It was the late 1940s in Elmhurst, Queens. Our neighborhood was all-white, although a moderate walk from 55th Road would reveal one or more black families living on a hill with a nickname I cannot write all these years later.
On Van Horn Street, which intersected with my street, 55th Road, stood Public School 102, an imposing two-story, grey, brick building, guarded by a high fence. P.S. 102 would be my school from kindergarten until sixth grade. That building was a symbol of authority to me, an authority, it seemed, greater than the power my parents had over me.
In those days, most citizens of New York City used public transportation or walked to their destinations. Perhaps some of the teachers at P.S. 102 walked to work. Others would get off the bus at Queens Boulevard or maybe at Grand Avenue and then trudge the few blocks to the school. Some teachers must have taken the subway and emerged at Grand Avenue-Newtown, a local stop for what was known as the Independent Subway. I never knew why the subway had that name, but it sounded good, somehow, better than the IRT or the BMT, whatever those letters represented.
At some point after World War II ended, I became aware of a small, slim, black woman who would walk up our street in the morning and then down our street in the afternoon. I found out that she was Miss Cooper, a teacher at P.S. 102, the only black teacher in the school. A few years later I learned that Miss Cooper had become Mrs. Harris. And Mrs. Harris she was when she became my teacher in fifth grade.
She must have used some sort of pomade on her hair, which was black and smooth and turned under in a kind of pageboy style. Her voice was soft, and somehow she was able to discipline our class without raising her voice, in contrast to Mrs. Richter, our fourth-grade teacher who had failed to control us while screeching and yelling and attempting to look ferocious.
Some of our neighbors were immigrants, as were my Swedish parents. Others were not very far in their lineage from people who had landed and been processed at Ellis Island. Though Newtown, our part of Queens, was a very old settlement, most of the residents in the 1940s were relative newcomers with ties to various countries in Europe. No one was from Asia. No one was black.
In Mrs. Harris’s class we learned all sorts of interesting information, including the fact that the Midwest was the Breadbasket of the United States. I imagined that beyond Pennsylvania there was little except fields of grain, perhaps amber waves of grain bending in the wind, and breadbaskets lying in fields in North Dakota and Minnesota and Kansas, baskets filled with all sorts of baked goods: bread and rolls and cinnamon buns, even Swedish bullar and vetebröd.
All was placid and quite fascinating at P.S. 102 until my first report card from Mrs. Harris. Before that fateful day, my record had been stellar: S or SO (Satisfactory Outstanding, whatever that meant) in kindergarten; in subsequent grades A’s in every subject that required a letter; in other words, my record was everything my parents, especially my mother, wanted me to achieve. But that day in fifth grade, in the fall of 1948, I found out that the world could be cruel: Mrs. Harris had given me a B+ in geography!
Had I not learned that the Midwest was the Breadbasket of the United States? Perhaps my fixation on containers of bread had obscured the reality of the Midwest with its large cities and small towns and great rivers: Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio. I looked at my report card, filled out in Mrs. Harris’s neat handwriting, and started to cry as I stared at the B+ that seemed larger than all the other As in front of me. Mrs. Harris asked me what was wrong.
“I got a B+ in geography. My mother’s going to kill me!”
We received our report cards at the end of the day, and before long I had walked the half block to our home. I do not remember my mother’s reaction to my B+ but I do remember something else.
Mrs. Harris, concerned about the prophecy of my imminent demise, called my mother immediately to express her concern. And that’s what made my mother really mad.
“How dare you tell your teacher that I was going to kill you!”
I was crying. “I knew you would be mad at me because I got a B+ in geography.”
“Mad enough to kill you? Don’t be ridiculous.”
I wasn’t mature enough to use the term hyperbole, but I was savvy enough to know that people often exaggerated to make a point, and that’s what I had done. “Well,” I said, “I knew you would yell at me and be really mad.” I waited for my mother’s reaction. It never came.
And so the incident blew over eventually, and I received, and I hope earned, all As for the rest of the year.
But now, as I look back I wonder about Mrs. Harris. How did she end up teaching in an all-white school in the 1940s? Was she happy there? Were the other teachers and the administrators nice to her? Did she ever have children of her own, or were we her children?
I do not think my parents or our neighbors were particularly advanced (shall we say) in their thinking about race, but I never heard, from my parents, my classmates, or anyone else, anything negative about petite Mrs. Harris with her soft voice and her ability to discipline a classroom of unruly kids. And for years she would walk up our street in the morning and down our street in the afternoon, a street where she herself was not allowed to live.
Anita G. Gorman grew up in Queens and now lives in northeast Ohio. Her scholarly work has appeared in such publications as Clues: A Journal of Detection; FOLLY; Mythlore; Dime Novel Roundup; the Swedish-American Historical Quarterly, and eight volumes of the Dictionary of Literary Biography. Her essay “Where Are You, O High-School Friends?” was published in Unfinished Chapters (2015) and “Finding Bill” in Finding Mr. Right (2016). “Tea with Barbara” appeared in the 2018 collection Table for Two. Her short stories have been published in Gilbert, Down in the Dirt, Dual Coast, Jitter Press, Red Fez, Speculative Grammarian, Scarlet Leaf Review, Knee-Jerk, Eyedrum Periodically, Adelaide, and Inwood Indiana Press. Her one-act play, Astrid; Or, My Swedish Mama, was produced by the Hopewell Theatre in Youngstown, Ohio in March 2018.