Miss Williams and Miss Triplett by Alvin Hall

13th June 2014 at 01:00
In a time of racial segregation, two women offered the inquisitive young maths whizz hope of a better future

I went to a completely segregated school. A school that had poor-quality textbooks and was never treated equally to the white school. But we kids were completely unaware of this and that was thanks to the teachers. If I could, I would choose all the teachers who taught at my elementary school, south of Tallahassee in Florida.

It was called Shadeville, which sounds very Faulknerian. All the kids were black, as were the teachers. There was little contact with white people unless your parents worked for them.

Teachers were very strict. They had to be, to prepare us for the vicissitudes we would experience in the future. Although they were professionals, these people often had to deal with disrespect outside the black community. So when they came into the classroom the last thing they would tolerate was disrespect.

Miss Mattie S Williams taught me from the ages of 6 to 9. My mother said I was a "why?" child as I was always asking questions. Miss Williams answered a lot of them and when she couldn't, she would say: "Why don't you go away and read about it, boy?"

She would send me to the school's library where I'd get lost in an encyclopedia. I had always been a big reader and I think it was her strategy to calm me down.

She didn't just teach us about our class subjects, she also taught us how to take care of ourselves. She instilled in us good manners and the importance of good personal hygiene - the basic things that were important to how black people presented themselves. This was a time when the behaviour of each black person represented their entire race so she wanted to make sure we were respectful.

Another influential teacher was Miss Mary Triplett, who taught me maths when I was 11. She was a great teacher, just phenomenal. She made learning maths interesting and vibrant. She contextualised the subject so it wasn't just about numbers but about how it applied to our lives. I was so motivated by her and by how she taught us. I think she made me aware of my maths brain, although I didn't know what it would lead to.

By the age of 9, I knew I was going to leave home and I'd started thinking education could be my ticket out. I'm the eldest of seven and we were a poor family on a subsistence farm, so we ate what we grew and hunted. There was no machinery so we kids pulled the weeds out. I didn't want to stay there or grow old there.

I had no set path but when I was 15 integration happened and shortly afterwards I got accepted to the Upward Bound project. This helped poor kids better their chances of attending college and it led to me going to summer school at Yale University. Yale was a turning point for me. I experienced a bigger world and knew I could create a life for myself beyond Florida.

I didn't keep in touch with Miss Triplett but I used to see Miss Williams whenever I visited home.

I told her little about my career. A lot of what has happened to me was beyond what she could imagine or fully understand. She knew that I taught for a while so I left it at that. She died of Alzheimer's disease more than a decade ago.

My early education influenced how I approached my entire life. I knew I could go some place. I didn't always know where but I knew I could figure it out by asking questions. I'm still a "why?" child.

Alvin Hall was talking to Kate Bohdanowicz. He is appearing at the Festival of Education, which takes place on 20-21 June at Wellington College in Berkshire. For more information, visit www.festivalofeducation.com or follow @EducationFest on Twitter

Money man

Alvin Hall

Born 27 June 1952, Wakulla County, Florida, US

Education Shadeville Elementary School and Wakulla High School, Florida; Yale University, Connecticut; Bowdoin College Maine; University of North Carolina

Career Financial educator, broadcaster and author


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