July 14, 2020

A different kind of rebel

The recent decision to change the name of Charleston’s Stonewall Jackson Middle School made me think of my late mother. An alumna of the school, she died in 2015 at 90.

She was a rebel of the decidedly non-Confederate variety. And she would have been ecstatic over the change.

A daughter of the southern West Virginia coalfields, she was born in Beckley and spent her early years in Wyoming County. Her father worked in the mines when work was to be found, which wasn’t often in the 1920s and ’30s. Eventually, he caught a break and found a job at the Union Carbide plant. (Ironically, he’d wind up getting killed on the job before I was born. So it goes.)

He moved the family to Charleston. My mother attended St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, now St. Christopher’s. She graduated from Stonewall and was elected as homecoming queen or something to that effect.

While it lasted, the Carbide job made it possible for her to be the first of her family to attend college. She went to Ohio University in Athens, a place I still like.

That was a good thing. She’d wind up raising two sons and losing two more on a West Virginia teacher’s salary with no child support. My father, a World War II combat veteran in the Pacific Theater, had many charms and virtues, but domesticity didn’t make the cut. Today, he might have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

My mother taught junior high math for about 25 years in Milton, where she was something of an institution.

In “The Prince,” the Renaissance philosopher Machiavelli wrote that it was better for a leader to be feared than loved. In her teaching career, my mother somehow managed to hit the sweet spot. She was generally loved by two or so generations of students, but her temper was legendary.

Although she barely stood 5 feet, 2 inches after a stretch, there was a persistent legend across the years of her picking up a heavy school desk and throwing it across the room. In some versions, there was a student in the desk.

I wouldn’t swear to that. But it wouldn’t surprise me.

Her rebellions were multiple. She was hardcore on women’s rights. I still remember the time as a teenager when I was pontificating about abortion. She calmly said that if it were a safe and legal option, she would have gotten one in her last pregnancy, which didn’t end well. That pretty much shut me up on that subject.

She didn’t bat an eye when my late older brother came out as gay. She loved hanging out with his friends, a fun crew. At the risk of perpetuating a stereotype, both were mad about Broadway musicals, a gene which I apparently didn’t inherit.

She was a hardcore union member as well. In those days, the West Virginia Education Association was the only game in town, but I’m sure she would have been just as happy in the West Virginia Federation of Teachers. In the ’70s, she marched with hundreds of other teachers in Charleston for better pay.

One of my favorite memories of her was during the 1990 teacher strike. She had recently retired and was livid that Cabell County teachers didn’t join the walkout. (Some people started calling it “Scabell.”)

At the time, I was a year into my job with the American Friends Service Committee and had spent a lot of that trying to support United Mine Workers of America and their families during the Pittston strike.

As the smoke poured from her ears, she said, “Why don’t you get some of your union miner friends to come up and picket and shut down Cabell schools?”

I thought that was the best idea ever and got right on it. Alas, the teachers settled the strike and won a historic victory before we could pull that off.

Ahh, the ones that got away ...

She hated several things, one of which she called “narrowmindedness,” a catchall term for her that included racism, religious bigotry, homophobia, science-denying, disapproval of card playing, abstinence from wine and other offenses against humanity.

But if you really wanted her to go off, you just had to mention the Confederacy. She hated it with the vehemence of a Union soldier wounded in a bad place at the battle of Fredericksburg. She hated the bogus narrative of racist chivalry and the “Lost Cause.” She hated the idea of any aristocracy. She hated efforts to romanticize it. She pretty much hated everything about it.

Congratulations to those who fought the good fight for a long-needed change.

And if there is anything beyond this life, and if the dead are still interested in earthly things, somewhere someone I know is doing cartwheels.

(This appeared as an op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail.)

1 comment:

SusieQ said...

I was honored to have your Mom as my godmother, my Math teacher and a lifelong friend to me and my family. We are related on our Father’s side of the family. I treasured her counsel and kindness. In school, she tossed a box of tissues down between the rows of desks. It did restore order and attention in our Math lesson. I was blessed to be part if her circle. She raised two wonderful men and I am happy to be a oart of the same family. ♥️