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Monthly Archives: November 2010

XeniaTales: The Greene County Fair

Remembering the summers of my childhood there are some distinct memories. Things that modern children will never get to experience, like riding your bike behind the mosquito fogger truck and trying not to run into other kids doing the same thing, or the truck if it stopped suddenly. It is a wonder all of us are still alive.

Memorial Day and all of the festivities kicking off the summer and the Greene County Fair, which proceeded the opening of school by about a month and sounded the warning bell that summer was wanin,g were the two main bracketing events.

Just as a current child will not get to fill his or her lungs with insecticide like we did, they would no doubt find our anticipation of and fascination with the Fair quite incomprehensible. ” You got excited about riding a few carny rides, and looking at chickens?” Yep, sure did. You always knew when the Fair was in town because the flies came with them. I do not know if flies just matured around that time each year or if they truly traveled with the Fair folks, but they never failed to be more plentiful that first week of August.

My parents would usually take us out on Sunday, before the Fair actually opened because it was free. The rides were in the process of being put up, the Merry-Go-Round, Tilt-A-Whirl, Bumper Cars and my personal favorite, the Ferris Wheel. Some of the food vendors would be open, foot long coney dogs, caramel and candy apples, sugar waffles, fudge, lemonade, cotton candy–I presume the Fair was supported at least in part by the American Dental Association.

The people who showed things were also out and about on Sunday afternoon and evening. Cows, sheep, pigs, chickens, ducks, rabbits, all had their own areas. Four H kids were grooming, bathing, walking their charges. I loved going to look at the animals. One of the most devastating experiences of my childhood was when I was about 12 and a group of friends and I went into one of the barns and ran into a young white farmer boy who my friend Dale had played Little League with and knew. The boy was showing a cow and he took us to the stall and we watched him brush the cow and we petted him. Then the boy informed us that the cow would be sold at the end of the Fair and sold for meat

I knew cows were meat, but I had always presumed that the pampered animals in the barns at the Fair were pets! It suddenly dawned on me that a similar fate awaited the rabbits, chickens and pigs.  After that I pretty much lost my taste for barn visits, only going back when I had friends who were showing animals.

There were also women who showed quilts, doilies they had made, embroidery, rugs, afghans, antique glassware and of course food. Pies, cakes, cookies, quick breads, all vied for blue ribbons. When I got older I showed a few cut glass pieces myself. I was quite proud of my exhibitor’s pass, which got you into the gate without paying by the way.

The Greene County Fairgrounds in those days was a lovely place. Lots of grass and mature big trees. People parked pretty much everywhere they could and kids ran around all day. On certain days there was harness racing and I learned to tell the difference between a pacer and a trotter. Watching the men ( and the occasional woman in later years) sit in the buggy and drive their horses around the oval track was exciting.

The old grandstand was wooden and dangerous. You could count on someone getting a splinter somewhere during your time at the races. To sit in the stands sticky with candy apple and cotton candy and watch the full moon come up over the picturesque Presbyterian Church across the street as it made a backdrop for the horses racing for home was truly like a Norman Rockwell painting.

The old grandstand burned down a few years ago and was replaced by a metal monstrosity with no style at all. That and the addition of betting has changed the entire atmosphere of the races for me.

When I got old enough to come to the Fair by myself one my favorite things was to go to the barns to see the horses. The barns were behind the grandstand and if there was no race that evening you could stroll along between the lines of stalls and see horses, sometimes with their owners grooming them, but frequently just with their heads stuck out into the center aisle. If it was a race night you could hang out near the barns and watch them bring the horses out and harness them to the buggies.

But, my very favorite was the Ferris Wheel. To strap yourself into the car and suddenly be lifted up above the huge trees, up where you could see the entire Fair, the barns, the grandstand, the people, the lights and even further on a starry night was magic. The trip down always made you feel like you were flying and if you went with a boy he was bound to rock the car before you were 13 and bound to try to kiss you after you were 13. Either one was highly anticipated. The former gave you an excuse to clutch at him and scream, the latter gave you a chance to clutch at him in an entirely different way.

Some families went to the Fair every day, but my family only went twice, free Sunday and on Fridays. It was a looong week when I knew the Fair was in town and I was not going. When I got old enough to go by myself, around 12, I went every day. Sometimes I paid, sometimes I sneaked in. If your parents gave you money for the Fair it was usually in two categories, spending money and money for admission. If you could hold on to the money for admission you could buy more rides, food and chances at the games so you could win a stuffed animal, or more likely some cheap plastic consolation prize.

I had never thought of sneaking in the Fair, until I went with a group of kids who bragged about never paying to get in. They knew a place where the fence behind the horse barns was loose. All you had to do was unhitch it from a nail go through and put it back on the nail. Sounded easy, and I already had a bit of a reputation as a goody-two-shoes so I agreed to sneak in too.

We waited until about dusk–easier to sneak in–and took a circuitous route to get to the breached area of the fence. The problem is that people lived behind the Fairgrounds and we had to go through a yard to get to the fence. Not only did we have to go through a yard, we had to go through the yard of some white people, this at a time when seeing people of a different color in your yard would have been considered unusual if not alarming.

So we had to case out which house looked dark and/or empty so we would not get challenged by the homeowner whose property we were about to trespass on in order to commit misdemeanor theft by not paying to get into the Fair.

Everything was going well, the people seemed to be absent from home, until a rather large yellow dog came out from under the back porch. He was not happy to see us in his yard, not that it probably had anything to do with our color. We were afraid though that his barking was going to alert the neighbors who did have lights on in their homes.

We made it through the fence in record time, although a couple of us suffered snags in our clothes. I told my mother I tore my blouse on piece of metal on the rides. It was worth sacrificing a piece of clothing to be considered one of the cool kids.

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2 Comments

Posted by on November 30, 2010 in Xenia

 

Teaching is easy, caring seems to be harder

I recently was “friended” by a former student, whose first post to me was ” To one of the few teachers who cared.” This former student is at least thirty-five years old, and yet, he still took the time to send me, as many of my former students do, warm fuzzies about our time together, most of which were decades ago.

