Remembering Mrs. Brazil

Morgan in 2nd grade, a year after learning to read and write from Mrs. Brazil.

What a time to be alive in America—to believe in America.

Having just celebrated Dr. King’s 80th birthday, swelling in the background for the entire week was the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States.

I wasn’t sure exactly how to go about the business of celebrating on that pseudo-double-barrell holiday. Dr. King and President Obama reminded us about the importance of public service, but I couldn’t help but reflect on those of African-American descent who have touched my life over the years. Too bad for me that such individuals are so few. Yet, I’m the only one to blame for such an abbreviated list.

It was only a couple weeks ago that I remembered Mrs. Brazil, and because of these recent events, for the first time I saw her in a new light.

I never gave much thought about her as an African-American. And, to be sure, no one in my family let it be known to me that (in 1966) my foundation for reading and writing were being shaped by an African-American woman. Yes, I owe my humble beginnings in reading and writing to my first grade teacher, Mrs. Brazil.

Up until now, I’ve been rather oblivious to the unique scenario that had shaped my early years—especially in light of those tumultuous times. Only three years earlier the racial atrocities were recorded regarding the 16 Street Baptist Church in Alabama and not long after 1966, Dr. King was gone.

So, folded in between all of this racial strife, a bunch of young White kids growing up in an all-White neighborhood of East Akron, Ohio, were given the first tools of reading and writing by an African-American woman—tools that have defined the inner core of any civilization.

What a contrast from Kindergarten with Mrs. Scheatzle to the first grade with Mrs. Brazil. Mrs. Scheatzle was a petite and attractive Anglo woman who spoke calmly and evenly. When I walked into Mrs. Brazil’s class on the that first day of the first grade, I knew I had graduated. She was a smart dresser, but she was big enough to play linebacker with Ray Nitschke of the Green Bay Packers (or so it seemed). In short, she was no Mrs. Scheatzle. Mrs. Brazil was gentle with us to be sure, but her voice was capable of booming across the room and she had a great, uninhibited laugh. Occasionally, when we started to become unruly she would settle us down by reminding us that we weren’t in Kindergarten anymore. She conducted that class as if she were holding court.

In reflecting on that time, the other day I called my mother to see if there was anything she remembered that may have been too harsh for a first grader like myself to comprehend. She only remembers the surprise to hear about Brazil’s assignment as a teacher at Ritzman Elementary where I was entering the first grade. Both of us suspect that she may have been the first non-White to teach there—and long before any African-American children attended as students. Regardless, my mother couldn’t recall any controversy regarding Mrs. Brazil at Ritzman and only remembers her as a caring and friendly teacher who would call the house to check on my status when I’d been sick and away from school.

I hold a certain sadness today in that I don’t know what became of Mrs. Brazil, nor do I know how many years she actually taught at Ritzman. I suspect it wasn’t very long because I don’t recall being aware of her presence by the time I was in the fifth grade—the last year I attended Ritzman. Like many of my former teachers, I truly regret not knowing what paths she pursued after sharing the 1966-67 academic year with her. I never learned her given name either.

Today, I find myself wondering what pressures and anxieties she experienced as a teacher working at a school that was 100% White way back then? I can’t imagine it was as innocent and uneventful for her as it appeared from my first-grade perspective. How did such an assignment even come about? Whatever racial tensions she may have experienced, tolerated, suffered, it never showed. Yet, I have to wonder what would a first grader really notice? For me, she was competent, effective and influential as a first grade teacher. What more has ever been required?

Perhaps even more perplexing is that I don’t recall any of the kids from the other classes saying anything about Mrs. Brazil while on the playground or in route to and from school. And the kids attending Ritzman were hardly angels—many used the various inappropriate and offensive names for those of colour and other nationalities. In fact, I remember hearing more jokes about Poles than any other race or nationality.

The fact that my first grade experience with Mrs. Brazil was racially uneventful is probably a credit to my parents who never demonized Blacks or used any of the derogatory, popularized-by-Whites terms for African-American people, although several members of our extended family did—and probably still do to this day.

I’ve told many people over the years about Mrs. Brazil—not because she was African-American, but because she always called me “Tyree”—my surname. I thought that was cool because my brother and his friends in high school always called each other by their last names and suddenly, my teacher was as cool as they were.

As it turned out, sometime later in the year, she pulled me aside and apologized when she realized that my given name was actually “Morgan.” I’m pretty certain I told her it was OK, but had I a little more courage, I would have told her I preferred to be called “Tyree” all along.

On this week when we’ve celebrated the 80th birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the swearing in of Barack Obama as our 44th President, I’d like to look her in the eye and thank her for being such a powerful and influential force in my early years. Maybe I could even have her read this essay and offer me a little feedback on my writing one last time.

146,810.3 miles

The 1983 Honda in its final resting spot—Zier’s Auto Salvage near Deaver, Wyoming.

Deaver, Wyoming

We bought the ’83 Honda Accord in 1990. Considering the amount of rust on the body, it’s safe to say the car had spent most of its time on the salted roads of Northeast Ohio. I don’t remember the final price, but the monthly payments were $105 for three years.

