PRACTICE WHAT YOU TEACH
part 1 of 2
"I have received your letter and one from your unfortunate boy. I am very sorry for you."
Over the past 120 years the paper has yellowed with age and the ink has faded to a light brown that is barely legible. The author, Miss L.M. Swenson of New York City, wrote the letter to one of her former slaves, Judy Jones, counseling the woman how to go about trying to obtain a pardon for her son, L.W. Robinson.
Swenson urged Jones to write a petition to the governor of Texas, where Robinson had been convicted of killing a white man. He had gone to town one morning in 1871 to sell his cotton. As a colored, he was forced to wait until the end of the day--after all the white farmers had been taken care of. And even then, one particular white man was still offended by his presence and his lack of humility around his "betters."
Robinson was an African man, born and raised in freedom until he was captured and brought to America in chains with other members of his family. Slavery had never bowed his spirit. And now, a half-dozen years after Emancipation, he saw no reason to kowtow to any man.
He had waited all day in the blistering Texas sun because he had to feed and house his family. But he wasn't going to put up with abuse without fighting back. There was a confrontation, and the white man died.
An all-white jury sentenced Robinson to life in prison. His mother, an educated woman, spent the next three years writing letters and meeting with officials, hoping to commute her son's sentence. He was a good man, she pleaded, a hard worker who could read and write and had never before been in trouble with the law.
She wrote to her former owner asking for her help. The woman responded:
"Ask the white people to sign the petition. If you can get the jury men and the judge to sign it, I believe it will have great influence on the governor. When you get the petition signed, I will write to the governor and ask for his merciful interference on your behalf.
"Remember me to all my old servants and remind them to be honest, industrious and to love and fear God."
Over a century later, Robinson's great-great-granddaughter, Delia Armstrong-Busby, gently turns the plastic sleeve of a scrapbook that protects the letter and other family heirlooms. She reaches inside the next sleeve and gingerly withdraws another fragile document.
"Her persistence paid off," Delia says. "This is his pardon."
The document, dated July 22, 1874, is signed by R.B. Hubbard, the governor of the young state of Texas. Citing Robinson's otherwise "exemplary character" and noting that letters had been written to him by Swenson and the judge who presided over the trial, Hubbard determined that three years had been punishment enough.
Robinson left prison and made good on his second chance, becoming a successful businessman and respected community leader. But his descendants say his greatest accomplishment was starting a school for black children in Eagle Lake, Texas.
The ability to read and write, to communicate and debate, had certainly saved his from being a wasted life. The importance of education would be the legacy he would pass on to his children and their children's children, like the scrapbooks that now rest on Delia's lap.
She carefully folds and replaces the pardon. Some member of the family is always charged with being the custodian of the family history, and she's it for this generation.
She also has done her best to carry on Robinson's legacy--from her childhood in South Central Los Angeles, through the Watts riots of 1965, to her controversial appointment as the first black woman principal of a Colorado high school--William Mitchell High School, in Colorado Springs.
There Delia won national and state awards for her innovative programs to combat gangs and drugs and to keep troubled kids in school when everyone else seemed to have given up on them. Her supporters include the children (many of them now in college) and the parents who appreciated the second chance, as well as police officers and district attorneys.
But she also made enemies along the way. School district administrators. Faculty members. The teachers' union. Even a certain clique of parents who complained that she was spending too much of her time keeping "the wrong kind of kids in school."
They cost her the job she loved, the job she'd trained for since she was a child.
South Central Los Angeles wasn't such a bad place when Delia Bliss ("Because I was so happy to have you," her mother told her) Armstrong was growing up. Her father, William Theodore Armstrong, was a longshoreman who made a good living and bought the family's small house in 1949--four years after Delia was born.
Back then the neighborhood was integrated. Blacks and whites lived peacefully side by side, competing good-naturedly to keep their yards neat and their homes in good repair. Street after street spoke of proud ownership.
The Armstrongs lived across 49th Street from South Park, a place where children could play safely, even after dark. They were within walking distance of the University of Southern California campus and the Coliseum, and only about five blocks from the main business section of the area, Broadway Street.
It was a perfect place to raise kids. Unfortunately, however, theirs was not a perfect family. Delia's father was an educated man who had gone to Prairie View College in Texas, but he was also prone to violent rages. Most of his anger he vented on his wife, Zeltee, and eldest son, Scott.
Delia, a sickly child who suffered from emotionally induced bouts of asthma, escaped the worst of her father's wrath, as did her younger sister and brother, Mary Pearl and Theodore. But she would always be haunted by her mother's and brother's screams and the sight of their blood on the floor.
She was nine years old when her mother finally decided she'd had enough. Zeltee had disappointed her own well-educated family by getting pregnant at fifteen and dropping out of school. She had put up with her husband for years for the children's sake. But one day when he came home drunk, Zeltee and her children hid in the closet, and Delia heard her mother whisper, "No more. No more." Zeltee went to court to have him thrown out of the house and was soon divorced.
