Today, I return to one of my dearest teachers. I want to share Mrs. Stanfield's greatest gift to me. Mrs. Stanfield's was my honor's English teacher in high school. Mrs. Stanfield was a Black teacher. She came from the south, and she came to save us all, knowing perhaps no one could. But, she was not some "No One", she was by all accounts what Maya Angelou called a Phenomenal Woman. Every student and every teacher knew it. There is no doubt in my mind that she saved more than most. She certainly helped to save this Walking Man, and she was the first person to suggest education as a career to me.
She saw, through the football player, and she saw through the ghetto persona. She saw the kid who hung out with some bad ones, who sometimes walked on the edge of trouble. She saw a boy with no father in his life. She saw a boy worth saving. She would set me straight, and she gave me a Justice Compass called James Weldon Johnson.
When she heard my grandfather went to glory, she understood I needed to talk about him. She called me up to her desk one day in the middle of class, said Jess come up here. “I want you to get your lunch today, and come eat and talk with me”. I want to talk with you about life. We Ghetto boys did not eat with our teachers…I knew I would take some flack from the boys on this invite. I wondered what this was going to be about, but I did exactly as she asked. Flack, or no flack, everyone did what she asked.
At lunch, she said, “I heard your grandfather passed. I want offer you my deepest personal condolences”. I had no idea what condolences meant…but, I would look it up later. I did have a deep sense she was being respectful. She said tell me, about what it was like to be at the March on Washington? I said, I knew it was important, but Mrs. Stanfield I was only eight years-old. I remember the ride, I remember the heat and I remember being tired. What I remembered most was my grandfather putting me on his shoulders as soon as Dr. King started speaking. I knew Dr. King was special in his eyes. I knew on that day, at that exact moment that Dr. King was special. Dr. King became personally special to me on that day.. I remember my grandfather kept talking about Dr. King on the ride home.
She said, “your grandfather must have been special, my thinking is he wanted you to hear and see hope in the actions of a living man...a just man. Your grandfather in view was a just man as well. She said, that day was special to America, and to Dr. King. But, that special day started long before that day.”
She, said “the way I see it things is that special day was born in the words of James Weldon Johnson. Have you heard of James?” … James was hope and beauty walking on earth. Every educated Black soul knows his story. His mother wanted him to study English literature and the European musical tradition. He went to University, studied literature and music, fell in love with the old and new poets. Everything he would learn at the university. He would learn with the hope that the education he was receiving would lift his people. He was an educator, a teacher, and even a principal. You should consider education as a career. I see a little of James in you. You would make a fine teacher. Have you heard of “Lift Every Voice and Sing”?
No, but I am thinking you think I should… That, began her real lesson, the one not on the “Official Curriculum”, but the “Taught Curriculum”, her curriculum. She was carefully plotting what would become my “Learned Curriculum”. She was aware of what Larry Cuban, our nation's Seminal voice on Curriculum meant about what students really learn. Like Dr. Cuban, she knew that official curriculum doesn't translate into what students actually learn.
I ate lunch with her for a week. I would learn about Dr. King, Marcus Garvey, and James Weldon Johnson. We would study how "Lift Every Voice"…became a Black Nation Anthem…She said to me Jess, in my view...it's really a national anthem for all Americans… She was beyond any doubt a gifted educator.
I have heard people say…what is taught is not always learned, and what is learned is not always taught... Mrs. Stanfield’s lessons were often not on the “Official Curriculum,” but you can rest assured her taught lessons were always the lessons her students learned. She would turn that National Black Anthem into an Anthem for all Just people. Justice was always in between the lines of her lessons.
So, teachers remember that the lines between what is taught and learned can only liberate learners if we teachers understand that “Official Curriculum” has no real power over the students we teach. The true teacher teaches outside those official cookie cutter standards.
Be bigger, be bolder, be like Mrs. Stanfield, and feed your students the heroes that lift every voice. If the taught curriculum does not lift every voice? Then, it will not inspire, will not liberate, and it will be forgotten before the 3:00 School bell rings.
Lately, I have started saying I am an Old School Teacher aloud to people. I am an Old School Teacher, because I was schooled by Old School Teachers. I owe much those Old School Teachers who graced my life.
Here’s to every Old School Teacher seeking to liberate and lift young minds.
Here's to my Old School Teacher, that Phenomenal Woman, the amazing Mrs. Stanfield. I remember every lesson you taught. I remember James Weldon Johnson….
If you would like to know more about James Weldon Johnson, a good place to start is https://www.naacp.org/naacp-history-james-weldon-johnson/