How Could Someone Be So Mean To Mrs. Nichols?
I said those words through sobbing tears, the kind that makes it hard to catch your breath, as I sat in the back seat of my mom’s purple Chevy car in 1980. I said it with the innocence of a girl who just turned 7 years old but was wise enough to know it wasn’t a perfectly nice world, But Mrs. Nichols? I couldn’t fathom it. I still can’t, and telling this story might bring back some of those tears, but it might also let someone out there know they changed a life. Mine.
I hope it also shows the potential you could have to impact a life. I tell this story as a tribute during a time we are honoring the civil rights leaders and those who fought for us to get where we are today. We didn’t come this far to only come this far, and I hope this story is at least a small step in the right direction. You see, Mrs. Nichols was one of those civil rights activists. She might not have made major headlines, but she certainly is the lead story influence of my life.
I was born in the suburbs of St. Louis County. I grew up loving baseball, summer, snow days all the while despising naps. I even made sure I took afternoon Kindergarten at Spoede Elementary School so I didn’t have to take an afternoon nap during the week.
Then came First Grade at Spoede. A whole day at school. It was going to take a special teacher to keep my attention, what with all the playtime I’d be missing, sports I was missing, and time away from running with the dogs in the backward. I smiled for the school picture, but I wasn’t happy.
Now I’d like to tell you I am so brilliant that I remember with epic clarity the first time I met my First Grade Teacher Mrs. Sara Nichols. I don’t. I am not sure how many conversations I had with her. I remember she had the most beautiful skin I’d ever seen. It was the color of cocoa and smooth as could be. Her hair was shiny with slight bit of curl. Her smile made me feel like I was in the safest place in the world. By the time I was ready to go to Second Grade, I was calling her “Mommy”. A name that seemed so fitting, my real Mommy didn’t even mind at all.
This happened at a time when the city of St. Louis city was involved in legal and community battles about busing minority students from the city to more affluent schools in the county. I remember hearing about “bussing”. I even asked about what it was once, and all I could say is “Why don’t they have schools in the city?” and my poor dad tried to explain to me time and time again the reality of the situation with the insulation needed for a 7-year-old mind. Unfortunately for him, I wasn’t going to give up on asking “why”. So I kept asking anyone who would listen because I didn’t understand why anyone couldn’t go to a good school if they wanted to learn in a better environment.
As the year went on, I learned all the basic things a precocious first grader should learn in school, but there was something about Mrs. Nichols that just always comforted me, challenged me, and in the end – changed me.
The day she told us her story, or at least part of her story, wrecked me. In a bad way and a good way. However, it happened, we got on the topic of her life and the civil rights movement. We were a group of first graders. She told stories of waiting for a bus and having people harass her. The way I remember it in my mind, she didn’t offer a lot of specifics at a first – we were kids after all – but I believe we prodded for more. They threw eggs at her. They rubbed ketchup in her hair. They called her terrible names. It’s an image that is seared into my mind every day – this beautiful woman with her supermodel skin and perfect hair, having eggs thrown at her and people touching that beautiful hair for a nasty reason. I cried. I cried all the way home asking my mom, through hefty sobs of breathless words “HOW COULD THEY DO THAT TO HER? DON’T THEY KNOW WHAT A GREAT TEACHER SHE IS? DON’T THEY KNOW HOW MUCH SHE CARES ABOUT US AND THIS WORLD?” Wow. I cried. I’m not sure if I ever really stopped crying inside. I look back on that day and remember losing some of my innocence of the world around me, that there really was a world beyond where my sidewalk ended, but I also remember being smarter, more inquisitive as to “why”. It didn’t matter in my mind what happened before or what happened next, it mattered that to me That. Was. Wrong.
Maybe that was my first true journalistic enterprise to learn how could someone be so mean to Mrs. Nichols.
I think of her every time I pass a bus stop. When I see, either in the news, real-life, or in movies, an African American woman being treated poorly, that’s Mrs. Nichols to me.
As this story has been buried in a list of stories that shaped me into the Jennifer you know today (or at least a Jennifer you want to know if you’ve made it this far into my story, in that case – nice to meet you!), I came across a letter in my Grade School Book after my mom passed away several years ago. In this note, it turns out, Mrs. Nichols wasn’t just a hero to me in my life, and I’m not embellishing a teacher without a reason. The more I read this note, the more I knew I had to tell this story to someone, to everyone, to anyone who will listen.
As I open this letter, I see my mother’s beautiful curvaceous handwriting spilling the secret to the whole school district of how great Mrs. Nichols is. I’m typing it out here because I’m going to keep that handwriting a secret between me and my momma, I can’t give ALL the good parts away, right?
"Words cannot express enough the rewarding year our daughter Jennifer Hardy has had with Mrs. Sara Nichols as her teacher. Not only has Jennifer had a great year learning all the subjects we are taught in the first year at Spoede, she has also learned to share, recieve, respect and love her classmates. We as her parents believe this is has been taught through her wonderful teacher, Mrs. Sara Nichols. If we had one wish for other children entering first grade, it would be to have Mrs. Nichols as their teacher. She is the greatest. We cannot picture Spoede School without her, for she sure has so very much to teach to all the children when they need it the most. Our most sincere thanks to Mrs. Nichols for a great year and we know that Jennifer will do just great in the second grade because of the great education she recieved in the first grade. Mrs. Nichols, a great big thank you for everything. You will always be remembered as a one in a million teacher." John & Juanita Hardy
There were a million things that made her special. It wasn’t just because of her story, it wasn’t just because she was a great teacher, and it wasn’t just because she made not running with the dogs a bearable event. She didn’t just make me a smarter person. She made me a better person. She made me a person who knew hate was wrong and love was right. She gave me a perspective I would never have known possibly until I was too old to be able to process it without prior knowledge.
Maybe it was because she saw a special side of me, like I saw in her. I love this note, from her perfect handwriting to the hope that maybe, just maybe, she remembers me too wherever she is now.
This note reads, in its entirety:
“My Dear, Dear, Jennifer,
You make teaching so rewarding! Thank you so much for your constant thoughtfulness. I love the Easter basket and the candy was delicious. My son ate the lollipop (He’ll eat anything if I don’t catch him.) The Easter egg was so beautiful I hated to eat it and the flowers you brought me today helped make Spoede bright for me.
Thank you for being my Jennifer. I’ll remember you always. Keep in touch with me and let me know how you are doing.
Love Always, Mrs. Sara Nichols.
I am doing great, Mrs. Nichols, in large part because you were my teacher and defining influence in my life. I wish I could have the words to thank you for all you taught me, but right now I’ve just got these sobbing tears to punctuate the beautiful memories I have of a true African American hero.