- Dream Not of Other Worlds:Teaching in a Segregated Elementary School, 1970
In 1970, when U.S. citizens were beginning to believe that the Civil Rights movement was finally taking hold, when most Americans chose to believe that racism was coming to an end, young Huston Diehl (then Mrs. Hallahan) was thrust into a fourth-grade classroom of African American children who received an education unequal to the white children in Louisa County, Virginia. When the superintendent hired the untrained Diehl to teach at Z. C. Morton Elementary School, he told her that he didn't expect "those" (African American) children to learn anything.
Diehl learned that her liberal education had not prepared her for the 38 children who squirmed before her. Nor had her liberal education prepared her for the complexities of a dual education system. Five days before she was to take charge of the classroom, Diehl observed the teacher she was to replace. When one young boy asked that teacher why he could see the moon in daylight, she told him not to ask such a ridiculous question. Diehl writes eloquently of how the children's questions were stifled, their emotions squelched, their very individualism set aside. Diehl assured herself inwardly that her own method of treating each child with dignity and respect would create a thriving classroom. She writes of the "mental note" she made to herself: "Listen to the children. Give them permission to speak." But she quickly discovered that observing a class and teaching a class are not the same thing. While she tried to encourage her students' questions, Diehl learned her ideals were confusing not only [End Page 163] to her administrators, but to the children. She had to coax them out of their silence.
In her debut memoir, Dream Not of Other Worlds, Diehl examines the effects of racism on those victimized by that racism and those wishing to effect change. Unlike many memoirs of classroom teachers, Diehl's does not end with a stirring crescendo of children recognizing their potential and striking back at a society that shunned them. Diehl does not end with a white teacher surrounded by her African American charges, proud with the knowledge that she has turned their lives around. Diehl, who resigned before the year was out, is an honest witness who takes us on the trip back to see the ugliness of racism and segregation.
What is truly remarkable about Dream Not of Other Worlds is Diehl's unwillingness to turn away from any issue, however uncomfortable or complex. She questions not only the racist society of 1970, but also herself and her students. Upon noticing that her students drew only white children, she wonders what the child could be thinking "as she drew the little blonde white girls who looked nothing like herself, nothing like her friends or her family, and who played in a northern winter wonderland that did not resemble in any way the world she inhabited? Looking around, I realized that this classroom filled with black children had not a single picture of an African American on its walls. And virtually none of the images I'd seen in the school's textbooks depicted black people, either."
Though the children seemed uncomfortable talking about race, Diehl pushed them to draw figures more like themselves. She also provided additional supplies and resources for her students. But her efforts were hampered by her ignorance. She writes: "I would like to tell you that I flooded the room with images of African American art and stocked the shelves with children's literature illustrated by African American artists, but the truth is that in 1970 I didn't know anything about African American art or children's literature and I didn't have access to any school material that featured African American children." In her vulnerability, Diehl is at her best.
Dream Not of Other Worlds is not only a road trip back to that one classroom in Louisa County, but a trip into the national and regional...