This rainy day of May 1950 was a joyous one for Alma. She was graduating as Valedictorian of her class at the tender age of eighteen at North Carolina Central University. Her major was Biology, but she took all the sciences classes, in Math, Physics, Chemistry; therefore, a major as far as she was concerned was a misnomer except for the fact that her first love was for the Life Sciences and more specifically Medicine. She always dreamt of becoming a physician, but she had to bitterly concede defeat on this matter for the lamest reason and the most painful fact: her dad after whom she took her smarts didn’t think it was a profession for girls.
Instead she had to endure the irony of two male students that she tutored in Math and Chemistry proudly brandish their med school acceptance letters from both Howard and Meharry that they carried with pride all the time. She had told them that she had changed her mind about pursuing that career.
On that rainy day, she no longer had any tears left to shed over the matter for that well had dried up months ago from overuse. That conversation with her father tore her apart and had caused so many sleepless nights. No, she refused to be sad that day; it would not serve any purpose. Instead she concentrated on looking at the bright side. She had landed a teaching position at Morgan State in Baltimore some two months prior. She would work as a math Teaching Assistant (TA) and she was hoping to save some money and then enroll in a graduate program at Johns Hopkins. She was leaving town and was cutting her ties with her father and especially her stepmother who had given her hell. She would pivot and be on her own and wouldn’t ask her dad for help even for going to graduate school. That would be one more obstacle among so many she had already encountered.
She had a hard upbringing. Her mother had died when she was five. Her father remarried but his wife couldn’t bear him a child and she resented Alma’s presence and made sure she drove a wedge between her and her father. How she wished she were “Dad’s little girl” like so many of her girlfriends! Even with his less than attentive treatment toward her, she still adored him up till that last day. This was a turning point in her young life. She just couldn’t stop ruminating about it. Her brilliant dad with a BA and MA from Harvard in Math and an MA from Princeton in Physics as well as PhD in Math at MIT, wouldn’t be hired by any white university due to prejudice. However, he was exhibiting the same pattern toward her.
To her pleasant surprise, her father did give her some money on graduation day. It came in handy because her job wouldn’t start until a few months down the road and she had no intention of staying around till then. She was lucky to be allowed to tutor during the summer and to live on campus in a section reserved for faculty.
Her time at Morgan State took a turn for the better in unexpected ways. The start was somewhat awkward as quite a few male and some female students stared at her because of her youthfulness. She handled it deftly and before long she was able to wow them with her knowledge of math. Soon the buzz was about this young TA who could help students improve their grades. One year on the job, she met a student she was tutoring who basically swept her off her feet. She helped him raise his grade in calculus from a C- to a B+ and along the way he helped raise her emotional status from dry riverbed in a parched land to an overflowing stream feeding a lush valley, from unattached to smitten. The following year she had a master’s from Hopkins in Math and an engagement ring.
She made two decisions that she would never regret; she decided to be a mother and to plunge into teaching as a career goal and in that order of priority. She wanted her house to be a home filled with love, the exact opposite of what she was exposed to when growing up. She also wanted to make a difference in students’ lives.
She and her husband moved from Baltimore to Newark, NJ, via Jersey City. She bore him their only child soon after arriving in Jersey City and instead of pursuing a doctorate, she made the willful choice of raising a child and go back to work when the baby was in kindergarten.
Alma’s first teaching post was at a high school in Newark, in the Math department. This was a school system at the time with a dearth of Negro teachers, in the late fifties. She was taken aback with the pupils’ lack of deference to elders unlike in North Carolina but was impressed with the more modern equipment available in NJ, a far cry from worn-out textbooks given to Negro students down South.
Her first day on the job was interesting. The sight of a Negro woman as a math teacher was odd. It defied the norm. She was facing several headwinds at once: gender chasm, racial divide and a newcomer at that without a godfather. This was a time when the idea of a young woman in the workplace was still a novelty and the idea of a Negro being smart was still considered an oxymoron. She wasted no time asserting herself in the classroom despite the quizzical look on the white students’ faces obviously questioning her competence at first. She handled them with aplomb and panache.
