Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Miss Gray's fourth grade class at Peeple Street Elementary, 1974-75

Jeff Harrison asks, "Is there a MoneyLaw approach to grading?" I propose what is at least an indirect answer to this question.

Brown Middle SchoolI was a member of Miss Gray's fourth grade class at Atlanta's Peeple Street Elementary School during the 1974-75 school year. I did not then and do not now know Miss Gray's first name; like most other elementary school teachers, she was destined to be remembered, if at all, as "Miss," "Mrs.," or "Mr." At Peeple Street Elementary, though, we learned never, ever to take those titles for granted. As a certain Mr. King reminded us, "Mrs." is a very respected title. Peeple Street Elementary itself is no more. The closest image I could find is that of Joseph Emerson Brown Middle School (named for a curious historical figure who managed somehow both to lead Georgia into secession and to be a fierce advocate for public education). Brown dominated the neighborhood; I would have attended it eventually had my family not moved to Clarkston during the summer of 1975.

But I digress. I am here to remember Miss Gray. She stood exceptionally tall -- okay, all adults did when I was in fourth grade, and perhaps she just seemed tall because she was so thin. I do remember thinking that she was beautiful. I never appreciated how beautiful she really was. Since this is MoneyLaw, by the way, I feel compelled to say this much regarding her own educational background. I cannot imagine Miss Gray, in her youth, having attended the University of Georgia or Georgia Tech. Spelman, perhaps, or Fort Valley State.

The most important thing about Miss Gray, and we all knew it, was how much she loved us. Having spent a lifetime in schools of one sort or another, I can honestly say that I have rarely met another person more beautiful in spirit.

Miss Gray brooked no careless work. She reminded us that the people who ran the world had little inclination to value us, her students, and that we were destined in all likelihood to work twice as hard for half as much, if that, as certain of our counterparts would enjoy. But the task she set before us was never to complain, simply to work harder. Though she surely appreciated Black English Vernacular and its rich oral tradition -- for the love of God, she wrapped us in it -- Miss Gray took singular exception to the pronunciation of ask as though it were spelled ax, each instance of which gave her an occasion to remind us about those inconvenient 2:1 and 1:2 ratios. Our one and only chance, she repeatedly stressed, lay in learning our lessons and doing our homework.

Matthew HensonMiss Gray's personal heroes included Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, and Matthew Henson. I'm sure she was the reason I would come to know that there were two Morrill Acts. All the time I have spent in countries such as Sweden and Iceland stems in good measure, I have no doubt, from the way Miss Gray admired Matthew Henson and told us so.

I trace to Miss Gray my own awareness of American politics and to the possibility that I might have something meaningful to contribute to government (or at least that I might teach and write about it). She took pains to give me a story about a boy who had come to America from China and was treated to a fireworks display on the Fourth of July. Miss Gray might as well have been Annie Sullivan holding my hand under a water pump in Tuscumbia, Alabama.

The day I'll remember most vividly, though, was the day Miss Gray told us that one of our classmates would not be coming back. "Joe" -- I remember his head, as thoroughly shaved as it was perfectly round, but not his name -- had been caught stealing. Miss Gray openly wept as she told us the story. Now that I reflect on what probably lay ahead for Joe, I too am weeping.

For all this and more, Miss Gray figured most prominently among the teachers and classmates to whom I dedicated Mayteenth. That gesture and this post are woefully inadequate, but I have no other way of expressing gratitude to a woman whom I have no realistic way of finding, assuming that she is even alive.

So what does all this have to do with MoneyLaw in general and Jeff Harrison's question in particular? There are many questions I'd have for Miss Gray, and her views on grade inflation would probably never qualify as a topic of conversation. But I have no doubt what her answer would be. The teaching mission is that of imparting knowledge and building character, not conferring credentials. What was good enough for the public school classroom over which Miss Gray presided will serve me for life. It should be good enough for classrooms at institutions that should aspire to do as much good as Peeple Street Elementary did for me.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The teaching mission is that of imparting knowledge and building character, not conferring credentials."

I could not more wholheartedly agree with this statement. The Miss Grays of my life have been some of the most important people in my development and I am sure I would not be the person I am today without them. However, the Miss Grays of the world are few and far between. And, interestingly enough, they become even more rare as one progresses through their schooling.

I can count the number of Miss Gray's that I have encountered at my law school on one hand (with fingers to spare). Those who I have encountered I have found to be the most beneficial in my development as a law student and I feel many of their lessons will be helpful as I begin to embark on a career as a young lawyer. However, some highly regarded legal scholars that I have been taught by were just plain old bad teachers. Since law school does little to prepare one for the practical life of the law, when one is not taught by a Miss Gray then the goal of this law student is to go in, get the best grade possible, and get out. In this respect, class is merely a chore in maintaining or bettering my credentials (grades).

In a perfect world all professors would be Miss Grays and MoneyLaw would find the answer on how to get them. If this was the case, law school would be a most fulfilling academic experience. But if they are not, class is merely an exercise in getting through it. If that is the case then grading policies matter, especially if a law student needs and wants to get a job.

11/29/2006 8:41 AM  
Blogger Jeff Harrison said...

I fear that the Miss Gray types that apply for law teaching jobs are being pushed aside for flash, credentials, and self promoters. Such a loss.

11/30/2006 9:50 PM  

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