graduated from college and could not wait to start my very first job as a school teacher. To ease my school loan payments, I took a job at a low income, minority school. This way the government released me of some of my educational expense loans. It was worth them paying off some of my loans. That school was in Vernonigent, Alabama.

I began my job as a teacher at the middle school. The school was quite small only holding about 15 classrooms and that included the portable units. The doors on the front entrance of the school made the sound of a scream from a young child. The walls covered in graffiti and the floor tiles were all broken with a musty dust coming from them as you walked through. I had never actually been in this school, so I was quite intimidated. Just as I stepped another foot forward, the entrance doors slammed tightly as if they were being control by an unknown force.

Just as I was about to turn around and make a run for the doors, a small lady greeted me. She frightened me because she came up behind me, I turned quickly around to see her, but there was no one there. I looked down to see her standing there. She was maybe 3 Â feet tall. I know she must have noticed the fear in my eyes but she said nothing. She introduced herself as simply Janice.

As Janice walked me through the long narrow hallway that I felt were going to close in on me at any moment, she told me about the way they do things there Vernonigent Middle School. She then stated, "We get a lot of you big city graduates here, you always spend two years to satisfy your school loans and you leave us in the dust, just like that bypass did." I did not know what to say to her, because I too had planned to teach at my local school that was closer to my home.

Janice said, "walk around so you can see what it is like here, all the big cities get the money, while our students suffer.' I sensed a lot of bitterness from her, so I quietly did just as she said. Right away I noticed something that I had not seen much of in my big city schools. The majority of the students belonged to two different ethnic groups. I noticed right off that the two different ethnic groups rarely had any positive contact with one another. Usually when the two ethnic groups' had contact with one another, it consisted of name calling, threats, and fighting. I saw that there was a serious issue here, so I knew that something must be done. I must come up with some strategies to encourage the students to all get along with one another or at least tolerate one another; thus making the school a calmer and more enjoyable place for the students as well as the teachers.

The school was located in an old small town in Alabama which was still into the old time southern ways, where blacks are blacks and whites are whites and there is no white and black. In other words, they are very much racist people because of the past. Both the white and the black students are racist.

All of the students pretty much had the same lifestyles, as this is a small poverty stricken town. They are all poor and most live in government housing and receive government aid. Most of the students are Baptist, and most are actively attending church. They all celebrate the same holidays and pretty much do the same things on those holidays. So they are not ethnically different in as far as where they are from or traditions that one or the other has. They are separated by race only. The two ethnic groups at this school were black and white.

While trying to figure out some strategies to get the students to work together and be accepting of one another, I had to think about the reasons they were this way. Even though most of the students (black and white) lived in the same conditions, etc, they were all very unique in their own ways as well. They had different temperaments. The black group of students had students that were submissive, passive, loud, aggressive, and even violent. The white group had students that had a variety of the same temperaments. I must remember though, that even though they are alike in many ways, they are each different as well. Each child must be dealt with according to their temperament and I cannot deal with the whole group as one. So that was my first strategy. I will adjust my plan according to each student's temperament.

I then thought on about what other considerations I should have in making our school a better place. I had to figure out what made these students dislike one another. Where were they getting this hate from? I don't believe they were born hating the other race. I believe they were taught it by their parents or leaned it from observing their surroundings other than at home or both.

I called in many parents of my students. I told them I just wanted to discuss their child's strengths and weaknesses seeing how I was a new teacher to them. I found that both white and black parents in many cases were racist as well. Many of the black parents would not even speak to me once they discovered I was white. The white parents would not speak to me or looked down at me as well when they saw the photo of my fiancà and me on my desk. My fiancà was a black man. Not every parent was racist. I discovered that there were many black and white people when alone with me or one another treated each race with respect. However, I also discovered when they were with other people of their race that were more aggressive; they too become racist and more aggressive. This helped me realize many things.

I realized that the kids were learning to be racist at home. There were parents that became "part of the group" by doing things that were racist to fit in. This was happening with the children as well. I figured out that many of the students and parents alike were just following along with what their ethnic group leaders were doing. When I say group leaders, I mean the more aggressive ones of the ethnic group. It was a way of fitting into what your group is and not being a misfit.

