A Teacher’s Story
Once I learned my two attackers would be in court together and I would confront them, I wondered: What would I say? What was the inclination of the judge? And how would I feel when I finally had the chance to look at Donte Boykin and James Footman again? I was in such turmoil as I kept trying to think about what I wanted to tell them. I was so angry. I didn’t want to be angry. I didn’t like being angry. But I was.
Some days, I actually felt sorry for them, especially Donte. At other times, I wanted them locked up with the key thrown away. Most of all, I just wanted to be better. I wanted so desperately to wake up, as if I had just had a bad dream. “This isn’t the kind of thing that happens to me,” I kept telling myself. “This is something that happens to a friend, or a friend of a friend.”
I think lots of people cried for my injury, and were just as infuriated as I was. From the greeter at Wal-Mart to the doorman at my friend’s apartment house to strangers I met on the bus, people wanted to get their hands on the kids to get retribution. And they were all black. I cannot tell you how loved I felt by a community that was angered to its core.
Also assisting in my recovery were the piles of letters, cards, flowers, fruit baskets and visitors. They were remarkable. I am sad that no one kept a sign-in book when guests visited. There were so many. I know that my brother Bill was concerned for my health and sought to limit the visitors. But apparently I told him regularly that any and all who came should be shown to my room. I was so overwhelmed by the kindness, I needed to thank everyone myself. And though I remember little of any visit, let alone the visitors, I do remember how uplifted they made me feel.
I got cards from people I didn’t know, from as far away as Sweden and Australia. When I got home, I had on my machine a message from a woman in Alaska, thanking me for all I had done as a teacher and expressing her hope that I wouldn’t give up on the kids, even though she, as a teacher herself, knew how difficult the job was.
And then, something else happened. Among the cards I received were messages from those who’d been my students years and years ago. They remembered stories that they related to me. They told me how funny, crazy, smart and daring I was. They told me I was their favorite teacher.
One instance in particular occurred while I was walking to the bus, through a shopping-center parking lot. A woman jumped out of a car and walked toward me, fast. She was about 50 and had lots of white in her hair. “Mr. Burd,” she cried out. “I’ll bet you don’t remember who I am.”
I studied her for a moment, then declared, “You’re Nairda Green. You were in my seventh-grade math class at Roosevelt Junior High School in 1969.” She almost collapsed. In fact, it wasn’t as extraordinary as you might think. That was my first year as a teacher. Nairda was my smartest pupil. And though she had put on a few pounds, her eyes hadn’t changed a bit.
I heard that I was nominated to be one of the school district’s 10 Teachers of the Year, to be honored at a Phillies game on Teachers’ Night. When the Phillies rep called, I told her I didn’t want to be honored because I had been hurt. But then she read me the nominating letter, from a kid I had taught at Parkway in 1978. There was no reference to my injury. And I learned that others had also written on my behalf. Perhaps, I thought, it was important to be so honored. I was humbled.