Frequent news reports about academic and discipline problems in so many of our public schools make me think about my own school experiences under Jim Crow in Florida, when white and black students were legally separated.
Our black teachers were gods, and our campuses were virtual shrines, where we went to get on the path to "making something out of ourselves." Ours were quintessential, black-only neighborhood schools. Our teachers were black, all graduating from historically black colleges and universities.
The overwhelming majority of us thrived in school. Failure was the exception. It shamed the child. It shamed the family. I began ninth grade with 18 classmates. Four years later, all 19 of us graduated. Seventeen finished college. One who did not attend college established a small construction company, and the other joined the Army and became a career soldier.
Our parents earned their incomes as maids, fruit pickers, grove caretakers, fern cutters, pulpwood harvesters and carpenter's helpers. None earned more than minimum wage, none had attended college and few had graduated from high school.
How and why did so many of us succeed when Jim Crow actively repressed and rejected us? Three factors made the difference: Our parents placed nonnegotiable demands on us. Our parents had close relationships with our teachers and our principal. And our teachers were smart and tough.
Our parents trusted our teachers implicitly and forged a special partnership with them. Our principal was the "professor," an icon in black culture in that era. Our school's pedagogy — the principles and methods and art of instruction — was the guiding force.
I discovered this fact many years later after I had become a college teacher and journalist and after many talks with our principal and several of our teachers.
The school's pedagogy grew out of the principal's mission: "to give Negro girls and boys the best formal education possible." He hired teachers who vowed to carry out that mission.
De facto "separate but equal" school districts meant that we blacks were on our own. For that reason, our principal's goal was to teach us to be "self-reliant" while we were young children, thus empowering us for the rest of our lives.
We were shown the necessity of educating ourselves without expecting substantive help from whites. Almost everything we received from our white overlords in the main office — furniture, lab equipment and books — were hand-me-downs. We never had new textbooks. We played basketball on an outdoor clay court. On winter nights, our fans built courtside fires in oil drums to keep warm. The white school had a modern gym.
No matter. Our teachers believed we should know more than our white counterparts across town. As such, from first grade onward, they taught us valuable knowledge and the correct way to perform certain duties and functions.
During the elementary grades, for example, all of us memorized the multiplication tables. That one achievement made everything else related to math clear and, in some instances, surprisingly easy. We memorized Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, excerpts of the Declaration of Independence, excerpts of Cicero's orations, dozens of poems, including Shakespearean sonnets. I particularly enjoyed memorizing and reciting Blake's "Tyger, tyger, burning bright."
We knew the planets and their unique characteristics. In chemistry, we memorized the Periodic Table of Elements with full names. In biology, we memorized the classification of select animals, their kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus and species.
In English, we diagrammed sentences. We learned how to properly enunciate every word we uttered, and, without apology, our teachers would publicly correct us. Our essays were returned with red-ink corrections. In civics, we memorized the names of the U.S. presidents, Florida's governors and the then-48 states and their capitals. We learned the relationships between the branches of government, and we learned how bills become laws.
I am not advocating a return to such things as memorization, sentence diagramming or any other of the old-school methods and activities. I am simply pointing out that these activities taught us mental discipline and were major parts of our school's pedagogy, one that served my generation well. Being able to rattle off the multiplication tables gave us self-confidence, and it made us wholesomely competitive. Imagine how proud we were to know the Periodical Table of Elements with full names.
Many contemporary scholars and educators have disparaged the effectiveness of memorization and other seat-time activities.
Perhaps they are right. I know, however, that those old methods and dedicated teachers helped us become self-reliant at young ages. We fell in love with learning, and we loved going to school. We still are benefiting from the power of order, obedience and respect we learned in our all-black schools.