Still Learning How to Fly ~ Chapter Nine: "Wayfaring Strangers" (Pt.4)

Ken Painter By Ken Painter, 9th Oct 2013 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL
Posted in Wikinut>Writing>Biography & Autobiography

As I begin teaching in South Carolina's Low Country in the late 1970's, my wife and I experience the culture shock that only two inexperienced Yankees can feel in a recently integrated school system and an unintegrated community.

The System

His name was Mr. Jones, and he was a darkly handsome short African-American man in his early thirties, and after introducing himself to me he made a statement which I’ll never forget.

“The only reason you got the job is because a white man had the job, and we had to fill the position with another white man. You are a federal quota. I hired you because the superintendent told me I had to.”

Well, at least I knew where I stood.

Had we had this conversation prior to job acceptance I still would have accepted the position, I needed the job that badly. However, I seemed to be making a habit out of walking into hornets nests.

The staff I worked with at Allendale Junior High were absolutely delightful though, and the English teacher in the room next to me, Mrs. Gill and I became fast friends. It was through her that Nancy and I would find our next place to live.

It began when one morning when Mrs. Gill showed me a note from the parent of one of her students who had been absent the day before which read, “Please excuse my daughter from class yesterday. She had a doctor's appointment. She has very close veins.” Teachers can’t buy humor like that.

After we stopped chuckling, she inquired how my house search was going. She knew that Nancy and Frank were back upstate, I was saying five nights a week at a cheap motel in town returning to my wife and baby for Friday and Saturday nights. This had been going on for over two weeks and still I’d found nothing suitable. Nothing in the local paper, no for rent signs, nothing. Well, she said, that’s because you don’t understand the system.

The system. There’s a system?

And then she explained it all to this ignorant Yankee. And she was very nice about it. After all, this was still South Carolina, and some things were really slow to change, after all the calendar had just turned to 1978 and the public schools had not even become integrated there until 1972 despite the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 and the Civil Rights Act being passed in the US Congress in 1964. Had I heard about all that? Yes, they’d told me all about that up in Union . . . that South Carolina had managed to still delay integration of the state’s schools there another eight full years until 1972. And so she said the school I was teaching in was only in it’s 6th year of integration with both staff and students still getting used to it. Forget about housing.

As a white man looking for an available house in a white neighborhood I would need to drive around through them and look for vacant houses. There would be no “for rent” signs in them, but she assured me they would be available for rent, and very often the neighbors would know who the landlord was if the person inquiring looked respectable enough. That was the system. And she said she’d be happy to drive around with me after school that afternoon and help me look. Jewel Gill, another of my guardian angels.

We found the house on Allen Street and as it happened she even knew who the particular landlord was. She gave me his phone number, and after we met we struck a deal (Nancy had given me carte blanche to find a place, and I did not let her down). The house was perfect. Three bedrooms, dining room, hardwood floors, decent kitchen, nice yard, plum trees growing outside, great location, the only drawback was the all-electric heat and cooling and it cost us an arm and two legs, and I’m not kidding, because that house had no insulation. However, that weekend saw the beer truck in action once again, and Nancy’s dad moved our junk down to Allendale in the low country.

Published Author

Roger, Georgie, and the kids would later follow us moving into a huge three story farmhouse on the east side of town. Roger was getting out of detention just as I was taking the job in Allendale, and so with his knowledge he helped me buy an old white Mercury Comet that would see us through for awhile. That’s how I was getting around. But first he and Georgie had set up house again somewhere in Union while we moved into Allendale. One of the good things that had come out of his detention though had been that he’d been taught a valuable trade, welding. And Allendale had location, location, and location.

Yes, we were situated in the middle of nowhere . . . and so the US government in its infinite wisdom builds (to this very day) it’s nuclear weapons there at the Savannah River Nuclear Plant which straddles the boundaries between Allendale and Aiken Counties. Look it up in a Rand-McNally. It’s still there, I assure you, and we traveled across it many, many times, because every time we went to Augusta, Georgia to shop, unless we wanted to go all the way around it, and we did not, the shortest distance between two points being a straight line, we had to go right smack dab through the middle of the bomb plant, and you could not stop, you could not pass GO, and you could not collect $200. I can say this though, the swamp water which lines the highway at various points throughout the trip through the plant smoked, and I never did know why. I was always hoping it was just because it was HOT.

