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Snapshots: Awareness, Sense of Self, and Love of Others and Life

LINDA WILLIAMS, Ph.D.

Class of 1967

I’ve gained an expanding awareness of “life’s many realities” as a result of growing up in my neighborhood and times. I’ve left Washington, D.C., and returned several times. I’ve read widely. I’m always thinking. I appreciate how people are different. As a result, I’ve developed confidence in myself and what I could do. I have a clear vision of myself.  While I didn’t have a clear vision of what I can do when growing up, today I have an inner strength that allows me to stay calm regardless of what life throws my way. Yes, life changes. That’s life. And, I’m okay with that. Fifty-three years after graduating from high school, I am still here. I work diligently to stay healthy. I share when I can. And I always love life and living.

 

  • What Happened While In High School
    • Our Neighborhood Changes. Our Family Stayed
    • Attending Western High School 
    • Teachers Behaviors Had Adverse Effects on Us
    • Started Working & Learning On My Own
    • An Expanding Political and Social Awareness 
      • The Vietnam War
      • Drugs 
    • Accumulation Of Effects
  • What Happened After High School
  • First Steps Towards An Undergraduate Degree
    • Leaving College Early & Expanding My Sense Of Self 
    • My Mother’s Death & My Return To College
    • Teaching Math At Lorton Penitentiary
    • Teaching With An Awareness
  • I Can See Clearly Now 

 

What Happened While In High School

Our Neighborhood Changes. Our Family Stayed

Looking back, I was aware of what I now know as the harmful effects of racially-based housing and other economic policies. Now I know that public and private urban renewal programs were causing blacks to move out of one area and into another and facilitating “white flight.” 

What did I see then?

  • A declining number of whites
  • The building of “Projects.”
  • An increase in population density.
  • Black families that had been our neighbors moving out.
  • People from outside the neighborhood hanging around The Village.
  • The boarding up and closing down of stores such as the bakery, Famous Fashions (a women’s clothing store), a men’s clothing store, Kresge’s with its lunch counter, Peoples Drug, Buckingham with a meat market, and even Brentwood movie theatre and bowling alley
  • One remaining store – the corner liquor store.

My family stayed. My parent’s response was to send me to high school in another part of the city.

By high school, my father would tell me to spot my surroundings when I walk along the street.  He said, be aware of movements when I am by myself and not let anyone get close to me when I am walking alone.  He told me not to walk through The Village anymore.  Instead, walk to Brentwood Road and quickly walk up to 13th Place.  And so, without questioning my father, I changed the way I walked home.

 

Attending Western High School

When I began to attend Western High school, I began to learn how “to navigate:”

  • Bus routes to take me to far northwest Washington, D.C. – Georgetown.
  • “The codes” of a racially, economically, and culturally diverse environment. There were students from the embassies. There were white and wealthy students, who had the names of department stores in the city, like Lansburgh and Hecht. There were working-class students, including myself, coming from different sections of the city. The black professional’s children from the “Gold Coast” also attended.
  • School heroes. For example, the Olympic winner, Francine Fox and a graduate, Lt. Col. Edward H. White II, who was the first astronaut to walk in space.  His picture was in one of the cases by the front of the entrance.
  • Teachers having “class favorites.” These were the students who were called on repeatedly and given much time to answer questions. I remember thinking: Did my junior high teachers have favorites?… why did I not notice?…maybe they did not?…I did not see it if they did. 

Like my changing neighborhood, I became increasingly aware of how teachers’ behaviors got played out in my schools, particularly when I remembered the strong, nurturing environment of my elementary and junior high days.

 

Teachers’ Behaviors Affect Us

I became aware of the effect that “teachers with favorites” had on other students and me.

  • Some were reluctant to participate in class discussions and respond to questions.
  • I would not raise my hand, even if I knew the answer. I simply felt the teacher would not call on me.
  • I would leave school well before the end of the school day because I was not mentally strong enough to speak up or persevere with the behaviors I observed.

Later in my professional career, I remembered the effects of teacher behaviors as I supervised teachers..

 

Started Working & Learning On My Own

By the end of 10th grade, the counselor got me a job at C & P Telephone Company on 13th Street, N.W.  She reconfigured my class schedule, so I was out of school earlier in the school day. 

On days that I did not work, I would spend my time reading at one of the tables in the Library of Congress or walk through the underground areas, which were open and accessible at that time. 

 

An Expanding Political and Social Awareness

Added to my awareness of demographic and socio-changes and differences, the positive and negative effects a teacher could have on their students were the political and cultural events of the day.

 

The Vietnam War

Because of The Vietnam War, many of my friends from the neighborhood were drafted.  Eddie Downs, one of my first crushes from elementary and junior high schools, was drafted while in high school.  They said he might have been older than we were. He was the first of many boys from my neighborhood to die in the war. 

 

Drugs

There were many other boys, my friends, who became hooked on drugs that were being pushed into our neighborhood. 

 

Accumulation Of Effects

I was becoming aware of the effects on me of the changing socioeconomics, a non-nurturing school environment, the killing of black leaders, exposure to the ideas of Malcolm X,  Viet Nam War, and drugs in my community.

I realized that:

  • I did not want to stay at the telephone company or work in the post office or be a hairstylist, that my mother suggested if I did not go to college.
  • Hanging out in the Library of Congress made me realize how much I had to learn.

 

What Happened After High School

First Steps Towards An Undergraduate Degree

While in high school, I applied to Howard University and was accepted into the School of  Electrical Engineering.   This was another period of expanding awareness.

