By Ernie McCray
On November 22, 1963, I was a twenty-five year old sixth grade teacher enjoying my second year serving students at Perry Elementary. Before recess that day we had gotten the news that the president was shot.
The radio in our classroom verified what we had heard with the words “President John Fitzgerald Kennedy is dead.”
We were absolutely stunned. But, as a result of this man losing his life, I was a transformed educator when the day was done, so much more attuned to what was required of me if I wanted to nurture young minds in truly helpful ways.
Now, when I woke up that morning my teaching was pretty good. I had respect and all that. My lessons were planned adequately enough.
The year before I had created, in my mind, what I call the “Wow” factor when it comes to facilitating a teacher/student relationship with one’s charges – meaning that when you get students leaning forward going “Wow,” then you’re on to something.
The first time that theory came to me was at P.E. one day when a student missed a shot and I, without giving it any thought, jumped up, palmed the ball and stuffed it down the hoop. Whoa, talking about making somebody go “Wow!”
By the next day everyone in Bayview Naval Housing, it seemed, were going “Wow” over my little athletic display. As the year progressed I found other things that elicited a “Wow” from my kids and their families: various stories of my life. Kids love knowing who you are and what you stand for but I didn’t fully understand that until the end of school the year before which was my first year teaching.
At the sixth grade promotion I received one of the biggest surprises of my life. It came when the teachers were introduced. I was last. My colleagues, great teachers, as I recall them, all received very nice applause, with little hoots and hollers interspersed in between the clapping. And then there were the words “Room B5, Mr. Ernie McCray” and before I could put a smile on my face there was this rush of spirited applause and everyone was standing and all I could do was, you guessed it, form the word “Wow” on my ample lips.
So on that day of deep sorrow 50 years ago (oh, time truly does fly), I was already doing something right in the classroom. But wherever I stood as an educator on that morning, I was a few notches better by the end of the day because when we all calmed down and caught our breath practically every hand in the room was raised and questions flew through the air like a flock of birds flying wildly in all directions.
My students wanted to know how such a thing could happen and what’s going to happen now and what does it all mean? All I could do was stutter and fight back tears, realizing that I didn’t have any more of a clue to what was going on than they had. I was not the expert in the room, the one with all the answers. It wasn’t until someone asked “Has anything like this ever happened before?” that I had something to offer. And, in that moment, it dawned on me at some level, cursorily, at least, that teaching is also about learning. We were co-learners, the kids and I.
I immediately addressed the question, letting them know that, yes, other presidents had been killed: Abraham Lincoln. James Garfield. William McKinley. I told them about how when I was about their age there had been two attempts to assassinate Harry Truman.
Our social studies unit at the time was “Life in Latin America” and on top of studies about what people wore, ate, lived and why, we began to discover, outside our textbooks, that there was a rather long history of political assassinations in Central and South America. Terms like military coup, freedom fighters, and revolutionaries were added to our vocabulary. We were learning about human relations gone array. Together. A man’s demise had awakened our curiosities tremendously.
Over the remainder of the year our poetry and prose and our singing and drawings and paintings and research assignments became refined as we brought the world into our classroom and toured it, assessing how we fit into it both individually and collectively, often talking about the kind of world we’d like to see. We were so turned on and the 3 R’s tended to fall in place naturally because everyone had a stake in what happened.
I’ve come to understand over time that learning engenders more learning, that learning is a habit, that students bring pieces of their world to school with them everyday and when those bits are tapped, in a spirit of love, the seeds for a healthy academic environment are sown and will grow like plants in a tropical forest.
I lost a man I cared about on a horribly fateful day but I feel that I’ve honored him in my work because he said to us “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country” – and I can’t think of a better way to serve one’s country than try to help young people become learned critically thinking human beings who care enough about it and, indeed, their world, to want to change it for the better. I’ve worked at that pretty much nonstop. And when I look back on it all I can’t help but say “Wow!”
It’s a “Wow!” kind of world.