So how did the parents end up this way? Why is this group separated by merely race? Come on now, it is 1985. We can all be friends I thought to myself. I thought I would have the students type an anonymous one page paper and tell me why there is a separation of the two races at school. Many of the students happily obliged.

I collected the papers and read them all that night. There it was, in black and white, all over the papers they had turned in! It was because of something that happened not in my generation or theirs. It was because the whites had slaves and the black kids hated that. Understandably so! However, this was not currently the situation and the white kids did not do it to the black kids. Not these kids! These kids were not even born, when this went on.

The white kids felt they were superior to the black kids because they had once "owned" them. Some of the white kids also stated that they were sick of being punished for what their ancestors had done. The black kids claimed to be sick of the stuck up snobs thinking they were better than them.

Better than them, I asked myself? They are all poverty children living off of government assistance. There is no one better than anyone here. They are all of the same financial and educational class. Wow! I was amazed that 95% of my students claimed the same reasons. Of course the whites had their reasons and the blacks had their reasons. So I see that we must resolve the past before we move on to the future, so that would be my next strategy.

So how would I do that, I thought to myself. I mean, they seemed to be set in old time ways and hold angers and beliefs that really had nothing to do with them directly at all. Well, I thought, I must admit I too have had some moments in my life that I was a racist person. I did not want to be that way. However, being an Alabamian, that was the way it was.

My father even wanted to name me Racial. No joke! My mother, who has always believed we all, as human beings deserve respect from one another until given reason otherwise, agreed to allow my father to give me a middle name of Raychelle, spelled differently than the way he wanted. Strange, he felt he got his way, and my mother felt she got hers. I had also been known to use the "N" word in my younger years.

So I once again thought to myself, "how did I overcome being racist. Now, let me make myself perfectly clear; I treated all people kindly, but inside I did feel that I was more superior to the black people. I also sometimes felt that black people would take advantage of you in a minute. That was my way of thinking until one day something happened that changed my thinking and my life forever.

I was lost on a long dirt road and then my car ran out of gas. I had many white folks pass me, as I sat there with the hood erect to signal for help. There must have been 20 white people pass me up, including a white police officer. I k now they saw me, because they stared the whole time at me, One idiot stared so hard in his rear view mirror that he clipped a mail box, and just drove away as if nothing had happened. The only person that stopped to help me was an older black man. I am sure he had to experience the days of segregation.

"Oh no", I thought to myself, "He is going to rob or rape me". However, that was not the case. He asked me what the problems were and I told him I was lost and I had run out of gas. He told me to get in my car and sit there. He said it was dangerous for a young pretty lady to be on this road by herself. He told me to sit low in the car and he will go get a can of gas for me. He shut my hood and left.

When he returned he had no gas can, it scared me a bit. I also noticed that he had a rope. At this point, I am no longer scared, I am terrified. He came to my window that I had rolled up ever so tightly; I opened a tiny slit in the window hoping he was still there to just help me, not hurt me. He saw the fear in my eyes and I saw his eyes cover with a thick layer of tears, as if he was thinking, "things will never change." He said don't worry honey, I am just going to pull you off the road because the road graders are coming down the road now to smoothed the road." He hooked the rope to my car and to the rear of his old dented up truck, and yelled out to me, "put it in neutral honey, we can't very well pull a car if its park, now can we."

He pulled me off the road to a nearby driveway. He passed two drive ways that were tightly covered and surrounded by large thick live oak trees. I was thinking that he was going to continue to pull me to the place where he was going to fulfill my fears. I almost slammed the car in park when he pulled in a very big wide open space. The place had American flags flying everywhere and many POW flags as well. There were many black women and children laughing and talking, as if there were some sort of celebration going on. It eased my fears drastically.

He came to my window again; I rolled it half way down this time. He said to me, "Honey, I thought I would bring you here with my family to make you feel more comfortable, I don't want you being scared of an old colored man." My face surely was blushing at this point from embarrassment that I was scared of him and I was scared only because the color of his skin.

His family came rushing to car as if they were rushing to the Christmas tree on Christmas morning. I heard, "Look momma, it is a white girl, she must be coming to get some drugs from that white man down the street, like all those other white folks that come down this road." I was quite offended that this child, who had never met me before, judged me simply by the color of my skin. But wait, how do I have the right to judge one by the color of their skin, yet black people don't?

