Remembering 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.

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

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.

Nelson John


15 August 2000
Auckland, New Zealand

I said goodbye to John a few hours ago at the bus station in downtown Auckland. John was one of the first Kiwis I came to know here in New Zealand. We met up in the TV room of the hostel where we were both staying at the time. We connected as a result of our mutual interest and humor found in professional wrestling.

In some ways I feel as though I’ve known John for years and in other ways, he still seems a stranger to me. Perhaps we never came to know each other’s peculiarities as good friends often do, however I think there was an understanding between us that such details weren’t that necessary. All we needed to know is that we both enjoyed professional wrestling and movies—good and bad ones alike.

As we were walking to the bus station this afternoon, I still felt a need to know more about John despite his knack of evading questions that revealed too much information about himself. So, I asked him to tell me about a favorite childhood memory. He spoke of a cousin that came to visit his family one summer when he was eleven. She was from Australia. He told me how he developed the biggest crush on her and acted like a typical goofy kid—trying to be interested in the things she was interested in just so she’d be impressed. He never saw her again although he still hears about her through his family. He recounted a Saturday afternoon when they attended the local movie house—“Jaws” was showing. He hid on the theater floor during several scenes because he was so squeamish despite her ability to watch the entire film without a blink. His voice was sincere and confident when he told me that there was no better place to grow up than Nelson—his hometown. We compared notes of our childhood and once again found we had other things in common as we recounted our earliest memories.

John kept odd hours at the Ponsonby Backpackers. Most of the time, he would stay up well past 3:00 a.m. and he didn’t think it unusual to stay up until dawn. I think he was disappointed that I could never make it too far past midnight before I felt the need to retire. As a result of his late-night TV vigils, John was never seen during the normal breakfast hour around the kitchen—not even during the later morning hours of the day. He usually appeared after 1:00 in the afternoon. I would often join him in the early evening hours for a walk to the market where he would often purchase a box of Choya tea and Watties Baked Beans for his evening tea. John told me that he probably drank up to 12 cups of tea per day—always with milk.

John’s knowledge about America was impressive. I don’t suppose it is that unusual for a Kiwi to be fairly informed about the United States due to its high profile in the world, but John seemed especially interested in America and my life as an American—as if he was comparing the things he learned from me and my life with what he knew (or thought he knew) about the States. A couple days ago, I was stunned when he made a reference to Montgomery, Alabama, as the capital of that state. Less than a year ago, I couldn’t have told anyone whether Christchurch was on the North or South Island of New Zealand.

I suppose John doesn’t have much money. Although he is staying in places that are associated with travellers, he only appears to be living day to day with little resources—doesn’t have the look or the talk of a true traveller. During my days spent with John, I only saw him in one other pair of pants, which was a ripped up pair of jeans—he would wear them when he was washing his regular pair. John always wore the same sweater too but he never appeared dirty as I’m sure he bathed and shaved almost everyday. Not long before he left, his sweater had ripped where the sleeve meets the chest-area of the pullover. He struck me as odd in his determination to have it repaired as opposed to purchasing a new one. I would later learn that such resolve in resourcefulness is a common and admirable trait in many New Zealanders.

John’s shoes were also very worn and when he had them on, they were seldom laced—or only half laced—as if he was never going anywhere too far. However, today when we left the hostel for the train station by foot, his shoes were as they always were—half laced—just as if he was going out the back door to have a cup of tea or going down to the market at the bottom of the hill.

Because I suspected he was on a tight budget, I bought a six pack of beer on occasion and shared it with him—opting for Mac’s Ale, one of the domestic beers that is brewed near his hometown of Nelson. He was always grateful anytime I “shouted” him a beer or some other treat like a Ponsonby pie or a Memphis Meltdown ice cream bar. Upon handing him one of these items he simply responded, “Cheers.” I’ve never known anyone to express their thanks so well and so simply as John. For this reason alone, I’m grateful to have known him.

John expressed having mixed feelings in leaving. I’m not sure why he had to leave or if he even had to leave at all. I didn’t press him for more information, I just accepted it from him. He caught one of the busses going north toward the Bay of Islands. He would go as far as Orewa for the $7 bus fee and then hitchhike farther north to Whangarei. From there and further north, he told me he would be looking for work at one of the many organic farms found throughout this country that hire general laborers for four hours per day and in return supply them with free room and board. I think John will do well since he is a man of simple means and requires little to keep himself going.

I don’t know when or if I’ll ever see John again. I’m hoping to catch up with him someday—maybe up on the North Shore before I make my way South; and if not there, perhaps down in Nelson when he returns home, whenever that is. More than anything, I hope John will have the opportunity to visit me in Wyoming. I think deep in his heart, he’d like to visit America and now that he has a friend there and in—of all places—Wyoming, I suspect it is even more desirable for him to travel there.