Was the impact I had on these students because I was a spectacular instructor, skilled in pedagogy and steeped in Aristolean methodology? Nope, it was because I had a sense of humor and mainly because I simply gave a damn about them as human beings as well as students.

My second year of teaching I taught at Roosevelt High School in Dayton, Ohio. I was hired in October, and was the fourth teacher assigned to that post. The other three had left in various stages of frustration, despair, or outrage. The classes I taught were American History to juniors and Government to seniors, both required for graduation at the time.

My mother and husband did not want me to take the job. Roosevelt was a tough school in a tough part of town. All black, virtually all low-income and with a dreadful academic reputation. It was also known to be a relatively dangerous school. But I was a young teacher and hubris is a wonderful thing sometimes, so I gladly answered the call to come bring knowledge to these poor, underprivileged, ignorant kids.  Little did I know that I would learn much more than I could ever think of teaching.

My first day of classes I realized I was not in Kansas (or the suburbs) anymore, fairly quickly. The principal welcomed me warmly and then informed me where she would lock up my purse for the day and how I could retrieve it should I need it. I smiled at her and politely declined to have my personal belongings locked up to protect them from my students. She shook her head and gave me a pitying look, and escorted me to my classroom. The room itself was in fair repair, with huge windows and the standard wooden student desks for the students and a standard issue wooden desk for me.

My students began to arrive, and I noticed immediately that I was the only teacher standing in the hallway to greet her students. This was standard operating procedure according to my classes at Central State on teaching methods, but it appeared not to be the practice at Roosevelt.  Most of the students eyed me up and down, and went by me without returning my greeting. I was not worried, I was the teacher, I would bring them around soon enough!

It soon became apparent that my students were not really interested in me period.  They ignored my attempts to start class, pulling their desks into small clumps of friends and chatting away. They did everything but light up a cigarette and put their feet up. By fifteen minutes into the period I realized I was going to have to make a statistical adjustment.

So, I wrote on the board–which got most of their attention– “If you want to learn come sit in the front two rows”. These two rows had not been touched, as the class had gravitated towards the back of the room.

Slowly, first three, then five, then a few more kids drifted up to test me out. I began the history lesson by explaining that we were all part of history. The first assignment I gave them was to write their own obituary.  How would history remember them? Even more importantly, how would they like to be remembered?

By now the kids in the front row were asking questions, raising their hands and getting into the assignment. Slowly, oh so slowly, the noise and tumult from the back of the room began to die down, the noise of desks being scooted back  into rows got more frequent. By the end of our first period all but about three hold outs who simply sat back with their arms crossed, were engaged in the assignment.

The same scenario played out all day. By the end of the week we were cooking. They were engaged. I was having a ball! My students were fascinated with a picture I had on my desk of me, my son Mike–then three-and my husband and our black and white cocker spaniel Wolfie. They acted as if the picture was of alien life forms. Casual conversations over time revealed that my students led lives that I could not even imagine. The poverty they lived in was staggering. Most of them had never been out of Dayton. Many of them seemed to have a sphere of influence of only six or seven blocks.The stories they told of their home lives were heart-breaking.

One day I announced a pop quiz, and one of my students, Brayden, said ” Oh Miz Newsom give us a break, it’s my birthday today!” I laughed and told him that he could make it through the quiz and would get paid back for it by his birthday cake that evening no doubt. He stopped smiling and told me he had never had a birthday cake. He was turning 17. I had to fight off some tears, but managed to tell him, ” You will have a birthday cake tomorrow. Sorry it will be a day late, but it will still be good.”

Quite a few of the other students chimed in with similar stories. No birthday cakes, no celebration, no gifts. For the rest of the year that I taught at Roosevelt I baked a cake each month and we celebrated the birthday of everyone who had a birthday that month. I baked a cake for each period 2 the first week of the month, one the second week, one the third week and two the fourth week. I broke rules and brought candles and matches. I was not going to know children who never blew out candles on a birthday cake. We re-lit the candles for each celebrant and joked about spit on the icing.

My husband and I were a young, struggling couple. I could not afford paper plates and forks for 180 students a month, but I could not bear the idea of a child never having anyone acknowledge that his or her birthday was a reason to celebrate.

I had one student, Derrick, who was known to be a bad actor. I had been warned that he might be dangerous, so the first time he approached me after class in an empty classroom I was nervous. I kept the desk between us. He stood there for a minute looking up at the ceiling then he pointed to a pen on my desk and blurted out ” Can I borrow that?”

I did not understand him at first he said it in such a rush, so I asked him to repeat it. When I realized he was asking to borrow a pen I was quite relieved. “Sure” I replied. He grabbed the pen and left. I had Derrick third period, but he was standing by my door the next morning when I arrived to unlock the door, holding out the pen to me. “Thanks” he mumbled and shambled off. I was puzzled. Derrick borrowed something from me every day after that, a paper clip, a pen, a piece of paper, something. And he returned it the next morning faithfully. It was not until months into this ritual I realized what he was doing. He was trying to make sure I was coming back.

I only taught at Roosevelt one year. I got pregnant with our second child and my husband and mother convinced me that the drive was not a great idea in the winter. I never locked my purse up at Roosevelt. I never had anything stolen, I never had my car damaged, I never had anyone threaten to hit me or hurt me or even call me a name.

I started teaching in Xenia, my hometown the next year. The challenges there were very different, but no less vital. At one point our tax levies failed and students were required to pay a fee to play sports. Some students did not have the money to participate. So, I began a fund, by collecting money and merchandise from local merchants. The merchandise we raffled off at basketball games. The fund grew rapidly when people heard about it, and we were able to fund not only fees for participation but for equipment.None of my students were going to be denied the opportunity to participate in extra curricular activities because they could not afford it. I cared.

So, to my teacher friends, and my future teacher future friends. There is only one thing you need to do to be a good teacher…….care.  And follow through on what is required to support your care. And do not let anyone get in the way of your care. Rules that hurt children not only should be ignored, they must be ignored. I rarely followed rules when I was teaching. I also never had to look at a student and think ” I did not do my best for you.”  I am not sure how much of the academics they retained that I tried to teach them,but, I never bored them and I respected them. My classes were frequently louder than other people’s and involved a lot more raised voices either in argument or in laughter, but I know my students always knew one thing… I cared.

