Teacher, Student Recall a Segregated Classroom As a young teacher, Huston Diehl's first class was a group of fourth-graders in rural Virginia. It was 1970, in the waning days of officially-sanctioned segregation. Diehl recalls her experiences in a new book, Dream Not of Other Worlds.

Teacher, Student Recall a Segregated Classroom

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Huston Diehl, a professor of English at the University of Iowa, had heard from other career teachers that you always remember your first class in a special way. But Professor Diehl's first class was a group of fourth graders at the ZC Morgan Elementary School in Louisa County, Virginia in the waning days of officially sanctioned segregation, separate and decidedly unequal schooling. And as so many teachers do, Huston Diehl discovered that she learned more from her students than they might have ever had the chance to learn from her. Professor Diehl has a new book, published by the University of Iowa Press. It's called "Dream Not of Other Worlds: Teaching in a Segregated Elementary School, 1970." She joins us now from the studios of member station WSUI in Iowa City, Iowa. Professor, thanks so much for being with us.

Professor HUSTON DIEHL (University of Iowa): It's good to be here.

SIMON: And we're also pleased to be joined by one of her former students, Matilda Buford, who now joins us from the studios of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Ms. Buford, thank you very much for being with us.

Ms. MATILDA BUFORD (Former Student): Thank you for having me.

SIMON: I have to tell you, to begin with, Professor Diehl, it was a revelation to me to know that there were segregated schools as late as 1970.

Prof. DIEHL: That's right. One of the reasons I wanted to write the book was that so many of my students have no idea how I could possibly be old enough to have had this experience. But they were segregated in 1970.

SIMON: Ms. Buford?

Ms. BUFORD: Yes.

SIMON: The civil rights movement had been going on for a number of years at that point and I wonder if in Louisa County you and your classmates, your friends, were aware of being in a segregated society?

Ms. BUFORD: To be perfectly honest, I don't think we did. When you're young you don't even think about your peers. You're just with them and you have fun with them and you don't really look at color.

SIMON: Ms. Diehl, tell us, if you recall, about your first - what amounted to geography lesson. You walked into the classroom of fourth graders and they wanted to know where you were from and you'd just graduated from school in Colorado, I guess.

Prof. DIEHL: That's right.

SIMON: Began to look for a map.

Prof. DIEHL: I said, do you have a map of the United States? I'll show you where I come from. And a little girl pulled down a map and I thought, great. And I turned to it and it was a map of Virginia. So I said, this isn't a map of the United States, there are no Rocky Mountains here. And a little boy said, yes, it is, here are the mountains. And they pointed to the Shenandoah Mountains. And my geography lesson collapsed.

SIMON: Ms. Buford, I was flabbergasted to learn in your school the county did not provide textbooks.

Ms. BUFORD: I was flabbergasted to realize that as well. I just remember being in class and having children sitting on both sides of me and we were sharing books and didn't realize that the county did not provide them for us.

SIMON: Yeah.

Prof. DIEHL: I would add that when I went back and did research for the book, I discovered more and more how much there was this strong presumption that African American children could not be educated, should not be educated. It began when I was hired and the superintendent of the schools told me, I don't expect you to teach those children anything.

SIMON: Huston Diehl, what brought you to teach there?

Prof. DIEHL: I was 21. I had just graduated from college a semester early and I joined my husband, who was teaching there for the year, because in 1970 he could still get a draft deferment by teaching in a select number of very impoverished schools where they were desperate for math and science teachers.

SIMON: Ms. Buford, tell us about your classmates, who you remember, what you remember of them.

Ms. BUFORD: I remember a lot of chaos, a lot of confusion between the students, and it wasn't that way before she came. But I didn't associate it with, you know, the racial issue. I, you know, being a child, I just knew that things seemed a lot different than the way they were when the other teacher was there.

SIMON: Mrs. Stockton, you mean?

Ms. BUFORD: Yes.