She saw a challenge up her alley and any attempt at intimidation was dead on arrival. Her next move was bold, and the response mirrored students’ wounded and misplaced pride. She volunteered to tutor students who had problems with the subject, spontaneously without clearing it with her chairman. At first, she had Negro students who took her up on the offer. As their improvement in class became obvious, the word spread, and white students turned an initial drip into a flood attending her tutoring sessions. Pretty soon she became so popular that the other members of her department took exception to that fact. A degree from Johns Hopkins carried gravitas on one hand but begat the type of envy that rendered it an albatross around the neck. A Negro female, smart, assertive was seen as arrogant and feisty. Being successful so fast meant a threat from the perspective of old males used to being decision makers. They mistook her ebullience and passion for teaching as braggadocio. The pecking order was a strict tradition; seniority was a sacred cow; the hierarchical ladder teemed with newcomers at the bottom rung.
Her approach was poking holes at that principle, and this was seen as an affront, never mind the students were benefiting. At graduation, students gave her a plaque that read, “Rookie of the Year, best in the department.” That was simply not acceptable. “Rookie of the Year” was tolerable but best in the department was simply rubbing the nose of the establishment. Thereby began a cabal reaching to the administrative office of the Board of Ed to reestablish the proper order. A couple of weeks before the next academic year, she received an assignment at another school with ill repute for its high dropout rate. “You are so smart, let’s see how you handle this…” an anonymous note left in her mailbox at the new high school greeted her on her first day. A bad omen at a thankless job, or so it seemed.
Alma in no time upended the paradigm. She looked at the beast called defeat in the eyes and managed to snatch victory from its clenched teeth. She used out of the box logic to come up with examples to make concepts so much easier to grasp and she started an afterschool chess club to stimulate the students intellectually. Her success in the classroom attracted her enemies because it solidified her independent streak, a sin in the clubby environment where trading favors was common currency. Flourishing under this system warranted being beholden to someone else. A southern belle with good manners, she believed in deference; however, she didn’t suffer fools and was not the obsequious type. She was sharp enough to sense that this new position was a way for the establishment to get even with her either via attrition by making her frustrated to the hilt or outright dismissal based on trumped-up charges. This was a war she was not willing to lose. She found some powerful allies at her church. They helped her join the local chapter of NAACP, National Council of Negro Women, the Urban League and she befriended a trailblazer like her, the first Negro attorney at the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office.
Her first year at the new venue devolved into a cat and mouse game. A frequent refrain was getting clearance from her chairman for anything she wanted to do. Failure to do so would be considered insubordination that would be documented in her file. The chairman weaved his way to find fault with her performance. A petition signed by her students raving about her teaching skills and disapproving any evaluation to the contrary found its way to the Prosecutor’s Office. Her friend called the school principal and the matter was settled. The chairman rescinded his evaluation and issued her another one praising the work she was doing. She became an untouchable. She did excellent work and her students loved her. If her intelligence gained her both respect and disdain from envious and catty people, it rewarded her with pure awe and admiration from sympathizers. Her persona generated strong emotions, fawned over like catnip or despised like a flea.
Alma on a whim decided to pursue a doctorate in Math at the Steven Institute of Technology. She basically did the work on her own. She self-taught and learned the material quickly and was able to achieve this in a couple of years. Her life was evolving by twists and turns.
Alma for the longest time held a grudge against her dad. Yet she didn’t have to dig deep in her heart to respond to his call when he was terminally ill at the hospital. It just so happened that her high school friend that she used to tutor was her father’s physician. When her friend told her he was surprised as smart as she was that she didn’t proceed to medical school since he knew she wanted to in front of her dying father, he broke into tears, asking for forgiveness for his outmoded decision. This meant the world to her. She forgave. She was a daughter caring for a sick dad in need since his second wife had passed away a few years before. That brought closure to a sad episode in her life. All the same she had long ago concluded that the silver lining was the wonderful husband and daughter she was lucky to have, her two pillars.
She moved on to teach at the college level, first at the local Upsala College in East Orange and then Rutgers University at the Newark campus. Wherever she went, she was known as a whiz, the go to person for difficult problems. Offered positions at prestigious institutions, she declined because she had made Essex county, NJ, her base. Her influence extended beyond the classroom; she became an influential member of the Board of all the civic associations she had joined. She played a role in the Civil Rights movement. Alma, gifted intellectually but yet humble, trailblazer but not vain, poised but no push-over, cosmopolitan but a homebody at heart, preferring the good vibes of the pulse of family life over personal glory. She excelled at her role of a catalyst and as such was a vector for diffusion of knowledge and yes, a fail-safe catnip of great karma for kindred spirits effortlessly.
REYNALD ALTEMA, MD