The momma popped the child in the back of the head, just enough to get his attention, and said to him, "you don't know tha white girl, don't yah be sayin such a thing, unless you knowed it to be true boy!" The momma said to me, "Come on honey, you aint nuttin but skin and bones, let's go put some meat on those bones, you can't never find a good man for holding looking like that".

I got out of the car feeling a bit awkward, but I sure was starving considering it was about 5 pm and I had been sitting by the road for four hours and had not even one bite to eat at all that day. As I walked with the momma and about 10 other family folks that followed behind us, whispering so quietly, she comforted me and telling me in a true Alabamian tongue, "you aint gats nuttin to worry bout heh sweetie, weez good folk heh, let's get you some meat on those there bones and my daddy will get you on yah way".

Feeling reassured, I began to eat from the stacked plate the momma had given me. "Wow, the food was the best", I thought to myself, "Damn, these black folks sure can cook even better than my grandma!" I quickly wiped my drool on my sleeve as I salivated from the wonderful flavor and aroma of the fried chicken and the many sides that were on the plate. I had hoped no one noticed the drool from the absolute delight. But a teenager girl did and said, "Girl yah neva had good cookin like dat, have yah?" I replied embarrassed, "no, this is the best ever!" We both smiled at one another, as she handed me a hankie to use as a napkin, and she moved on to play dodge ball with the other kids.

The old black man came up to me and told me that he had siphoned gas from his old worn down truck , and many of his family's worn out cars and put it in my car. I told him he did not have to do that. He explained that I was really lost because the closest gas station was about 45 minutes away. He said he did not want to worry me or my family by keeping me out that long.

He drew me a very detailed map as his hand shook almost violently and then had one of the teenagers write in names of the streets and sites that I could follow to get back to the main road. I wondered if he could read and write, but the map he drew was a work of art.

The car was ready so it was time that I be on my way. I thanked the family for the dinner and the old man for fixing my car and comfortably opened my purse that I originally had clutched to my side, and asked what do I owe you? The old man said "nuttin honey, I am just glad I gats to yah before some those drug addicts did. I wouldn't even want to magine what'd coulda done to such a pretty white young lady." I insisted on paying them for the dinner and gas.

They looked almost offended and said once again, "yah owe us nuttin". Only this time, they added" if you tank you ode us somethin, come on back with yah family and eat wid us again". I gladly agreed. Just before I was leaving, I asked them why there were so many people there and so many flags. I asked if they always have this many people here or were they celebrating something. I felt a bit stupid for being so nosey after I had asked.

The old man said "we'd just getting gether like family post to do." The momma said to the old man, "You'd silly old man, neva wanna be the hero yah are". She told me that they were celebrating his return from the war many years ago. He had many medals from which he earned for saving 5 white folks, single handily from a captive situation, and that he had even carried one dead man across his shoulders thirteen miles to a safe place, so that the man's family could say their good-byes. Tears filled my eyes and out of nowhere, I jumped out of my car as if I had been sprung out and wrapped my arms around his neck and told him thank you for being our hero. I told him that my grandfather had been rescued by a black man in the same situation.

Just before leaving, I got their names and wrote down their address, because they had no phone to call them. I looked down at my gas needle, thinking I had better find a gas station, only to realize that he had put almost a half a tank of gas in there. I could not believe he siphoned all of that gas and gave it to me.

I got home late and called my mother crying hysterically about the adventure I had had and how the hero rescued me. My mom said, "You know something happened very similar to my father, your grandfather, when he was at war. He was saved by a black man." I told her I remembered the stories quite vividly. Mom said that my grandfather spent many years trying to find the man that rescued him but never could.

My mom told my grandfather about the event the next day. My grandfather came by and asked of the man and asked what he looked like. I explained how the old man looked to my grandfather, but he said "nah, that cannot be him, the man that rescued my platoon was a thick muscular man, and besides what was I thinking in that he could be so close after I have looked for so long. He is an old man like myself, I believe he is even older, I am sure he dead by now."

As my grandfather walked toward the door to leave, he noticed the name and address of my hero thumb tacked to the key holder by the door. He immediately dropped to his knees in tears. I thought he was having a heart attack or something. I rushed to him shouting, "granddaddy, granddaddy, are you okay?" He replied, "it is him, he is the one that allowed me to come home to grandma and he is the reason we have your mom and you!"