SIMON: Mrs. Stockton left, I'm trying to remember why.

Prof. DIEHL: She had a maternity leave.

Ms. BUFORD: That's right, yes.

Prof. DIEHL: And I should add to what Matilda's saying there, that what she's not saying is the norm at the school was corporal punishment. I had never experienced corporal punishment and couldn't bring myself to do it and therefore I lost complete control of my students. And (unintelligible) back and thinking about this experience to understand why it was so important for these children to learn how to obey immediately, because in the Jim Crow South they were in danger, they were vulnerable if they didn't appreciate authority and immediately obey it. I of course was trying to teach them to question authority, which was not the correct thing to be doing at that moment in time.

SIMON: I want to get Professor Diehl to talk about what brought her, in her own personal life, to write this book, and brought you back to Louisa County.

Prof. DIEHL: Right. I had always wanted to write about this experience, but it really took a medical crisis in my own life to prompt me to do it. About eight years ago, I had a malignant tumor removed from the back of my tongue, which is not where an English professor wants to have her tumors.

And I couldn't speak at all for about two or three weeks, which is an experience that gave me an insight into how invisible and powerless people are when they have no voice. And I couldn't swallow food. For months I had to be fed through a stomach tube, which is an experience that helped me understand what it's like to be hungry in the midst of plenty, and I decided it was time to write to this book.

SIMON: Louisa County schools were integrated the next year.

Prof. DIEHL: That's right.

SIMON: After you left. Matilda Beauford, was that disorienting for you to suddenly wind up in an integrated school?

Ms. BEAUFORD: Fifth grade seemed to be really different, and of course, you know, we were mixed with - you know, white children and black children were mixed together, and I remember a couple of my teachers seemed to be a little bit hostile. At the time I didn't quite know what it was or why, but we did the best we could to get through that time. And as time went on, you know, from fifth grade to sixth grade and so forth and so on, things became easier for us.

SIMON: You became the vice president of your high school class.

Ms. BEAUFORD: I did. Yes, sir.

SIMON: Professor Gale?

Prof. DIEHL: Mm-hmm?

SIMON: What made you leave after just a few months?

Prof. DIEHL: My discipline problems got worst and worst, and I became more aware of the fact that the children's parents were beginning to be upset. I had a meeting that was called by my principal, who was African-American, and the vice superintendent of schools, and I realized that the vice superintendent was taking my side only because I was white.

He (unintelligible) principal the children should have learned by now how to behave in school. If they can't behave, expel them. And I realized she was willing to sacrifice the education of my students rather than me, and I said I needed to quit.

SIMON: In the 1960s and 1970s there were people who covered school integration stories from the aspect of inequity and how segregated education was just not right, particularly at that point in American life, years after a Supreme Court decision. But I've talked to African-American families in recent years who expressed some wistfulness. They say that not all of the results of integrated education have been strong or positive in this country.

Prof. DIEHL: Absolutely. (Unintelligible) Matilda's sister Mary is a really interesting example of a way of thinking about what is lost and what is gained. She was not integrated until her senior year in high school. I'd like to hear what Matilda says about that.

Ms. BEAUFORD: You know, when I hear my sister talk about the bond that the young people, the teenagers had at that age, the fun things that they liked to do, they've become accustomed to doing those things, and then to be uprooted and separated, even though perhaps the education was more up to date, they felt they were taken from the group of students that they knew and the bond that had formed between them had been torn apart, which was different from me because I was so young.

SIMON: Thank you so much, both of you, for speaking with us.

Ms. BEAFORD: Thank you.

Prof. DIEHL: Thank you.

SIMON: Huston Diehl teaches at University of Iowa. Her new book is called "Dream Not of Other Worlds: Teaching in a Segregated Elementary School, 1970." And Matilda Beauford, who works at the (unintelligible) Regional Jail. To read an excerpt of Ms. Diehl's book, you can visit npr.org.

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