Zeltee went to beautician school and opened the Pink Cloud Beauty Salon in their house. After a few years she remarried and had another son, Preston. The nightmare of living with Delia's father receded, especially after the family moved to west Los Angeles to escape his harassment.
Zeltee expected a lot from her children. They were taught to take personal responsibility for their actions, and Delia was often charged with looking after her younger siblings. Her mother also insisted that the children speak the King's English.
"There will be no `dees' and `dats' in this house," she'd scold if she heard them speaking the patois of the streets.
It was a given that they would all graduate from high school--at least.
This expectation was hardest on Scott, who, perhaps because of the trauma of his earlier childhood, was often in trouble at school. But Zeltee stayed on him, ignoring his protests and shoving a newspaper into his hands every day.
"It's important that you know what's going on in the world around you," she'd say, then stand by while he read the paper from front to back. It was a constant battle, but in the end his mother always won. Scott graduated from high school and went on to trade school.
Zeltee never had that kind of trouble with Delia. A shy, awkward girl, she was happiest when surrounded by books in the safety of school.
Delia was a different kind of kid, a fact that became even more pronounced after the family moved back to the old neighborhood when she was in the eleventh grade.
The neighborhood had changed dramatically in the seven years since the family had left. Most of the property owners were gone, especially the white ones. The neighbors were now all blacks, most of them renters and many on welfare.
The once-tidy yards were unkempt and the houses badly in need of paint. But the new inhabitants didn't seem to care--not about the places they lived in and not about their kids, who often dropped out of school and spent their time hanging out on the streets.
"Hey, school girl, where you goin' with them books?" they'd taunt Delia as she walked past on her way to school.
They'd accuse her of being an Uncle Tom. It was unfair, she thought. She was as proud of her race as any of them; she just didn't equate being black with having to be ignorant. So she ignored the jeers and kept her eyes--and her mind--on where she wanted to go.
She took pride in the success of the black-owned businesses that kept Broadway alive. She was thrilled one day by the sight of Cassius Clay walking into a coffeeshop. And she would never forget the rainy day when the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech--a message of hope and pride--in South Park. When his supporters urged him to get out of the rain, King shrugged them off by saying, "A Baptist minister should not mind getting a little wet."
It was an era of idealism, and Delia dreamed of doing something with her life that would make a difference to others.
At sixteen she began teaching Sunday school. Her moral convictions didn't do much for her social life; it seemed like all the girls she knew were having sex with their boyfriends, but her own code of conduct would not allow it. Besides, she knew she wasn't ready for the responsibility of an infant. Nor did she want to limit her choices. She saw what an early pregnancy had done to her mother.
Delia graduated from high school cum laude, 33rd in a class of more than 600, with a scholarship that paid for her tuition to California State University-Los Angeles.
In college, though, she quickly found that she still did not fit in with the other blacks. She thought that attending class was important, but the others spent their time in the student union, flirting, talking politics and playing cards. It was only much later that she realized what she had thought was indifference to academics was just another way of giving up in a world for which no one had prepared them.
College was a lonely time. No one invited Delia to parties. She wasn't rushed by a sorority. She was a square, and her dark skin put her at a social disadvantage among lighter-complected blacks.
Convinced that she was doing the right thing for her future, Delia threw herself into her studies. She discovered that her coursework at an inner-city high school had not prepared her for the university, and her first report card had three Cs and two Bs. Her mother took one look and tore it into little pieces. Delia resolved to try harder.
It wasn't easy. She had to sandwich her studies around working full-time at the Los Angeles Terminal Annex post office to pay for her books, materials and clothing. She was employed there in the summer of 1965 when South Central Los Angeles erupted in flames.
Broadway was on fire, and rioters carried off anything they could find. Mayor Sam Yorty told the police and fire departments to "let it burn" to teach the rioters a lesson.
Delia was afraid each night when she left work and drove back to her neighborhood, back to where the flames rose in the sky and people ran crazily down the streets. And after the fires died down and the rioters had looted all they could, the area returned to...well, there was no returning to normal. "Normal" had been allowed to burn.
All those hopeful black businesses, including the coffeeshop where she had seen Clay, were just smoldering ashes. Delia burst into tears when she saw what had happened to Broadway. A lot of dreams had gone up in smoke. After the riots, the neighborhood was a harder place, more fearful. Gangs appeared in greater numbers, and they were more violent. South Park was now the territory of gangs and drug dealers. Children couldn't play there safely, even during the day.
Delia loved kids and thought that she could make the greatest difference in their lives by becoming a teacher. She was well aware of the legacy of L.W. Robinson.
