I attended Lincoln Elementary School in Rexburg, Idaho. I have a lot of memories of Lincoln Elementary, but most of them weren't life changing or influential. My memories of the third grade and Mrs. Thompson were though.
Rexburg, Idaho in the 1960's and 1970's was not an ethnically diverse town. The only African Americans I had ever seen in Rexburg was when the Harlem Globetrotters came to town. There was a junior college there at that time named Ricks College and there was an occasional person of color attending as an athlete. Most of the time they were from Africa or Jamaica or Brazil, though. Very few actual African Americans attended the school in those days.
We had a Native American boy in my grade who was being fostered by a white family. When I got to junior high and high school there were a few Native Americans and a few Mexicans. I was friends with the three Native American kids but the Mexicans kept to themselves. By the time I got to High School I had had exactly one conversation with a black guy. He was a worker in West Yellowstone, where I spent my summers. I remember he was fun to talk to. In other words I didn't have much to go on where ethnicity was concerned. I wasn't prejudiced though, just inexperienced.
In a town as ethnically static as Rexburg was at that time, it would have been easy to develop mistrust or suspicion, especially when television was our only source of information. Most of the black people we saw on the tube were criminals, drug addicts, athletes etc... No true reality there. Pretty unfair really. It could have been bad here except for an elementary school teacher named Mrs. Thompson.
She was my third grade teacher. I was in the third grade in 1970. Vietnam was raging. The Civil Rights Movement was in full force. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated just two years before. Mrs. Thompson showed us images of the freedom marchers being mowed down with fire hoses. We had nothing to compare to it here in Idaho and I remember asking myself, "What country is that happening in? How could people do that to other people?" I literally thought she was showing images from other countries.
She told us how black people in the south were not allowed to use the same bathroom as white people. She told it in such a way that us impressionable third graders found it horrific. I didn't know much about black or white or yellow or red in those days, but because of Mrs. Thompson I knew what was right and what was wrong.
Because of television and the way blacks were portrayed in the late sixties, early seventies, and the fact that I had never been around African Americans, I could have grown up prejudiced. Because of Mrs. Thompson I did not. I have thought of her often and the influence she had on my life.
Today, the junior college has transformed into a fairly sizable university called BYU-Idaho. There are a great many students of color here now, and many of them are American blacks. Several childless couples adopted black babies and reared them here. My kids all had black friends in school. The senior class president, when we moved back to Rexburg in 2000 was an African American kid who had been adopted by white parents. And the black kids here are just kids. The other kids don't think anything of it because to them they are just friends. This is a different town today than the one I left in 1984. A more diverse town. It's a better town now.
Thank you Mrs. Thompson for setting the stage.