by Sarah Rice Fox
Research confirms what most of us know through personal experience: the teacher makes the difference in the classroom. Recently, I had the inspirational experience of hearing a highly successful person, Juan Felipe Herrera, the current U. S. Poet Laureate, share one of the reasons for his success. He told us his life was changed by five words spoken by his 3rd grade teacher, Mrs. Sampson.
Mrs. Sampson’s music was hers, but it was not hers alone, to own. She shared it with her students. She was proud of her heritage and created a classroom community of respect and friendship. One way she created a nurturing climate was by playing gospel music on her phonograph.
This cozy classroom was located in Barrio Logan, a neighborhood of San Diego, in the early 1950s. Little Juan Felipe felt the music and sang along with his friends as his ear began to be attuned to English.
One day, Mrs. Sampson asked quiet Juan Felipe, silent Juan Felipe, little Juan Felipe, to come to the front of the class and sing the old Negro spiritual, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. As he recounted the story to us, he sounded a little surprised that he had found the courage to do so; thinking back on it, he didn’t feel that singing was something he did well, but, nevertheless, he complied. After he had sung the song, Mrs. Sampson turned to him and said those five words that would change his life. “You have a beautiful voice.”
Today’s Juan Felipe thinks back and chuckles. He tells us he didn’t know enough English to understand what Mrs. Sampson said, but one of his bilingual friends told him, in Spanish. As I listened, I was reminded of another child in another classroom, singing the same song. I was struck by how different Mrs. Sampson’s treatment of Juan Felipe was from that of Miss Gordon in the poem, “Rayford’s Song,” by Lawson Fusao Inada. Lawson Inada served as poet laureate for the State of Oregon from 2006-2010.
In Lawson Inada’s poem, Miss Gordon leads her 3rd grade class of migrant farm workers’ children—black, white, Mexican, Japanese Americans— in singing from the 3rd grade music book, a book undoubtedly written by and for Anglo Americans who created the public school system in California to celebrate and promote their cultural voices. When Rayford Butler had the audacity to ask Miss Gordon whether he could sing a song of his own she answered dismissively, “…if you insist. Make it short…” Rayford Butler, who had not spoken all year, who was dark and silent, stood up and sang the song, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, pronouncing the noun with a silent ‘t’ à la française, perhaps indicating that Rayford’s family came to California from Louisiana.
Although the poet tells us that Rayford’s classmates were entranced by Rayford’s clear voice, a voice that had a light to it, the teacher, Miss Gordon, was not. The children, showing how the atmosphere of their classroom was dominated by their teacher’s mood, looked expectantly up at her. On her face they saw a smile, or was it a frown? Then, showing her routine of quickly jumping to correct children (instead of celebrating their approximations, honoring their cultures, and building on their strengths) pointed out this pronunciation. “There is no such thing as a ‘chario’. Do you understand me?” Rayford tried to explain, and perhaps would have told her that’s the way his family sings it, but we will never know, because Miss Gordon cut him short. Instead of listening to his words, she coerced him to imitate her voice.
This story of a classroom in Fresno would have been bad enough, had it ended there. But it didn’t. Miss Gordon dares the other children to sing their own songs, which were on the tips of their tongues, but caught in their throats as they interpreted the insinuation in her voice. “Where did our voices go?” the poet asks. Miss Gordon silenced them.
The final blow, though, is in the end of the poem, when the teacher’s choice of the next song implies a bigoted, cruel streak—a way to put Rayford in his place. The poet paints Miss Gordon’s classroom as being so contrary to the loving, nurturing classroom environment Mrs. Sampson created for her students. We must all strive to follow Mrs. Sampson’s model and enlighten anyone who still behaves like Miss Gordon in 2016.
Rayford’s song was Rayford’s song.
But it was not his alone, to own.
He had it, though, and kept it to himself
as we rowed-rowed-rowed the boat
through English country gardens
with all the whispering hope
we could muster, along with occasional
choruses of funiculi-funicula!
Weren’t we a cheery lot—
comin’ ‘round the mountain
with Susanna, banjos on our knees,
rompin’ through the leaves
of the third-grade music textbook.
Then Rayford Butler raised his hand,
For the first time, actually,
in all the weeks he had been in class,
and for the only time before he’d leave.
Yes, quiet Rayford, silent Rayford,
little Rayford, dark Rayford—
always in the same overalls—
that Rayford, Rayford Butler, raised his hand:
“Miss Gordon, ma’am—
we always singin’ your songs.
Could I sing one of my own?”
Pause. We look at one another;
we looked at Rayford Butler;
we looked up at Miss Gordon, who said:
“Well I suppose so, Rayford—
if you insist. Go ahead.
Just one song. Make it short…”
And Rayford Butler stood up very straight,
and in his high voice sang:
ah-comin’ for to carr-eee
Pause. Classroom, school, schoolyard,
neighborhood, the whole world
focusing on that one song, one voice
which had a light to it, making even
Miss Gordon’s white hair shine
in the glory of it, glowing
in the radiance of the song.
Pause. Rayford Butler sat down.
And while the rest of us
may have been spellbound,
on Miss Gordon’s face
was something like a smile,
or perhaps a frown:
“Very good, Rayford.
However, I must correct you:
The word is ‘chariot.’
“Chariot.” And there is no
such thing as a ‘chario’.
Do you understand me?”
“But Miss Gordon…”
“I said ‘chariot…chariot”
Can you pronounce that for me?”
“Yes, Miss Gordon. Chariot.”
“Very good, Rayford.”
Now, class, before we return
to our book, would anyone else
care to sing a song of their own?”
Our songs, our songs, were there—
on tips of tongues, but stuck
in throats— songs of love,
fun, animals, and valor, songs
of other lands, in other languages,
but they just wouldn’t come out.
Where did our our voices go?
Rayford’s song was Rayford’s song,
but it was not his alone, to own,
“Well, then, class—
Let’s turn our books to
‘Old Black Joe.’”
—Lawson Fusao Inada
—Sarah “Sally” Rice Fox is the Region IV Representative on the CABE Board of Directors. At the San Diego County Office of Education, she coordinates Dual/World/ English Language Development in the College and Career Readiness Unit, is a facilitator of Scaffold 4 Success, and a certified trainer for Project GLAD.
“Rayford’s Song” is used by permission from Legends from Camp (Coffee House Press, 1992). Copyright © 1992 by Lawson Fusao Inada.