The Third Floor Window
“Mr. Bourne wants to see you in his office after dismissal,” chirped the office monitor, as she stood decoratively in my classroom doorway, inviting low wolf whistles from the eleventh grade boys. It was the end of the day on a Friday in the fall of 1963, and I had just begun what was to be a lengthy tenure at Memphis Technical High School.
“Boy, are you in trouble,” chorused the class, many of whom had probably been summoned in the same way for a myriad of disciplinary referrals. I half agreed with their view, even though I did not know of any infraction I had committed. Just the thought of being called to the office was enough to scare any teacher in the second week of the first semester at a new school.
I nodded to the monitor and let the class go a couple of minutes early. As they noisily banged locker doors in the hall, I went to stand at the window of my third floor classroom, taking a deep breath to nerve myself for an interview with the highly respected but intimidating principal, W. A. Bourne. His reputation was awesome; he had taken over a troubled school a few years ago and had whipped it into shape, literally. Most of the faculty loved him for bringing peace into their lives.
Mr. Bourne seemed surprisingly nervous as he gestured for me to sit across from his desk. I had liked his forthright manner in my original interview for the job and wondered why he now had trouble getting to the point. He asked several general questions about my classes, with emphasis on my discipline methods, and spoke of his own early days of teaching and problems he had faced. Finally he broached the subject of the conference.
“Do you know,” he asked, “that Tech is going to be the first Memphis high school to be integrated during the regular school term? I am accepting this situation as a challenge. Some of my colleagues have urged me to fight this, even change jobs, but I’m staying. I’ve prayed about it.”
I had heard the rumor, I told him, wondering what it had to do with me. I soon found out. Mr. Bourne had looked at my credentials, noting that I had five years of teaching experience and a master’s degree. He said he believed I could handle a difficult assignment. I already knew what he was going to say when he asked how I would feel about having the first black student, an eleventh grader, in one of my morning English classes. The young man had chosen Tech because it was an open school, serving the entire community, and it offered a vocational course he could get nowhere else. Under the law, he was entitled to transfer to Tech. He would have to take history, math, and English as well as television repair. My third period class would fit his schedule well.
“Times are changing, but as you know, a lot of folks are angry about this. Threats have been made against both the boy and me. I am afraid for his safety, and I won’t blame you if you refuse,” the principal said. “Maybe another teacher will take him, but I’d like for you to try.
I will do everything I can to see that your classroom is protected. I think you can handle this, Mrs. Elliott.”
Flattered by his trust, I agreed. Although I had grown up in the segregated Mississippi Delta, I had not been taught to hate, and I was pleased to be a part of the changing order. I was too young and naïve to be afraid.
The next day, Willie Walker appeared in my third period class. He was tall and slender, with close-cropped hair and neatly dressed. I welcomed him, issued him both a literature book and a grammar text, and told him to choose a seat. A few students greeted him politely, many sneered and turned their heads, and some radiated downright hostility. Had William Bourne not had tight control over Tech High, all hell would have broken loose that morning. I noticed that Mr. Bourne, who often patrolled the halls and could turn up anywhere, was on the third floor several times that day. He continued to monitor my class during the next weeks and sent other teachers to walk casually by my door during their planning periods.
We began routine class work, essay writing and other assessments so I could get a picture of everyone’s ability level. Then students and I read together the first dry literary pieces about the Jamestown settlement and Pocahontas and the Pilgrims, but I promised them we had more exciting selections to look forward to, such as—don’t laugh—THE SCARLET LETTER! They diagrammed basic sentences and took vocabulary tests and made book reports. Despite the normality of the activities, there was tension underlying every roll call, and I often saw glares of hatred directed at the lone African-American in the room.
Although Willie was very quiet in class, I recognized his intelligence and his understanding of his unique situation. It must have been painful for him to be ignored by almost everyone, except for those who emanated hate. I never sensed that he felt any fear, but the faculty had been told of the anonymous threats; and every afternoon, Mr. Bourne himself walked with Willie to the bus stop at the corner of Poplar and Cleveland. It must have been excruciatingly tense, wondering if a gunshot would ring out from a passing car.
As the semester progressed, I was congratulating myself on the smooth way I was defusing tensions and promoting harmony; but one day the monster of racism rose up and shattered my equilibrium. Late on a Friday, as everyone rushed to the door after class dismissal, a red-haired sixteen-year-old lingered to speak to me. I will not use his name.
