Early inspiration for my interest in science and how things work has to include my eighth grade science teacher. First one needs a little background into Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1969. Prior to the late 1960’s Tulsa, like most southern United States cities, was segregated, meaning there were defined residential areas for whites and non-whites. The public schools supported the area neighborhoods and so the students and teachers were white in the white schools and non-white in the non-white schools.
Then came the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ordering an end to segregation. Soon our all-white school would become interspersed with African-Americans. One of the first to come to our school was Mrs. Todd, my science teacher.
The first day of school, I entered the science room and along with my classmates was stunned to see the very dark-skinned woman at the front of the room. To that date I’d had very little interaction with black people. My parents, white, prejudiced and wary of the changes desegregation would bring to their lives, also had limited dealings with other races so in that respect I was very sheltered.
Class began after the ringing of the bell and Mrs. Todd spoke. Not unfriendly, but certainly not with a tone that told you she was going to be your best friend. After roll call, she laid out the law for the school year. A list of reports and projects that seemed like a mile long, notebooks that would contain observations during the year’s classes, homework, tests, would it ever end?
She scared me to death. I had never experienced a more forthright teacher and her high hopes and expectations for performance in the class were almost too much to take. I was a good student, earning mostly ‘A’s’, but a vision of explaining my future low scores to my parents while at the hands of a black teacher nearly sent me into an anxiety attack.
For that first week of school, I cautiously approached science class and Mrs. Todd expecting the worst. Turns out she provided a great learning environment. The first day speech made its mark: she had the entire class’s attention. We were afraid not to learn the principles she taught, we were afraid of the consequences. Mrs. Todd never mentioned a consequence, she didn’t have to, it was implied by her tone that there would be a price to pay. To my recollection, everyone tried to do his or her best.
The projects were understandable the grading fair and I probably learned more in that eighth grade class than any other science class I took through high school. Mrs. Todd turned out to be a most interesting person, one of those teachers who showed she cared about your education during every class. What had I really been afraid of that first day?