In the early 1960’s, education in Providence, RI was segregated. Black children went to an all-Black school that was separate and unequal from the schools for white children. When the school building for Black children was condemned, the city of Providence was forced to close it and integrate Black children into previously all-white schools.
An article in the local newspaper described how the city of Providence had created a project titled ‘Cinderella,’ and was asking for volunteers to help “improve Black children’s academic skills.” Despite my feelings about the need for such a project—years-long educational neglect—I volunteered to work with a small group of 4th grade girls, planning to use the story of Cinderella as part of my strategy to develop their language arts abilities. I volunteered because I cared about the kids. Privately I wondered if the project would have been developed had the school for Black children not been judged too great a risk for continued use.
Although the school building where we met had been condemned, there were some rooms that were deemed safe for the volunteers and their students. I protested but we were given no new places to meet—one more sign to me of how little the authorities cared about Black children. We volunteers figured out how to manage being in the building safely, but I never quite stopped being concerned. The girls I was going to work with seemed to have no worries about the building when they entered the classroom eager to participate.
After brief introductions, they listened intently when I told them the story. They instantly agreed they’d like to make a play from the story. They even agreed on the characters: mother, two sisters, Cinderella, fairy godmother, and prince. However, when it came to deciding who would play the mother and two sisters, no one offered. No one was willing to be the mean mother or an ugly sister.
They told me I should cast the play. I refused. “It’s your play. You have to decide who you want to be.” They argued with me and among themselves, furious that I wouldn’t make the decision. We sat in silence. Stalemated.
Then, Alicia said, “I know. I know.” We all stared at her. “Maybe the reason the mother and stepsisters are so awful is that they feel unloved. Maybe when Cinderella meets the prince, there’s so much love the mean mother and ugly stepsisters get filled with the love and become kind and beautiful.”
I gasped in amazement at her wisdom. The girls giggled. Delight filled the room. The play was cast. Rehearsals began. The sessions were going smoothly until Tamisha said, “We want to perform our play and we gonna need costumes. Can’t have a play without costumes.” Oy! I had no money to buy costumes, but even if I found material I could afford, I’m hopeless when it comes to any kind of sewing. I knew the girls’ mothers worked, often more than one job, so I didn’t feel I could ask for their help. I told the girls I’d try to figure something out.
That afternoon I went downtown to a shop that sold material and sewing supplies. I thought if I could find inexpensive material, I might be able to find a volunteer to sew the costumes. I told the man about the girls making the play and asked about material for six costumes. No matter what he showed me, it was all too expensive. Then he said, “I have a lot of felt in a variety of colors and lengths. You can have the felt and when the play is over, bring it back, but you can’t cut it.” Huh?
I went home with six bolts of felt in six different colors and lengths wondering what the hell I was going to do with it. Still, it was material. The next time we met, I lugged the six bolts into our room. When I told the girls we couldn’t cut or sew the material they burst out laughing. Every time one of them stopped another would start. Jenina asked, “You got material we can’t cut or sew? How we gonna make costume that fit us?”
Until that moment, I had no idea how to use the material but it was all we had. Sometimes desperation is a good motivator. “We’ll unroll the material and whoever is smallest gets the least amount of fabric. We’ll distribute it according to size.” This made the girls start laughing again, looking as me as if I’d gone crazy. Lena asked, “How we gonna keep the material on us if we can’t sew it?”
“We’ll drape it and then I’ll staple it in whatever shape you want.”
“Staple?” they asked in chorus. “Staple?” More fits of laughter.
“Let’s rehearse the play,” I said. “Next time I’ll bring my stapler and show you.” Shaking their heads as if I was crazy for sure, we spent the session focused on fine tuning the play. They were going to perform it in two weeks for white students at one of the schools the Black children would be attending for the first time in September.
I knew their mothers worked, yet much to my astonishment every one of them appeared at our next session, prepared to meet their daughter’s weird teacher. Lord knows what the girls had told them. “You gonna staple my girl into a costume?” asked one of the mothers. I explained my predicament. “The man told me I couldn’t cut the material but he didn’t say anything about stapling.”
So began one of the funniest times in my teaching experience. The girls and their mothers decided who would get which bolt of fabric based on the girl’s size and the length of fabric. Then the girls stood still while their mothers draped the fabric around each of their daughters as artistically as they could. I stapled the fabric in place amid continuing laughter. When everyone was “costumed,” the girls performed their play for their mothers. They were an enthusiastic audience and the girls proudly bowed at the end. Afterward, Tina asked, “How we gonna get out of our costumes?”
“We’ll undo whatever staples you need to take off the costume. I’ll roll it so it won’t crease and we’ll know how to restaple it.” With their mothers’ help, the girls carefully undid their costumes. I put a note on each one so we’d know whose costume was whose.
I thanked the mothers for coming. One of them said, “I haven’t laughed so hard in years. Worth missing a day of work.” The others nodded in agreement, big smiles on their faces.
The girls’ performance was a big success. The staples held. The costumes were fine. The local television station filmed part of the performance and used it as their lead story that evening. I returned the bolts of fabric, thanked the man, and hoped ironing the felt covered the staple holes well enough.
How have you improvised in a problematical situation?
Life tales from a woman different living in The City Different.