 
5 Comments

Posted by on November 28, 2010 in Education

 

Thanksgiving in Xenia and Wilberforce: Now and then!

My family did not have relatives in Xenia, my mother, father, brother, sister and I were all we had. My other relatives lived in North Carolina and Virginia. I do not think it ever even occurred to us to invite them to our house for Thanksgiving or to go to their houses for Thanksgiving. I do not know if we were invited, but I know we never went. Instead we had our own family traditions that revolved around just us.

As I recall church was a big part of Thanksgiving, even though it was Sunday and Turkey Day was not until Thursday. We always had some drive, or campaign to feed the hungry. Because it was Zion Baptist we did not actually invite the poor and hungry to the church, I mean ewww. No, we did it the  remote philanthropic way and gathered up food brought by Sunday Schoolers and others, bought some turkeys and stuck it all in baskets put together by the various ladies’ clubs, the Missionary Society, the Ever-ready Club or one of the other good works groups and had it delivered by the deacons and other church male leaders. I never wondered, let alone questioned, why the work having been done by the women—running the canned food drive, packing the baskets, etc., the baskets were always delivered by the men.

Maybe they were worried about the women’s safety going to poor folks’ houses, or maybe they thought being around poor people would disturb their dainty sensibilities.

For whatever reason Thanksgiving when I was a child included riding shotgun with my father while he delivered charity baskets to poor people.  The poor people we generally visited to deliver baskets to, my father standing on the porch with the basket in his arms, me standing beside him smiling and wondering what exactly I was supposed to do, fell into three categories; widows—with or without children, the elderly, and the families of men who were deemed feckless and useless by the community.

I do not know if my father had me go with him for company or to use it as an object lesson about what it meant if you were poor. Perhaps he wanted me to develop a sense of responsibility for helping those who had less than we did. My oldest son, Michael, has always dragged his children to every kind of charity walk, march, collection, etc., and his stated objective is to make them understand the responsibility of those who have more than they need to those who have less. Maybe that is what my father was trying to do as well. Or maybe he did not want to go on a basically depressing trip on his own. While it was uplifting to help those less fortunate  it was often also disturbing to see just how unfortunate they were.

Having accomplished our charitable duties it was now time for us to enjoy our own holiday feast. I can remember my mother’s harried behavior as she roasted the turkey, whipped the potatoes, baked the yams and pushed the inevitable macaroni and cheese into the oven.  By the time I was 12 I was in charge of two duties, polishing the furniture (unfortunately my mother’s taste ran to mahogany wood. If you have ever had to polish mahogany tables with Old English furniture polish you feel my pain), and set the table.

The setting of the table was a very important duty and I can remember being very honored when my mother passed the torch to me.  I considered it a coup that  was awarded such a fabulous responsibility. My older sister, Barbara, was born without the domesticity gene. She was much more interested in whether her bra matched her panties than in whether or not the fork went on the left of the plate or the right.

I, on the other hand, channeled Martha Stewart before I ever heard of her.

For Thanksgiving dinner we pulled out all the stops, especially after I became the doyenne of the dinner table. My mother’s good china, the goblets from Paris that had belonged to my grandmother ( I have no idea how she got goblets from Paris, but that was the legend) , the cranberry dish, the turkey platter—with a turkey painted on it , the round platter for the relish tray , the blue and gold coffee cups that were so thin it seemed you could snap them with your fingers and were lined with some kind of glass that changed colors,  and my favorite, the frog that was used to put in the bottom of the vase to hold the flower stems upright properly. I wonder how many people under the age of fifty even know what a florist frog is?

One thing my fashion plate sister could do and liked to do was iron. I never liked to iron and to this day believe anything that has to be ironed should be left in the store.

But Barbara was a wizard with an iron and ironing board and it was her duty to launder and starch and get the damask tablecloth and napkins that were only used at Easter and Thanksgiving ready for their Turkey Day appearance.  This had to be accomplished when the heavy fabric was wet, so copious amounts of steam rose from the ironing board as she went over each section repeatedly, taking it from damp and limp to dry and glorious.  To this day the smell of steam on fabric reminds me of holiday dinners.

We often had company for dinner,  my mother, or particularly my father, was fond of inviting “strays” to Thanksgiving dinner. Students from Wilberforce University who could not go home for the holiday—we had one memorable Thanksgiving when an African student in full African costume visited us and I was struck with awe by his exotic garb and accent, miscellaneous people from church, or from time to time a couple that did not have any children, etc.

If we were having company for dinner it meant we had to have two sets of goblets apiece. One for water and one for wine, although mine was going to have Kool-aid, in it of course.  As the table décor diva I was not happy to have to compromise my grandmother’s glorious goblets with more mundane stemware that lacked its pedigree, but I begrudgingly added the inferior glasses to the table when required to do so. I do not remember my parents having wine for Thanksgiving dinner unless we had company. Actually, about the only time anyone ever opened the liquor cabinet for any reason was when we had company.  This was also the only time we had ginger ale in the house, so they could use it for mixers I presume. Ginger ale still reminds me of company.

Having company also meant extra cleaning. Not only was I to polish all the furniture I had to do the banister on the stairs as well. My father would be expected to bring home the buffer from work, a huge industrial, loud thing that he would run over the hardwood floors after my brother and sister had painstakingly crawled around on their hands and knees spreading Johnson’s paste wax  on rags on every board.  After my father, and later when he was big enough,  my brother, ran the gigantic buffer over the floors ( a process sometimes interrupted by the machine causing a fuse to blow and have to be replaced)  they shone like glass, and in some cases were almost as slippery.

So, with the house clean, the floors shining, the damask draped table set with the good china and silver ( do families still have silver they keep tucked in lined cases until holidays?) and flowers and the smells of turkey coming from the kitchen we were ready to give thanks. I do not know what the rest of them gave thanks for, but I generally gave thanks that we did not have to do all this for another year.

