Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Influential People: Teachers

HEIGHT: But it was my mother who always helped me to relate to needs in the community and to people. But one thing that I think was valuable to me was that as a child, as a student in high school -- and that's when I said, my teachers were all white, but they were very -- they saw that I had a potential and they all cultivated it. They always gave me opportunities. The music teacher let me lead the music when she was itinerant, when she could only be there -- she came to us once a month. The other periods of time I had it. My English teacher -- it was she who put me into the impromptu speech contest. And I was relatively shy. I was a good student, but relatively shy. And she worked with me to say that, you know, you have to be able to -- you have good thoughts, but you -- and many times I would sit in class and when she would call on me, she said, "You answer. You have the answer." Well, my mother told me, "Don't show off," so my teacher was saying, "Speak up."

But in between there it was very helpful to me, because she brought me out and she helped me to learn how to stand up and express myself, think on your feet, and the like. So that I think I have to credit the kind of teachers that I had who showed a real interest, along with my mother's, you know, constant -- and constantly making me improve. I remember I used to bring my report card home and she would say, "What haven't you -- you made 92 last time, you only have 91." And I would say, "Well, that's the best grade in the class." And she would say, "I didn't ask you what the class did. I want to know what Dorothy Height did and what caused you to go back."

So -- and I remember one time a teacher came to us in our chemistry class. He was from the University of Pittsburgh, and he came to our high school -- he was our chemistry teacher, and at the end of the semester he gave me an 89. So I went in to him and I said, "Well, my mother won't understand this. I cannot take this grade home. I was wondering, what did I fail in, or what did I do wrong?" He said, "No, you did very good." He said, "You tell your mother I don't give anyone more than 89." Well, I almost wanted to take him home with me, because I knew that my mother would immediately question.

But I think also what was helpful to me was that I always had kind of an inner drive and wanted to go to school, go to college, and I think for me it was helpful that I was able to sign in for an Elks oratorical contest, and my English teacher helped me to prepare. But I think it was that going to the library, studying. It had to be on the Constitution of the United States, and there are many subjects. It could be on slavery in the United States, on the Constitution. I chose the Constitution and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, because after all of my reading -- and I was a great reader -- after all of my reading, that's what I chose. And it was helpful to me to have the teacher, an Irish-Catholic woman, who not only did work with me in school, but she lived down the street from me and she coached me and helped me. But it also helped me -- and it's interesting that I say, until this day, I'm still working on the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. But it was helpful to me to get more than a knowledge of them in a recitation, because it meant that I understood what they meant and what they mean in the Constitution of the United States.