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Teaching Fellows

In a Pre-School Classroom, White and Black Yield to Shades of Gray

Sam Holden
Across the Bridge: The federal AmeriCorps program brought Taylor Gregory and Brenda Simms (below) together to lead Head Start classes in Brooklyn and Cherry Hill.
Sam Holden

By Molly Rath | Posted 7/25/2001

Brenda Simms was sitting outside the administrative offices of a South Baltimore church, early for an interview for a teacher's-aide post, when she first laid eyes upon Taylor Gregory. Her first thought at seeing the young white woman with multiple earrings and a nose ring was a mix of ambivalence and curiosity.

"I said, I wonder if she's being interviewed for the same job I am," Brenda, a 44-year-old mother of six, says, recalling the beginning of the unlikely relationship about to unfold.

Her second thought--an hour later, when she learned that the 20-year-old was the teacher she'd be assisting--was solid worry.

"I wonder[ed] whether she would be able to deal with the children or not, because she didn't have any, and because she was so young," Brenda says. "I was concerned whether or not she would have the patience. I was concerned she was like one of those wild, young girls that liked to party and get drunk. I was just hoping that what she did over the weekend or the night before, she wouldn't let it come into the classroom and she wouldn't take it out on the children."

Taylor too initially eyed Brenda with skepticism. A suburbanite from Pennsylvania, Taylor arrived in Baltimore in September as a volunteer with AmeriCorps, a federal program that offers a stipend and school funds to an army of mostly college students in exchange for a year of community service, such as teaching or environmental work. She thought she'd sized up "city people" riding the bus each day to an East Baltimore elementary school, where she taught in a Head Start program. Her busmates, mostly poor, were diffident or rude, Taylor says; one day she saw a man in the seat in front of her snorting coke. The neighborhood where she worked didn't feel safe, and her fellow teachers--all middle-aged African-American women--didn't seem to like her. "I'm like this little, white suburban chick, and it shows, and they're like these black people from the city," she says. "They all know each other, they've been there for years. And I definitely come from an upper-middle-class suburb, and I think they resented me for that."

So Taylor requested a different AmeriCorps post, only to find middle-aged, African-American Brenda as her teaching partner. Taylor braced herself for another six months of lonesome misery. "I think it struck me right away," she says. "Could this person be any more different from me?"

Yes, in more ways than Taylor could even imagine. But over the next six months she and Brenda would ignore the traits, the attitudes, the personal history that under most circumstances would guarantee they'd never even meet, let alone become friends. And they would realize that maybe they really aren't all that different.

Drugs and God define Brenda Simms--the former shaped the first half of her life, the latter the second.

She was born and raised in the 2800 block of Mulberry Street in West Baltimore, the sixth of seven children. Tragedy struck early and constantly in her life, starting with her mother's stroke-induced paralysis when she was just 9 years old. When she was 11, her father, a General Motors factory worker, died a mysterious death Brenda believes was drug-related. All three of her brothers have died too--one accidentally shot to death by a friend, another beaten to death in a drug-related skirmish, and the third felled by a stroke she also attributes to substance abuse.

But drugs didn't grip just the men in Brenda's family. She started smoking pot and dropping acid at the age of 14. By the time she moved out of her mother's house at 22, she was dating the man who would become her husband, and she was hooked on a daily diet of cocaine and heroin. For nearly a decade she and Wilbert "Woody" Simms lived together, worked at a sofa factory, and got high. "It affects my mind now," nearly 15 years later, Brenda laments.

One day Woody landed in jail after a violent, drunken spree. When he got out only his mother, a Christian evangelist, would let he and Brenda in her home. For weeks Brenda's mother-in-law begged them to go to church with her; one Sunday in 1987 they finally relented.

"We were baptized and filled with the tongue-talking Holy Ghost," Brenda says. "We just didn't desire it anymore--the fornication, the adultery. He just wiped the slate clean. We didn't have in mind to get saved. But we both went down in Jesus' name and we've been in the church ever since. And after I got in the church the Lord blessed my womb."

