Ms. Starr gave weekly spelling tests and anyone who earned a perfect score was rewarded the following week by being allowed to skip the test and call out the words to the rest of the class instead. This honor was tremendously motivating to me. I am pretty sure I always aced the assigned words, but the two, never-before-seen bonus words sometimes tripped me up. One week, just before Ms. Starr read the final bonus word, she interrupted herself to announce to the class, waiting with pencils poised, “Evva, I’m sure you will get this one right.” Having my name called in the middle of a test was uncomfortable enough, but I almost burst into flames when she said the word: “Israel.”
You should know upfront that I got it wrong. Israel is a tough word to spell, considering it’s a proper noun and doesn’t follow the rules of English. And I was 10. As I sat there looking at my test paper, knowing I didn’t know how to spell it, all I could think about was how embarrassed I was – embarrassed to not know what she clearly expected me to know, embarrassed to have her know I was Jewish (how did she know?), and embarrassed by what the rest of the class must be thinking.
That year only three students in my class were Jewish and the other two were boys. I was just becoming aware of my own Jewish identity as different from those of my peers and being Jewish was not something I wanted others to talk about or even be aware of. I doubt Ms. Starr made that comment to hurt me but hurt me she did. I suppose she meant it as a compliment but it’s a compliment along the lines of, “You’re pretty for a black girl.”
The past week, in pre-service meetings for the upcoming school year, we spent a morning on Cultural Awareness training. A colleague shared the too-common experience of being a black student and having teachers always ask her to read the poems by black authors. I’m sure the teachers who do this are not coming from a place of malice, but the harm done is painful none-the-less. The colleague’s story took me back to that moment at Cresthaven Elementary in 1983. Ms. Starr spent a year teaching me, and I think she did a good job. But all I remember clearly is feeling pain in her room: A whole year of her work muddied with one off-hand comment.
As a teacher myself now, and a Ms. Starr myself now, the burden of one off-hand comment undoing a year’s worth of work is crushing. But it’s my job. I hope the Ms. Starr I am will do better than the Ms. Starr I had.