As a person who has averaged an impressive 9 W-2’s a year for the past eight years, I am entitled to my fascination with Ms. Mariah Washington-Cox, a single, 57 year old woman who began teaching math at 26, and has for 30 years, remained at the same school doing the same thing in the same town, and I believe she has something to teach us. Not only has she remained employed, but she is also funny and a good business woman. The other day, she said, “I’m almost done,” and gave off a tiny, laugh referring to her 30 year fixed mortgage she has almost paid off, “something people are not supposed to actually do,” I told her. We were in the hallway and before we parted we had laughed for we both know how incredible this is. We parted and I went on to teach the class I despise teaching the most that day, (a homeowner- induced job I picked up just this year). Thinking of all the things she has told me, bit by bit over the course of this year in our teacher’s lunch room, I have come to know Mariah well, for she has let me. When we get our, middle school math teacher breaks which consist of decompressing our brains for thirty minutes in a room full of other, over animated teachers, Mariah quietly pulls up a chair and shares with me a little here and a little there while she downs her fancy homemade salads. And all of this is what adds up to what I will share with you now.
As an African American woman born in 1951, Mariah Washington’s life straddles a time period of such great change I can only compare it to what Col. Price once told me in a field. Riding beside him about to break into a gallop, (I’d pick up a job working for him training his big grey geldings readying them for their first steeple chases each spring) on the weekends, he would ride along side of me while I was teaching the youngsters to keep the weight off the front and to use their hind quarters for power. “As an engine” he used to say. “That’s it. That’s where the power is,” he’d say between gallops and our rounding of the bends on his land. Having slowed them to a walk, around these bends is when we would gather the reins and get a breather for ourselves and for the horses and as he rode beside me he would offer me the stories of his life. In one nostalgic sentence or two, he’d give me a line and I’d have that to think over the days following our rides. Once, I’d asked him about riding in the cavalry. “You know,” he said, “I was in service long enough to ride on horse back, and also see a man land on the moon.”
Mariah’s grandmother was the first child of ?? and ?? not born into slavery, and that Mariah has gone on to educate for thirty years, primarily white children in a southern county of Virginia, to me is a striking even comparable to riding in the cavalry and landing on the moon. What began of her grandfather’s education in a one room schoolhouse for blacks only, he had suffered the kinds of abuses we can only know of because they have happened and there were those left to tell about it. We cannot ever really know what it is like to walk the five miles with your nine brothers and sisters to a one room school house for blacks only, when the white childrens’ bus passes you in the snow. That you have to stop and back up into the side of banks on the road for them to pass and do not have shoes enough for all nine sisters and brothers so you ride piggy back and take turns with the shoes. That if you are younger, you must wait under the porch of the school, huddled there with a few of your sisters and brothers for your afternoon lessons. That you huddled in the dark there, frost bitten and hungry and begged your sister to take her hair out of the braids so you could run your fingers through it for warmth. That she would do this for you and sing you songs to take your mind off the cold and the dark and the hunger. That you would have to walk home again each evening on your sister’s back and know that your mother spent the day pregnant again, wiping down the floors of the white’s houses on her hands and knees with a heavy old brick wrapped in wool. That you would carry seeds inside of yourself and that one day not only be out from under that porch but be married, and your own son would give birth to Mariah. That Mariah would see her sister in a turquoise dress and white bobby sox waiting for the school bus that would take her away to her first day of high school, and that because she was black, that bus would not come. That the white woman whose floors were shined with that brick and that wool would march into that school that day and demand that Mariah’s sister be picked up the next day, on time, by that very bus that did not come. That the next day, the white students would blow bits of paper in Mariah’s sister’s hair and call her names that begin with an “N”.
When I have asked Mariah over this past year, and yes it is the first year I have ever had, so far, just one W-2) how could she stay at the same place, year after year after year? She would often deflect my questions. You see it is not as simple as arithmetic or algebra or trigonometry. But things do add up. And I have persisted because I did not understand what makes a person have the ability to do this. It seems so many of our jobs are gigs these days. How many people do you know today who will ever take a first job with the idea that they will keep it until they retire? Do you know that Mariah’s sister and brother also have the same jobs they landed after college? Can’t you see why? Can’t you see Mariah’s sister, Eva, in her turquoise dress waiting for the school bus? Can’t you see those little brown bodies huddled in the dark? This, I believe.
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