I was fortunate to have many excellent teachers throughout my education, but one of my greatest influences was Dan Blair, my sixth grade teacher from Huss Elementary in Three Rivers, Michigan. Fresh out of college, his idealism and excitement inspired a generation of students who were attending what was considered to be “the poorest” elementary school in our city.
A storyteller, he never failed to grasp our attention, whether it was stories about his childhood playing in the vast abandoned tunnel system under Flint, Michigan with his friends; or his experiences attending college in the early seventies. He was able to gain our respect and therefore our attention when it came to the more serious business of the history of the world, and more importantly, the direction of our nation because he treated us like people. We still played outside until the street lights came on and read Judy Blume books, but he talked to us as Aristotle might have talked to Alexander. This was a person who taught the young people in the forgotten ward that we were human beings with brains that deserved to be filled with great literature, and lessons gained from A Clockwork Orange.
Sixth grade is a brutal time for many. It’s a time of great hormonal surges, horrifying peer pressure and sometimes shocking loss of innocence. I went into sixth grade worried about how my hair looked, and came out thinking about Civil Rights, personal freedom and the shocking stories of the Holocaust, which had ended only twenty-three years before I was born. It seemed like a hundred years to me.
Until that year, I had been raised in a gray world. When friends come over, they inevitably pull out the meticulous scrapbooks my mother created from our lives. It’s always good for a laugh, but looking at my school pictures, it seems that they never fail to point out to me that half of my class was black. Funny, I never noticed it at the time. My parents never mentioned it and I didn’t realize that I lived in a geographically segregated community. We were just kids, people playing together, attending Girl Scout meetings and going to each other’s birthday parties. We were also students in a class who were treated as equals with endless possibility and the opportunity to “live the dream.”
Mr. Blair encouraged us, every one of us, to learn from history and to live lives of endless potential. He taught us that we only had to wait until we were thirty-five to run for President of the United States, and that seemed like a lifetime away because it was. My classmates and I passed that mark five years ago. Reflecting back on my life, I remember growing up knowing that as an American Citizen, born in the United States; it was a possibility for me. I think he made us all feel that way. I recall attending American Legion Auxiliary Girls State, surrounded by girls full of ambition and belief in our nation. It was one of the single most important lessons of my life, and I know that even my desire to go there was instilled in me back in sixth grade at Huss Elementary.
I realize now how young Mr. Blair was when he was our teacher and I think about the optimism and self assurance he helped instill in us. I hope that he was able to continue to inspire hopefulness in his students like he did when he was a brand new teacher stimulating our desire to expand our minds and realize our dreams. It seems I’ve lived a thousand lives since then, and as I sat in Highland Park, Illinois watching the inaugural activities from my tiny condo, I remembered that life is still full of possibilities and endless dreams to realize. The installation of Barak Obama as President of the United States brought back a flood of memories; to the history lessons from sixth grade, the year my eyes were opened.
Huss School students were integrated into other schools when my little sister started. I didn’t fully understand it at the time, nor do I necessarily think it was the best thing for the students, or the wonderful teachers who were so integral in our lives.. The closing of that school meant the slow death of our neighborhood and the realization that the place where the more formidable years of my education were spent would no longer be a beacon of hope for so many. I am so grateful to have had the experience that I did. To have had the opportunity to grow up in a place where I walked to school, hung out with neighborhood kids and lived in the blissful naivety of peaceful cultural diversity was amazing. What happened in that school was a quiet miracle.
I feel for the students who ended up on busses, heading into neighborhoods as strangers in new schools, miles away. I’m so grateful today that I was fortunate to attend Huss School in those few idealistic years where there was peace and harmony in our neighborhood; when we had the chance to learn together and know each other as people with families, hopes and dreams; where we were all equal with equal potential and promise.
Huss is no longer an elementary school; Mr. Blair is a retired math teacher; and the houses in my old neighborhood are falling down. When I pull into Three Rivers now though, I don’t show guests my high school, which is now a church, or talk about my college or time spent traveling. I point to Huss School and say, “That is where I got my education.”