Oddly enough, as soon as I had my own family I began, and continue to, replicate it as closely as I can.  I want my grandchildren to at least have had some meals where there are place cards, flowers, tablecloths ( not damask—no ironing remember) and good china.  I sincerely hope to go join the choir invisible without ever having had  to endure a Thanksgiving dinner  served on a paper plate (shudder).  I know that my thoughts on holiday dinners are no doubt the minority viewpoint these days. We traditionalists are an endangered species, after all in many, many ways!

I hope your Thanksgiving is filled with good food, great traditions and happy memories. Happy Thanksgiving to all!

 

 

 

 

Thanksgiving in Wilberforce/Xenia: Now and then

 

My family did not have relatives in Xenia, my mother, father, brother, sister and I were all we had. My other relatives lived in North Carolina and Virginia. I do not think it ever even occurred to us to invite them to our house for Thanksgiving or to go to their houses for Thanksgiving. I do not know if we were invited, but I know we never went. Instead we had our own family traditions that revolved around just us.

 

As I recall church was a big part of Thanksgiving, even though it was Sunday and Turkey Day was not until Thursday. We always had some drive, or campaign to feed the hungry. Because it was Zion Baptist we did not actually invite the poor and hungry to the church, I mean ewww. No, we did it the  remote philanthropic way and gathered up food brought by Sunday Schoolers and others, bought some turkeys and stuck it all in baskets put together by the various ladies’ clubs, the Missionary Society, the Ever-ready Club or one of the other good works groups and had it delivered by the deacons and other church male leaders. I never wondered, let alone questioned, why the work having been done by the women—running the canned food drive, packing the baskets, etc., the baskets were always delivered by the men.

Maybe they were worried about the women’s safety going to poor folks’ houses, or maybe they thought being around poor people would disturb their dainty sensibilities.

 

For whatever reason Thanksgiving when I was a child included riding shotgun with my father while he delivered charity baskets to poor people.  The poor people we generally visited to deliver baskets to, my father standing on the porch with the basket in his arms, me standing beside him smiling and wondering what exactly I was supposed to do, fell into three categories; widows—with or without children, the elderly, and the families of men who were deemed feckless and useless by the community.

 

I do not know if my father had me go with him for company or to use it as an object lesson about what it meant if you were poor. Perhaps he wanted me to develop a sense of responsibility for helping those who had less than we did. My oldest son, Michael, has always dragged his children to every kind of charity walk, march, collection, etc., and his stated objective is to make them understand the responsibility of those who have more than they need to those who have less. Maybe that is what my father was trying to do as well. Or maybe he did not want to go on a basically depressing trip on his own.

 

Having accomplished our charitable duties it was now time for us to enjoy our own holiday feast. I can remember my mother’s harried behavior as she roasted the turkey, whipped the potatoes, baked the yams and pushed the inevitable macaroni and cheese into the oven.  By the time I was 12 I was in charge of two duties, polishing the furniture (unfortunately my mother’s taste ran to mahogany wood. If you have ever had to polish mahogany tables with Old English furniture polish you feel my pain), and set the table.

The setting of the table was a very important duty and I can remember being very honored when my mother passed the torch to me.  I considered it a coup that  was awarded such a fabulous responsibility. My older sister, Barbara, was born without the domesticity gene. She was much more interested in whether her bra matched her panties than in whether or not the fork went on the left of the plate or the right.

I, on the other hand, channeled Martha Stewart before I ever heard of her.

 

For Thanksgiving dinner we pulled out all the stops, especially after I became the doyenne of the dinner table. My mother’s good china, the goblets from Paris that had belonged to my grandmother ( I have no idea how she got goblets from Paris, but that was the legend) , the cranberry dish, the turkey platter—with a turkey painted on it , the round platter for the relish tray , the blue and gold coffee cups that were so thin it seemed you could snap them with your fingers and were lined with some kind of glass that changed colors,  and my favorite, the frog that was used to put in the bottom of the vase to hold the flower stems upright properly. I wonder how many people under the age of fifty even know what a florist frog is?

 

One thing my fashion plate sister could do and liked to do was iron. I never liked to iron and to this day believe anything that has to be ironed should be left in the store.

But Barbara was a wizard with an iron and ironing board and it was her duty to launder and starch and get the damask tablecloth and napkins that were only used at Easter and Thanksgiving ready for their Turkey Day appearance.  This had to be accomplished when the heavy fabric was wet, so copious amounts of steam rose from the ironing board as she went over each section repeatedly, taking it from damp and limp to dry and glorious.  To this day the smell of steam on fabric reminds me of holiday dinners.

 

We often had company for dinner,  my mother, or particularly my father, was fond of inviting “strays” to Thanksgiving dinner. Students from Wilberforce University who could not go home for the holiday—we had one memorable Thanksgiving when an African student in full African costume visited us and I was struck with awe by his exotic garb and accent, miscellaneous people from church, or from time to time a couple that did not have any children, etc.

 

 

If we were having company for dinner it meant we had to have two sets of goblets apiece. One for water and one for wine, although mine was going to have Kool-aid, in it of course.  As the table décor diva I was not happy to have to compromise my grandmother’s glorious goblets with more mundane stemware that lacked its pedigree, but I begrudgingly added the inferior glasses to the table when required to do so. I do not remember my parents having wine for Thanksgiving dinner unless we had company. Actually, about the only time anyone ever opened the liquor cabinet for any reason was when we had company.  This was also the only time we had ginger ale in the house, so they could use it for mixers I presume. Ginger ale still reminds me of company.

 

Having company also meant extra cleaning. Not only was I to polish all the furniture I had to do the banister on the stairs as well. My father would be expected to bring home the buffer from work, a huge industrial, loud thing that he would run over the hardwood floors after my brother and sister had painstakingly crawled around on their hands and knees spreading Johnson’s paste wax  on rags on every board.  After my father, and later when he was big enough,  my brother, ran the gigantic buffer over the floors ( a process sometimes interrupted by the machine causing a fuse to blow and have to be replaced)  they shone like glass, and in some cases were almost as slippery.