After graduation, Delia worked at Jefferson High School as a student teacher and community liaison. Jefferson High was a typical inner-city school. There were no supplies for the kids, and the books were outdated and torn. No one cared what happened to the children except for those teachers who struggled to keep them in school.
It was only 1967, but already the hallways weren't safe from the hoodlums--dropouts and petty criminals--who filtered in off the streets. The school was under siege and responded by locking the doors after the first bell, fencing the parking lot, hiring security guards and placing buzzers in the classrooms so teachers could summon help.
Delia felt sorry for the children who were trying to learn in such surroundings. The progeny of poor families--an increasing number of which were single-parent--they came to school hungry, ill-clothed and disillusioned about their futures. Even before they encountered the indifference of the school administration and city government toward the quality of their education, the odds were stacked against them. And Los Angeles would pay for that.
In 1968 Delia married Ronald Busby, a college-educated man who won her heart at her 21st birthday party by bowing to kiss her hand. He joined the Air Force and the couple, then expecting a child, moved to Colorado Springs. Their son, Aaron, was born in January of 1970; in August Delia accepted a teaching position at Holmes Junior High School.
On her first day at Holmes, Delia thought she'd died and gone to teaching heaven. The kids had supplies and new books, and they were eager to learn. No hoods wandered in off the streets to roam the hallways and threaten the students. Delia would laugh when she heard a teacher complain about "bad kids" when the offending behavior was nothing worse than mouthing off. These people didn't know bad...not yet.
The principal was Lyle Beaudin. He could be strict and didn't tolerate teachers whose main goal seemed to be getting the kids to like them. "Our job is to give kids a good education, whether they like you or not," he'd lecture at faculty meetings.
Nor would he accept some teachers' arguments that certain kids were just meant to fall by the wayside. "Try harder," he'd say. A child who failed was a failure for the whole school.
On the other hand, Beaudin was supportive of teachers who gave it their best shot. He befriended Delia, the only black in the school and one of the few in the district. When an opportunity opened up, he made her a part-time counselor--a traditional step toward becoming a school administrator. And when he was out of town, he often chose Delia to fill in for him.
After six years at Holmes, and with Beaudin's blessing and support, Delia became the full-time counselor at Washington Irving Junior High School, only the second black hired for such a position in the district.
Delia loved teaching, but she gave it up because she believed that as an administrator she would have more influence on the quality of education. She hoped to become a principal, one able to ensure that opportunities for a better future existed for every child.
Two years later, School District 11 was looking for a new dean of girls to replace the woman who was moving up to the slot of assistant principal for Dougherty High School, the jewel of the district's high schools. Superintendent George Carnie hired Delia to fill the opening.
The move antagonized much of the Dougherty faculty. Affirmative Action programs were just kicking in, and although they were intended to right years of discriminatory hiring practices, they were also causing a lot of resentment among whites.
Delia knew she was in for trouble when she saw a memorandum written by principal Chuck Gaul noting that she had "been placed" at Dougherty by the already unpopular superintendent. It did nothing to calm her fears when Carnie asked her to come to his office for a talk.
"Delia, having you go to Dougherty will be like Jackie Robinson breaking into the major leagues," he warned. "If they kick you, you can't kick back. If they fight you, you can't fight back."
When she arrived at Dougherty, Delia discovered that not only wouldn't Gaul give her keys to the school, but he had not allocated an office for her use, either. The dean of boys had both keys and an office, but the room Delia should have had was still occupied by the woman who was assuming the assistant principal's duties.
To her credit, the woman, Doris Caine, saw what was transpiring and gave up her office, moving her belongings into what was basically a supply closet. Without saying a word, she handed Delia a set of keys to the building.
It was one of the few kind gestures shown the new dean of girls. Otherwise, life at Dougherty was like Delia's college days all over again: She wasn't invited to social events nor included in casual conversations. Her friends tended to be teachers she'd known at other schools.
The ostracism hurt, but she did her best to ignore the slights and kept her mind on her work. Schools were changing in Colorado Springs. There was now a drug problem, even at Dougherty, where most students came from upper-middle-class families. Delia started a drug-intervention program, which caused some resentment from faculty members who didn't like the notoriety.
Delia reserved most of her free time for her husband and son. Aaron heard the same lectures about education and taking responsibility that his mother had grown up hearing. From early childhood, he knew that his grandparents had set aside money for his college education. His mother made sure he was signed up for an innovative program that taught children how to use computers, a rare opportunity at that time.
In 1980 Delia was elected president of the Colorado Springs Black Educators Association. The group was often locked in a struggle with the all-white, mostly male Colorado Springs Board of Education. The association's main gripe was that black teachers weren't treated equitably. The district tended to hire blacks to teach at schools with the largest black-student populations--and keep them there. These schools tended to lack resources and were considered a dead end.
