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Kathy Fleming

© 2000

Three Students

I’ve encountered lots of students in my career as a teacher. I choose to believe that they’re all special in some way or another, but I’ve decided to share a little bit about three very special ones who stand out from my first year of teaching. I was a participant in a Teacher Corps program in Hartford, Connecticut, and I taught beginning reading in an elementary school. Because there were too many students in the main school, and because a number of the more adventuresome teachers wanted to try out the “open school” concept, a two-story former synagogue across the street was adopted for the experiment. I made a lot of mistakes during that year, but like most of us, I made up for it with my enthusiasm, my superhuman effort, and the sheer joy I shared in teaching.


I’ll start right out by telling you a little about James Green. James was special because of his, well … firmness.

James was firm in his bearing. Although he was only seven years old when I first knew him, his legs seemed to have a mature, piston-like relationship with the ground, and his feet seemed born to bond with the floor beneath him. Like one of those life-sized clown toys, you just couldn’t knock him over. He played standing up, he ate standing up, he even read books standing up. He was small and wiry, but solid as a rock.

James was also firm in his demeanor. I shared that momentous event with him when he read his first word. “B-I-T,” he sounded it out so carefully. “BIT,” he repeated without the expected demonstration of pride or huzzahs of achievement. And then, without hesitation, “BITE, PIN, PINE.” I was overjoyed! He was truly decoding! The print world was at his fingertips! But James, seemingly unimpressed, stolidly continued. “THE MIST IS ON THE MAST …”

Most of all, though, I’ll remember James for a trait admirable in an adult, but remarkable in a seven-year-old. There was no question about it. James knew without a doubt who he was and, most certainly, who he wasn’t. We had a sub one day who understandably persisted in calling James, Jimmy. He was, after all, a rather diminutive, albeit firm, second grader. Did I mention James’s patience? He put up with the nickname as long as he could, but by lunchtime, he was compelled to retrieve his identity.

“Teacher,” he firmly corrected the sub, “my name ain’t no Jimmy!”


I will never forget Crystal, because I sometimes worried a little about her. She was the only one in my kindergarten homeroom who had a hard time with the worksheets on which the students had to underline the right-sized top to match the picture of the pot, or circle the drawing of the hexagon but not the pentagon. (I wasn’t all that worried, because I also had a hard time with these tasks.)

I became especially concerned, however, when Crystal was “it” for a little pre-reading game we often played. The game went like this: The “it” would pick an object visible in the classroom and then start a guessing game with the words, “I spy with my little eye, something that starts with the sound - - -” The student would utter the initial sound of the object, and the other kids would try to guess what it was by looking around the classroom. Crystal always won. No one ever guessed her word because she chose words from a category that no one else could have fathomed. While others chose sounds like fuh, fuh, for FLAG, or muh, muh, for MAP, Crystal’s clues were more like huh, huh, for HIGH, or ruh, ruh, for RUNNY. Maybe Crystal had just started school too early, or maybe she would always have a problem with certain concepts; I just didn’t know.

But there’s another reason I will never forget Crystal, and that’s because we shared a moment of supreme awe. It happened on the school field trip to the farm campus of the state university. The first event on that sunny, spring day was a walking tour of the paddocks where a few horses and cows were grazing. Crystal was one of my charges for the day, and as we walked along the fence holding hands, we both stopped dead in our tracks. An uncastrated male horse stood behind the fence about thirty feet ahead of us.

Like Crystal, I was a city girl, but I knew right away what had caught our attention. For what seemed like a long time, we both just stared and stared. Then, Crystal spoke: “What’s that, Miss Flemings?” As awe-stricken as I, she slowly drew out her words. My pedagogic responsibility to answer Crystal’s question brought me out of my stupor. As I came to, I thought, How should I answer? Genitaliac euphemisms raced through my mind … Family jewels?… Protruberance?… Johnson?… Weasel?… I had no idea what terms she might know. Maybe I should just be anatomically correct. Okay, … Penis! Did she know the word penis? Had she ever seen a penis? What if she had? What if she had and she was the victim of child abuse? What if I would be pouring salt on a wound that would trouble Crystal for the rest of her life, and all because of my incompetence and insensitivity?

In the end, I caved in and took the easy way out: “I think that’s where he goes to the bathroom, Crystal.”

“Oh,” she replied slowly, still staring at the topic of our discussion. Did her problem with spatial relationships hinder her understanding? Did she have any conception of what we were beholding? Did I let her down as a teacher? Or did it even matter to her? Because in the end, the sun was still shining, and we had a good day together at the farm.


“Martin Luther King…,” “Black Pride…,” “Freedom…,” “Black is Beautiful” – the words and phrases drifted my way as I worked, unconcerned, correcting papers from lessons of the day before. I was sitting at a little round table, knees almost to my chin, in the cavernous upper floor of the open school where I was teaching beginning reading in the fall of 1969. Little did I know that I was about to learn a lesson myself, a lesson in courage, and I would learn it from a six-year-old.

A few minutes before, a fourth grader had slandered another with a loud and clear retort. As the word Nigger! resounded, the pleasant babble of activity which usually characterized the floor came to a standstill. Mrs. Alleyn, the lead teacher, took charge. You should know that Mrs. Alleyn, all five feet of her, was to be feared. I feared her, so you can imagine the healthy respect she commanded in the students.

She seized the moment. She sat all of the children down on the floor and started her lecture. The issue with the offending epithet was as much one of self-esteem as of racism since all of the students—and almost all of the teachers—were black. I tried to make myself invisible and edged my way to the periphery of the group. I sat down at the student-sized table to catch up on grading papers during what I felt would be a spirited and timely pep talk.

After a few minutes, I became vaguely aware of a small, furtive movement somewhere to my left, and it seemed to be making its way toward me. Soon, a tiny black hand appeared from under the table and slowly worked its way up to cover mine. Afraid to call attention to myself, I hazarded a surreptitious peek out of the corner of my eye. The hand belonged to Carleton, Carleton Miles Davis.

Ever since I’d known him, Carleton had acted as a sort of self-appointed guardian angel for the downtrodden of the first grade. “Mrs. Fleming,” he’d whisper, “the big boys are picking on Tyler again.” And sure enough, the frequent threats to the vulnerable class weakling were close to becoming a physical reality. Or, “Mrs. Fleming, Beth spilled carrot juice on her dress,” and Carleton would take me by the hand to the corner where the most mature (and thus most shunned) member of the class was silently crying.

I want to make sure you understand that Carleton didn’t perform his role in a tattletale, teacher’s-pet sort of way. Rather, he had a true and rare gift, a keen sense of timing and degree and justice and fairness. All the kids liked him, and I loved him for the constant support he gave me in my first year of teaching.
What a lesson for me, then, on that day, to realize that Carleton now saw me as one of the picked on, a white person somehow under assault by the rather strident slogans with which Mrs. Alleyn was fortifying the egos of her young charges. Even worse, how smug of me, basking in ethnic oblivion, to remain unconcerned about language that clearly should have been somewhat unsettling to me.

So finally, there was Carleton, my tiny hero, braving the wrath of Mrs. Alleyn, come to comfort me. “Mrs. Fleming,” he whispered, “all colors are beautiful.”

Kathy Fleming was a 2000 Selective fellow. She teachers English and Russian at South St. Paul High School, where she also coordinates the International Baccalaureate program. Her favorite book is Myths of Modern Individualism by Ian Watt, and she is a fan of The X-Files.