With this being Black History Month, thankfully many great leaders in mine and the country’s history are being celebrated. Hopefully, schools both public and private are getting more than one day or a single program about the incredible trials and accomplishments of people who came here without being counted as human beings.
With the great familiar names to be honored, I am interested in citing a teacher you probably don’t know — and who was not my favorite instructor. On a scale of all my teachers, the late Melba Simmons is not in the top 10. Interestingly, I was one of her favorite students. Go figure.
Mrs. Simmons, my fifth grade teacher at Reddy Elementary School in Baton Rouge, was also the choir director and pianist. I had no interest in the melodic sounds of a piano and was not fond of being in the choir, something she forced her whole class to take part in.
The good thing was that she detected early on that my voice was not harmonious and quickly eliminated me from the school’s angelic voices.
Here is where she really made a difference.
She would also make us read “out loud” in the classroom. I hated it, but it came with the territory. You had to pronounce every word clearly and if not, you had to hear her repeat it and then you would repeat. At the end of the words, no dropped "th" or "ing" was allowed. And this happened even if you were explaining a math problem.
While she taught all the basic courses, English, vocabulary and reading were her big deals. It was years later before I understood and appreciated what she was doing.
But she did something else that really jolted us.
Mrs. Simmons invited us to her home in Southern Heights, then a swanky several blocks of a subdivision near Scotlandville and Southern University. SU professors, administrators, school principals and Black folks doing well economically lived there. No one in our class lived there. In fact, few, if any of us, had ever been there.
On that Sunday, I observed many brick homes with large windows and nice front yards. Unlike in our neighborhoods, no one was outside playing hopscotch, jump rope or softball in the streets. No one was noisily speeding down the middle of the street on a scooter board outfitted with wheels removed from skates. There was no one playing cards or dominoes in the driveways or the house fronts.
Now, that may have been the case on other days, but it wasn’t that Sunday in 1965.
Mrs. Simmons had a large backyard where we played baseball (with a plastic ball and bat) and kickball.
When we went into the house to get prepared snacks, some of us were startled by a water fountain in the kitchen. Wait. A water fountain in someone’s house? The boys took turns drinking from the fountain, not because we were thirsty, but because it was a water fountain in a person’s house. No doubt that water had to be better than the tap water at our houses. We returned often.
We discovered a shower behind sliding doors in the bathroom. Wait. A shower in someone’s house with sliding entry doors? Some of us took turns sliding the doors back and forth just to establish we were there. One boy — me — turned the shower on, but just enough so that the water could be dried up quickly with paper to hide the evidence.
Years later, I finally got it. She was showing us there was something out there that we could strive for, that we could have that if we did well in school because those houses were owned by people that looked like us. If we pronounced "th" and "ing," did our math and minded the rules, we could do that, too.
Melba Simmons isn’t a household name in the Black struggle in Baton Rouge and Louisiana. And she was not my favorite teacher. But she purposefully and subtly showed little Black children from old South Baton Rouge that education, hard work and drive could literally open doors for us. For my money, that’s worthy of a Black History Month citation.
Email Edward Pratt, a former newspaperman, at firstname.lastname@example.org.