Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Early Teachers and Community

BOND: Looking back over your life from the early years forward, who are the people who've been most significant in helping you develop yourself, your talents, your skills? Who made the most — who did the most?

WATSON: I had a teacher in the sixth grade, Birdie Lee Bright, who is still alive, in her nineties, and Miss Bright had two sisters and knew all of our relatives. And that was one thing about then, teachers went to your homes. They lived in your community and they knew who you were and if you did not behave, they talked to your relatives. Well, I had this great-aunt, Pauline Slater, who was the first African American teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Her good friend was the first black — and it was Bessie Burke and — was the first black principal in the L.A. Unified School System. And so my aunt, who never married, you know, was a spinster schoolteacher — she fit the profile of what a teacher should've been during those days — she talked with my mother. She talked with all of these nieces and nephews she had and she made a tremendous impression on it and so did Miss Bright. We were with her a few months ago and I said, "You know, everything I did in your sixth grade was to please you." Because she would walk through that door and she'd wait five minutes when we came in from recess and she'd come in and she'd look around and she'd say, "That's what I like," so I always wanted to see her pound her fist into her hand and say, "That's what I like." Now, did she influence me? She had an A, B, C, D, and F row and, you know, we all struggled to stay in the A and B. My seatmate —

BOND: You mean, if you had the A and then you got a worse grade, you'd have to move back?

WATSON: You'd have to move back to the B.

BOND: Okay.

WATSON: And so it gave you something to reach for, and it was done weekly. My seatmate, Barbara Floyd, she was always writing. I can see her now, on the steno pad, and so she had beautiful penmanship, so I worked on beautiful penmanship. We'd have a spelling test and I would study, and, you know, it was little unique kinds of things she would do that I did when I started to teach. And she would call us up. She said, "You know, grooming is all part of this," and so she'd go around that room and she'd select about six people to go up into the front.

I was always in that line because I would go home, I would wash my shoelaces out every day.

BOND: Really?

WATSON: I would clean my fingernails, be sure my hair was in place, ironed my own dresses so I could stand up there. She identified in each one of her students what she thought was a skill or a talent and then she would enhance it. I was a good speller, so I got to take the spelling tests home and correct them for her.

BOND: Really?

WATSON: That's big time, you know.

BOND: Oh, sure.

WATSON: And so — and I knew that she would hold you responsible for your behavior, so when she came in that room I was sitting in my seat, ready to learn and these were the things I tried to invoke in my students when I taught. I set my class up just like her class and I stopped really reviewing the students' dress and grooming, but we talked about it.

But what I did do, I set up a court system in my classroom, and — because she had model kinds of projects for us and if you could spell, you went over here and did this. If you were good in science, if you were good in numbers. And I remember Bernard Williams. I hope he gets a chance to see this, because he's changed his name since then, but she'd [Ms. Bright] go around the room and throw out the multiple tables and she'd say, "Two plus two is four, add five and subtract three — " And so that's the way she'd catch you and you never knew when she was going to do this. So those things stick with children and I learned that when I taught school, that you can't humiliate children. It doesn't work. You cannot insult them and assault them. It does not work. You have to have them go along with you to understand what you're doing.

And let me just give you this little parallel. When I started teaching, the last teaching position was up in Hollywood at Selma Avenue. And on the first day of school, kids would come in and sit down. I had sixth grade and I'd give them each a ball of bubblegum, "Chew it." "Oh, Miss Watson, we can't chew." "No, chew it, you have my permission, chew it." And then I'd take them out on the ground. I'd say, "Now, spit it out." "Oh, no, we can't spit it out." I said, "Spit it out. Now, walk in it." "Oh, no, it will stick to — " I said, "What's going to be our first rule? Boys and girls, you can't chew gum in the classroom. Now, tell me why." And I'd get them. "Now, suppose somebody violates our rule. What're we going to do?" "Well, we really need to talk about it," so we went back to the room. I said, "Okay, Johnny over here violated the rule. Against doing what? Chewing gum. Okay. We're going to sit him down in the hot seat. We're going to put him on trial. Can someone defend him?" "I'll defend him." "Can someone accuse him because you saw him chew the gum, you saw him spit it out, and you stepped in it?" "Yeah." "Okay, can I get somebody back there that'll listen to both sides?"

And so we set up a courtroom. We had a judge, we had a jury and we made our own rules for the classroom, and they understood after a while. I said, "Who likes to go in your desk and you get your hand stuck in somebody's chewed chewing gum?" "Oh, oh, oh." I said, "Then we don't put gum underneath [the desk]. So, now, if people break our laws, what we do?" "We've got to take them to trial, Miss Watson." So, we'd come in and, "We've got to go to trial." "Okay, pick your jury. Who's going to be the defense? Who's going to be the prosecutor? Who's going to be the judge?"