De-Centering Whiteness

What will it take to teach toward racial justice and away from white supremacy?

For “Shoe Polish,” I say, “Thank you”

“Shoe polish.”

“Listen to the words,” he said. “Consonants and vowels feel and sound a certain way when you say ‘Shoe polish.’ Don’t you just love that sound?”

Mr. Rogers was my high school English teacher. He loved words and the “wondrous poetry” of putting words together to make sentences. Mr. Rogers was also enamored of novelists who wove sentences together into tales in which memorable protagonists grappled with life’s deepest questions.

Joseph Conrad, Polish author who wrote in English, was one of Mr. Rogers’ favorites. I met him on the same day I met Mr. Rogers and leaned in to hear the vocal choreography of the vowels and consonants of “shoe polish.”

“Mr. Conrad was not a fluent English speaker until he was an adult,” Mr. Rogers said. He stood before us in a dark suit, white shirt and black tie, his daily teaching costume. “And yet he became one of the greatest novelists to ever craft a tale in the English language. When you read The Heart of Darkness, Conrad’s words carry you with him down the Congo River, and you grapple with what it means to be human in an indifferent and dangerous world. Joseph Conrad will be our teacher this year. Learn from him. Every one of you can write beautiful words, sentences, paragraphs and stories. You can be poets and novelists. You can be writers and artists. You can change the world.”

I wanted to believe him.

Mr. Rogers had a plan to turn us into insightful readers if not poetic writers. “Diagram these sentences,” he said. He gave us copies of the Declaration of Independence. “Learn what part each word plays in this historic declaring of freedom.”

Each day as he played jazz or Mozart on the piano in his classroom, we created on the blackboard visual schemes of sentences selected from great literary works. “Listen to the words,” Mr. Rogers said. “Pay attention to the architecture of the sentences. Words are powerful. They can bring great healing. They can also do great harm.” I was sixteen years old.

Mr. Rogers devoted his adult life to public high school teaching. Through Mr. Rogers’ voice, I heard words and stories at age sixteen in ways I had never before heard them. He taught me to see beauty and mystery in the most ordinary of things. He opened windows through which I looked for the first time at race and culture, human suffering and joy, my small town and our great big world. These were things my friends and I needed to wrestle with and respond to in the 1980s. These life realities still need our responses, and I have more than once found myself remembering Mr. Rogers as I walk into a classroom to teach worship to graduate ministry students who are eager to change the world and who need look for God’s beauty in the most ordinary stuff of water, bread, and wine in order to do so.

I grew up and live now in North Carolina. In recent years, political decisions have created complex challenges for teachers. Teacher’s salaries in North Carolina for 2015 rank 42nd in the nation. Legislative decisions have decreased overall resources for North Carolina public schools and teachers. And yet, each year mothers and fathers let their first-graders go into a world of public education where their hearts and minds will be forever shaped by those who teach them about gerunds and history, math and science, languages and art. Each day of the school year, teachers like Mr. Rogers stand in that boundary place between home and public life and urge our communities’ children to dream, write, create, and explore. What teachers do matters. They shape those who shape our world. They deserve our appreciation and support. They deserve better legislative decision-making.

I learned this week that Mr. Rogers is no longer alive. My love of words came alive while writing poetry to the sounds of his generous renderings of Chopin’s waltzes on his beloved piano. I hope that my writing, speaking and teaching over the years since then have been acts of gratitude to him. I wish I could have thanked him in person.

What I offer into the universe today as an ode of sorts to Mr. Rogers is this: I am 52 now. Just the other day I heard myself say to a friend, “Shoe polish. Don’t you just love how that sounds?” She tilted her head and raised her eyebrows. But I suspect she will never hear or think about ordinary old shoe polish in the same way ever again.

Thank you, Mr. Rogers.