“Balance” is a word that has to be the key to right-thinking. Balance is the seesaw of our human existence. Balance needs to be taught to kindergarten children who are screaming “Mine!” Bigots who have lost the idea of balance and refuse to rely on evidence from both sides before they hastily generalize their prejudices need to be force-fed balance.
When I was being raised in South Carolina in the 40’s and 50’s, I was taught a form of imbalance that I have had to overcome. It was racial prejudice which in my little South Carolina town assumed that white was superior and the heavier end of the seesaw. Funny thing about a seesaw. If the other side is not balanced, then the one person must sit on the ground. I can remember playing with some of the “colored” kids who lived in my neighborhood, but I never thought about inviting them home. I didn’t understand why mother told me, “Tommy, you don’t say ‘sir’ to colored people. It’s rude.” As a child, I accepted that statement and felt the seesaw plunge to the ground with reverberating pain shooting through my moral backbone.
After college, I became an English teacher in a high school. It was, however, when I was teaching in a middle school one summer that Dennis Jordan was enrolled in my class. Dennis was a frail black 7th grader who did not readily respond to being taught at all. In fact, Dennis seemed to have been numbed by his fear of falling from his end of the seesaw which was always up in the air. Dennis haunted me for I couldn’t charm him with my cheeriness and pedagogical adeptness. He had already been victimized by the other side of the seesaw when he was accused of stealing a teacher’s purse. Although the purse was never found, he was suspended from school. Dennis didn’t say much in class. In fact, all that I knew about Dennis, including the stolen purse episode, had been learned through a journal writing I required at the beginning of each class. The students wrote a page to which I promised a short response. The writings were usually rather innocuous and illiterate. Dennis continued to plunge grade-wise, missing school periodically and failing to make up work. The seesaw continued to pull him toward an upset.
One day, I watched Dennis doing one of his assignments. He was diligent enough but seemingly unenthusiastic. Periodically he would pause in his writing but the pause seemed more of a planned work stoppage than a time of reflection or organization. He was growing more and more dizzy from sitting atop the seesaw.
In early July when the sultry days of summer school were creeping to a close, my classes continued to write journals and front the continuing challenges of 7th grade English. As usual at the close of the school day I reached for the pile of journal papers on which I would write comments before departing for home. When I reached Dennis’ paper, I recognized immediately his rather nice cursive. His journal entry below contains the exact spelling and punctuation he used in this writing:
well, muy mother has to the doctor he mite keep her if he does it would
be like taking a arm are a leg from apon my boby my mother is the water
of my life and I am the seed. With out her there is no one. Me and
my mother are closer that the wind it’s self some time me and my mother
can look at each other and know each others fillings. Right now I can
hear my mother saying didn’t stop now son keep on to make some thing
out of your self make our name be a name. And when she says that I look at her with water running down my face and then it fill’s like the whole
world on my shoulder and then I look up in the sky and I say O God let it be let it be.
I passed Dennis in summer school, knowing that I had touched genius and heartbreak. Two years later he was transferred to the high school in which I taught, and I contacted the English teacher working with him. The weeks passed and I saw Dennis Jordan’s name on the absentee list all too often. Finally I saw that he had been dropped and I ached from the fall. I’m not the person I grew up to be now, thanks to a young black man who taught me balance. Though I couldn’t keep him on the seesaw, I am easier to balance with now.