“You really like Willie, don’t you? You go out of your way to be nice to him, rubbing it in our faces that he’s got to be in our class whether we want it or not,” he hissed.
“I treat him like everybody else,” I protested. “I think I’m pretty nice to all of you, especially to you because I could have sent you to Mr. Bourne for discipline several times. I’ve heard you muttering under your breath. If you are so unhappy here, why not transfer back to your neighborhood school?”
He was not disposed to see reason. “I need to stay at Tech at least through this year to finish my vocational course, but I don’t like him or being in class with him. Lots of the others feel the same way. And let me tell you this: you better not leave this class for anything, to go to the restroom or answer a phone call or go to the office to talk to a parent, or we’ll throw him out of this third floor window. You can count on that. Just turn your back one time. Wait and see!” He ran out of the room and down the hall.
For the first time, I was truly frightened. Words like these were common in those days, in newspaper quotes, on radio and television, and among ordinary people on the streets. I had even heard it in the halls of Tech, and we faculty members tried to ignore it. There was too much of it to report every incident of hate talk, and we couldn’t suspend half the student body. Much of it was bluster, but the tragedy of Emmitt Till was still fresh in the consciousness of the South.
Since Mr. Bourne himself had received death threats just for willingly accepting Willie Walker, I knew that he was fully aware of the feelings in the classes. He won’t be surprised, I thought, and sat down at my desk to begin writing the necessary disciplinary referral which would probably get the student suspended, perhaps moved to a different school.
Footsteps in the hall announced the return of the young hothead. He had belatedly realized that a write up would get him kicked out of Tech. His first words were, “I’m sorry I said that to you. Do you have to report it if I apologize?”
He sat down, and we spoke of what could happen to him if he had to change schools. He would not have the major subject area of concentration he needed to graduate, and he really didn’t want to leave Tech. His dislike for Willie was strong, but his interest in self-preservation was stronger. He promised not to interfere with his fellow student and not to disrupt my class in any other way. I was torn between pity for his ignorance and my wish to see him punished.
Pity won. I accepted his apology, did not report him, and tried to ignore him for the rest of the year. He behaved himself, and fortunately, there was never an occasion when I had to leave that particular class unattended. Most of them began to accept Willie, stopped making faces when he answered a question, and began to work on their own grades. To the best of my memory, everyone in that class passed eleventh grade English.
Since I did not teach twelfth grade English at that time, Willie was in another teacher’s class for his final year. A second black student had enrolled at Tech, so Willie was no longer unique. He graduated with the class of 1965. I never heard from Willie after that, but I always hoped to see him again to tell him that I had admired his stoic courage.
I did hear of his tormentor in the local headlines a few months after the 1963-64 school year ended. While driving to a nearby lake, the now seventeen-year-old had attempted to buy beer at a rural store just south of Memphis. The storekeeper properly asked for the boy’s identification and, not receiving it, refused to make the sale. The boy’s fierce temper exploded. Grabbing a tool of some kind that was lying on the counter, he viciously struck the storekeeper several times and fled. He was immediately identified and captured. He would eventually be sentenced to a long prison term. The storekeeper was hospitalized and underwent months of physical therapy. An irony of this tragedy was that in a previous year, my husband, while working in another school system, had taught the son of the storekeeper, attacked so violently by my former student.
Doubts and guilt assailed me. Should I have reported the threat that had been made against Willie in my classroom? Had I taken the attacker’s underlying violence too lightly? True, he had caused me no further grief, but he had certainly not reformed. Had I reported him, Mr. Bourne might have expelled him from the school system, or at least transferred him to another campus. Perhaps in another situation, he could have been counseled, sent on a new course, overcome his racism, I told myself then and still tell myself now.
With Willie Walker’s graduation, grand old Tech High had successfully passed another milestone by being peacefully integrated. Mr. Bourne was lauded for his leadership, and I appreciated his confidence in me. Over the next few years, there was harmony as more and more minority students made Tech their alma mater, offering contributions in academics, athletics, and extracurricular activities. I was proud to be a part of such a school.
But out of the thirty-something years I taught at Tech, the first one remains most vivid in my memory. That was the year I met two of the most courageous individuals I’ve ever known: William Bourne and Willie Walker.