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White Woman's Tears, Junior High Edition

Updated: Mar 9, 2020

By Deborah Pope Kehoe, Council School Manhattan, Class of 1973

It would be one of the questions, I knew. When I entered the English grad school program at the University of Mississippi and met new people, anyone who knew my hometown of Jackson would ask it. Where did you go to high school?

I would almost whisper the words Manhattan Academy. To be precise, its name was Council School Manhattan. I omitted the word Council because it felt less demeaning than admitting my high school was founded by the white Citizens Council. I would sometimes follow up with the irrelevant information that my older

siblings graduated from Murrah and Callaway public high schools, as if that mitigated the stigma of my own school. Ever since my undergraduate days, I assumed the where’d-you-go-to-school question stung because answering it exposed my upbringing’s racism. That wasn’t totally accurate but not totally inaccurate either. Racism exists in layers inside the mind. I’ve recently been scrutinizing those layers within my own head as a seg academy student and alum.

Every story has a beginning, so let me get this one over with. Fact: I was never

anyone’s idea of an adorable child, in appearance or behavior, and I developed into

an even less charming teenager. Taunts and pranks followed me through my school

days. My experience was not unique. It’s the timeworn fate of kids to pay a price for

not conforming, even involuntarily, to the superficial standards of their peers (or

sometimes of their elders). My coping mechanisms were also unoriginal. Early on, I

pushed back. Later I withdrew. As a student at Bailey Junior High, I was absent from

school as often as I could persuade my mother to keep me at home. When in school,

I considered a small number of people “safe,” and I knew exactly which ones to

avoid—or try to.

So, in 1969, when the Jackson Public Schools came under federal court order

to desegregate, my parents had a problem on their hands. I was slated to attend

Powell Junior High, which was closer to my house than Bailey, but to me, it was an

exotic island of exile, where I would be forced to start over identifying allies and

tormentors. The handful of students I liked at Bailey would be fleeing public school

to Council School Manhattan, so I mounted a full-throated protest until my parents

agreed to enroll me there too. My stomach churns today at the memory of that

weekend when the world stood still while my father and mother deliberated.

I’d like to say that they were slow to decide on ethical, rather than practical,

grounds to send me to a Citizens’ Council school, but that would be revising history.

I never learned what was going through their minds during those fraught days. For

years, I was stifled by the embarrassment of knowing that, on some level, my

Council school diploma was the result of my crippling inadequacy. I wanted friends

more than I wanted to take a stand against racism. My parents indulged me. It was a

junior high version of a white woman’s tears. We never spoke of the subject again.

Until the time that I discovered The Academy Stories project and was

inspired to write my own tale, the only account of what it was like for me to be

among that 1969 cohort of Jackson kids who suddenly became private school

students was my interior record of a path to self-awareness. Its trajectory was not a

straight line.

In college, I liked to think of myself as literary and sophisticated. The identity

of my high school contradicted that self-image. Yet here’s what I’ve come to realize:

It was Manhattan’s lowbrow reputation that made me wince, but not its stamp of

white supremacy. Instead, I merely longed to have gone to a venerable ivy-covered

elite school—it could have been equally as segregated and white for all I cared. In

short, while my sensibilities had awakened to the shame of my high school

affiliation, I was far from being “woke” to the true source of its disgrace.

As I mentioned earlier, there are layers to this story. Here’s another. When I

retired from 26 years of teaching English at Northeast Mississippi Community

College, before a filled auditorium, I publicly reclaimed that shunned chapter of my

past. In drafting my retirement remarks, I realized the first teacher I ever loved, the

one who showed me the unity of human existence through literature’s power came

into my life in one of the tacky green buildings that housed my Manhattan tenth-

grade English classroom. Her pretty and petite appearance belied her tough

personality. “You must have worked on this a long time,” she once said, sarcastically

dismissing what I thought was a fine bit of minimalist poetry in the tradition of

William Carlos Williams. “Oh, come on, Deborah, please.”

I was her student for three years. I marvel at how advanced those classes were.

How many high school students are required to read all of Voltaire’s Candide? And

despite my years as a serial English major, the only time I’ve ever read the Cetology

Chapters in Moby Dick was in her class. I knew we were being asked to reach

beyond our grasp, and even though I joined in the occasional chirping, secretly I

exulted in her demands and ached to meet them. I never knew how she came to

teach at Manhattan. I just knew she was different. It was clear that she wanted us to

open our minds, not close them. At my retirement reception, I shared my story of

being in her class.

Of course, this is essentially a story about bad schooling at Manhattan. Yet

I’ve come to accept the paradox that a bad school can include a good teacher in spite

of itself. Even an academic institution founded on the detestable principle of white

supremacy can occasionally contain what Thomas Merton calls the good soil of

freedom, spontaneity and love in which seeds of positive growth are nurtured in the

minds of youth, even one as marginalized and fearful as I was. Then again, Jackson

was full of lots of other teens feeling marginalized and fearful—then and now—a

reality that Council Manhattan was built to ignore.

In other parts of the building, there were teachers who seamlessly inserted racist

asides into their lectures. For example, the civics teacher denounced Martin Luther

King, Jr.’s Nobel Peace Prize as a “joke,” adding that “they don’t want peace.”

In Manhattan’s early years, it hired former public school teachers who wanted

to retreat into the seg world and also new teachers right out of college, unable or

unwilling to find employment elsewhere. While not to absolve anyone of the taint of

association, some like my English teacher were transformative agents in the lives of

students. Those teachers wanted to educate, not indoctrinate.

While I’m no longer reluctant to tell the truth about where I went to high

school, I still lament having had a role in the white-flight phenomenon that wreaked

havoc on the city of Jackson and dealt a deadly blow to its school system. Many

continue to pay the price for that insidious period in our state’s history. Ask me

where I went to high school today, and what wells up in me when I say Council

Manhattan is not humiliation that I was deprived of a loftier brand of alma mater,

even one just as bigoted. Instead, Manhattan represents one of many chapters of

white insulation and privilege in my life. I have a lot to make up for.

Deborah Pope Kehoe is a retired college and university English instructor who lives in Oxford, Mississippi. She is active in Thomas Merton studies and is currently co-editor of The Merton Annual. Her work has also appeared in The Merton Seasonal,The Journal of Christianity and Literature and The Southern Register.


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