Warmth from Shade
written by Marianne Kelly Smith-Nott, former student
He no longer wanders the dimly lit, crowded halls. He no longer warmly greets new students with that genuine, gleaming-white, toothy smile…welcoming the lost to “come on in.” That same bright smile appeared in his sparkling, jet-black eyes…seeming to open the doors to the cold, shadowy hall…making anyone feel safe, wanted, and truly cared for as they enter their new surroundings at Traner Middle School, I remember that terrified feeling as I peered out the steamed up windows of the overcrowded, yellow school bus.
WE had all grown up together, attended the same school…even if we didn’t always have the same teachers. WE…the soon to be 6th graders from Sun Valley Elementary in the mid 70’s…all heard the gruesome stories about gang fights, drugs, having to “dress out” and shower for P.E. in front of others, and being assaulted in the hallway bathrooms without anyone knowing by “those black kids.“ WE were the “outsiders from Scum Valley” being bussed to the “Hood” where the “Crips” and the “Bloods” were prevalent. WE were the first group of 6th graders to venture into middle school…WE were the new kids on the block, taking that first timid step off of the noise-filled bus onto the silent and still black asphalt walkway that led up to those doors of doom.
Coach Shade was as “cool” as his name. You knew from the day he welcomed you in…that you could trust him with anything, be yourself, and share anything dark in your life. He stood up for you when others of color treated you badly and called you names just because you were white. I remember when I performed a sorry dance in a long dress for the talent show…I looked across the gym…no parents…just kids giggling a bit and pointing…but he smiled and clapped…even though I had no rhythm to dance to “Brick House.”
I look back, reminiscing about the comfort he gave, joking with him, laughing with him about being twins (we shared the same birthday, June 3rd…however he was black and I was white), crying on his shoulder when others were picking on me or when my “first love” dumped me just before the Sweetheart’s Valentine dance. Or what about just being a nerdy, awkward, GT kid with ADHD that alienated herself from just about every sport or new thing I tried?
Did I mention that he was NEVER my teacher in PE or any other class? He taught me so much about humor in life (especially when it seems like death to a preteen), what is important (those whose lives you touch), and what isn’t (what others think of you)…and acceptance. He helped me to accept myself during a very awkward time in my life, I was a late bloomer in all ways, my parents were divorcing, and I was leaving the comforts of my neighborhood to be bussed into a neighborhood that my parents had moved from to provide me a better education and life. Did I tell you that he now lives (and has for many years) in my neighborhood?
The best part is…my most recent memory…a way he touched my life, was to give me a gift that I once gave him. He had saved a poem/letter that I had written to him for our “last twin birthday” at the end of my 8th grade year. The paper had aged, yellowed with time…the ink not quite as vibrant as it once had been. He had saved it for all of years! I couldn’t believe it! He gave it to me for my 40th birthday in front of my dad, my husband, and my family.
I’m fortunate as I occasionally see him now…at least once a year, usually in the spring at Gepford Ballpark …walking around with that same gleaming-white, toothy smile, greeting every one of his former students, their aging parents, their children, and in some cases their grandchildren, as he did that very first day of school. “Wow…” I thought to my self…”I always thought it was just for me!”
Some of us are still lost—others still finding our way…his weathered yet still sparkling, jet-black eyes…making us feel safe, wanted, and truly cared for…still holding that door open toward our destiny. And…if I were to enter the halls of Traner Middle School as I once did so long ago, he would always be a permanent fixture to me.