In 1988 Brenda gave birth to the first of six children, who today range in age from 5 to 13. Over the years Woody has jumped from job to job--designing kitchen cabinets, selling insurance or perfume, sometimes working two gigs at a time--so Brenda could stay home in Walbrook Junction and raise the kids. With most of her children attending Matthew A. Henson Elementary, Brenda started volunteering there; last year she became president of its parent-teacher association. Late in the fall a nun who worked at the school suggested Brenda start getting something in return for her volunteer efforts by joining Notre Dame-AmeriCorps, a partnership between the federal program and the Baltimore-based order of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur.

High school can be cruel to teenagers, but to Taylor Gregory it was unrelenting. It gave her two of what she still considers the happiest years of her life, but it also spurred a painful preoccupation with other people's opinions, and a lasting struggle with severe depression.

Before going to college, Taylor had spent all but the first three years of her life in Phoenixville, Pa., a former steel town with a population of 16,000 near Philadelphia. Her father has spent all 20-some years of his professional life at the Pennsylvania Electric Co., where he's now in management, and her mother provides computer training at health-care organizations. Both are 41 and hail from Catholic immigrant families--mostly Irish on her father's side, Italian on her mother's. They were high school sweethearts who got married and had Taylor by the time they were 19. A brother came three years later.

Taylor, who describes her family as "pretty well off," attended Catholic schools and got along fine. But when high school hit, the social rigors of teenhood became difficult. She bounced around from image to image--big black boots and purple hair to Doc Marten Mary Janes and preppy friends--and each time she ended up feeling out of place and rejected by her peers. She fell into bouts of despondence, and by the end of her sophomore year at Allentown College she was relying on antidepressants and ready to take a year off. A family friend suggested she enroll in a volunteer program; because Taylor had always wanted to live in a big city and Baltimore was just two hours from home, she applied to Notre Dame-AmeriCorps. "As soon as I heard of this, I knew it was for me," she says.

But the program turned out to be full of unpleasant surprises, and once again Taylor found herself in a hard, lonely space. "This was the first time I had lived and worked in a city; I guess I just didn't anticipate such a cultural shock," Taylor says. "I wasn't used to city folk. I did not feel safe." So in December she requested a different assignment, anywhere but East Baltimore.

Perusing Notre Dame-AmeriCorps' promotional literature makes clear that service is its mission, but an ability to foster volunteer diversity seems its major source of pride. The partnership provides educational programs for families in poor communities, one of its more popular services being early-childhood education through city schools and privately operated Head Start. And it does so, it asserts, with members "of African, Anglo, Asian, Native American and Latino descent and . . . from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds . . . bound together by the common ideals of service, educational empowerment, community-building, and a desire to translate spiritual values into action."

Taylor, with her short, tousled hair, strappy T-shirts, and rolled-up jeans, and neatly combed Brenda, in her mid-calf skirts, fit that mission to a T. Until she came to Baltimore, Taylor's only close contact with African-Americans was when she was little and played with two black brothers who lived next-door. The only white friend Brenda ever had was a woman named Joan whom she partied with in the early '80s. But fitting as their pairing may have been in light of Notre Dame-AmeriCorps' mission, it happened mostly by chance, and at first they were anything but a happy rainbow coalition.

Following her request for a transfer, Taylor was tapped to lead classes at six Brooklyn and Cherry Hill outposts of St. Veronica's Head Start, part of the child-development program run by Associated Catholic Charities. Brenda was assigned to be her assistant. For five hours a day, five days a week they would teach toddlers stretching exercises and how to identify colors, draw shapes, and play musical chairs. "Neither of us had any training or anything," Brenda says. "They just put us together, and I guess they were just hoping it would work."

But lack of training wasn't the women's first hurdle; they had enough trouble just talking. The first few days, they planned activities in relative quiet. "From the very start she was very shy toward me," Taylor says of Brenda. "I guess we were both pretty quiet toward each other because I think we were both pretty shocked. Like, Wow, this is my opposite."