 

So, with the house clean, the floors shining, the damask draped table set with the good china and silver ( do families still have silver they keep tucked in lined cases until holidays?) and flowers and the smells of turkey coming from the kitchen we were ready to give thanks. I do not know what the rest of them gave thanks for, but I generally gave thanks that we did not have to do all this for another year.

 

Oddly enough, as soon as I had my own family I began, and continue to, replicate it as closely as I can.  I want my grandchildren to at least have had some meals where there are place cards, flowers, tablecloths ( not damask—no ironing remember) and good china.  I sincerely hope to go join the choir invisible without ever having had  to endure a Thanksgiving dinner  served on a paper plate (shudder).  I know that my thoughts on holiday dinners are no doubt the minority viewpoint these days. We traditionalists are an endangered species, after all in many, many ways!

 

I hope your Thanksgiving is filled with good food, great traditions and happy memories. Happy Thanksgiving to all!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
4 Comments

Posted by on November 22, 2010 in Xenia

 

Fantasy, Fiction and Race: Alice in Wonderland to Harry Potter

As a child I was a voracious reader. My mother swears to this day the reason I am near-sighted is because I read so much in questionable light as a child. Books were, and still are, my perfect escape mechanism. If things were not wonderful in my real life they could be fabulous while I was falling down a rabbit hole talking to a caterpillar who seemed to have a drug problem ( no surprises considering Carroll’s issues) or flying off to Never-Neverland with Peter Pan and company.

More recently I can go live with Sookie Stackhouse in rural Louisiana and have a vampire or a were-tiger as a boyfriend, or I can open a book and ride dragons or join quests with a Golden Compass.

I had friends as a child, but somehow they never measured up to the friends I found in books. None of my friends would get on a raft with an escaped slave and pole down the Mississippi, none of my friends had pixies they could shake for dust so they could fly, none of my friends lived in a cottage in the woods with dwarfs or fell asleep and had to be kissed awake by a prince who had to fight a dragon to get to her.

Fortunately, for a long time it never occurred to me that the fairies, ghosts, princes, princesses and other fabulous creatures I was reading about and relating to were never black. In Disney of my era the only black person was Uncle Remus and he was a cheerful, rural, kind of ragged looking old man who seemed to have a great relationship with blue birds, not exactly someone I could relate to, not that I have anything against blue birds, of course.

Jack of Jack and the Beanstalk, Hansel and Gretel, Goldilocks, Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White ( no comment), Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Belle, Thumbellina, all white, heck the bad guys and gals were even white, the Evil Queen, the Witch, the Evil Stepmother and Evil Stepsisters, the only one who had any other color was the Big Bad Wolf, and he was gray!

Fantasy was always my favorite, and the little fairies in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty were my favorites, they would change each other’s dress colors to their favorites and I thought they were marvelous. But, they did not change their skin color. As a matter of fact my oldest granddaughter Marrisa was grown before Disney came up with an African American princess, and they did still could not bring themselves to create a black prince.

Alice of Alice in Wonderland was blond, true, but the creatures she met and cavorted with were certainly diverse. The rabbit was white too, that is true, but the Mad Hatter was of questionable race as well as questionable sanity and the caterpillar and the Cheshire Cat did not seem to bear the mark of any particular ethnicity. I was perfectly happy to let the Red Queen actually be white, she had anger management issues and I did not want to claim her.

In Peter Pan Princess Tigerlily was at least a girl of color, implying that perhaps everyone in the land of magic did not actually have to be white to be all right.

Now we fast forward to modern fairy tales like Harry Potter. From the beginning of the films and even in the books there was very little notice made of race. It was obvious in all of the films that Hogwarts was very well integrated, although the England portrayed as the Muggle world is pretty monochromatic. The small witch who comes to Harry and Dudley’s aid in “The Order of the Phoenix” was, I think, black, but light enough to cast doubt.

There are black wizards and witches throughout, of course, old, young and professors, although no major character is gifted with much melanin.

Which brings me to my point, or rather my question. Should it matter? Do children need people who look like them and their families to relate to in order to feel valued and to believe they too can achieve great feats, whether of scholarship, or bravery, or courage or magic?

When I was about 13 I read Jane Eyre by Emily Bronte. It is still one of my favorite books and one I re-read at least annually. It is in my view the greatest romance ever written and I fell in love with Mr. Rochester at 13.  I could not read the French phrases then, but shortly thereafter having taken French I, I read the book again and reveled in knowing what was being said by everyone. I did not consider, even at a time when I was being integrated into Central Jr. Hi, that Jane was a white woman and Mr. Rochester no doubt was a white man, and therefore they were alien to me, unlike me and that their experiences were nothing I could ever hope to experience.

After all, the book was set a full century before my time and I still found commonality with Jane’s desire to be desired, pursued, wanted. I grieved when her friend Helen died, I had a childhood friend, Dennis, who died of a brain tumor and I remember feeling the pain that I would never see him again. I rejoiced when Mr. Rochester finally confessed his love for Jane, it made me envision a similar scene with a faceless dream man in my future. If Jane, poor and plain–I did not consider myself either–could have such a glorious result, inherited wealth from a relative she never knew and the undying devotion and adoration of her Mr. Rochester, surely I could too. Not once, did I catch myself up short and think,”No, wait, I am black, that kind of stuff only happens to white women.”

I do not have an answer to my question, but it tickles my brain every time someone starts talking about the need for role models and mentors, especially when they are talking about minority youth needing them. The presumption is that those role models and mentors need to be black or Latino, or American Indian, or come from low-income families so the youth can relate to them.

My mentors and role models were sometimes in the flesh, but more often they were found in the pages of books. My guiding principal for ethics is from Jane Eyre. When Mr. Rochester is trying to convince Jane to live with him as his wife, even though he had a living, mad, wife, he told her ” No one will know.” In other words we can live as husband and wife and nobody will know we are not married, society will not judge us because they will not know. Her response embedded itself in my adolescent brain and never left. She said ” I will know.” What better lesson could a mentor or role model have taught me than that the main person you have to be sure not to let down is yourself?

