AS I LOOK back on more than 20 years in public education as an administrator and teacher, a number of people and events stand out as being pivotal. Certainly the influence of my parents and many of my teachers had a profound effect in motivating me to become a teacher. However, the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in my first few years of teaching made an indelible impression.
If my memory is accurate, April 4, 1968, was a Thursday. Like most Americans, I learned of the shooting of King through the interruption of an evening television program. What happened that night and the next several days had a very deep effect on me and helped me understand what it is to be a teacher.
I was 25 at the time and teaching at Abraham Lincoln Junior High School in northwest Washington. Lincoln, then in its first year of operation, was predominantly black, a school of 1,700. (I had taught previously for two years at another junior high school.) Immediately my mind raced with questions. Was the "riot" (or rebellion as some chose to call it) that so many had predicted now at hand? Would school even open? Could I, or should I go to school that next day, for Lincoln was less than 100 yards from 14th Street, where sporadic looting and burning were reportedly already underway. To compound problems, I was on crutches, recovering from knee surgery a month earlier following an accident playing basketball, (or as my students would now remark, "trying" to play basketball).
So here I was, on crutches, white, and unable to drive. I did feel a need to go to school, however; maybe, just maybe, some of my students would be in that Friday, and I was concerned over the students' feelings about what had happened to King. I felt it was important for me, as a teacher, to be there with them. And so, against the advice of most of my friends and relatives, I went in and met my classes as scheduled.
Attendance was down considerably on Friday, April 5, 1968. Not all the teachers came in that day. Some of the students were very calm, others were excited and talkative. We didn't even attempt to do any regular classwork; we just talked through what had gone on the night before, trying to discuss the whys and the concerns a lot of them had about what was happening. Keep in mind that we are talking about junior high school adolescents. I tried to get them to look at the causes of the disturbances, at what might happen further along, when the the immediate part of it was gone.
I COULD SEE that some of my students were tired and that it was likely they had been up all night. You must remember that for many people, pre-riot 14th Street was an alternative downtown with banks, shops, convenience stores and other businesses. These establishments were convenient targets for looters and others.
It was an ambiguous situation. As I have said, I was white and the school was right in the riot corridor, but most of the students that I was close to and with whom I talked that day probably were more concerned about my safety than I was. Regardless of my feelings, I felt it was important for the students to talk about what was going on outside. It was one of the ways that I could show them that not all adults saw them in a stereotyped way and one of the ways that, perhaps, they could avoid seeing their teachers as stereotypes.
Looking back, I suspect that few of us knew we were in the midst of history that day and that the repercussions of 1968 still would be with us nearly 20 years later. I came out of the entire experience convinced, as I am now, that I was in the right profession. Only in education is there the day-to-day contact with young people that is so important. True, the material benefits are minimal, but there were many students at Lincoln and at other schools in which I taught who graduated and made something of themselves, despite the overwhelming odds against them. The belief that certain schools will only produce students who will never go further than a certain level is just not true.
The 1968 riots showed all of us, clearly and vividly, the sad state of affairs in urban America. Are we any better off now? In some quarters, it would seem that urban America has already been written off. George McKenna, the outspoken principal of George Washington High in Los Angeles, has achieved nationwide attention from the media for his success at working with low-income students that many thought irretrievably programmed for failure. But as he puts it, acknowledging the irony inherent in the attention paid him: "Why should an urban school that works be newsworthy? Aren't schools supposed to work? Can we write off, or continue to write off, urban schools?"
I feel now, as I felt that April in 1968, that young people need substantial role models, regardless of background, race or religion etc. to ease them through periods of transition. An educator, in addition to teaching a particular subject, teaches values, is open to differences and, it is to be hoped, sets a positive image for young people. The life and death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. show that one person can make a difference. I feel fortunate to continue to have the opportunity to touch so many lives.
Michael A. Durso is principal of Woodrow Wilson Senior High school in the District of Columbia. This essay continues a series of occasional memoirs of teachers in The Education Review.