But "once we had that first classroom," Brenda adds, "everything opened up for us because we had that experience."

But establishing communication only began to bridge their differences. Brenda was bothered by what she considered Taylor's lack of compassion for the children; the younger woman would get impatient when kids didn't know their numbers or when they drew an imperfect square. One time, Brenda recalls, a little girl came to school with a filthy jacket; while she made a mental note to bring the girl some clothes from home, Taylor told her to go home and tell her mother to wash the jacket.

"I would never have done that," Brenda says. "When I first saw her in a classroom setting, I said, She is not used to this. She expected them to do things that probably there are instances where some white children, they could be able to do them, but by being black and coming to school with baggage. . . . Some of the things that were shocking to Taylor, it was surprising to me. It amazes me some of the things she didn't know with our little black children."

But Brenda never said anything to Taylor: "I guess they had told her she was in charge, and I didn't know how she would accept me trying to change what she was doing."

Likewise, Taylor would get frustrated by what she believed was Brenda's lack of initiative in taking on classroom tasks, and an unwillingness to discipline the children. "The preparation is stressful--wondering if the children are going to be able to do this project and if they're going to like it. That and the lack of discipline," Taylor says. "It was very stressful because I had to deal with it. Both of us had to deal with it, but in the end I was the one taking it all on. She's definitely the nurturer between the two of us."

But like Brenda, Taylor never confronted her colleague. Eventually they began to alter their ingrained behaviors on their own, in response to what was going on around them. Brenda began looking for things to do around the classroom, and she learned that sometimes it's necessary to holler at kids to establish order. Taylor realized that some children have a harder time learning than others and worked to become more patient. Things might have changed sooner if they had been more open about their misgivings, but such confrontations might have entrenched their differences even deeper and kept them from recognizing when the other's style could be more appropriate. Most important, they kept their focus off each other and on the children, whose needs helped the two teachers find common ground.

"We were both starting out with no experience so we were experiencing the same thing, and I think that kind of helped us become close to each other," Taylor says. "I think on the surface we have the differences, but we have a lot of the same opinions. We'd notice the same things about a kid, we'd have the same frustrations.

"And the kids would be so happy just because we were there."

I'm really happy that I was able to form a friendship, I'm really honestly happy about that," Taylor says, looking back at her six months with Brenda as their Notre-Dame AmeriCorps stint nears its early-August close. "And I'm especially proud because I thought it would be hard, but it was pretty easy. . . . I guess I thought we were more different than we were."

And, cliché that it is, the experience helped break through some of Taylor's initial generalizations. "On first glance, you can get the opinion that they are rude and uneducated," she says, recalling her initial encounters with inner-city blacks. "Brenda showed me that she is one of those people, but she is definitely not that. She is educated and polite and wonderful."

The story doesn't have some TV-movie happy ending. A year with AmeriCorps and six months working with Brenda haven't convinced Taylor to move to an inner-city community and dedicate herself to urban education; after college she hopes to teach art, "in a rich neighborhood." But it may have helped her work through her struggles with identity. From Brenda, Taylor says, she gleaned "that appearances don't count for everything, that people have more to offer than I think they do at first glance."

While Taylor gears up to go back to school in January, at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, Brenda is planning a second Notre Dame-AmeriCorps assignment in September. Now a confirmed and inveterate volunteer, she also wants to get involved in her neighborhood association. And before her soon-to-be ex-partner leaves town, she wants to have her over for dinner--once she figures out what to make, as Taylor is a vegetarian. "She likes eggs so I was thinking I could make some deviled eggs. And she loves broccoli," Brenda muses. But mostly she wants Taylor to meet her children.

"I would love for my children to see her," she says. "They're not really exposed to a lot of white people either. They're around a lot of blacks. You don't want your children growing up not never being around a different atmosphere. It's a learning experience. You can learn that everybody is human. I think my children need to learn that no one person is better."

Had it not been for working with Taylor, Brenda adds, "I never would have thought about that."

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