In the late Seventies Deborah Williams, a young black teacher, had sued the district over the mobility issue and lost. The decision was appealed, overturned and appealed again. In 1981, as the case re-entered the legal process, Delia was contacted by an investigator for the Department of Justice who wanted to know whether, in Delia's opinion as president of the association, the department should enter the fray.
Delia's answer was yes, and she gave it knowing that it would further antagonize the administration. The result of that lawsuit was a mediated agreement that opened the door for black-teacher mobility. It would also open a door for Delia, who was appointed assistant principal of Mitchell High School in 1982 over Daryl Higman, a longtime geometry teacher and department chair at Wasson High School.
In June 1985 district administrators were about to announce their selection for the new principal of Mitchell High School. In accordance with the old-boy system that simply determined whose "turn" it was to be promoted, they had decided on Higman, then the acting principal of Wasson High School.
But in a surprise move, the Colorado Springs Board of Education rejected the administration's candidate. When Delia asked to be considered, district superintendent Arvel Ricketts refused to forward her name. So she went and spoke to the board president herself.
The board decided to appoint Delia as principal over the vigorous protests of the district administrators and some Mitchell staffers who argued that she wasn't qualified, and that "the NAACP got her the job."
But Delia felt she was qualified. She had been at the school several years and knew its problems. She had some ideas about how to fix them, too.
Some of Mitchell's younger teachers were excited by the prospect of change. But others, many of whom had been there for thirty years or more, made it known that they resented her appointment. The retiring principal, Lou Mikkelson, had come up through the ranks: first as teacher and coach, then dean of boys, assistant principal and finally principal. He was one of them, and Mitchell's faculty had a reputation as one of the most pro-union in the district.
Delia launched a series of meetings to discuss what the teachers needed, hoping it would bring the two sides together. But she was unable to win over many of her detractors.
Still, she had more to worry about than a disgruntled staff. Mitchell had a double-digit dropout rate, especially among its growing population of minority and low-income students. Thirty percent of the kids were minority; 40 percent of the students were from families that lived below the poverty level.
And there were more immediate concerns. The school was located in a business area and hemmed in on two sides by large apartment complexes that had a reputation for drug-dealing, shootings and other crimes.
A police officer warned Delia to stay out of the school parking lots when she was alone because of the danger. "My God, if I can't even go to the parking lot, how safe are these children?" she thought. The kids had to walk past those apartments to even get to school.
Although compared to the degeneration of inner-city schools in Los Angeles, where Delia's sister still lived in the old family home and complained about the increasing violence, Mitchell's problems were small, it was already developing a reputation in Colorado Springs as a "gang school."
Delia was worried about the effect the gang threat might have on the kids. She was even more worried about some teachers who seemed to think these kids weren't worth saving.
In Los Angeles, Delia had seen what happened when the people with the power gave up on kids: The kids gave up on themselves. Why not join a gang? At least in a gang there were people to support you.
But at Mitchell, there was Delia. One afternoon a counselor took the new principal aside and told her one of the school's worst-kept secrets. It seemed that a handsome counselor and girls' track coach had been having sexual relations with female students--and one of the girls had gotten pregnant and had an abortion.
Delia checked with other members of the faculty and was shocked to learn that this had been going on for at least a decade. She brought in a social worker, Doug Douglas, who launched an investigation. He combed through school yearbooks to identify girls the coach was alleged to have seduced and then talked to them. Most of the girls corroborated the allegations.
It would be several years before the legislature passed a law requiring that any such allegation be turned over to the police. Delia took her information to district superintendent Mike Kneale.
She'd learned that the coach had been reported to her predecessor and the district administration before, but nothing had been done. She wasn't about to let it go this time, even if some faculty members and administrators still supported the coach. Some had even contacted the Colorado Springs Board of Education to try to stop the investigation. Among those who went to bat for the coach was Jim Kocher, an assistant principal at Washington Junior High School, who would later butt heads with Delia.
In the end, the coach was forced to resign, and Delia believed that justice had been served. Only later did she learn that the man had been hired by another school district after being recommended by teachers and administrators in School District 11.
And the coach wasn't the only male at Mitchell who couldn't keep his hands off the female students. After hearing other allegations, Delia launched investigations that ended with the firing of two more teachers. One man appealed to the school board and was allowed to resign. Again, some faculty members supported the men in spite of the evidence.
In 1986 Delia's older brother Scott, who had become a longshoreman like his father, was stabbed to death in his Los Angeles apartment--one he'd purchased because of its security guards and hallway cameras. Neither had been sufficient to save him.
It was a grim reminder for Delia that society couldn't lock out its problems. It had to deal with such sticky issues as dropout rates, growing illiteracy, gangs and drugs, or soon the problems would find a way past the walls erected to keep them out.
end of part 1
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