 
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Posted by on November 19, 2010 in Childhood, Race

 

Tales of Xenia: The Xenia Tornado–Part II

This tornado caused three deaths and 210 injuries in Xenia.

Source: Ohio Historical Society

If you have never experienced a natural disaster it is difficult to explain what it is like. Everything you have always taken for granted, from running water to heat to groceries to transportation is all suddenly either totally gone or severely compromised. The day of the tornado, April 3, 1974 had been unusually warm, but after the tornado the weather took an Ohio in April dip, there were even some snow flurries in the days shortly after the tornado if my memory serves me correctly.

Dayton Power and Light had cut off gas lines to most neighborhoods hit by the tornado to avoid further explosions and fires like the ones that had ripped through downtown and other areas of town. That effectively meant that there was no way to use your furnace to heat your house, presuming, of course, that you still had a house or one capable of holding heat.

Because the downtown had been particularly hard hit, a lot of the agencies and services generally associated with municipalities had been dislocated. In the immediate aftermath of the tornado it was difficult to even know where to go to try to get help, if you could go anywhere. Many citizens found their cars buried in debris, either their own garages or the remnants of the houses of their neighbors. Even if your car was available and unobstructed the streets were full of debris. Fallen trees, downed power lines, nails, siding, boards, twisted pieces of metal, entire sections of buildings were indiscriminately tossed and remained where they landed for days.

The primary urgencies for most people were protection of whatever they still had, although I do not remember hearing of any widespread looting when your house has a wall missing it is impossible not to feel vulnerable, and protection of your family and loved ones from the elements. This was, of course, followed quickly by the need for food and clean water. Many parts of the city did not have water service, mains having been broken or in some cases destroyed all together.

Agencies like the Red Cross and FEMA swarmed into Xenia fairly quickly, but communication was spotty and a lot of people simply did not know where to go to get help. Without electricity, which was the case for most people in town, unless you had a transistor radio you were pretty much cut off from any source of information. In these days before cell phones the downed phone lines meant even talking to friends or relatives close by was impossible.

My husband and I quickly began to realize how lucky we had been. Our house had no heat and no electricity but we still had running water and except for the relatively small hole in the roof the structure was sound and could certainly be locked up and secured. Some of our neighbors had lost their houses and everything they owned. Because my mother had heat and hot water still we went to stay with her for a few days.

After our visit to Alexandria Virginia for a week ( our already planned Spring Break trip) af we returned to a town which was rather like a war zone. I still flinch when I hear helicopters because we heard so many of them during the days following the tornado. National Guard troops still guarded the city limits, requiring identification of residency in order for you to pass and all kinds of groups from the Mennonites to the Salvation Army swarmed around town trying to help restore order, keep people safe and rebuild damaged structures.

I did hear from the school system that strategies were being explored as time approached to return to work. We were, however,  confronted with the fact that most school buildings were uninhabitable. Xenia High School was destroyed as was Central Junior Hi. Warner Jr. Hi was damaged, but still standing, remarkable since it was in the Arrowhead subdivision which had been among the hardest hit areas of town. In general the elementary schools had fared better than the secondary buildings. It was finally decided that Warner being the only secondary building that was viable ( I am not sure whether it was race based or simply not thought of, but East was still standing and usable and could have been used for classes ) the junior hi students would attend in the afternoon from 1-6 and the high school students would attend in the morning from 7-12.  This led to some interesting times, which I will discuss in a future post, including some of our junior hi kids hosting pre-school parties while their parents were at work!

 

A scene of extensive destruction in Xenia.

Source: Ohio Historical Society

The results of the tornado were far more varied than just having trouble getting kids to school, getting food, shelter, water and transportation to people. Downtown was the hub of the town, Xenia being the county seat the courthouse dominated the area. Beautiful mature trees were everywhere and old grand buildings in many styles from art deco to federal clustered around the courthouse block.. After the tornado almost all of the trees were rendered match sticks with jagged, broken branches. Some of the old buildings were damaged beyond repair, not to mention those lost to explosions or fires.

One of the problems that no one had anticipated–we had probably never actually anticipated a disaster of this magnitude period, was the rat problem. Evidently quite a few of the buildings downtown had enjoyed some four legged denizens of the rodentia family. I am not sure this was known pre-tornado, but it certainly was known afterwards.

We had a shed in our backyard and one day when I was sweeping the back porch I saw a rat the size of a small cat come out from under our shed. He did not appear to be in good health and just stood there looking across the yard, which fortunately was rather large, at me. He was not belligerent or threatening, he just looked disoriented and confused. I found out later our neighbor had seen him and other refugees in the woods and had put down rat poison. This fellow was probably on his last legs. I was conflicted as to whether or not to tell my husband. He is deathly afraid of rats. I do not have any problem with any creature that is a mammal and actually think rats are kind of cute. If, on the other hand, the creature has more than four legs I want it dead, with only a very few exceptions.

Our new boarder did not last long. I finally told my husband about him and he immediately suggested shooting it. I was not in favor of that. Fortunately, he succumbed rather dramatically to the poison and we were able to dispose of his carcass without too much drama.

The woods around our house had proven to be a repository for lots of things besides refugee rodents. For months after the tornado it appeared that some gods had toilet papered the trees. Only instead of toilet tissue these were pieces of aluminum siding blown from houses blocks or miles away and hitting an obstruction for the first time they had been stopped and wrapped around the tree branches. Besides siding we found all kinds of clothes hanging in the trees, all with the sleeves ripped off. Papers, checks and pictures of all kinds–baby pictures, wedding pictures, even one picture of a person in a coffin,  littered the woods. We collected them and returned as many as we could to the owners if we could identify them.

Because of the force of the wind some things had been driven into the trunks of the trees. Spoon and knives were two of the most common, but I also found half a woman’s powder compact and half a pair of eyeglasses as well.

In the days following the main question on everyone’s mind was what would happen to our little town. Someone put up a sign in the Arrowhead division that expressed what we all hoped, XENIA LIVES! It has indeed lived, but it has never been the same.

