I have had a few people tell me recently how I have impacted their lives for the better. Simple things like handing them a book that I liked or thanking them in public for a job well done at work. I think the simple things that happen around us have the greatest impact on our lives, not the large newsworthy events. I have been thinking about how several seemingly insignificant events can group together to focus our perspective of the world and how we decide to act as a part of it.
Early in life I developed a strong opinion of racism. I hated it. My opinion came from what little information I gleaned from TV, from listening to the Vietnam War veteran who taught me to write my name, and from racist jokes. I remember hearing a joke about a black person and seeing how all the adults laughed. Soon after that someone told the same joke, but instead of a black person, the target of the joke was a polish person. No one laughed and the teller was admonished because a family friend was Polish and besides, the joke was “just mean”. That stuck with me. Then there was a final event was the catalyst that fused everything else together.
It happened in the sixth grade. We had a teacher that was new to the school system. She came into class with an energy that was infectious. I loved it when she’d play her violin. I don’t think there was a single kid in the first months of the school year who dreaded coming to class. Ms. Zeigler was that special kind of teacher. One day she passed out paperbacks to the entire class. She told us it was a book about a boy and his dog and how hard it was to grow up poor. That struck a chord with me. I was wearing patched hand-me-down blue jeans, and my family hadn’t been able to afford to replace our TV after a lightening strike blew out the picture tube. Our family also had a dog. Many of the kids moaned, but I was exited. And not just because I was poor and reading was my major form of entertainment, either. On the cover was an emblem that declared the book was a Newbery Medal winner. I knew that winning the award was a big deal. Another Newbery winner was my favorite book at the time. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle is the book that got me interested in reading for fun, and the book that started me down the path of being a lifelong Science Fiction and Fantasy fan; more on that in another post. I was looking forward to reading this new book. I don’t remember if I read any of it that first night. What I do remember is the next morning at school. Ms. Zeigler was crying. She quietly asked us all to lay the paperbacks on our desks. The school principal came in with a few other people and they collected all the books. Before he left the principal told us it was a bad book, and that we should never read it. The book was Sounder by William H. Armstrong.
At different times during that day, Ms. Zeigler talked quietly to some of us when we asked about Sounder. She started crying again when she whispered to me that Sounder was a good book and that a parent had complained to a school board member, and that the only reason it was taken from us because the family in the story was black. All the insignificant racist events from earlier in my life fused together and I realized at that moment how despicable racism really was. I knew at that moment I hated it.
A few years later I finally read Sounder. The story moved me, and I finally truly understood why Ms. Zeigler had cried. I have not read the book for over thirty years, but every time I run across the movie adaptation of it on TV, I watch it. I regret never telling Ms. Zeigler how much that little event, her taking me into her confidence that day, meant to me. It is the earliest memory I have of my decision that my life would be better if I were kind to everyone around me, no matter who or what or how they were.
Jennifer Zeigler, who taught for a while in Pike County, Ohio, Thank You!