… I was always interested in trying to communicate, to have a feeling from someone to make me feel that I was worthwhile.
So when my teacher, Mrs. Bishop — I will never forget her, beautiful, brown-skinned lady at P.S. 136 in Harlem — she gave me a poem because she realized I was having a problem with myself. And I never talked, because I never wanted to attract attention. And maybe that’s why I talk so much as I do today…
And this poem, I had no idea what it was all about, but I learned it. And I went down to the New York School of Performing Arts, where she had sent me, because it was the beginning of a drama department in that school.
And I think it was because she wanted me to come out and started to express myself. And, Gwen, I stood in front of that class and I said that poem…
I was scared to death. I had no idea how it was affecting people. But when everybody became so quiet, the kids were watching me as though they were hanging on to every word, which made me even more scared than I was before.
And I won that scholarship to get into that drama department, and that’s how I — and then she was the one that bought me theater tickets. I had never been to a theater before. I went to the Apollo Theater, yes, but not a legitimate theater on Broadway. I knew nothing about that.
But she bought me a ticket to go to see Jose Ferrer in “Cyrano de Bergerac.”
– Eartha Kitt, talking with Gwen Ifill
When Eartha Kitt died last week the Lehrer Newshour showed a clip of that interview. You can see it here. I am curious about the poem and have been unable to find out what it was. I like to imagine it was Claude McKay’s “If we must die.” Anyone know?
Of course, not all memories of teachers are quite so positive. Look at the influence of Mrs Lawrence in this poem:
While most of us copied letters out of books,
Mrs. Lawrence carved and cleaned her nails.
Now the red and buff cardinals at my back-room window
make me miss her, her room, the hallway,
even the chimney outside
that broke up the sky.
In my memory it is afternoon.
Sun streams in through the door
next to the fire escape where we are lined up
getting our coats on to go out to the playground,
the tether ball, its towering height, the swings.
She tells me to make sure the line
does not move up over the threshold.
That would be dangerous.
So I stand guard at the door.
Somehow it happens
the way things seem to happen when we’re not really looking,
or we are looking, just not the right way.
Kids crush up like cattle, pushing me over the line.
Judy is not a good leader is all Mrs. Lawrence says.
She says it quietly. Still, everybody hears.
Her arms hang down like sausages.
I hear her every time I fail.
Judy Page Heitzman