 
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Posted by on November 17, 2010 in Uncategorized

 

Tales of Xenia: Sex and the Single Xenian

Teenagers today would find our lack of knowledge and understanding of sex and sexual matters ludicrous. When I say that many of us literally were not sure how one got pregnant I am not exaggerating. Remember, unless you had a little brother or male cousin you babysat we did not have opportunities to see a penis. There was no internet, no books one could find in any legal source that showed more than a diagram side view cut away. Trust me, we tried to find pictures. Several of us too Anatomy and Physiology, a difficult course, simply because we wanted to finally get information on male sex organs and reproduction. We were sadly disappointed when, having been issued our texts, we quickly dashed to the girls’ bathroom to turn to the appropriate pages. The illustrations turned out not to look anything like the actual appendage.

We knew the basics, if nothing else from slow dancing. Teenage boys being in the throes of a testosterone driven rut for virtually their entire high school years it did not take much to set their rockets soaring so to speak. But, we still had enormous gaps in our information. I will never forget when, as juniors in high school one of my classmates whose mother was still having babies announced in gym class that her mother’s water had broken. Another of my female classmates remarked sympathetically that it was awful that she was having plumbing problems at such a stressful time!

Because a lot of us did not know where to draw the line and because having a baby out of wedlock, particularly while you were still in high school, was about the worse thing a young woman could do ( the male who got her pregnant, according to conventional wisdom at the time was just doing what boys do, she is the one who should have said “no”) many of us were not chaste because we were virtuous, but because we were terrified of doing something that would result in pregnancy and bring disgrace to our selves and our families.

Girls simply did not go around pregnant and if they were pregnant they either did not stay pregnant or they left town to have the baby and placed it up for adoption. You either knew one of the doctors in town well enough that he or she was willing to do a ” D and C”, remember when I was in high school abortion was illegal, or you went to visit Aunt Maude on the farm in Iowa and came back nine months later with a flat tummy.

One notable exception was my classmate and friend who I will call Kate ( not her name). She was a white girl from a working class family. Kate was in love with a doctor’s son, one of what passed for elite in Xenia. They dated seriously and attended all the required social functions together, football and basketball games, Y dances and the Snow Ball. In the winter of our junior year Kate announced to us, a small group of her friends, that she was pregnant. She was excited about the pregnancy and was sure that her beau, who I will call Rob, would do the right thing and marry her.

Across the street from the high school catty-corner was a group of apartments known as Shawnee Village. In a town where apartments were a rarity these were considered some of the coolest domiciles in Xenia. The plan, as reported by Kate, was to get married, live in Shawnee Village and finish high school. Rob, of course, was expected to go to college, so they would cross that bridge when they got to it.

We were all excited. We finally knew a girl personally, one of the “good girls”  who must have had sex! She could tell us exactly what she did, we would avoid doing that and we would not have to worry. Unfortunately, Kate’s description of the act was not very specific or very instructive, she talked a lot about romance, a fireplace, a dark room and pain. Disappointing.

At XHS the rule was that if you got pregnant you had to leave at the end of the grading period in which the school found out you were in a family way, had a bun in the oven, a pea in the pod, etc. Our grading periods were 6 weeks long. Kate began to show long before the end of our junior year. In those days we did not have home instruction for pregnant girls. The school administration, like most of society felt that if you sinned and got pregnant you had to take your medicine and flunk the school year. Of course, the thought that you and the young man had done the same thing, or that you would either have to go through an illegal and potentially dangerous operation to terminate the pregnancy or carry on with the pregnancy and be the object of scorn and ridicule for nine months and then go through hours of agonizing labor, never occurred to them, or did simply not seem to be punishment enough.

In our junior year, 1964-65 madras plaid shift dresses were the rage. We all had them. One of the coolest things about the dresses was that each time they were washed the dye ran a bit and changed the colors of the plaid. In a way you were wearing a different dress each time. Kate, by the spring of the year, was showing, so she wore madras dresses almost everyday. Made without waistlines they effectively covered the incriminating bump that was her growing child. The problem, though, was that “bleeding madras” did not bleed in the seams. As a result when Kate had to keep letting her dresses out for more room, the seams that were exposed were not the same color as the rest of the dress.

I am pretty sure now, as I was then, that the school knew she was pregnant almost as soon as the rest of us did, about her fourth month. Because the father of the child, who at the time was still standing by her, was from a prominent family, however, nothing was done until the final six weeks when she was called to the counselor’s office and told she would have to leave school at the end of the six weeks. Since that was the end of the school year the admonition was moot.

Kate had baby Roby in the summer between our junior and senior years, her mother kept the baby and she graduated with us on time. Big Rob had been sent to a military school in Texas to get him away from the “bad influence.” His parents offered Kate $1,000 for baby Roby, a fortune in those days, but she would not take it. She and Big Rob continued to correspond and he continued to make promises that when he reached his majority he would come back and claim her and his child. She used to share his letters with us. By the end of our senior year, however, the letters got less and less frequent and eventually stopped coming all together.

She was still certain, however, that he would ride back into town on a white horse, sweep her off her feet and ride off into the sunset with her and baby Roby. She had lots of excuses for his failure to appear, he was finishing high school, he was finishing college first so he could support the family, etc.

Five years after our high school graduation there was a half-page announcement, with pictures of Rob’s marriage to a society maiden from Texas. Years later I taught Roby, who was a dead ringer for his father, in high school. His face made me want to dislike him for what his father had done to my friend, who never married, or even dated again to my knowledge. Roby, however, was a delightful young man, smart, sweet and an all around good person. He was one of my favorite students.

Morals and mores were so different in those days.

 
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Posted by on November 16, 2010 in Education, Xenia

 

Tales of Xenia: Zion Baptist Church–Part I

My childhood and adolescence were both highly impacted by events and people from our church. Zion Baptist Church sits on East Main Street and is still a rather imposing building. As a child I thought it was truly  the most fabulous church in the world.With its domed sanctuary decorated with stars, its pipe organ and its balcony, all framed with dark wood paneling and pews Zion was a lovely place to gather.

