It was 1968 and the town was tense. The school was tense. Police teams, anticipating trouble, patrolled the school area. As a substitute teacher, I was aware of the racial problems in the area. But now, hired midyear to teach English and journalism, racial conflicts became a part of my daily routine.
A white teacher—a young white teacher. I hadn’t thought that would make a difference. Students are people. They feel, they care, they act cool. They’re growing, testing, changing. But I discovered I was growing, too.
“Teacher, you prejudiced?”
I managed a glib answer: “What do you mean, Darnell? Everyone is. I hate poached eggs and I feel resentful when students are tardy. Those are prejudices.”
“You”—he lingered on that pronoun—“know what I mean. Prejudiced.” And I did. After only a week, I was questioning my own attitudes, wondering how I really felt and wondering if I needed to grow and change along with my students.
My journalism class was a dream class. The tension in the halls outside never made it inside our classroom. I loved those fifteen sharp, motivated young people, and despite my coming midyear as a teacher, they reciprocated.
Every two weeks, we distributed the school newspaper. It was a great forum to develop responsibility and writing and reasoning skills.
William was sports editor. Tall, honest, intelligent, and straight. Mothers hope and pray for his type. Teachers do, too. The other journalism students christened him “Sweet William.”
We had just finished a critique of the new edition and made assignments for the next issue. With ten minutes left, I decided to use the time to tackle my endless pile of paperwork.
Kim Serrano called to me from his seat. “You don’t spend much time in the faculty room, do you?”
“You don’t smoke or drink coffee, do you?” he pressed.
“No, I don’t.” The room seemed hot, and other activity stopped. I wanted to be a missionary but anti-Mormon feeling in this town was widespread.
“Mrs. S., are you a Mormon?”
Before I could answer, William gasped, “You couldn’t be. I heard that Mormons hate blacks!” His face mirrored incredulity and hurt.
After a second of silence, the bell rang. Sweet William bolted for the door.
We didn’t meet for journalism on Wednesday because an assembly preempted class. What should I do? What should I say? I went to Ron, another Latter-day Saint teacher. He was sympathetic, but he offered no answers. “Students don’t ask those questions in physics.”
I talked with my husband. I prayed, I pleaded. No words came into my mind. On Thursday, I still didn’t know how to answer William’s accusation.
Lunch was over. Time for journalism class. “William, I think we need to talk.”
“Mrs. S., there’s no problem.” Relaxed, William flashed a smile—hardly the tense young man of two days before.
“But … ,” I stammered, not yet understanding.
“Remember when I put down the Black Muslims? You said it was too easy to criticize and forget the good. You told me their antiwhite words frighten you, yet you respected how they could make major changes in people’s lives. Remember?”
“Yes, William. But what …”
“I’ve heard some things about Mormons—bad things.” I tried to interrupt, but William continued. “But I know you. If you believe in that church, there’s a lot more to it than the bad I’ve heard. You care about me, so you couldn’t hate blacks.”
Feelings of joy and gratitude to our Heavenly Father filled me. Sweet William had his answer, and I had mine. I did care about William. I cared about all my students, regardless of their skin color.
“See, there is nothing to discuss.” William grinned and looked at the clock. “I’d better get to work!” He strode to the assignment board and began writing.