In recognition of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. this is a Dr. King story of my own going back to my time in El Paso’s public school system. I was enrolled in Mrs. Barkley’s class at Parkland Elementary during my 2nd grade year. Unfortunately, I don’t remember Mrs. Barkley’s first name since we always refer to adults in school as Mr. or Mrs. I do wish I knew Mrs. Barkley’s first name though so that I could look her up. The last time I knew anything of Mrs. Barkley is when I learned she lived across from my friend’s house in Castner Heights. A few years had passed since my 2nd grade year. I was in middle school and walked up to her front door and rang the door bell. I wanted to say hi, and thank her, but no one answered the door.
To understand why I remembered 2nd grade so much, it starts with my experience at Parkland Elementary during 1st grade. It was not good. I had a terrible experience with the teacher who I simply remember as having a mean face that got really red. I don’t remember her name. I just remember mean & RED. I wasn’t exactly what people stigmatized as a bad kid by any standard. For the most part, I was shy, quiet, and listened. The event that stands out the most about 1st grade is when another kid sitting in the seat next to mine poked my thigh with a super sharp no. 2 pencil. It caused me to let out a really loud scream. Instead of being consoled by my teacher I got punished for yelling. She was too mean. Didn’t care why I yelled or none of that. I remember being more furious at her response than I was at the kid that poked me in the leg with the pencil that a minute before he got up to sharpen. There are only two other memories I have about 1st grade… the other is when I got really sick at school. As a kid, when I got sick, I GOT SICK. I was overheating and having a vomiting fit in one of the restrooms, puking my guts out, crying, and thinking I was going to die. All I remembered through blurred vision was looking back from where I knelt near the toilet… standing at the doorway was my 1st grade teacher laughing & looking mean. She was carrying on about who knows what with another teacher waiting for me to get on my feet.
Going into the 2nd grade, this set off an anxiety I had for adults, especially teachers, the cafeteria people, and principals. Especially our principal, Mr. Boone. Even his name freaked me out. His silent presence alone could’ve invented the word “authority”. Everything from his drill-like expression, to the colorless power suits he’d wear. Looking back I can only picture him as if I’m looking at a black & white TV screen in the 50s. An administrative byproduct of strict guidelines, to the T-Boone. Keep in mind this description is coming from the perspective of a child. For all I know, he might’ve been one of the nicest people in the Northeast to other adults. But when I heard my name come through the announcements upon returning from Christmas break in 1989… asking that “Lecroy Rhyanes please report to Mr. Boone’s office…” …with the sound of everyone going “Ooooooohhhhhhh…” I nearly tripped over my own legs that couldn’t keep up with a heart rate that at this point became a Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam hi-hat. I felt like I was on my way to meeting my maker. What could this be about? What did I do?
The anxiety was further prolonged when I arrived to Mr. Boone’s office. It was my first time ever stepping foot into a room that felt like a chamber of guilt. I must’ve have done something wrong to arrive here I thought. But what was it? His desk couldn’t have been bigger. I don’t remember a warm greeting. I remember being guided towards his office, entering, and being asked “to sit” and wait. It seemed like forever as my hi-hat heart rate started to subside awaiting for him to explain why I was there. After what seemed like forever, another youth was guided in. He was much older and from the adjacent middle school connected to our elementary school. He was much more calm and relaxed than I was seeming to have already known why he was there. Observing his reaction, I became eager to find out what was up, as opposed to what was wrong.
Before we get into that, I’d like to take the reader back to the 2nd grade portable from which I walked from to get to Mr. Boone’s office. As I mentioned earlier my 2nd grade teacher’s name was Mrs. Barkley. The atmosphere and experience in her classroom reset and wiped out what I had experienced the year before as a 1st grader. The learning space in Mrs. Barkley’s class created some of the best memories that I’m thankful I can still remember. Years later, it would affect everything about how I wanted to learn and eventually how I would teach. From day one, she demonstrated a level of empathy that drew us to her desk when something was wrong to talk and ask her for help or questions. Every time she congratulated us it really meant something. She seemed to never be tired of being nice. It was a part of her nature and a part of her lesson planning. In her class I remember one afternoon when we all got up in a circle to do some kind of dance. But most memorable was when in front of class, she set up a hot plate and cooked us all scrabbled eggs when we arrived in the morning. Now mind you, I HATE eggs. I literally cannot eat eggs. The minute eggs make impact with the inside of my mouth, I start to heave like I’m going to barf. I just can’t do it. But for some reason, in Mrs. Barkley’s class, she scrabbled the eggs to perfection. The eggs were glowing yellow and fluffy. She gave it to us with a side of toast. I remember eating two paper plates full.
One of the other things I loved most about Mrs. Barkley’s classroom was the “lil’ store” she set up with all kinds of gifts. For good grades, we would all earn paper money. Good scores on report cards were often credited so that students could save up their fake paper bills to purchase something nice from the gifts she set up in the corner of the classroom. I remember spotting some earrings that I wanted to get my mom. Even at this time I was very particular about what I was going to spend my hard earned paper bucks on. There were a lot of things, of course toys and children’s books…all with their own price. But I remember a really powerful feeling of getting the chance to surprise my mom with a gift for the first time in my life.. They were worth a lot of paper bucks, so I had to make sure my good grades were as good as they could be to save up enough. I would need an anthology to describe the love I’ve got for my mom. And as a seven year old, this would be the first time I could surprise her with a gift without her knowing. The earrings were beautiful just like mom. Dark black and pearl-like the way her long hair was and with silver sparkles like I’d seen in her eyes.
