Home is where the heart is, and mine is in North Carolina. My roots run deep, stretching from a hundred-acre farm to the graveyard where generations of my family are buried.
Though my roots are in North Carolina, I now live in Florida. But every time I sit down to write, I become a Carolina girl. My pen takes me back there. In my latest book, RUBY LEE & ME, my pen took me back to the 1960’s.
When I closed my eyes, I could smell flue-cured tobacco. I could feel the hot sun beating down on me. I could hear the southern accent of a teacher whose voice reminded me of poetry.
The 1960’s were a turbulent time in my family and in my town. ThoughBrown v. Board of Education became the law of the land in 1954, our public schools remained segregated until 1967. I started first grade that year, and my school’s first African-American teacher taught in the classroom beside mine.
Mrs. Porter had a special gift for working with reluctant readers. So every afternoon, she changed classrooms with my teacher and worked with those of us struggling to read.
As a first grader, my relationship with Mrs. Porter was all about me. Our class was divided into reading circles. The blue birds were the best readers. The red birds were the second best, and the lowest reading group was the yellow birds. Our chairs were painted to match our reading level. Mine was yellow, and I was ashamed of it. Mrs. Porter promised that if I worked really hard, I could become one of the best readers in our class. With her help, I advanced to the red birds and finally to the coveted blue bird circle. I went on to excel in elementary school, in high school, and in college. I shudder to think what might have happened if I’d never caught up.
Nearly forty years passed by, and my teacher’s health faded. I paid Mrs. Porter a visit because I wanted her to know what an impact she had made on my life. As an adult, it wasn’t all about me. This time I reflected on what it must have been like for her. She must have faced discrimination, been called the N word, and treated like a second-class citizen. Yet when asked to teach in a mostly white school, she did so with grace and dignity.
During my visit, Mrs. Porter reminded me that white children had been uneasy about having a black teacher. To ease our concerns, she had invited each of us to touch her face and hair. Mrs. Porter said, “Blacks and whites are a little different on the outside, but we’re all God’s children, and he loves us just the same.” That was a message children often weren’t receiving at home.
There were lots of heroes during the Civil Rights Movement. Many of the heroes made the nightly news, but some were like Mrs. Porter. Their stories have never been told. Over her teaching career, Mrs. Porter taught hundreds of white children. She taught us not only how to read, but how to be better people.
I knew immediately that I wanted to write this story. I had read several accounts of school integration, but never one that dealt with a black teacher’s experience in stepping into a mostly white school. I asked for Mrs. Porter’s permission to tell her story. She said, “honey child, you can write anything you want to about me.”
I penned a picture book called CORN SILK. My editor, Andrea Pinkney encouraged me to expand the story into a Middle Grade novel. When I did so, Mrs. Porter’s story converged with another event from my childhood. In the summer of 1969, my younger sister was struck by a car. As I wove the story of Robin’s accident together with school integration, I was struck by the themes they have in common: courage and forgiveness.
Both my sister and Mrs. Porter are dead now, but I hope young readers will be challenged when they read about them. Challenged to be brave, challenged to treat others with respect, and challenged to learn more about the Civil Rights Movement.
It’s been said, “Nobody an author loves is ever really gone.” The dedication to RUBY LEE & ME reads, “In memory of Mrs. Pauline Porter who first taught me to read, and my sister, Robin, who once said, “Make up a story about us.”
Shannon Hitchcock is the author of two historical novels, THE BALLAD OF JESSIE PEARL, (2013), and RUBY LEE & ME, (2016). You can connect with her on Twitter @ShanonHitchcock or through her websitehttp://www.shannonhitchcock.com.