|“Tremendous amounts of talent are being lost to our society just because that talent wears a skirt.” – Shirley Chisholm
I was taught black history. We learned about the most noted pioneers who changed American and international history, Sojourner Truth, Alex Haley, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and thankfully the list goes on and on. And even in middle school I always sat and wondered who else has blessed America with their efforts and contributions, especially the women, thanks to Mrs. Wilkes.
My 8th grade teacher was an influence in my life, partly because she was pregnant and showed great strategy and leadership in dealing with extremely hormonal pre-teens. Mrs. Wilkes was my homeroom teacher but she also taught Social Studies, a subject I dreaded but steadily grew into. Her husband was a musician and we all thought that was awesome. She was also very beautiful. Her long, black wavy hair and red lips retained the daily attendance of her male students and I would not be surprised if she won the best attendance award in faculty meetings every year.
We were encouraged by Mrs. Wilkes to vote in all elections when we turned 18, and she distributed a very long list of affluent and world-changing names in black history. Our class was introduced to many black “firsts”, but my favorite to this day is Shirley Chisholm. At 13 years old I knew politicians made things happen. When I first read about this black woman elected to Congress less than 40 years ago, I just had to read more. After looking in the encyclopedia (the internet did not live in my house in 1994!) I found that she was so smart and intellectual; it was surprising to read about a black woman casting votes and speaking for not only her district in Congress, but for women in America. The only black women I saw in my life other than my mom at that time were female preachers.
One Sunday, President Clinton came to Memphis. I am not sure why he was in town, much less visiting our church of only 1,200 members then. He only visited for a few minutes. I did not get to shake his hand, but he waved at me and smiled and I was goo-goo giddy the rest of the day and could not wait to tell Mrs. Wilkes and everyone in class! Monday morning when I walked in class, I told Mrs. Wilkes and she was glowing and hugging me and was proud that one of her students grazed with the President of the United States. Being a private person, I only told her and a few of my classmates who did not even bother to feign interest, but I still had Mrs. Wilkes’ blessings so whatever, nothing fazed me. Class begins and her first comment to the class was, “Everybody, did you all know that Kristen got to meet the President yesterday?” I braced myself for oohs and aahs, but I received boos and blahs. Most of them turned to look at me in disgust. Later in life I finally interpreted that situation as jealously, but it hurt my feelings nonetheless. A 13 year old is really not equipped to take a blow to their self-esteem like that. I guess Mrs. Wilkes saw the hurt in my face because after class, she told me to hold on and she pulled me to her desk. She grabbed my hand and told me that people can and will be cruel in life and that I was a determined young lady with a lot of promise. Man, that made me feel invincible!
Later on near the end of my pre-teen journey, Mrs. Wilkes went on maternity leave and brought her newborn to class for all of us to see. She looked more beautiful than ever. I am not sure if she is even still teaching or even in Memphis anymore. Many students have come and gone since I left, but she may not even remember me now or how much I adored her leadership. Of course, I have met awesome women since Mrs. Wilkes in college and in my adult life, but you never forget your first influence. I have also encountered more hateful people and many blows to my self-esteem. I want to thank you Mrs. Wilkes, for being a tremendous talent in a skirt.
Recently, a co-worker saw my email signature of one of Shirley Chisholm’s quotes and shared with me that she heard Ms. Chisholm speak in Washington, D.C. when she was younger and talked about how powerful she was and how big an impact she made to women everywhere. She said when Ms. Chisholm spoke, everyone listened. She is no longer with us and I never afforded the opportunity to see and hear her speak after she left Congress, but thank goodness the internet now lives in my house!