After Mississippi, New York was amazing. When I arrived there at the age of twelve, everything about it felt completely foreign and new. It was the first time I had ever seen snow. It was the first time I'd ever seen a city! It was also the first time I had attended desegregated schools, and the first time I'd seen black people on an equal footing with white people. Of course there was still subtle segregation, but for the most part, everyone was just trying to make money in New York. I felt my heart bursting with pride when I saw black people who had "made it"--black people who had nice homes and nice cars just like the rich white people.
Now, when I say that I was one of the lucky ones, I mean I was lucky because I got out of Mississippi. In a different way, though, I wasn't lucky at all: I had to leave my mother, who I loved more than life itself. There's no way to describe how much I missed her during those years in New York, and how much I continued to miss her when I was an adult. In fact, after I was an adult, I used to tell my mother in the same breath that while I was so happy she had let me go to New York--where I didn't have to live under segregation--I also felt that she shouldn't have sent me away. I believe both of those things with all of my heart, even though they contradict each other. And my mother used to laugh at my logic whenever I said that, but she understood.
"Oral Lee," she told me, "there's no way I could've pleased you. What would you have liked me to do?"
"I'd have liked you to have packed up and gotten on that train with me," I told her. "All of us should have moved to New York."
She just laughed and laughed. The truth is that my mother probably wouldn't have liked New York. She's a Southerner in every way. Much later on, when all of her children were living in California, she moved to California too. Even though we all loved it, she never really got used to living there. As hard as her life was there, Mississippi was her home. I appreciate that--but I still wish that I could've put her in my suitcase when I moved to New York.
Even though I only lived in Mississippi for twelve years, I had two crucial experiences there that shaped my life. The first thing that happened was that I met a young woman who taught me the importance of education.
I've noticed that a lot of people who have gone on to do work in education had a special teacher during their childhood. If you read the autobiographies of educators like Helen Keller or Booker T. Washington, you'll notice that, even though they started their lives with huge disadvantages, there was someone in their childhood who mentored them and encouraged them; someone who believed in them. For me, that person was Miss Grace.
Miss Grace was not from Batesville. I believe she was from a big town in the South, maybe Memphis. She lived in the town of Batesville, in a house that was set up especially for young female teachers from out of town. There were a few teachers who came from hotshot cities to teach us ragged kids in Batesville; I'm sure there were white women who did this for the white schools too. A number of young teachers lived in Miss Grace's house, staying in their own apartments and boarding together. Young women didn't stay on their own then like they do now. And Miss Grace was young--she must have been about twenty-two years old, fresh out of college.
She was also beautiful. I'm not just saying that because she was the kindest lady you'd ever meet in your life! She was truly a pretty woman, and all the men in town used to stare at her. But she was one of those people who didn't even notice that kind of attention, because even though she was pretty she wasn't a snob. She was just everything that you could ever want to be: kind, beautiful, charming, gracious, sweet, intelligent, concerned. My brother Homer also had her as a teacher and even after we were grown we used to talk about how much we loved her. She was the sort of person who everyone loved.
Excerpted from The Promise by Oral Lee Brown with Caille Millner Copyright © 2005 by Oral Lee Brown. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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