  • The Black Power movement was taking shape across the country.
  • Students, including me, sat inside the administration building at Howard. We demanded a more diverse faculty and more courses in black history.
  • Martin Luther King was shot, and then Robert Kennedy.
  • Riots occurred in Washington, D.C.

Upset by these shootings, frustrated with earning C’s, and turned off by Howard’s registration process, I decided to leave Howard and move to New York City to dance.

 

Leaving College Early & Expanding My Sense Of Self

In NYC, I began to get an expanded sense of self:

  • I stayed at the YWCA on the east side while taking modern dance and toe lessons.
  • I began to read books by Herman Hesse and any of Erich Fromm’s books that I could get from another friend who lived in New York.
  • I cut my thick hair and wore an afro around that time. I felt proud that I “wore a natural.”
  • When in Washington, D.C., and later, I shopped regularly at Toast and Strawberries. I considered this a black woman’s shop. African American woman, Rosemary Reed, was the owner of this store that carried distinctive, non-European clothes and accessories.
  • I saw a picture of a General execute a Viet Cong officer in Saigon that seared my memory. The Viet Cong officer was shot in the temple at close range. I could only imagine what Eddie Downs went through before he died fighting in Viet Nam.
  • I had eclectic music tastes – Miles, Davis, Thelonious Monk, David Newman…even Sun Ra. I enjoyed the stories told in country music.

 

My Mother’s Death & My Return To College

The unexpected death of my mother was a “reality check.” I returned to D.C. and forced myself to graduate from Howard. I worked at a temporary agency for my tuition. I didn’t let Howard’s registration process frustrate me.

I earned a degree in finance and certified in secondary mathematics. 

My teaching certification was the first “game-changer” for me. I was motivated to influence the teaching and learning process which did not have teaching standards at that time.

 

Teaching Math At Lorton Penitentiary

The second “game-changer” happened when I started teaching mathematics in D.C. but matured greatly when I began teaching mathematics in the maximum facility prison facility in Lorton, VA.

In the early 1980s, Senator Specter spearheaded a program to educate and train prison inmates.  The program paid D.C. teachers well. Applied and took the job my first summer.  In training, we were instructed to wear loose-fitting clothing and deemphasize our looks with no makeup, jewelry, or ornaments.  After training another young white woman, a young black man and I were assigned to teach in the maximum facility.  I was in my early 30’s at the time.  

Entering the facility unsettled me. It hurt me to see some of the most handsome black men of different ages, shapes, and colors housed in one place. 

These were our instructions:

  • Stand in front of the classroom while teaching.
  • Remain “in the sight” of the guard who was seated outside the room in my view.
  • Never walk to the back of the room while teaching and never have conversations about myself with the inmates.

When I was interested in the background of inmates, a guard would escort me to view the records of inmates in my class. 

What did I feel?

  • That some of the inmates were cast off as children very early with no support, I viewed “thick” records that chronicled the behaviors and lives of inmates.
  • That it was my duty to teach as much math as I could during the summer. While driving to the facility, I would go over the types of application problems I wanted to present.  The inmates were excited about  learning and responsive during the time I was there.

Eventually, U. S. Senator Arlene Specter’s program lost its funding.  Harshly criticized, Spector lost support for his position that inmates should be educated while they are in prison. I disagreed with the decision.  First, learning would give inmates a distraction.  And second, learning would also encourage them to think – an essential component for growth.

 

Teaching and including all students

From my experience with teaching at Lorton, my professional career revolved around me, improving the way I and others taught.

  • Teaching in District of Columbia, Virginia and Ohio.
  • Earning a master’s degree while teaching mathematics at the local high school.
  • Earning a Doctorate Degree. As a graduate assistant. I taught teacher orientation courses from an urban perspective to mostly future Catholic school teachers. I was able to complete my coursework and dissertation because my advisor encouraged me while I was also raising my three growing children.
  • Actively participating at a small university in Ohio, where I was the only African American in the department. Unlike my days at Western High, I began to understand the politics of the university and my role at the university. I worked to be included in the department’s discussions and participated in the university’s environment even as I drove one hour each way to get to the university. I taught courses and traveled to observe teachers at different schools throughout the county.  I knew that I needed to be in a more diverse environment to impact more teachers who teach minority students.
  • Becoming the math supervisor of a large urban district. I worked consistently to have an impact on math instruction for this large urban district. The math team, under a great deal of pressure, met deadlines in the development of the curricula while at the same time provided ongoing professional development for teachers.

I returned to an environment where I could supervise teachers.  When needed during teacher observations, I would draw the diagram of the seating arrangement of boys and girls.  I would put a notation each time the teacher called on a boy or girl. I would draw arrows indicating the direction the teacher looked when she/he taught the lesson. I would share the diagram at the observation conference and solicit feedback from the teacher. Teachers were able to identify the students they repeatedly called on, and students who were not included, during instruction.  

The simple sharing of the diagram motivated a change in behavior of many teachers throughout my career. 

 

I Can See Clearly Now

Today, I have a clear vision of myself.  I’ve had lots of awareness-expanding experiences, including more recent ones as a hospice volunteer.  And for many years now, I’ve not been “that turned-off high school student” who would not stand up, speak up, or persevere.

I now have inner strength. I can stay calm with whatever life throws my way. Yes, life changes. Sometimes it seems like we’re in unbearable situations. But that’s the reality of living. And, it’s okay. I’m still here. I work diligently to stay healthy, share if I can, and will always grab life and living.

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