Fast forward to Mr. Boone’s office and I started to get nervous again as he assembled what he was working on to put away and talk to us once the other kid arrived. Thinking back, I would have to make up the dialogue to remember exactly what he said to us. I didn’t start remembering what people said until I got to the 3rd grade. Finally, after the mumbles… he finally got to his point of why we were there and congratulated us for winning an award. I don’t remember Mr. Boone breaking the news to us with any excitement. He might as well had started talking to us about the weather. But after I realized he was congratulating us for something, all the negative thoughts I had initially about being there evaporated. Apparently, prior to going on Christmas break, I remembered Mrs. Barkley had us work on an art activity about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s where I’d get my first children’s book about Dr. King’s life. At that age, we of course didn’t call it research, but I used the book as a reference on what I wanted to draw. I recall having the presence of race heavy on my mind because it’s what I drew. The separation between white and black and also the division between rich and poor. In the picture I drew I decided to split my page in two. On one side I drew John F. Kennedy and his secret service team dressed in suits. They were all standing around a limousine. On the other side I drew Dr. King and his wife and children in front of a modest home with a slug bug for a vehicle. It’s what my Dad drove. And in the middle of the picture I drew Dr. King and JFK shaking hands. I had no idea I was turning this picture in for a contest. That was a part of Mrs. Barkley’s plan. Mr. Boone I’m sure explained to us what was going on, but I hadn’t processed it yet as I was still readjusting my feelings of doom to feelings of joy. I also couldn’t wait to get back to class. I ran back. It wasn’t so much to announce that I was a winner, but to walk back and show everyone that was yelling “Ooooooohhhhhhh…” when I left that I survived my trip to Mr. Boone’s office.
My parent’s were notified that I was to accept an award on Dr. King’s holiday in 1989 at the Chamizal National Memorial in El Paso. As a kid, this was a far off place from where I lived in the Northeast. Even up until the award ceremony I hadn’t talked about it enough with anyone to understand what was going on. The place was jam packed as my Mom & Dad had me suited up in my lil’ wrangler jeans and checkered shirt…I walked up to a stage consumed by claps and smiling faces to receive my award with the other older kid who was with me in Mr. Boone’s office. They handed me then what seemed like a huge plaque with Dr. King etched in the gold plate and my name on it. It included “Jr.” which made me feel proud around my Dad that I had accomplished something worth carving my name into. Thinking back now, it was both of our names on that award. My Dad was proud of me that night. The importance of this award didn’t settle in until my last days of 2nd grade when Mrs. Barkley asked that I stay after class for a gift she wanted to give me. It was an emotional time as my family and I prepared to move to another neighborhood where I would start what seemed like a new life at another elementary school. While a part of me felt sad, for the most part I was excited to be moving out of the quadruplex we resided in. I was excited to be moving into an actual house and its new smell. I was excited that I was about to be a big brother. I was excited about the neighborhood that was brand new extending far into the desert where I would be able to let my dog Cujo run loose.
Meeting with Mrs. Barkley that day after class, I think I was aware that I wanted to thank her for everything. Even then as a little kid. I want to say I was completely aware of how grateful I was for Mrs. Barkely and that I would indeed miss her. But honestly, I can’t remember. In my imagination that is how the words play out, but I can’t remember for sure. That may be my older mind getting in the way of what was really said. But what I do remember is her passing me a book as a going away gift. It was a book of all the presidents. All the way up to Ronald Reagan who was on the cover sitting at a desk, signing something. I remember her smile…I remember her signing my book for me. This was the last time I’d ever speak with Mrs. Barkley.
In remembering Dr. King, I wanted this post to also recognize everyday people in our lives that have made a difference through Dr. King. She set the tone for a peaceful, fun, safe, and memorable learning environment for us. Even in thinking about Dr. King, who during the 80s had just barely been recognized as a national holiday… she engaged us in activities that set us up to accomplish something great in our own lives. Even as little 2nd graders.
Unfortunately, I ended up losing my Dr. King plaque the day after I graduated with my Masters from NMSU. I was moving everything out of the college housing and simply misplaced it in the things I was throwing away. Or maybe it’s in storage stuffed between boxes and binders that I saved… At least that’s what I hope. Hopefully I’ll find the award someday. Or maybe someone found it and can send it to me. That would definitely complete this story. I’ve also thought about following up with Parkland to see if they still have another plaque that was given to our school for the achievement. It was huge. It was a gold plaque in the shape of Texas and it had my name and the name of the other older student that also won an award. I recall stopping by the display in front of the principal’s office taking a second to look and stare at the plaque with my name before departing from Parkland altogether.
Perhaps the school still has this award. Would love to see it again in memory of Mrs. Barkely and Dr. King.