Every once in a while, there are moments in my job that seem to transcend time and even Curry itself. Monday night we hosted a panel of four educators, three of whom were smack in the middle of the turmoil of desegregating schools in Virginia. For those of you not familiar with the story of desegregation in Virginia, the resistance to desegregation was so prolific and fierce that it actually has a name: Massive Resistance.
Mrs. Branch was a principal of an all black elementary school. She was one of the very few (perhaps the only one; we can’t be sure) not demoted during the implementation of the desegregation policies and retained her principalship at an integrated school. Drs. Hank Allen (who is now 92!) and Jim Bash helped create and run Curry’s Desegregation Center, a resource for schools, administrators and teachers during desegregation. The fourth panelist, Dr. Rosa Atkins, is the current superintendent of Charlottesville City Schools, who was an elementary school student during desegregation.
It is difficult to describe the power of having all 4 of them share their memories and reflections of that time. But there was one moment I will never forget.
Mrs. Branch spoke so beautifully about the teachers at her school, both the white and black teachers. She spoke about the “tenderness” with which the teachers engaged their students.
What a beautiful word. Tenderness.
I imagine their acts of tenderness served as a sponge, soaking up the pervasive hate around them. Their tenderness with their students eventually turning into tenderness toward one another.
Then, as if in speaking about tenderness Mrs. Branch was able to wrap those of us in the room with it, Dr. Atkins reached out and held onto Mrs. Branch’s hand with a tremendous tenderness.
Dr. Atkins thanked Mrs. Branch for her tenderness. She recalled how, as a little girl, the tenderness and quiet strength she saw in her own teachers served as a model for her.
“Listening to her, I know that is where I developed my love and passion for education,” she said.
Dr. Atkins and Mrs. Branch looked directly at one another. Dr. Atkins smiled and Mrs. Branch nodded.
I can’t help but think about how striking that word was to me in the context of education, teachers and students, in classrooms. Perhaps we should add that back into our lexicon as we continue to examine equal education for all children.