First Teaching Assignment

It was a beautiful Southern California day! It was a wonderful time in my life. It was the year I turned twenty-one, the year I got married and the year I graduated from college. And now, I was on my way to an interview for my first teaching assignment in Pasadena, California, a well known and famous suburb of Los Angeles. I was so excited.

I arrived a full thirty minutes early, so I sat in the car fifteen minutes before taking a few deep breaths and entering the superintendent’s office. His secretary greeted me in a manner friendly enough, but her expression seemed to change when I told her my name and why I was there.

“Mr. Owen was called to a school site on an emergency. I don’t know when he’ll return. I tried to call you to reschedule, but there was no answer.”

“I left home early,” I responded.

“Well, I suggest we reschedule you because this may be a long wait.”

“I have nothing but time,” I said, “I can wait.”

I sat on a hard wooden bench and began reading some of the magazines from the table.

“It may be quite a long wait,” she said a few minutes later. “I’m just fine,” I assured her. That same conversation was repeated several times.

“I see you graduated from Jefferson High School; so did Mr. Owen. All I could say was, “Oh.” I made it sound like a question but she said nothing more. Almost two hours passed before Mr. Owen arrived back at his office. Several times during my wait, the secretary reminded me again and again, I could reschedule, but I declined.

Finally, she said, “Mr. Owen will see you now. I took several deep breaths and walked into his office hoping that my nervousness would not show. We exchanged pleasant, “Good afternoons.” My first impression was that Mr. Owen appeared to be as nervous as I was since he fidgeted a good deal. “What is your favorite subject to teach?” he began. “My favorite subject is reading, but what I love most is teaching children how to think.”

“Tell me about that,” he directed. “Well, Mr. Owen, I learned that if you teach children to think, you have them curious enough to want to learn most everything.”

We sat and talked for what I thought was a long time. He had me fill in an application and told me I would be called. That’s when I changed the direction of the interview.


“I hear you finished Jefferson High School, so did I. I’m glad that we have something in common. I’ve read that Pasadena has an excellent system and that you have done an admirable job handling integration in your district and I certainly would love to be working for a system like that.”

He cleared his throat, but said nothing. I continued. “It’s wonderful to see that a Jeff High student has risen to such a lofty position. I expect to go places myself, someday.” “Mrs. Coleman,” he spoke. When you complete the application, leave it with my secretary. It’s been a pleasant interview, we’ll look at all of our applications and after we’ve made a decision, we will notify you.”

I said thank you and started for the door. When I reached the door, I made a “U” turn. Mr. Owens, I said, I am aware of the practice of some “secretaries” who file the applications of Negroes (as we were called then) in trash cans. Since we both are graduates of Jefferson High School—by the way—what year did you graduate? And can you assure me that will not happen to my application?

His face turned red and he invited me to come back and have a seat. When we finished that  part of the interview, I left with a written and signed contract in my hand. But that was not before he told me that I would become the fourth Negro to work in the district. And, they each were doing a top quality job. The same would be expected of me.

“I understand.” Was my only comment, that is, besides thank you, Mr. Owens. I walked out with a second grade assignment—and I was the only “Negro” in my school. I don’t think I have to tell you that I did a fine job; the fact that I was given a contract for the following year speaks to that. But I do need to tell you this: at the closing social event for the staff, a fellow sixth grade teacher came with her “Negro” husband AND her “Negro” mother. You know without my saying it, that the staff was in shock.

She told me later that she knew everyone thought she was white. She wanted a job so she kept her mouth shut. The minute I saw her husband and mother, I knew she was Negro. But since I was told I was the “first” at that school, I simply assumed she was of other ethnicity. She also said that I gave her the courage to make her statement in the manner she chose. Some day perhaps, I shall tell you about that first year of teaching assignment. You won’t believe some of the events that took place. But for now, at least you’ve been introduced to my first teaching assignment.


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