By Ernie McCray
I recently wrote a rhyme about all the love I’ve enjoyed for 80 years, and now I’d like to share how I’ve put that love in play.
Regarding that, I have to say that loving has been easy for me because my life’s work has been dedicated to schools which are perfect places for spreading love.
And my intent, all along, has simply been to make my world more just for all human beings – beginning, in a moment in time, when I was in grade school myself.
I can still picture the day. There was a sweating fan blowing across a little container of water as though that could affect the temperature in a classroom in Tucson, Arizona, the first weeks of school.
My classmates and I were wilting in misery trying to do justice to “I Dream of Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair,” a song better left to accomplished Irish tenors, that Sister Mary Benedict had us singing over and over again, as she had been doing for days.
But on this day, out of love for myself and my classmates, I snapped and blurted out: “Why can’t we sing some songs we like like ‘Caldonia’ or ‘Your Feets Too Big.’”
Next thing I knew my knuckles were whacked to kingdom come. But here’s the beautiful part: never again did we sing about Jeanie and her light brown hair. And we, of course, didn’t ever sing Louis Jordan and Fats Waller songs either.
I bring that day up just to say that I learned at an early age that giving one’s love in the pursuit of a better world demands speaking up and acting out and realizing that there might also be a price to pay.
I’ve taken that spirit with me into classrooms and schools throughout San Diego, starting with my first class, a 6th grade class at Perry Elementary which served Bayview Naval Housing and parts of Paradise Hills.
Many of my students’ dads were in Vietnam, so we talked almost every day about our fears and we wrote poems and prose and made reel-to-reel tapes that were sent to their loved ones. And the 3 R’s just fell in line because we were turned on as learners. Co-learners.
And when I marched in protests against the war, I would talk about it with my students so that they could consider in the future that there might be other ways to relate to other countries in the world other than through armed conflicts.
During those days Medgar and JFK and Malcolm and Martin and Bobby were killed and I let my students know how their deaths affected me personally, considering my experiences with what they fought against: sitting at the back of the bus; drinking from colored only water fountains; being refused service in cafes; not being able to skate with white kids at the skating rink or sit next to them at the picture show or swim with them at the swimming pool or go to school with them…
When I shared my life stories with my young charges and encouraged them to share theirs we became closer and our lessons became more relevant and real.
One day a white Morse High School exchange student from South Africa shared breathtakingly beautiful slides of the physical wonders of her country. We were all taken with her poise and how well she told her story.
I became less enthralled, however, when she invited us to come visit her country some day and everyone, teachers and students alike, expressed through their body language: “Oh, yes, we’d love to, where can we buy a ticket?”
Knowing about South Africa’s system of apartheid I had to explain to my class that not all people would be welcome in South Africa, with me being one of those people, and my students, in their innocence, seemed to understand, as I broke the situation down to them, but my colleagues were filled with “Oh, Ernie, why would you bring up something like that?”
I found myself suddenly having to educate, when it came to issues of social justice, not only my students but my peers.
That became my self-imposed role in San Diego City Schools for the rest of my career as South Africa came up again years later and I had to explain that we couldn’t call ourselves integrating our schools when our retirement system was investing in businesses that were operating in a country that opposed integration.
Some of my fellow educators looked at me as though I was the shower scene in Psycho aka leaving me knuckle-less. But that’s just the way it goes when you’re acting out of pure love for your world. And later on, because it takes a while for right to overcome wrong, steps were taken in the state to cease making immoral investments.
I had to take on other practices and issues on our campuses: using undercover cops posing as students to deal with drug problems; involving too many police officers in efforts to control students, a practice that terrifies me considering black peoples’ history with law enforcement folks; Proposition 187’s idea of making principals help enforce immigration laws, something I would never have done as students and their families are my friends; lessening the military’s influence in our schools, as the Pentagon, particularly, tries to attract students of color who need more guidance towards preparing themselves for higher education; making campuses safer for LGBTQI students; the selection of a “Border Czar” to run our schools like a Godfather when schools should be about nurturing and empowering and enlightening…
The hiring of that man is perhaps the singular worse thing I’ve ever seen a city get behind. I retired over that and I still haven’t gotten over it.
But, hey, in the loving game you win some and you lose some and the rewards come in the simplest of forms: smiles and high fives and folks thanking you for being in their lives.
And, along the lines of rewards for putting my love in play, I recently received one that truly warms my heart. It came from the University of Arizona’s women’s basketball team.
Just because I had thanked them for staging a basketball game called “Unity Game 2018” to promote equality they gave me a t-shirt with their autographs on the back that commemorated the game.
That ranks high on all the gifts I’ve ever received because there was a time when good racial relations in my hometown was but a little boy’s dream.
Social change takes time. And it can’t happen without love being at the center of the quest.
And I’m not about to stop loving because the world isn’t quite what I’d like it to be yet. But are we getting there?
“Yes” is my bet.