In September 1968 I walked down a narrow, poorly lit hallway toward Room 318 at Garfield High. Clearly, the school had been long neglected. The assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, had radicalized the students, and if that hadn’t done it, Stokely Carmichael’s speech April 19th in the Garfield Auditorium did. He urged them to read African American writers like Frederick Douglas, W. E. B. DuBois, Richard Wright, and Malcolm X. He told them to refuse to let white people identify them, and to embrace their full human and civil rights. Two months later, Robert Kennedy was assassinated. It was a bloody spring. For a faithful, liberal Christian, it was a season of revolution.
To familiarize myself with the community of African American teenagers I was about to teach in Seattle’s Central Area, I read like crazy: Soul on Ice, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and Native Son. But none of this was going to appease students who knew they were right to be angry and eager to get on with, or into their lives, whether with the Black Panthers, church, or the Total Experience Gospel Choir. Or, they could escape through pot or alcohol, flouting the expectations of their white, middle class teachers. Trying to interest them in drama, short stories or poetry, seemed fruitless—that is, if the material were even available. It wasn’t.
I also rediscovered a sense of call in my spiritual life. I was part of the ecumenical charismatic movement where praying with Roman Catholics and Episcopalians felt radical, too, especially while I dug deep trying to engage and motivate Black adolescents. Faith has been my ground and my hope. During those turbulent years when Dr. King brought us to consciousness, recognizing what we were neglecting, and what some citizens did with outright hatred, I found great peace with others at prayer. Prayer prepared us to return to the fray.
When I asked to go to Garfield, I was under the impression that the best practices of teaching would be in play there. I was wrong. The familiar order of good schools had vanished. Few students went to class. In assemblies, the frantic principal pleaded with students, half on their feet, some walking out the back doors, others interrupting him rudely from their seats, to go to class. “Just go to class!” he’d say, and then repeat. That wasn’t working.
I never knew from one day to the next how many would be in my class, or even who they were. Students felt free to wander the halls and drop in wherever it appeared interesting. Assignments were rarely turned in. I was somehow invisible. Students saw me, but took no notice of what I asked of them. One successful afternoon I achieved their rapt attention when I read Jack London’s “To Build a Fire.” Other days, when I suspected some energy emerging, a Black Panther member would walk in the door and say, “All you brothers who want to boycott Bluma’s Delicatessen, come with me!” And half the class got up and left.
The neglect of years of de facto segregation—in Seattle—was evident. Many of these students had not learned to read with any confidence or breadth of vocabulary. They had been passed on without having to learn. I was shocked and radicalized simply by trying to help students grapple with their world.
I taught Stride Toward Freedom. I asked for free writing so students could get their feelings on paper. On occasion we had spontaneous and lively discussions about civil rights, marijuana, and whatever else was going on in their neighborhoods, not to mention on Alder Street just below my second-floor windows. Students loudly complained when police cars began sporting a rack of flashing lights on their roofs. “Provocation,“ they exclaimed. One day a young woman asked to leave for the restroom and was gone perhaps 20 minutes. When she returned, her pressed hair had been washed with vinegar and combed into an Afro. Her mother wouldn’t have let her out of the house with it, so she transformed herself at school.
Inspired by the protests and preaching I heard in the news, I became as indignant as the students, intensely committed to preparing these kids for a world far different from my own. A reasonably organized classroom was nearly impossible. But much more important learning was going on. Students were taking hold of themselves, becoming self-aware, and coming out as Black and Proud.
I revolutionized the way I taught English. I became part of the Garfield community, and I deepened my faith, facing challenges in unforeseen places. It was a frightening, inspiring season. It changed my life.