The Stories I Carry

Stories from our Classrooms

By Karen Lee

Karen Lee.jpg

I knew exactly where to find it. It has been in the same place for years, top shelf sitting with the other influential books of my life. I reached for it, remembering that the cover is no longer attached to the well loved book. I blew the dust off and began to reminisce about the life changing moment when I first sat down with it. This book has traveled with me across the country, just to sit in a place of honor for the past 20 years. I haven’t read it since I was 19, but I am quickly reminded of how my story pivoted by the time I reached the final pages. I had no idea when I was sitting in my first college history class that by the end of the year I would be on the path to where I was standing today, with my own history students eagerly waiting for class to begin. I also had no idea how much I would still need to learn.

I first read Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody in my sophomore year of college when I was a math major at the University of Idaho. History professor Dr. Katherine Aiken set me on the path to rethink race and issues of difference without even realizing it. I wasn’t in a diverse classroom. I didn’t have a racially diverse set of friends. I had not even thought about race in the context of people before — only in places, dates and timelines. I don’t remember our class conversations and I certainly don’t remember if I had an assignment. What I remember were Anne’s words. Words that explained things that I hadn’t considered before. I was uncomfortable. I was curious. I was confused. I was challenged. I am sure I talked to people about what I was reading. Or at least about what I was thinking. But I don’t remember any of that. I just remember being glued to page after page learning Anne’s story. Race was human. Anne was someone I would want to be friends with. We had a lot in common and yet so much would have kept us apart. Her story was one that taught me to see her as a Black woman and to begin to hear what she had to say. Then I got to the last page and our friendship was over — I didn’t get to know her anymore. But I carried her story with me, even the parts I didn’t understand.

I would like to say that it was in that moment that I unlearned all of the ways that I had been taught inaccurate history, but that simply wouldn't be true. In fact, if I am honest, I pushed Anne Moody’s story aside almost forgetting it was the pivot point that led me away from being a math teacher and into the courses that defined my history and political science degree. It was simply too hard to believe both stories — one of discrimination and judgement and one of prosperity and growth — could exist at the same time. It is quite possible that my professors struggled with the tension in those competing narratives and chose the easy way out. It is clear from the position in which I stand now that I was taught history from the white dominant narrative without much space for diverse perspectives to tell an accurate version of the truth.

It has been almost 18 years since I left my university campus certified to teach history in high schools. I shutter at the version of history in which I was prepared to teach. I left Idaho and moved to D.C. making the decision to work with an after school program before jumping back into the classroom. It was in those after school sessions that I began to unlearn history and be pushed onto a journey to learn history from those that don’t make the pages of history books.

I heard stories from my neighbors about families that were torn apart during the Great Migration as members traveled north stopping in D.C. to catch their breath and not moving on to northern cities. Hoping that the promise of the north would lead to prosperity in D.C.

I sat with a grandparent while we waited for her granddaughter to finish up her homework and learned about the Mississippi Freedom Summer and the countless hours she put in to organize her community around voting rights.

I took a class at the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, Alabama where I got to talk to a woman who got piggy back rides around the room as a child from Uncle Thurgood Marshall. I sat in the pews at the 16th Baptist Church wondering what the four little girls would be doing had they lived to see adulthood.

I learned about the day crack came to town from my neighbor like it was a pesky relative that wreaked havoc and never went away.

I learned from my students what it was like to be followed in a store just because the owner assumed they would steal.

And I learned what it was like to teach to an empty chair because a student had been killed by gun violence.

It was in the sharing of family stories that I began to learn history and I began to see the world with a more accurate lens.

I picked up Coming of Age in Mississippi this year as I began my fifteenth year in the classroom. I thought that it was time to revisit the story that impacted me so long ago. But in this read, I didn’t find Anne’s story as earth shattering as I did the first time I met her. Her story felt familiar as if I had known it to be true long before I turned the page. I had learned some things along my own journey that taught me to believe in her words and to trust in her story. This read provided a reminder of those moments. In the final pages of the book I found a passage that I underlined when I read it for the first time.

But listening to the teenagers, I got an entirely different feeling. They felt that the power to change things was in themselves. More so than in God or anything else.

I tried to imagine what my nineteen year old self was thinking when I underlined those words. Did I see myself in that passage? Did I believe it or had I not even considered it possible?

My now forty-year old self might have told the nineteen-year old to keep reading. That the depth of emotion that comes from the next passage is far greater than what I could see in the first. That my own path of learning now leads me to stand in the back of the room instead of in the front.

There were about three hundred teenagers in the church. I saw all those that had been on my canvassing teams and many more. After they finished the song, the room swelled with noise. I found myself carried away just being in their presence. Standing there looking at them, all of my hopes in the future came to life again. I could see them as men and women living a normal life as a real part of this world, as a group of people that belonged — belonging because they had fought the battle and won.

It is almost as if I can picture myself standing next to Anne in the back of the church, overcome by the journey that brought us to that place together. Looking at the next generation believing in the world they are leading us toward. As I sit and write this, I am feeling especially connected to Anne’s story. The Mississippi Delta landscape is flying by as my bus travels the final few miles left before the Tennessee border. I am surrounded by my students as we take our own journey through the stories and places of the Civil Rights movement in the deep south. Anne’s story has traveled with me to the state that she loved and I have now seen with my own eyes 60 years later. I hear her words as I listen to my students ask questions connecting the present justice movements to those of the past and I recognize how interwoven our lives have become since I first opened the pages of her story. She wrote in her autobiography, “it no longer seemed important to prove anything. I had found something outside myself that gave meaning to my life.” Twenty years after I first read them, I find comfort in those words to capture my own journey just as it had Anne’s.

Karen Lee has been teaching in D.C. for the past 15 years. She is currently a social studies teacher and department chair at Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter School in Ward 8 of Washington, D.C. Karen also serves as the faculty advisor for the student-led activist group Pathways 2 Power. Karen planned and led a 11-day Civil Rights Journey through the South with her students. She is a currently a participant in the third cohort of Stories from our Classrooms course offered by Teaching for Change.

Mykella Palmer