When I was in the sixth grade a teacher arrived from the East. His name was Mr. Haley and he was a young man; he taught us social studies. There are two things I remember about him: The first is that one day I had to go to the bathroom, which I hated to do because it called attention to me. He gave me the pass, nodding once, smiling. When I returned to the room and approached him to return the pass — it was a large block of wood that we were required to hold in the corridor to prove that we had permission to be out of the classroom — when I handed him back the pass, I saw Carol Darr, a popular girl, do something — a kind of hand gesture or something that I knew from experience was making fun of me, and she was doing it toward her friends so they could make fun of me as well. And I remember that Mr. Haley’s face became red, and he said: Do not ever think you are better than someone, I will not tolerate that in my classroom, there is no one here who is better than someone else, I have just witnessed expressions on the faces of some of you that indicate you think you are better than someone else, and I will not tolerate that in my classroom, I will not.
I glanced at Carol Darr. In my memory she was chastened, she felt bad.
I fell silently, absolutely, immediately in love with this man. I have no idea where he is, if he is still alive, but I still love this man.
The other thing about Mr. Haley was that he taught us about the Indians. Until then I hadn’t known that we took their land from them with a deception that caused Black Hawk to rebel. I didn’t know that the whites gave them whiskey, that the whites killed their women in their own cornfields. I felt that I loved Black Hawk as I did Mr. Haley, that these were brave and wonderful men, and I could not believe how Black Hawk was taken on a tour of cities after his capture. I read his autobiography as soon as I could. And I remembered the line he said: “How smooth must be the language of the whites, when they can make right look like wrong, and wrong like right.” I worried too that his autobiography, which had been transcribed by an interpreter, would not be accurate, and so I wondered, Who is Black Hawk, really? And I got a sense of him as strong, and bewildered, and when he spoke of “our Great Father, the President,” he used nice terms, and that made me sad.
All of this, I am saying, made a huge impression on me, the indignities that we had forced onto these people. And when I came home from school one day after we learned how the Indian women planted a field of corn and the white men came and plowed it up, my mother was in front of our garage-home, which we had only recently moved out of, she may have been trying to fix something, I don’t recall, but she was squatting by the front door, and I said to her, “Mommy, do you know what we did to the Indians?” I said this slowly and with awe.
My mother wiped at her hair with the back of her hand. “I don’t give a damn what we did to the Indians,” she said.
Mr. Haley left at the end of the year. In my memory he was going into the service, and this could only have been Vietnam, since it was during that time. I have since looked up his name on the Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and it isn’t there. I don’t know anything more about him, but in my memory Carol Darr was all right to me — in his class — after that. We all liked him, is what I mean. We all respected him. This is no small feat for a man with a classroom of twelve-year-olds to accomplish, but he did.