Texas History: Flashbacks to teachable moments
I signed up for my first full-time teaching job in late September 1978 at Francis Scott Key Junior High School in Houston’s Fifth Ward, a predominantly Black neighborhood since the 1880s.
My remit was American history, but the course soon veered into Texas history, since it is always easier to explain the larger geographical and historical picture if you start closer to home.
My students — 98% Black — were curious, lively and assertive. My teaching style could be called “creative chaos,” more like a mostly happy, noisy college seminar than a standard high school class of the day. Every once in a while, a matronly teacher from down the hall would poke her head disapprovingly through our door. The students always snapped to attention.
They knew who held the real power at Key, and it wasn’t the tall, skinny, ginger-headed 23-year-old teacher from West Houston.
The school principal asked me during the short job interview if I was a “missionary,” by which I supposed he meant a wannabe social worker. No, I needed a job. I had just moved back to my hometown from New York City in the middle of September. I lived 12 minutes away with friends in the mixed-race neighborhood of Houston Heights near Woodland Park, an area rich in history as well.
About a month into my time at Key, I understood that we collectively needed new points of entry for exploring geography and history. So, in the manner of the day, I created diagnostic tests: What did the students already know, and how could we redirect the course to bring them up to speed?
Their answers were typical of any junior high student in the country. They saw the world through two main lenses: Life on the ground and another life as reflected through television. This was well before cable, much less streaming, so that meant a good deal of televised escapism, and shows that invited argument, such as “All in the Family” and “Maude,” as well as a few series that starred people of color, such as “Good Times,” “Chico and the Man,” “The Jeffersons” and “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids.”
Also, thank goodness, it had recently meant “Roots,” an excellent 1977 miniseries about slavery that provided endless fodder for our American history class.
The students’ answers on the diagnostics about geographical scale, historical time and racial imbalances, however, helped me find new ways to teach.
For instance, many seemed to believe that Houston and the United States were about the same size. This is understandable if you know the Houston metro area, which, at 10,000 square miles today, is larger than dozens of countries.
I had the advantage of living in several states, vacationing around Texas and New Mexico, and even crossing the Atlantic by age 23. Most of my students did not share those experiences yet.
So I turned to maps. Lots of maps hung on the classroom walls. And during each class, I pointed out every location we discussed and made sure the scale of comparison was visually compelling.
Sometimes, the students would joke after a tough quiz or a heavy homework, “Slave days are over, Mr. Barnes,” or say I might have owned slaves earlier in life. I didn’t laugh outright. After all, I was 10 years older — ancient to them — and white.
Theirs was just the way that I thought at their age. When I thought about people my parents’ age who had lived through the Great Depression and World War II, did they know Hitler or FDR? (In fact, it turned out that I believe my maternal grandmother, a social worker, probably did meet President Franklin Roosevelt, but that’s another story.)
So I adopted timelines. As a student myself, I had always thought that historical timelines were boring and, well, too linear. But in fact, they give a person a sense of why dates matter. This historical event or person followed that event or person. Without falling for the seductive belief that the lines represented some sort of historical progress, or the “March of History,” as it was called, timelines are useful.
Another concept, harder to define, related to systemic racism, especially segregation, and how it defined the actual landscape of our city and our state. Many of my students rarely left the Fifth Ward, except to take the bus downtown, or to visit relatives in other segregated communities. And although Texas is home to the largest number of African Americans of any state (almost 4 million today), they make up just 14% of the total population.
To the rescue came two things: recorded media and field trips. I could play selections, for instance, of the Broadway musical “1776” about the country’s Founding Fathers and foster a discussion about how this roomful of funny white men — irascible and likable in the context of the show — locked in the fates of all women and almost all Black people as well as Native Americans.
It gave me secret pleasure to hear them singing “Sit Down, John” — about John Adams — as they clanged down the hallways, even if I wished they paid more attention to “Molasses to Rum,” which indicted the North in the slave trade, a more consequential historical point than Adams’ irritating manner in the weeks prior to the Declaration of Independence.
Can you imagine if we’d had “Hamilton” back then? But hip-hop was still in its infancy, as I knew from my time living in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York, long before that district became fancy and way too expensive.
The chaperoned field trips started with Houston landmarks. Then we moved on to Washington-on-the-Brazos, not only the site of Texas Declaration of Independence from Mexico but also the cotton-growing heartland of historical Texas and, therefore, of slavery. On another day trip, we headed to Huntsville, home to Texas President Sam Houston. It was also a chance to take back roads through the Piney Woods, which sometimes took us past solitary wooden churches that formed the hearts of post-Emancipation freedom colonies.
Come May 1979, I did not rate my first year of teaching as a success.
Yet I’d learned a lot, and I signed up for another tour of duty. To my surprise, instead, I was recruited by a suburban school more than 30 miles away — but still in Houston. At a gleaming new high school, they wanted me to teach theater, which was my major in college; history had been my minor.
I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to my Key students because I assumed we’d all be back the next year. Yet I thought of them whenever I passed the junior high, which became Key Middle School, on the freeway. In time, the shiny, angular Barbara Jordan Career Center also graced its campus.
This made me smile because we had discussed Jordan in her role as part of the relatively recent Watergate hearings and her loyalty to the U.S. Constitution. Jordan had been my congresswoman while I attended undergraduate school at the University of Houston, and I reveled in her singularly stentorian tones when she spoke there once.
I thought of my former students again in 2008 when Barack Obama was elected president. They would have been in their 40s by then and abundantly aware of the historical significance of the first Black president.
I thought of them again in August 2020 when Sen. Kamala Harris became the first African American woman to run on a major-party presidential ticket.
This time, she, at 55, is about their age.
That makes 1978 seem so long ago. But that’s history.