We form our impressions through the people we meet.
The first black people I met were teachers.
Mr. Perryman was a social sciences (history and geography) teacher at the little English school in the town where I grew up. He taught his classes lecture -style, telling stories of historical figures and ancient lands. He referred us to biographies and books to help us understand the world we were living in. As he taught, he encouraged self-reflection, paraphrasing Socrates: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” With this instruction, we examined our lives in journals that he never read, instructing us to truly reflect. It was shocking to twelve and thirteen year old youth in the late 1960’s! He asked us to do an assignment that he never intended to review. He spent several years with us in the country and then moved to Montreal when his career as a musician began to take off. I vividly remember his musical voice, peppered with unusual expressions like “Ent?” He asked this and then, when he saw our puzzled faces, he would say, ”Is it not so?” Or he would say “Don’t hurt your head.” This meant “Don’t worry”.
On Fridays before he travelled to a “gig” – a very odd word at that time – he wore brightly coloured shirts under his suit jacket. Despite his obvious musicality, he was shy. We asked him to sing for us for weeks, and he would grin widely and tell us to get back to work. Finally, one day, close to the holidays when no one works or wants to, he made a big production of bringing in an 8mm tape and played a tape of him with his band. Fascinated we watched our serious history teacher playing Calypso music.
Since the age of twelve, when he was my teacher, I have kept a journal, trying to be faithful to his instruction to examine my life.
The second black person I met was another teacher, Mrs. Lewis, whom I have written about previously. She was one of two teachers who guided me to become a doctor. Mrs. Lewis taught me biology and chemistry. In white lab coats, our class watched her build an elaborate distillation device with Bunsen burners, volumetric flasks, burettes and burette clamps and beakers. After watching her complete this elaborate assembly, she turned to us regally and said, ”Now it is your turn to build your assembly.” My best friend and I were the only girls in that class but we built the only assembly that didn’t collapse and were able to able to complete the distillation of a liquid of our choice – in our case liquor. As hard as it may be to believe, we did this unwittingly. We read that liquors were the most commonly distilled liquids and so we forged ahead.
My friend and I were naïve and known to be diligent in our studies. Mrs. Lewis and the school authorities believed that we did not realize that our “experiment” could be problematic. Ms. Lewis shook her head at the end of it all and told us ruefully, in her lilting Jamaican accent, “At least it was rum!”
Mrs. Lewis was the only female science teacher I ever had and the only black science teacher I ever had, through both high school and university. That tells you everything you need to know about women’s rights and civil rights in the 1970’s in Canada.
In recent months, as I have contemplated how systemic racism is in Canada, I have often thought of these two gentle, learned people who took their careers as educators so seriously and who taught me so much. I know that my personal impression of Black people was very much influenced by them. I know that systemic racism is imbedded in me as much as in any white woman of my generation, but I hope that their influence has permeated some of my actions toward other Black people I have met.