There being no Kingdom Hall in Allendale we attended the congregation in Barnwell in the next county some 17 miles to the north, and one of the brothers there owned and operated a large company which among the work they did had contracted to build the large storage containers which held the nuclear waste at the bomb plant, and he was always in need of a good welder, and so he asked to meet Roger. He didn’t care that they weren’t Jehovah’s Witnesses, many of his employee’s were not. All he cared was if he could do the work as a welder, and that’s how Roger went to work in Barnwell, and they came to live near us in Allendale.

Shortly after I started teaching in Allendale I received notice from the Watchtower Bible & Tract Society that my article entitled Our Faith Testing Tragedy which I’d penned and forgotten about having submitted to them for publication well over a year before was about to be published in the April 8, 1978 edition of Awake magazine, and the notification had been forwarded to me through a couple of forwarding addresses. I still received it well ahead of the publication date. True to Jehovah’s Witnesses form, I received no financial compensation for this nor a byline. My contribution said just that: contributed. But they knew it was me, and we all knew it was Nancy’s and my story. I’d become a published author in my own way and in my own time. I’d dealt with my grief in the only way I knew how.

A Different Mindset

While teaching in Allendale, I never did know the actual racial breakdown of the community not that it mattered, but when the public schools finally became integrated in 1972 attitudes didn’t necessarily change. Because of this a new private school had been built in town, The Allendale Academy, and, of course, it had become the home of the bulk of the white children in town. As a result, the junior high where I taught had a racial makeup if I recall correctly of 83% black and 17% white. When Mr. Jones had said that I was the federal quota, he had not been lying.

I had one math class of 7th graders, and the rest were in the 8th, but that belied the fact of the real math level they were working at. Other than only one of my 8th grade classes which was functioning at the 8th grade level and not above it (and coincidentally just happened to be an all white class for the only reason that the students had tested out that way), all of my other math classes were performing at least three grade levels below where they were supposed to be. And what I found so strange was that no one above me appeared to notice. It was a strange community.

Approximately 10% of my 8th grade girls were mothers of at least one child. At one point during my time there a carnival appeared in town, and Nancy and I took the barely toddling Frank (now Cubby, because he was our little bear cub) and plopped him in the rear seat of a two-seater airplane strapping him in tightly. Suddenly, one of my 14 year old 8th grade students stepped up behind me and gently placed her two year old son in the front seat. Surreal. I felt like we’d stepped into The Twilight Zone.

But then there was another system, and I wouldn’t mention it were it not so rampant in certain quarters, and I’ll illustrate it with a family who attended our school. The matriarchal mother had three daughters, a 15 year old and two 13 year old twins, and she was collecting a check from AFDC because of these three. However it didn’t end there. The 15 year old was also a mother of one child, and she too collected her own monthly check from AFDC. One of the 13 year old twins was also a mother of one child and pregnant for a second one, and so she too was collecting her own check. The other twin, however, had been unsuccessful in her attempts to get pregnant and the matriarch was quite unhappy about all of this, because it was viewed within the household that she was not pulling her weight. Of course, Food Stamps were pouring into the house. This was The System.

Now I confess. Nancy and I were on AFDC a couple of times over the years, and we received Food Stamps, and we really needed them. But we never were on them for more than seven or eight months and then only as a stopgap measure. And yet the illustration I just posed was one of merely dozens upon dozens I became aware of in a very small community. And it wasn’t really viewed as abuse as much as it had become a mindset that this is just how we shall live. Not everyone, mind you, but far, far, too many.

Working Woman

Somewhere long about the time Cubby turned a year old, Nancy became a working woman. She’d never been lazy, but she finally found herself in a good position to take not one job, but two part-time ones although the second one came a few weeks after the first.

