Larry Efird: A prayer for my students
When I was in the eighth grade, our school system went through integration. Whenever I tell my students that I didn’t go to school with anyone of a different race until I was in junior high (aka middle school), they can hardly believe me. It’s almost impossible for them to imagine schools being separated on the basis of race — almost as hard as believing in a world without cell phones or Starbucks.
I tell them that for the most part we didn’t have any major conflicts. But I also tell them that we didn’t get to have a prom because school officials were afraid that blacks and whites would dance together and there might be a fight, so the prom was canceled for a number of years. That’s also hard for them to believe.
I tell them that we had a student council chaplain who led in prayer before all our student council meetings, and we prayed before football games on Friday nights for the safety of the players and good sportsmanship of the fans. Though perfunctory, the prayers at least caused us to stop for a moment to reflect upon our responsibilities and our behaviors. (The prayers for good sportsmanship were only effective about 50 percent of the time, however.)
Integration forced us all to realize one race wasn’t exclusive in our community and that we needed to share our schools and their resources for the betterment of everyone. As a child, I often wondered why Carver High School, located in the African-American section of town, didn’t have their own football stadium and why they had to use “ours.” It didn’t seem fair, but I didn’t think about it long enough to trouble me because it never occurred to me that I should think about it.
I remember being in a math class full of white students that had a black teacher. She must have felt awkward, and I’m sure she had to be brave knowing that some of the students and parents may not have respected her initially just because of her race. That was unfair too, but as a kid, there’s not too much you can do about things like that. That was yet another thing I simply chose not to worry about.
As a teacher myself, I now realize just a little bit about how much stress the faculty was probably under during the entire process of integration. They were undergoing a major change themselves, but they had to put their students first. I’m sure it wasn’t easy, but I never sensed they were under any undue pressure.
I never felt the tension that I’m sure they must have felt because they were doing their jobs day in and day out, trying to give us the best educations they could. We felt secure in school because our teachers made us feel safe and secure, despite all the uncomfortable changes that were swirling around during the 1960s.
Today, we’ve moved past integration, but we have our own unique challenges facing contemporary America. Now that I’m a teacher myself, I wonder at times what is the best way to make my students feel safe and secure when they see such hatred and division on the national level. I tell them that I experienced a similar dilemma when I was about their age, and I often silently worried about it when I saw disturbing things on television that were happening. Those were things I had to think about because they affected me indirectly, but I could always continue to feel safe because our schools sheltered us from the outside world.
Peter Marshall, a Scottish-born chaplain of the United States Senate in the 1940s, once prayed: “May Thy will be done here, and may Thy program be carried out, above party and personality, beyond time and circumstance, for the good of America and the peace of the world.” I don’t know of any better words to heed as a person and as a nation.
I’d like to think that my students will one day live in a world where our country strives to carry out programs “above party and personality … for the good of America.” That’s something the teachers I know still believe — and something we continue to pray for.
Larry Efird teaches at A.L. Brown High School in Kannapolis.
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