Although I started 1st Grade in 1970, the Virginia county in which I resided was only then at the genesis of its desegregation efforts. To make matters worse, the county, one of the state’s oldest, was land rich but revenue poor and would soon merge with one of the cities that forms the Tidewater or Hampton Roads area of southeastern Virginia.
When I visit my parents – who have lived in the same house since two weeks before my birth in 1964 – I still often drive by my elementary school and reflect on the impact of that experience. I can even remember the names of my teachers – Ms. Coiner, Mrs. Keeling, and Mrs. Scott – which doubtless illuminates something of the effect of that three-year ordeal. I remember Ms. Coiner because she recognized my reading ability and allowed me to roam beyond the confines of the 1st grade curriculum. Mrs. Keeling was significant because she took my parents aside and urged them to send me to a private school. And Mrs. Scott stands out for her patent inability to maintain control of the classroom. (Even now my mother comments on Mrs. Scott’s failures.)
And my memories of Florence Bowser Elementary School? Distilled through 37 years my initial recollections tend to be negative, unfortunately. I say “unfortunately” because shouldn’t one have fond memories of first grade? I remember that the halls were dark and narrow, a perception doubtless shaped by the unique vision of a seven-year old boy. The classrooms at the start of each year in early September were stifling, even with the windows open. The rare breezes which swept across the adjacent soybean and peanut fields would set the heavy paper roller blinds flapping – each blind anchored by a wood rod at the bottom that rapped on the steel window frames. In winter the temperature was maintained at a sauna-like level, inducing sleep in a majority of students and staff. I have visions of the boiler room – always staffed, it appeared, by grandfatherly African-American men – with a thermostat that must have included settings that ranged from “Nursing Home Hot” to “Pottery Kiln.” It’s a wonder any work was accomplished from November until March.
Yet the cafeteria perhaps registers most vividly now, and for several reasons. First, the food – all freshly prepared in giant pots filled from industrial-sized cans – was far removed from what might be deemed “acceptable” to the elementary school palette. I can still remember the enormous piles of collard greens, kale, spinach, creamed onions, and creamed corn that would be ladled onto our hard plastic, compartmentalized lunch trays. I also remember drinking lots of milk, a nickel for each half pint, and eating lots of cornbread. Once a month, the menu sent home to parents would include an ambiguous entry, “Managers Choice,” which I think gave the kitchen manager license to take leftovers, partially opened drums of stewed tomatoes, and pork knuckles, and transform them into a gruel-like stew that would have left Dickens aghast. (Faced with this menu, my sons would no doubt starve.)
The cafeteria also left me with one of my earliest encounters with poverty. Indeed, I can still clearly recall an assembly of the whole school. At the adjacent table, a little African-American girl rested on her knees and leaned across the table to chat with friends. A fellow student noticed that beneath her dirty short skirt, her white panties were riddled with holes. I recall asking my parents – clandestine liberals surrounded by pro-segregation neighbors, co-workers and church members – why this girl would have come to school in soiled, ragged underwear. And my father proceeded to explain in simple terms the stark reality of race and poverty which surrounded us. (At the time there were still areas of the county in which impoverished African-Americans huddled together in the remnants of old sharecropper cabins. They nearly always clustered around a little store – equally ramshackle – and a clapboard church, painted white and immaculately maintained. I think it’s pretty obvious where their priorities lay. Today, only a mile from my parents’ home, the cabins are gone, but the church remains.)
After three years my parents announced that I would attend a private school about 30 minutes from our home. It had a diverse student body, provided a nurturing environment and was my school home until I graduated high school. The person I am at 43 owes a lot to that experience. But upon reflection, I have no doubt that those three years at Florence Bowser also constitute a bit of the psychological luggage one carries through life. And I have to temper those initially negative recollections with recognition of the historical context of the experience. At least from the viewpoint of an elementary school student, Florence Bowser was not a hotbed of racial hatred. Moreover, as far as I’m aware, there were no riots or threats of violence. And aside from being labeled a “white soda cracker” by an angry Gail Miller in the 3rd grade, I never witnessed the overt racial hostility that punctuated school life in not-too-distant Prince Edward County and other parts of the South. In the end, I like to think that the lessons learned at Florence Bowser Elementary, reinforced at home by decidedly color-blind parents, provided a positive foundation on which to develop a healthy attitude about race. And more recently, I’ve enjoyed pointing out the school to my boys, who marvel that “Daddy” could have been in the 1st grade.