We lived just a couple of blocks down the street from the aforementioned Allendale Academy, and somehow she heard of their need for a teacher’s aide and they were agreeable to her bringing Cubby along. Wow, what a deal, because in this way our little toddler only child would get some necessary socialization. Yes, he had cousins, but we were always on the prowl for companions outside the family circle too. And this turned into a great outlet for that while Nancy got paid on top of it.

A few weeks later Nancy picked up a part-time evening and sometime weekend job waitressing at a seafood restaurant out on the strip, Highway 301 where all the hotels and motels were lined up like cracker boxes dotting the road which ran up to Orangeburg. Truckers tips helped. Occasional leftover fried oysters and hushpuppies did too.

Getting by in the Low Country is what it was.

Plan C (or Life in a "Foreign" Classroom)

As my second season in the junior high continued a couple of incidents stand out that fall. The watermelons were coming in and maybe that ‘s what prompted all of this, I’ll never know, because it happened fairly early on and the boys were needed in the fields, but one of my 8th grade boys, though he’d started out doing his homework and then he dropped off to nothing. It was absolutely necessary for him to do the homework, because he wasn’t bright enough to pass any of the tests, however I’d already planned early on to pass him with a barely manageable D if he was diligent in doing all of his homework just because he was a decent kid when he was in my 7th grade class. But now . . .

Eventually his dad appeared in my classroom one afternoon after class, and the following conversation ensued.

“I told my son he doesn’t have to do your math homework,” he drawled.

“Well, just so you know, if he doesn’t, he won’t receiving a passing grade in Math unless he starts passing some of his tests,” I replied.

“That’s all right by me.” And with that he turned and quietly left. Some parents are just priceless. End of story. And his son slept through the remainder of the year of math classes . . . that is, when he was there.

Two other stories involve Mr. Jones himself. The first happened shortly after the school year began, and I was walking my students to lunch. As we neared the lunchroom I began to smell a very pungent odor with kind of a sweet edge to it, and as we reached the boys rest room I noticed a small amount of smoke appearing from under the door. I stopped my group for a moment and made a quick decision that one of my most trustworthy students would then be in charge of my group and finish accompanying them to the lunchroom while I checked this out, because I’d smoked enough pot at The Pad years earlier to know what it smelled like. I quickly swung the door open and entered.

I caught two boys red-handed, and though they threw the evidence they were smoking in the toilet, I managed to get to them before they could flush it. Can you spell busted? I fished the roach out of the bowl and marched them up to Mr. Jones office fresh with the wet evidence in the palm of my hand. I forget the boys’ names, but we’ll call them, Huey and Dewey. They were both 7th graders, and Huey was 13, but Dewey was his 15 year old cousin, and he was attending school under court order if that tells you anything.

I turned the boys over to Mr. Jones and explained the situation from my perspective, and he thanked me saying that he’d handle it from there, and boy did he! Yup, he sure did! He suspended those boys for a whole whopping day and a half . . . that afternoon, and the next day. He didn’t even call in the parents and talk to them. Nothing! And I became the laughingstock for even turning the boys over in the first place. My kids began to second guess me as a disciplinary figure because they knew the principal didn’t have my back. I got to wondering what that court order was all about if we were letting a 15 and 13 year old smoke pot in public school during lunch period.

But it only got better with Mr. Jones. A short time later about the first part of October, he came into my room for the dreaded teacher evaluation. We teachers look forward to that like having teeth pulled, but at least he came in to my 8th graders who were on grade level, and I was teaching a lesson on irrational numbers.

As he was watching me I must have gotten his juices flowing, at least that’s what he told me, because he then popped up and asked if he could teach the lesson since it had been awhile for him. Sure, why not? I went to the back of the room and chilled out. I guess it had been a while for him, because I kept trying to figure out if he was teaching from a different textbook, or if they’d taught him something different when he went to college, because I had no idea what he was teaching, but it wasn’t irrational numbers. Whatever it was, it was all wrong, and this I knew, because even though I’d had only one math course at Michigan State, I’d aced it in high school all the way through Calculus with the exception of that lone C one semester in Geometry (me and spatial relationships, I tell ya!), and what planet Mr. Jones was trying to teach only Mr. Jones knew.