I dropped to my knees in tears alongside my grandfather. Neither he nor I could believe how small of a world it really is. We were in amazement that someone who rescued my grandfather so many years ago had rescued me too, so many years after.

I took the family up on the offer and brought my family for dinner. I brought plenty of drinks, food, and deserts too to share with the family as they had done with me. My grandfather went right up to the old man and said, "James, I owe you my life, I have thought about you every day. When my children were born, I looked into their eyes and I knew it would not have ever been possible, if it were not for you." They both stood there as their bodies shivered like they had just seen a ghost. Then the two men fell into tears and laughter as they discussed their lives then and their lives now.

Neither my family nor the old black man's family could get in a word edgewise as they discussed their lives and how the Army had changed them to the men that they have become. They talked for hours. Slowly some of my family showed up and slowly they left. The black man's family slowly crept off to bed as well. There were still many children at the knees of my grandfather and old man James. Many adults, few children had drifted off to sleep on the make shift sofa, made from an old wooden wagon, and old blankets.

Some family members sat on the old squeaky rocking chairs on the porch, as they listened to the stories so intensively. All you could hear were squeaks of the old rocking chairs that almost put a relaxing tune to the stories that the old man and Grandfather were telling; it was as though even the birds, the frogs, the stray dogs, and crickets had stopped to listen to their stories

We finally left old man James' home and went on to talk the whole way home ourselves. That day that I was so scared of the old black man killing me turned out to be the best day in my life. My family, including my once racist father, became very close with old man James and his family. Who would have thought that I would be marrying a black man so many years ago? My fiancà is one of the many grandsons of my hero, old man James. We have been best friends since we met that day and now we were to be married. Needless to say, being a racist person, ended that day for me. I learned that while our skin may be different colors, we all are people that are capable of the good and bad things in life. I learned that I should always do as my mom had been trying to tell me for years and treat everyone with respect until given a reason otherwise.

So, my story became a strategy for me to use. I could tell my story and let the students know just how wonderful life could be if we just give everyone a chance, no matter the color of their skin. However, I decided to hold off on the story until after I had done a little more investigating into the students and why they were the way they were and how I can reach them.

I must admit it was rather difficult to overcome my memories and get back on the task at hand. I did finally get back on task though. I decided that since I knew most of the children by now, I pretty much knew who was more open to change than others. Some children were much closed minded and closed off to people getting in and some were more open to new ideas. So I decided that I needed to open the minds up of the closed children to new thoughts and ideas.

I had each the children mate up with a different race child. Mind you I just started with the classes I taught, not the whole school. I mean after all, this is just a study or trial, if you will, of what I want to do. I would not want to fail on the whole school at once. I would not want to fail at all.

After matching the children of the other race, I gave all the children a chance to raise their grades by 10% by doing a project. Most of the children were failing all classes, so an easy shot at possibly passing interested them. I told the children that I want them to spend one week with their opposite race partner, learning about them. I want them to write me a paper about their partner and it must include the partners' likes, dislikes, their likes and dislikes about their partner, and how they and their partners were alike, as well as how they were different. I also added to state a thing that they thought made their partner special and would qualify their parent to be friends with them.

The kids all booed at the idea but they agreed to do it. I thought my strategy of using an incentive that would make the children and their parents happy would at the very least open the children's eyes slightly. The kids began their project in class that day. At first they had their arms crossed and sat back from their partners as if their arms crossing would keep out the unwanted.

To get them past this point, I asked each partner to pick number 1 or 2. They had to have a different number. I then told the partners that had the number one that they must start the conversations with their partners and tell them about themselves and then partner number 2 was to do the same. At first, they mumbled as if they did not want to be heard or understood by their partners. As the time progressed, the children's arms unclenched form around themselves and their postures relaxed.

The noise the children were making distracted the other classes and a teacher came to see what the disturbance was. As she opened the door and saw many smiling faces and many relaxed bodies with partners of the opposite race, she simply closed door as she smiled, said carry on, and returned to her classroom.

Now, don't get me wrong, there were children who did not take quite so easily into conversation with the opposite race. There were about 20% of the children who sat in their chairs with angry expressions on their faces and would not even face the opposite race, much less have a conversation with them. I thought about using reinforcement for the behavior I wanted, by threatening those children with a grade deduction. However, I realized was this not only unfair, it would likely anger the children and their shot at being accepting to the other race would be even more of an unlikely hood.

