Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Influential People: Teachers

BOND: What about teachers?

LEFTWICH: Oh, that's — I'm glad you raised that, because my mother is a teacher. My grandmother, my mother's mother, was a teacher of teachers. Her husband, my mother's father, my grandfather, was a minister. He was a Baptist minister who taught at the seminary in Virginia and also had a congregation and also had a big farm. My father's mother was a teacher, and of course my father's father was a physician and a teacher. So there are teachers all throughout my history. And it's interesting you raise that because I can remember when I was very involved in things from, as you can see, from a very early age. But there are other things that I did that sort of had me in interface with the people in the community where I grew up. And they would always say to me, "Oh, I know you're going to go to college and you're going to be a teacher." And I would say, "I am not being a teacher." And actually, I didn't intend to become a teacher. I didn't want to be a teacher. And I didn't want to be a teacher not because there wasn't something really wonderful about teachers. It was because people thought I ought to be a teacher. And I knew that if that if that were the case, then I needed to do something else. That I think I've always felt that I needed to be at the frontier of change. That I needed to be a — not a revolutionary, necessarily, but a person who tried to make changes occur.

BOND: And that while teaching was a perfectly legitimate, a fine profession, it didn't —

LEFTWICH: It was predictable.

BOND: — make this kind of change.

LEFTWICH: No. It was doing what people expected of a girl to do. And I would say that. First I said that I was going to be a doctor, because in those days not a lot of women were becoming doctors, and I had already a role model in my grandfather. I didn't really want to be a doctor. I mean, I was good in biology but terrible in chemistry. So that was probably as much defiance as anything. But it was — I was choosing something that permitted me to make the choice. I didn't want somebody else to make the choice for me. And teaching was clearly something that obviously I have gravitated toward. I have taught since — well, I guess since I was about in my twenties. I have taught sometimes as a primary job. But usually as something I did in addition to whatever I was doing because I liked doing it.

BOND: What about people who taught you — grade school, high school?

LEFTWICH: Well, I never had — well, first of all, my mother was a teacher. My mother had graduated from Saint Paul's College. She majored in French and romance languages. She served as a substitute teacher at the grammar school that I went to and during the years when they used — the substitute teachers were people who were teachers, but weren't working at the time. And I never had an African American teacher until I got to college.

BOND: Really?

LEFTWICH: No. And it was a big deal when Thelma Hardiman became a full-time teacher in the elementary school in Buffalo, because if I'm not mistaken she was the first. If not the first, she was certainly one of the first. I had teachers who — I had a few teachers whom I felt close to and who encouraged me. But school for a person like me, in the so-called liberated North, was always a challenge. I can recall that there were teachers who tried to encourage me and who tried to take advantage of the talents that I had. There were just as many, maybe more, who were obstacles and who would give me grades that I had not earned because somehow in their heads they thought that I didn't deserve the A.

BOND: That you couldn't have earned those grades.


BOND: You could not have earned —

LEFTWICH: — couldn't have earned those grades. My mother beat a path from the front of our house. We could see the grammar school. If you stood on our front porch and you looked down two blocks you could see the students coming out of the grammar school that we all went to. My mother beat a path from our door to the school at least once a week to go and talk with someone about the way that I had been treated. And I laugh at my own children because I have done the same thing, and their response is "We're not telling Mommy because she'll go to school." Or I would find out about it and "Mommy, please don't go to school. Please don't go to school." But there were teachers who helped, but mostly — mostly I was encouraged by — from home and by things that I was doing in the community. People who were prominent who were interested in what I was doing in the community who were involved with the schools. So — and those students, and it's still true— the students who obviously have a network of support get the best treatment in the schools. The colloquial way of saying it is they don't mess with you. And that was pretty much what emerged. That while I knew there were teachers who didn't particularly like me, it got to the point that they gave me grades that I earned and not grades they thought I ought to have because they think we didn't — I guess they didn't want to deal with my mother at school.