That left me with a huge dilemma, and fortunately I had the whole night to consider my course of action. If I chose to reteach my kids the right way the next day, I knew that somehow, some way it would get back to Mr. Jones, and he’d be embarrassed, and I’d pay. So that was out. On the other hand, I couldn’t leave it the way it was and test my kids over the material at the end of the module with them having been taught wrong. That was totally unfair to them. And so I chose Plan C. Skip it altogether for the time, burying it until later in the second semester when I would reintroduce it and teach it correctly and hopefully by then everyone would have forgotten about the first go-round. And that’s exactly how it went down.

"The Law" and The Local Authorities

Nancy was able to keep her pulse on what was happening in the Allendale community by way of her part-time waitressing job at the seafood restaurant out on the strip whether she wanted to or not. Sure, the truckers stopped there on their way through town, but more than that it was the local hangout for all of the sheriff’s boys, in fact, they ran illegal poker games from time to time out of the back room of the establishment. Nancy knew this because she had to serve them on occasion. And, of course, all of the local gossip flowed from those poker tables.

One day out on the roadway not far from the junior high school an elderly white neighbor lady of ours in her mid-seventies was pulled over for some minor traffic infraction by one of these sheriff’s deputies, a young black man of about thirty years of age. Please recall that race relations in this community weren’t all that great to begin with, and that blacks outnumbered whites though I’m not familiar with the percentages, but I can attest to the fact that the numbers were reflected on the sheriff’s patrol. This town followed federal quotas.

So our elderly white neighbor lady got pulled over, and she was asked to step out of the car. Why, God only knows. She refused to step out of the car, and, who knows, but she may have even added a choice word or two with her reply. This I don’t know, I’m just saying, because to this day I’ll never understand the deputy’s response. For her refusal to step out of her vehicle he took out his service revolver and he pistol whipped her about her face! And he messed her up so badly that her injuries sent this elderly woman to the hospital!

It did not end there.

The black sheriff did not reprimand is black deputy. He was not written up in any way, shape, or form. And if you wanted to hear sighing and groaning from a white community you heard a LOT of it, but it was conducted in hushed undertones, and it did nothing, obviously for community morale.

Nancy heard bits and pieces of the event from the back room at the restaurant, because the little sonofabitch was laughing and boasting about it there to his buddies. It was all a big joke to them. And she began to get a bit scared. I did too, but there didn’t seem to be anything we could do about it, and I told no one except God. We did a LOT of praying.

Someone must have heard our prayers. Perhaps there was a tipster hiding in one of the watermelon fields outside of town. We’ll never know.

About a month or so passed. Our neighbor lady had recovered, and the big news of the day rang throughout the town to the effect that the little sonofabitch had gotten himself arrested in some kind of sting for selling stolen pigs out of the back of a rented truck. He ended up in the pen somewhere doing time. Always remember that what goes around comes around.

Nancy and I breathed easier, but we would never again trust the local authorities.

(In the next installment which concludes Chapter 9, our downward spiral begins and reaches a desperate climax. Do NOT miss this ending to "Wayfaring Strangers!")

Link to next installment . . .

Link to last installment . . .

Link to beginning of book . . .


Autobiography, Classroom, Classroom Conversations, Memoir, Memoirs, Memories, Non Fiction, Non-Fiction, Nonfiction, Serial, Series, Teacher, Teachers, Teaching, Teaching Children, True Experiences, True Stories, True Story

Meet the author

author avatar Ken Painter
Retired Chicago public school teacher. Singer, songwriter, musician, author, & opinionated old curmudgeon. Married to my husband & living in Colorado, USA. Also a father & grandfather.

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author avatar Lady Aiyanna
9th Oct 2013 (#)

I am a great teacher and know everything about everything more so than you

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