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  A Class Divided
A retired English teacher, Susan Dlugach just cannot retire from learning, tutoring, writing, traveling and exploring.

I've never experienced being sent to the back of the bus because my skin color isn't dark like Rosa Parks, but long ago I was another kind of outcast when my family moved to Houston, Texas, a few months into my first grade year.

Mrs. Camden wore an olive, buttoned-up suit and practical low-heeled shoes, her lightly salted hair tidily up off her shoulders. She quickly surmised that the skinny girl with dark curly hair, me, belonged at the back of the room with the slowest reading group. Maybe she didn't see the A's on the report card from the rural Louisiana school my mom showed her. Maybe she only saw our homemade calico dresses. Or perhaps she was annoyed by our deep southern drawl that didn't follow grammar book rules.

Whatever it was that got her dander up, dismissing my young mom was easy. I learned as I grew older that Mama felt smaller than her five foot frame. Her voice trembled when answering to strangers and sometimes to those she knew well. Quickly, Mom was gone and I was sitting in a desk with worksheets and a fat pencil. All too soon I learned that for us in the birdbrain group—for isn't that what this teacher must have thought of the children she placed there—that it was worksheets all day while the other two groups took turns sitting in semi-circle chairs at the front near the board. Direct instruction for them. Us at the back military quiet. Joey by himself at a desk by the wall all year. Time out. For being Joey.

There was no recess, no games, no rewards. The only break was lunch in the enormous cafeteria where I felt like a foreigner without a tongue. I had no idea how to navigate in the strange land of food choices and a meal ticket. After all, I'd come from a country school that served us family style. No choices. No meal tickets. Just clean your plate and drink your milk. So in this food hall that seemed like a giant bazaar, I just took a dish of golden carrots. They were pretty.

Mrs. Camden strolled to the back of the room every so often to remind us in this hinterland to get busy and quit talking.




A tummy ache each morning only brought me one day of reprieve. Mama made me go to school each day after that. Oh to be pretty blond Paula with the shiny blue ribbon tied around her ponytail. Sometimes she even wore fancy patent leather shoes to school. Or to live next door to the family that drove the cream-colored station wagon with wooden siding.

Spring arrived and my mom, baby brother, and I went back to live with my grandparents on the gravel Johnson Road and I returned to my class at the school tucked back in the piney woods of Ouachita Parish. My saddle oxfords and dresses made from Butterick patterns were good as anyone's.

Mrs. Luttrell graced me with her welcoming smile and sat me back in the first reading group. Our desks were lined along the right side of the classroom. The second group, the biggest, was in the middle. The last group sat in a row along the wall by the windows. No group was stuck in the back. We all had turns to sit in the circle of little chairs and read stories to our teacher.

Colorful animal stickers were continually added to my progress chart. My friends and I played jacks, dodgeball, red rover, and jump rope outside at recess. We all hopped on the yellow school bus at the end of the day.

I didn't know about Rosa Parks or the word "segregation" back then, though I knew we were all divided by skin color. I didn't know why I lived in white neighborhoods and went to school with all white children except that, as the grownups told me, that's the way God meant it to be because it said so in the Bible.

And I didn't know why Mrs. Camden, without listening to me read or seeing what I could write, put me in the back of the room. I didn't know why any of us were there or why Joey had to sit by himself. After all, he kept a pencil in his hand and at least pretended to work. Smiled at others easy, too.

But I was lucky. Being absolutely invisible only lasted a few months. Then I was back where it seemed I ought to be with the privilege of an education that encouraged me more often than not. And I gradually learned how to speak textbook grammar.

~ Susan Dlugach










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