When it came to reliability, the yellowish-tan import never let us down; however, like most used cars, many of its more dispensable features were just that—dispensed. The air conditioner never worked due to an electrical short somewhere between the control panel and the A/C itself. And the cruise control was extremely temperamental, sometimes staying on for hours as we cruised down the interstate; other times, it would disengage after a mile or two—never activating again for the remainder of the trip. I would guess that both defects were attributed to coffee spilled on or near the dashboard by its former owners.

In ’91 the car was towed behind our pick-up as we moved to Flagstaff, Arizona—never to see salt again, though the rust continued to spread like a cancer without a cure. While in Flag, we photographed the salt-free import the day it turned over 100,000 miles—as if it had graduated from some institute of higher mileage.

Before another year had passed, we were on the move to Northwestern Wyoming and the Honda was riding piggy-back again. From Wyoming, the Accord made two trips back to Ohio and a side excursion to Tennessee. By this time original parts were being replaced on a regular basis.

Zier’s Auto Salvage just outside of Deaver, Wyoming 20-plus-years after the Honda’s arrival.

We finally sold the car for $800 to our best friends’ daughter. Though I never expressed my true feelings, I felt reluctant to depart with the Accord. I pictured it as my second car and driving it into the next century. Two months after the sale, the Honda’s teenage owner lost control of it on a dirt road, causing the destruction of the entire front wheel drive and suspension. There was talk shortly after the accident of rebuilding and replacing the damaged parts; but in light of the vehicle’s age, a retired family mechanic suggested taking it off life support. Arrangements were made with a local junkyard to park the Honda one last time—in its final resting place—a junkyard outside of Deaver, Wyoming. There it has embarked on a journey toward extinction—a trip where tune-ups, oil changes or other maintenance-related work are no longer necessary. I wonder how long its identity will stay in tact as parts are stripped off and cannibalized for other ’83 Accords still in service? Perhaps one day it will be crushed like an aluminum can under a heavy foot, then shredded to bits, and finally used for re-bar soup.

Until it does meet the diabolical auto shredder, I’ll likely stop by for a visit on occasion to see how our old car is holding up to the turbulent Wyoming weather. And who knows, maybe Accords will someday be considered classics, like the early Mustangs, drawing me back to Deaver—to reclaim its tattered remains.

Church4Sale

The old Christian Science Society Church circa early 1990. Today it is a residence.

Powell, Wyoming

As I return home from a short run, the vacant Christian Science building catches my eye. Though the church has been a familiar and intriguing sight, I’ve never examined it closer. It’s nothing to marvel at architecturally, so why photograph it? The empty building resides in the middle of town, surrounded by a decent neighborhood, and is actually something of an eyesore in its state of dilapidation. But standing on the curb today, I sense a form of decay that supersedes the visible ruin of this building—decay attributed to the human element that often tarnishes the euphoric properties many of us find in houses of organized religion.

The “FOR SALE” sign on the door suggests a deeper meaning, similar to a “Beach Closed” sign that leaves the reader in suspense as to why it is closed: shark attack, oil spill, approaching hurricane? So on this particular day (in light of all the bad press religion is getting as of late) I take the liberty to make a loose translation/interpretation of the sign as “Religion for Sale.” 

The motivation behind the sale or abandonment of an item is often unclear or obscure to a spectator. A sale can be a simple profit-seeking activity; or perhaps interest in an item is lost if it has become run-down, used up, unfashionable, neglected or replaced by something more useful (or so it seems). I wonder if these explanations can apply to a church or even an entire religion? 

I look closely at the deteriorating structure and consider the current physical state of the building; though it is only one church, I’m astounded to think that its physical appearance is representative of the modern Christian church and other organized religions. The foundation still has integrity, but everything else is in desperate need of repair. And though the architecture is sound, it has become plagued with an endless barrage of abuse from the elements over the years.

What might the peeling paint, broken signage and neglected landscaping represent in this comparison? Perhaps they are symbolic of the Jimmy Swaggerts, Jim Bakkers, Ernest Angleys and other self-proclaimed apostles-turned-money-grubbing swindlers who have decreased the value of religion. Or do they represent the tireless and bitter disputes that have led to petty wars among fellow believers around the world—caught up in the mechanics of worship rather than faith itself.

The building’s cold and empty appearance may also represent the numerous unanswered questions that have been carried around for years by believers and non-believers alike. For example, why have there been (and continue to be) so many cultures sacrificed or lost as a result of accepting Christianity? Can the various Native American cultures survive in their entirety while embracing a religion that originates from another part of the world? Can Christianity tolerate and accept a race of people whose culture is based on, and continues to believe in, a creation story that has few semblances to the Book of Genesis?

With some ambivalence, I will be attending a church service less than an hour from now and will likely continue questioning my religion, my beliefs and quite possibly even my Lord. I’m hopeful that my questioning isn’t mistaken for irreverence or disrespect.