I went to the children who was a=obviously not to be persuaded so easily and asked them each to write a two page mini biography of themselves for their partner of the opposite sex to read. After they did that, I had the partner read it and then I had them write a response to their partner about how they felt about what they had read about their partner. I had them do this over and over again. No, they were not communicating verbally but they were communicating through the letters and body language while learning about their partners.

I could tell it was not going to work totally but it was a start for these kids. So then I moved on to my next strategy. I asked the kids to write about their partners and what they like or dislike about them. I asked them to write why they did not like the opposite race or was it their partner in specific. I read their responses, not allowing their partners to read their responses. I discovered that many of the children had been victimized by the opposite race in way or another.

This brought about another discussion. How many times has someone done something that hurt them or victimized them in any way by white and black people? It turns out that both the white and the black partners were victimized more by their own races. However, they isolated the events that were done by the opposite race because this is the way they were taught. You know, it would not have happened if they were not black, or not white. They were victimized more by their own race because that is the only mostly the only race they dealt with. That did make sense to the children, thus opening up them a bit more. I knew this was not going to happen overnight. We spent the whole day on this project. (It was a small school, so they only went to one class to learn all day)

As the kids walked out to the school busses or headed out for their walk home, I noticed something just a tad bit different. Usually there was a clear difference between the double doors they exited. One side had black kids rushing out of it and the other side had white kids rushing out of usually. However, this time, there was a slight mixture of children going through both doors with only a few glares being sent off to the opposite race.

Progress, I thought to myself!! Yes, I know, they were likely displaying what I wanted to see. I guess they felt they may not get the extra points if they did not appear friendly to the opposite race. However, I would have still given them the points for doing the project whether my project was effective or not.

We continued to work on our project through the week, I slipped in some school work along the way of course, having the partners help one another if needed, thus giving them yet another chance to raise their grades. They did too! Some kids knew this and some knew that and together they put their knowledge and actually pulled off some pretty good grades! They were impressed with themselves. They also continued to progress in the project as well becoming closer to one another. I even over heard a young lady tell her opposite race partner that she had forgot her socks at her partner's house when she slept over the night before. Wow!

Well, we still did have issues and some of those kids that relaxed even broke out in violent fist fights with one another. Some of those kids's parents were skin heads or in gangs that did not approve of different races and some feared they would be hurt. So I do understand that not all of the students were going to make a change right then. However, even if I only got a few students to change their way of thinking, then it was worth it!

Over the next month, things continued to improve but occasionally the kids that had improved would end back up in their original group throwing fight inviting looks and words. So I decided to use my last and final strategy. This was the last thing I had to help me help them.

I told them about old man James, my hero, my car running out of gas, my grandfather, old man James being my grandfather's hero as well and finally about my fiancÃ, who I loved quite dearly. My grandfather and old man James came to speak in front of the whole school. I had never seen so many children express such emotion as they did. There was not a dry eye in the house, not even the adults could stand straight faced without the lump in their throat and shivering chin as they try preventing the tears from falling.

This strategy seemed to work the best. It was like something had taken over the school. Children were hugging one another of their race and of the opposite race. They apologized to one another for the things they have done to one another in the past. There were a few kids that seemed to put out their hands to shake the opposite race's hands as if they really wanted to but did not want their followers to know that they had been beaten down by the story.

After that day, there were no more fights between the different races, well other than when it was over something personal not over the race. Yes, there were still the children who were passing evil glares to one another acting as if they were inviting a fight. However, it was no near what it was before and they accepted each other as fellow human beings whether they were to be friends or friendly or not.

Oh yes, that school, Vernoniegent Middle it burned down. I think it was a God sent bolt of lightning that got it. Since the school burned down to a small bit of black and gray ashes, the government had to come up with some money to rebuild and they did. It is a simple school but it has air condition in the warmer months and heat for the winter. The floors are shined up every day by that little lady Janice and you can open the windows to get a fresh breeze from outside.

I am still teaching there today where I have my students come visit me often with their children. I am asked to never retire because they want their kids to have a teacher that unbiased and will see them for people not colors.

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