My father was the superintendent of Sunday School and a deacon, so I spent a lot of time in the church when there was nobody there but us. I actually liked it best when we were there doing something for the good of the congregation, but without having to deal with the congregation. Zion was the bougiest black Baptist Church in Xenia. This was caused primarily, but not solely, by the fact that most of the Baptists from the nearby college community of Wilberforce, home of two historically black universities, Central State and Wilberforce, were members of Zion. The Chapmans, the Sellars, the Dinsmores and lots of other Wilberforce folks were good Zion congregants.

Despite Jesus’ well chronicled disdain for the rich the folks at Zion did not mind letting you know if they had a few coins to rub together. For example, well into the 70’s Zion still listed contributions in the bulletin weekly according to amount. So, if you gave the most your name was first, along with the amount you gave. The list went on right down to the names of the children who gave a dime in Sunday School. Needless to say the desire to be first in the program was a common one and was hotly contested. About three families jockeyed for position at the top of the list and it was unusual for any of them to be deposed, unless they went on vacation, or found themselves too sick to attend church.

At Zion we were too sophisticated and classy to sing gospel music. Our music director, Mrs. Zelda Booth, a classically trained musician, selected anthems and traditional hymns for the choir and the congregation. The closest we ever got to “down home” music was “Amazing Grace.” No tambourines, drums, horns, or shouting. Everything was to be decorous and refined. Only one member of the congregation did not follow the pattern. From time to time one of the ladies of the church, Mrs. T, would get overwhelmed with the spirit and shout out something like ” Thank you Lord!” or “Praise Jesus.” Other members of the congregation would roll their eyes and perhaps discreetly shake their heads, but she was a widow, with three children to raise on her own and the conventional wisdom was that she was sorely tried and had to be forgiven for losing control.

Generally speaking services at Zion were orderly, quiet and seemly. Even when we had baptisms, when the choir would have to come out of the choir box, usually singing “Wade in the Water”–we could not find a substitute for that Baptist favorite, to allow access to the baptismal pool, no overt emotion or outward display of passion was encouraged.

As part of the orderly ritual my father and I would set up communion on the first Sunday of each month. This meant a visit to Mrs. Porter’s house. She was an old and faithful member of Zion who claimed to be too unwell to attend church. To keep her bid in for heaven she laundered the communion linens each month. This was no small undertaking, the linens being heavy damask and requiring intensive work to make them look right.

Washing the linens was only the first step, they had to be starched and ironed while wet in order to get the necessary gloss and creases. The voluminous table cloths required to drape the communion table and cover the communion silver were over seven feet long. Mrs. Porter was about 4’11” , I have no idea how she managed, but she did.

She did not have a lot of company, nor did she go out much, so she looked forward to our monthly visits to pick up the linens. Unfortunately, she looked forward to them much more than my father and I did. He was delighted when I got old enough for him to wait in the car while I went in to receive the carefully boxed and tissue papered linens from her. Occasionally she would tell us on Saturday evening, after some conversation, that she did not have the linens ready and we would have to come back in the morning to get them. This threw off our schedule, and added the extra visit to our already busy Sunday.

After we retrieved the linens we either dropped them off at the church, if it was Saturday, or took them in to the sanctuary if it was Sunday morning.  Then we had to get the silver service out for communion. Silver trays for the “body of Christ”, some unleavened wafers that had to be broken into bite sized bits, and round multi-tiered trays of small glasses for the “blood of Christ”, aka grape juice purchased the day before from Brewer’s Market in downtown Xenia. There were two grocery stores in the East End, Mrs. Smith’s and Anderson Grocery, but neither of them carried bottles of grape juice.

At the beginning of my tenure as assistant to the communion guru I had to use a measuring cup to put the grape juice into the tiny glasses. This was fraught with peril. If you left the small glasses in their racks you inevitably spilled grape juice on the surrounding frame. If you took each glass out and filled it then you risked spilling it when you put it back in the rack.

Later my father found a siphon and bought it so that we could just squirt the juice into the glasses in situ, much easier! Then we had to carry the heavy trays of grape juice and lighter trays of wafers up the steep steps to the sanctuary, pull out the communion table at the front of the pulpit, drape it with Mrs. Porter’s fine linens, arrange the communion and drape another cloth over it. Now we could go home, get dressed and come back for Sunday School and church. I loved it. If the doors to Zion were open I was there, and by my early teens I had a key to the church since I was involved in so many details from helping to decorate for Christmas and Easter to teaching Sunday School and Bible School myself.

I overdosed on religion early and now mainly attend St. Mattress of the Springs on Sunday mornings.

One of my favorite memories of Zion has nothing to do with religion. There was a man at our church Harry S, who was known to be a womanizer. His long suffering wife, Mrs. S., kept her head up and pretended not to know what a cassanova her husband was,but it was an open secret. It was known that he had several girlfriends–these were middle aged people so perhaps women friends is more accurate, but his main squeeze was a rather well off widow, Mrs. B. Mrs. B’s husband had died quite young, leaving her well provided for and she was a sharp dresser.  Her prized possession however,was  her mink stole.

As soon as there was the slightest hint of coolness in the air Mrs. B. could be counted on to show up in church with her mink stole. The ladies of Zion in that era did not have any compunction about wearing dead animal skins, my own mother had a mink stole, a mink hat and one of those dreadful stoles that was dead foxes with glass eyes biting each other’s tails to stay connected. That was worn over suits only. The stoles could come out anytime it was not sufficiently cold for a coat, but cool enough to need a wrap. Mrs. S., however did not have a mink or any other fur.

One Saturday night Mr. S. took Mrs. B. out as usual. Perhaps the evening was warm and she took her wrap off, or perhaps she and Mr. S. got cozy in the car and she had to shed her stole for love’s sake. For whatever reason, Mrs. B got out of the car and left the stole in the car. The next morning, bright and early, Mrs. S. walked into Zion Baptist wrapped in a nice mink stole. Amid many knowing smiles and nods she walked to her seat, head held high, stole draped artfully and took her usual seat. Mrs. B. did not make it to services that week.

 

 
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Posted by on November 15, 2010 in Xenia