Thursday, July 22, 2021

Flashback 2003: Travel to Detroit? Sure, and I'll bring a colleague

      Twitter gets a bad rap. But I find it an easy way to interact with people I might never meet otherwise. It's been particularly valuable during COVID, when we all hunkered down and kept out of the public whirl. On Wednesday, Shermann 'Dilla' Thomas, a Chicago historian who runs walking tours of the city,  said he'd like to meet me, and Mary Mitchell. I began to reply that I'd be happy to meet him—I'm happy to meet pretty much anybody—but Mary might be harder to pin down. But then I remembered this incident, and felt that I might be selling her short. It's also a reminder of the sort of thing we miss not being in an office.

     "Security sent this up,'' said the grinning, lanky reporter, dropping a manila envelope onto my cluttered desk. "We opened it very carefully.''
     I took the envelope and gingerly peeked inside, then dumped out the contents: Three music CDs. Two notes scrawled on personal checks. A parking lot ticket from Midway Airport. And the key to a pickup truck.
     "I made some phone calls,'' the reporter continued. "She's a teacher at an inner-city high school in Detroit. She drove here last night and left her truck in the parking lot at Midway. Then she went back."
     "Why?" I said.
     "She wants," he answered, "somebody from the newspaper to drive her truck back to Detroit." 
     "Why?" I asked again. He didn't really know.
     I thanked him and he left. I sat at my desk, turning the key over in my hands and gazing at it. Then I phoned the teacher. She said she wanted someone from the outside world to come and talk to her students.
     "I'll do anything to get the attention I think I need to at the time to get my point across," she said. 
     And that point is? I asked.
     "I love the kids in my classroom and I would do anything for them," she said. "I'm white and they're black. This is about teaching them self-love, self-respect, self-esteem."
     I said I wasn't quite following her logic.
     "I'd love for you to drive it back, just so you can tell the kids what a strange thing [I] did for them," she said. "They'd love it."
     It's a five-hour drive to Detroit, I said.
     "You could talk about the value of math in your work," she said. "If you've got an African-American reporter you could bring along, that would be beautiful, them seeing a white and a black working together."
     Maybe it was the real-world pathos of that last sentiment. Maybe I was seduced by the chance to push math. But for some reason the wall that reporters count on to keep out people who seem not quite right lowered a little. I told her I would call her back and stepped next door, to Mary Mitchell's office (Mary, for those of you reading online in Sweden, is the paper's outspoken voice of in-your-face black womanhood).
     "Mary," I said, "would you go to Detroit with me so that this teacher's class can see a black and a white working together?" 
     She didn't blink. 
     "Sure," she said, barely looking up. I will always give her credit for that.
     I called the teacher back. "We're there," I said. This was a Wednesday afternoon. Tomorrow was too soon. I still had to get the truck from Midway. And airplane tickets back. "Friday," I told her. She was very happy. "I assure you we will pack that auditorium," she said. Which seemed odd. That confidence. As did, when I asked for the school's address, her not knowing. I asked if she would mind if I called the principal, just to get a few quotes about her. She said of course not and gave me his name.
     Acts of generosity are alien to me. I don't tutor kids or volunteer at soup kitchens. It isn't in my nature. But now I was elated. Talking to these kids would be a kind of atonement, for my being in general such a pitiless bastard. I have always loved the story of Jonah, for how he squirms when God tries to send him to Nineveh to preach. Maybe, I told myself, this is a sign. Maybe there's some kid in Detroit who needs Mary Mitchell and me to give him a good talking to. How could I even consider dodging this mission? I'd end up inside a whale.
     The next day I planned to scoot to Midway, get the truck, then bring it home. I'd pick up Mary Friday morning bright and early and we could set out for Detroit to bring those kids the good news about mathematics and racial harmony. Then I remembered the principal. I placed a call.
     "That sounds farfetched," he said, adding the teacher had just come back from a medical leave which "might have affected her judgment."
     The truck trick was odd, I agreed. But it goaded us toward Detroit.
     "We have to check with our district before we do something like that," he said. "She should have checked with me. There is an activity request. I have to go through my office of communications, and follow other protocols. I would put everything on hold."
    So we shouldn't come? I said, disappointed. No, he said, don't come.
     I knew I should have been happy--off the hook!--but I felt terrible, like I had ratted out the teacher. "I had to call the principal, right?" I asked several colleagues. "That was only prudent. Right?"
     The teacher called, crestfallen, to thank me. They had walked her off school grounds after I phoned the principal and told her not to come back until she had a psychological screening. She seemed to blame the principal, for not warming to news of her drive to Chicago and her invitation to the paper. And while I'm all for math, and for loving your students, and passionate teaching, I found myself arguing with her.
     "How can you expect your kids to follow rules and function in a complex society if their teacher won't?" I asked. She didn't see my point.
     Since then, she's sent me thick packets of letters from her students, many saying they haven't learned anything since she's been away. That was meant as support for her, but it seemed to me more of an indictment. What kind of teacher would be proud that her students stopped learning in her absence? Not that I don't have sympathy. Her heart seems pure. And seven years in a tough urban high school could drive anyone close to the edge, if not around the bend. But sometimes you have to follow the rules. A math teacher, of all people, should know that.
             —Originally published in the Sun-Times March 21, 2003


  1. Heartbreaking. But I guess it could have been worse, if you'd just gone to Detroit and been met by a phalanx of cops rather than an auditorium full of eager youngsters.


    1. I thought the same thing...a shlep across Michigan on I-94, only to be met by police and school administrators and given the boot. Sounds like that woman has some head problems. But everyone needs a trip to Detroit, if only to gain appreciation for where they come from.

      It's in sad shape, after being such a dynamic for being the "arsenal of democracy" during WWII, the B-24s flying (literally) out of the vast factory at Willow Run. The automobile plants converted to Jeeps and trucks. People have always worked hard in Detroit, and they have always played hard.

      I've been going there since I was three years old, to visit relatives, and I've had friends there for decades, mostly natives. One of them even taught in the Detroit school system for 37 years. She's retired now, and she's also quite loco in the cabeza, but we won't talk about that.

      Detroit might have been quite an experience, Mr. S. And quite a story. I was sorta disappointed when it didn't happen.

  2. I started reading this thinking "You and Mary Mitchell on a road trip to Detroit in a pickup truck" would be a great reality show, even pay-per-view at that. If you're driving and she tells you to slow down, you better listen, I know I would. Never too late , sure would be interesting.

  3. I would have driven to the airport to see if the truck was really there.

  4. If everything had worked out as she dreamed, I could see the rights being bought by Netflix. I am left wondering though, what happened to her truck?


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