#20 Mr. Jenkins, Time Magazine and Me

“There was so much meanness in the atmosphere, ... but marvelous things pierce through the darkness of poverty and racism. You meet all kinds of people that help put life in perspective and turn the horror into some kind of lesson or avenue of awakening that lives with you all your days.” ~Ruby Dee

1971? or 1972?  something like that

I am not really sure what year this photo was taken but I am guessing that I was in the 4th grade at George Mason Elementary School , in Church Hill  (Richmond, VA).  This is a photo of Mr. Wilbur Jenkins and I in the hallway by the office.  I was about 10 or so years old, not much older than my granddaughter is now. WOW I was much smaller and vulnerable looking than "Hurricane Lockley" appears today but we have indeed had 2 very different childhood experiences. 

I remember the first days of school.  It was a government experiment to "end segregation" of the black and white children in our Commonwealth State.   It wasn't good timing for any "experiments" to be done on my life really, I was not in my stomping grounds.  I came from the deep south and "knew" my area and roots and even the town Doctor and Dentist.  Here ..........it was different.  I was now living with a single parent with a married boyfriend, I had no idea where my father was, was living in governement subsidized apartments (from a big brick house) and everything in my life was supposed to be a secret.  I shared the responsibility of taking care of my younger brother who was developmentally delayed (mentally) with "intermittant explosive disorder" and what would now be diagnosed as ADHD / BIPOLAR with Violent tendencies. 

I was  not allowed to have "company over" when they were not home and occasionally  only "white" "females" when they were home (which was not very often).  I was not allowed to tell any of my family "business" and we were not afforded any extra curricular activities that involved transportation and / or money.  We were forced to leave every weekend and go to the 'beach' which sounds wonderful to most kids but what it really meant .........go to a house that belonged to a married man that lived at the beach and sneak in and out , so that his exwife and kids didn't know about us.  It also meant that they would frequently leave us alone or with a babysitter while they could spend time with each other.     I didn't want to go and take care of my brother , and my mother hated being in the sun........ being who I was.......... I ended up loving the beach ...........unlike my brother....... but that's another story.

School............was my refuge of sorts. Even though I rode a bus into the depths of poverty..... past the houses with busted out windows and dingy grey buildings, the destination was my refuge.  I was smart.  I loved to learn, and even though the 28 black faces hated the 3 white faces in each class and mine was one of them , I still enjoyed the learning the culture.  I learned words like "boycot" and "racist" and "cracker" and also found out that "nigger" wasn't a word I should say out loud.

I watched as many people were picked on and bullied for the simple fact that they had "white" skin.  I watched as lunch money was taken either willingly or by force , fingers were stuck into the food on the lunch tray if you didn't give it to them and  for those that perpetrated those acts, violence for them was a way of life.  I learned about "black history" through the words and voices of children.  I had never been taught a class (ever) that spoke of "slaves" and such.  These actions and words were foreign to me , yet , the words were spoken with anger, vigor and violence against me and my friends.

Many of my friends were kept out of school. Missed an entire year , at least, and lawsuits were threatened.  Many of them moved out of Richmond and into the county to avoid persecution.  Not my parents. They didn't care to go to any "activities in the bad part of town" never went to a PTO  or PTA meeting either, but put small children on busses to ride 30 minute s to an hour away past many other schools to be targeted by others.This was called the "white flight"   and many of the suburban areas had a growth spurt due to this government decision that affected all of our young lives.

Mr. Jenkins.   He knew what was going on.   He did an interview with Time Life Magazine and this photo along with others were hanging all over his office , stamped "property of" on the back.  I never did read the article but I think my photo was bound to be in it.  I told my family that they did this, about the pictures and everything, I thought they would be happy about it.......they were not.  They didn't want to even read the article....they were appalled that they could do the story without their permission.  How dare them print a story about "me loving my black principal?"  I didn't know the pictures were even being taken, I was just doing my normal thing with Mr. Jenkins, he was listening and I was a talking, and talking and talking.

You see, I had read almost every book in the library at George Mason Elementary School.  I frequented a book mobile and got as many books as I could carry each week, every week.  They were treasures to me then more than any other time in my life.  I learned about other places, other times and other people as much as possible.   Mr. Jenkins and I shared that love of learning.

Mr. Jenkins knew that I needed more of a challenge and so did my teachers.  I was invited to "skip a grade" but my parents denied that as I was "naiive" and "wasn't ready" to be with the older children. REALLY?  OMG? thinking back on that now, what a joke that is and was. (but that is a different story for a different day)...... I was given the title of "office aid" and when my class went to the library each week, I worked in the office , delivered mail to the teachers, filed, made signs, ran xerox machine and all kinds of odd jobs.   I was given "samples" such as marks a lot markers and such for my efforts.  (was better than cash to me)

They did a story on Mr. Jenkins then .........and after I was long gone I do believe he became a SuperIntendant or something else big within the Education  system.  He was an awesome man.  He bridged a gap for me that no one else did in my young childhood.  He taught me what a "man" should and could be.  What it was like to have a caring ear, a shoulder etc.  He listened to me and tried to encourage me to do well despite the atmosphere and negative energy that surrounded every other part of my life at that time.

Years later when I was piecing together my past you had your secretary get to me this photograph.  You knew it meant something to me and pulled it out and made sure it was in my adult hands.  How thankful I am for that and how thankful I am that you cared enough about me to make sure that my educational needs were taken care of when the system didn't.  Do they even make people like you anymore?

Mr.Wilbur Jenkins.  Thank You.