Iowa Writes

HUSTON DIEHL
from Dream Not of Other Worlds: Teaching in a Segregated Elementary School, 1970


One afternoon, as I monitored my students on the playground, I watched the children in Morton School's other fourth-grade class walk in single file out of the school building and march with their teacher in utter silence around the boundary of the schoolyard. My students were shouting, jumping rope, playing tag, and making the most of their brief respite from the classroom, so I was immediately struck by the remarkably different demeanor of their counterparts. I watched, curious at first and then with increasing concern, as their teacher, a burly, middle-aged white man with ramrod straight posture and an authoritarian bearing, surveyed the column of silent students as if he were a drill sergeant inspecting his troops. There was something bizarre, even menacing, about him. And his students were unnaturally subdued, as if they were afraid that a lapse in concentration might undo them. I had never seen a group of children so tightly controlled, so cowed. After completing their grim march around the perimeter of the schoolyard, they returned to the steps of the school, halted for a brief moment, and then, upon command, disappeared back into the building, their "recess" completed. What was I to make of this disturbing scene, the eeriness of the children's regimented and unhappy procession, the intimidating presence of such an unlikely elementary school teacher?

One afternoon, as I monitored my students on the playground, I watched the children in Morton School's other fourth-grade class walk in single file out of the school building and march with their teacher in utter silence around the boundary of the schoolyard. My students were shouting, jumping rope, playing tag, and making the most of their brief respite from the classroom, so I was immediately struck by the remarkably different demeanor of their counterparts. I watched, curious at first and then with increasing concern, as their teacher, a burly, middle-aged white man with ramrod straight posture and an authoritarian bearing, surveyed the column of silent students as if he were a drill sergeant inspecting his troops. There was something bizarre, even menacing, about him. And his students were unnaturally subdued, as if they were afraid that a lapse in concentration might undo them. I had never seen a group of children so tightly controlled, so cowed. After completing their grim march around the perimeter of the schoolyard, they returned to the steps of the school, halted for a brief moment, and then, upon command, disappeared back into the building, their "recess" completed. What was I to make of this disturbing scene, the eeriness of the children's regimented and unhappy procession, the intimidating presence of such an unlikely elementary school teacher?

When I asked Mrs. Stockton to explain, I got only a terse answer. The teacher, she told me, was Mr. Snead. The year before he had been hired to teach at one of the white elementary schools in the county. However, after a series of complaints from parents about his style of discipline, he had been transferred to Morton. He was transferred, she went on, eyeing me closely, after he broke the arm of one of his white students. So skilled was Mrs. Stockton at dealing with me, the inquisitive white woman in her classroom, that I detected not a trace of emotion in her voice as she related this appalling story. She left unsaid everything that mattered about Mr. Snead's reassignment to Morton: the powerlessness of the black principal to prevent it; the fears of the children whom Mr. Snead taught; the anxiety of their parents; the outrage of the African American community at the white superintendent's blatant disregard for the safety of the children under Mr. Snead's supervision; the terrible message that his presence at Morton sent about the relative value of white and black children.

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About Iowa Writes

Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.

In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.

Find out more about submitting by contacting iowa-writes@uiowa.edu


HUSTON DIEHL

Huston Diehl is a professor of English at the University of Iowa. An award-winning teacher, she has published a number of essays on pedagogy as well as many articles on Renaissance literature. Dream Not of Other Worlds was published this month by the University of Iowa Press.

Established in 1938 and housed in the historic Kuhl House, the oldest house still standing in Iowa City, the University of Iowa Press publishes scholarly books and a wide variety of titles that will appeal to general readers. As the only university press in the state, it is dedicated to preserving the literature, history, culture, wildlife, and natural areas of the region.

University of Iowa Press

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on April 18, 2007

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