Mrs. Nelson’s Class
Edited by Marilyn Nelson
Mrs. Nelson is my teacher;
Sometimes her class is lots of fun.
My other teachers were okay
But she’s my very favorite one.
-Captain Nelson, by Michael Palma
On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas that state-sanctioned segregation of public schools is unconstitutional.
Four months later, in September 1954, on an Air Force base school near Salina, Kansas, a young African American teacher, Mrs. Johnnie Mitchell Nelson, became the teacher of a second grade class of twenty white children. Mrs. Nelson knew, but did her pupils understand, they were making history together?
Marilyn Nelson, Mrs. Nelson’s daughter, often looked at a picture in the family album of her young mother surrounded by those 20 white children and imagined what it must have been like for those children to have her African American mother for their teacher. What kind of adults might they become if they had not been taught to hate and instead been taught that we are all part of one family?
Some sixty years later, Marilyn thought that it might make an interesting writing project; a little book about these kids, who they were, what they might be thinking. She finally asked some friends, all of them white, if they would be interested in writing one or two poems from the prospective of the kids in the class. To her delight, each poet claimed a kid in the class, wrote a little character sketch, and poems.
Here is the result of that project, a slim little book filled with verbal “selfies” of imagined seven or eight-year-olds, white, in 1955, whose teacher was a Negro.
Marilyn Nelson is the author or translator of over 25 books of poems for adults, young adults, and children. In 2012 she was awarded the Frost Medal for distinguished lifetime achievement in poetry. She is a Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets and Poet-in-Residence of the Poets Corner at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.