High School Reunion: Making A 'Teachable Moment'

Aug 18, 2017
Originally published on August 18, 2017 8:07 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Think back to your high school days. Maybe you were one of the lucky ones who didn't just survive those years but thrived. Or maybe you've spent the better part of your adult life trying to forget the whole thing. Well, our co-host Rachel Martin has been thinking a lot about those years.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: It's been 25 years since I graduated from high school. At one point, there was going to be a reunion, then there wasn't. There were still people I wanted to reconnect with, though - not even necessarily people I was close to but people I had wondered about. So I decided I did not need an official reunion. I just called them up and asked them how they think back on that time.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR CREAKING)

MARTIN: I went back to my hometown recently and walked around Idaho Falls High School. Classes hadn't started yet, and the maintenance crews were busy waxing floors and getting the place ready for a new year. Almost immediately, I noticed this sign on the wall above the front door.

This is so cool. It says, celebrate our diversity, the power of one. This plaque seems to be put here in honor of Shirley Murphy, my English lit teacher, who we're going to go talk to.

Hi, lady.

SHIRLEY MURPHY: How are you doing?

MARTIN: Oh, my God.

MURPHY: Oh, it's so good to see you. And notice...

MARTIN: A lot of her students just called her Murph. To me, she was always Mrs. Murphy, the woman who opened up my mind to a whole world of ideas. She's retired now, but she taught English literature at Idaho Falls High School for more than 30 years. She also happened to be the first African-American teacher at that school.

I sat down with Mrs. Murphy before the violence in Charlottesville had happened, but our conversation feels all the more relevant today. She and her husband retired and moved to Florida, but they keep their home in Idaho Falls. And they come back every summer because this is still the place that feels like home. And who could pass up the chance to go to your teacher's house?

MURPHY: But then we'll come downstairs.

MARTIN: Yeah.

MURPHY: It's cooler.

MARTIN: OK, good.

The wall along the staircase to the basement is covered with framed family photos.

MURPHY: So here, we are graduating from college. Look how young we are. And that's...

MARTIN: Shirley Murphy and her husband met in the 1960s in Georgia, a long way away, geographically and culturally, from this rural town in Idaho.

MURPHY: When I first got here, I asked my husband, what had he gotten me into? Because I did not see anyone who looked like me. But I saw people who acted like me. They were friendly.

MARTIN: Your parents were in Georgia...

MURPHY: Georgia.

MARTIN: ...At the time. I mean, what did they make of that move?

MURPHY: Initially, my mom said, what is that?

MARTIN: What is that?

MURPHY: What is that?

MARTIN: Not where is that (laughter).

MURPHY: Not where is that - I'd say, we are going to Idaho. She'd say, what is that?

MARTIN: (Laughter).

MURPHY: And - so I'd say, that's where we're going to go. And I promise you we'll come back every year, which we did.

MARTIN: Yeah.

MURPHY: And the intent was not only to go back to see the family but to share a little diversity with our children.

MARTIN: When I was growing up, this place was a monoculture. It was rural, lots of Mormons, overwhelmingly white. Mrs. Murphy said she had to learn early on how to handle the racial digs that came her way.

MURPHY: For an example, my Avon lady came to my house, and then she walked in and then she sat. And she was just looking around. And then she said, every time I come to your house, it's always clean. And then she said, and you only have two kids.

I knew exactly where she was coming from. And I said yeah, that's right. And then she said, do you know that they are building a Kentucky Fried Chicken? I said, you know, I don't even eat chicken. Threw her off - and I love chicken. And she could not believe that I did not like chicken, only had two kids - she couldn't understand.

MARTIN: And that you had a clean house.

MURPHY: And that I had a clean house. But you see, as opposed to becoming offended, I used that time as a teaching tool.

MARTIN: So this is what I remember - I remember this in high school. Every year, you held an assembly around Martin Luther King Day, where you would call the entire student body together. We'd all sit in the bleachers in the gym. You, by yourself, stand in the middle of the gym floor with a microphone and invite the entire student body to ask you whatever question they want to ask you about what it is like to be an African-American...

MURPHY: Right, exactly.

MARTIN: ...Which is pretty remarkable to open yourself up that way. Why did you want to do that?

MURPHY: I wanted to create a safe zone for the students to ask the question that they've always wanted to know, regardless of whether they thought they knew the answer.

MARTIN: What kind of questions?

MURPHY: For an example, number one, the tanning.

MARTIN: The tanning?

MURPHY: Do black people tan? And my answer was yes. (Gasps) Really? I said, and even burn.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

MURPHY: They wanted to know my feeling about interracial marriages. And I said, how would you feel if someone were to tell you you can't love someone? And so they're just in awe when that bubble is burst.

MARTIN: Did that ever become burdensome or just downright annoying?

MURPHY: No, I just loved it. And when we were doing the multicultural week, I had a lot of my students who felt left out. They were hurt.

MARTIN: Why?

MURPHY: They felt as if they were in the minority because they didn't have an opportunity to go and talk about their race.

MARTIN: And these were white students?

MURPHY: These were my white students. And I said excellent, I'm glad you came to talk to me about that. So if you feel that way for a week, how do you think these students feel the other weeks?

MARTIN: It was classic Mrs. Murphy. Anything could be turned into a teachable moment. She didn't care if she got a question that was insulting or demeaning. It wasn't about her.

She adjusted herself in her chair and leaned closer to me. Empathy, she said, taking the time to understand the path that someone else has walked - that's what we could all use more of right now.

MURPHY: I enjoyed my students. I enjoyed the classroom. People said, you work in high school? I don't know how you could get along. I said, they are beautiful. And so - and I just look at where the students are now, and I do feel that things will get better.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANIEL BACHMAN'S "COMING HOME")

MARTIN: Thank you so much for doing this.

MURPHY: You are so welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANIEL BACHMAN'S "COMING HOME")

MARTIN: Shirley Murphy - she taught English at Idaho Falls High School for 34 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANIEL BACHMAN'S "COMING HOME")

GREENE: That was Rachel Martin bringing us her radio reunion. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.