Memos from the Middle

Smack-Dab in the Middle of Living

Lipstick and History

Class was over, but the bell had not yet rung. She pulled her reddish lipstick out of her purse and applied it expertly to her lips.

“How do you do that without a mirror?” I asked.

“I’ve had these lips my whole life,” she said. “When you’re my age, you’ll be able to do that too.” This solidified the “cool” tag I’d already given her.

But it wasn’t just the lipstick application that made her cool. It was also the way she could totally dismiss the “dumb questions” teachers always say don’t really exist with a quick, “Are you kidding?” in one breath and embrace them with the nurturing “Come see me tomorrow at lunch,” in the next. It was the way she could command the attention and respect from a bunch of rambunctious junior high kids by just walking into the room. It was the way the crowd in the hall parted with a cheerful “Hey, Mrs. Arrington” or a “Move! Don’t bump into Mrs. Arrington” when her beige, willowy frame exited her room to do whatever teachers did when they weren’t teaching. It was the way she could make us feel like history mattered because she cared so much about the subject herself.

Mrs. Arrington was definitely not “sugar and spice and everything nice.” She was political when kids didn’t quite understand the nuances of her messages. She was defiant. I can remember her teaching us Ebonics much to the chagrin of some of the more “eloquent” black folks in the neighborhood. And she could totally cut a kid in half just by the way she looked at him. To my twelve year old self, she was greatly entertaining, smart, and brave, and I wanted to be just like her when I grew up.

I always knew that Mrs. Arrington did not just “wing” her lessons. They felt connected and prepared for. I can’t ever remember doing a traditional worksheet in her class, and even when we had seat work to do, she actually walked the room helping kids out because, quite frankly, that stuff was hard. I mean, she actually expected us to think! Most of our other teachers must have forgotten that we were “gifted” because we had time to sing the latest R&B hits (“Knockin’ the Boots” was huge that year), throw M&Ms at the science teacher’s back while she wrote on the board (not me, by the way), and still give a half-assed effort, earning A’s and B’s. Mrs. Arrington was not having any of those shenanigans in her class, and the way she talked to the parents whose kids didn’t score well let us all know that she wasn’t scared of anything or anybody. That meant if we wanted to do well, we actually had to learn and prove our learning to her. Needless to say, all those left over M&Ms stayed in backpacks until science class the next day.

She even taught us the stuff behind the words in our textbook. You remember the one paragraph blurb about slavery in seventh grade history texts? She actually did a whole unit on it.”Now let’s go back to the book,” she said weeks after we first read that paltry retelling. “Why do you think they would sell a book to impressionable young students that intentionally leaves out so much?”

“They don’t want us to know our history,” one shouted out.


“They don’t want us to know how strong we were and still are deep down inside,” another shouted.


“They want to control us!” another added.


“‘Cause then we aren’t a threat,” from yet another. The bell rang, and a bunch of newly militant twelve year old black kids entered the halls angry and swearing that we wouldn’t let anyone tell us what our history is without learning about it for ourselves. She was innovative and passionate, and to a bunch of kids who had about as much passion as a flea, she was inspiring. She made us want to learn, want to think, want to feel.

We had been learning about the Civil Rights Era, and she had been promising us that she would show the “I Have a Dream” speech to us. Every kid in America could pick Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. out of a photo line-up, but not many could tell you what that speech was really about. This, to Mrs. Arrington, was a travesty, and it was her personal mission to show us the film footage of that speech to enlighten our ignorant minds. We had heard all day that she had shown the speech (we had her last period),Β  so as we approached the darkened classroom, we knew that we were in for something special. Nobody divulged, though, what that special something was.

Mrs. Arrington stood stoically in front of the room as we entered. The TV/VCR set-up was just to the left of her. Everyone entered and sat down without a lot of chatter. We knew better. Once the tardy bell rang, indicating the official start of class, she dove into her obligatory message about the historical importance of this speech. She implored us to watch Dr. King’s face as he spoke, the reaction of the audience, and to just try to imagine what this speech meant to Americans in the midst of everything we’d been learning about in class. These directives would have been followed by heads landing squarely on desks and short naps being taken if any other teacher had given them, but for her, we wanted to do it right.

She told us to take out our notebooks to capture any thoughts we had before she walked solemnly toward the “technology.”

“Are you all ready?” she said as she was pressing the play button, not giving us enough time to reply. She moved stealthily out of the way, giving kids who had reaped the benefit of such inspiring words a glimpse into another time.

I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation,” he began. “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

We didn’t understand every word, or even every reference in that speech, but we did understand the overall message, the significance of that place and time to each of us seated in that room, the supreme love and unwavering commitment to justice he and everyone who had marched with him, both in Washington and in the South, possessed. I remember being moved, so much so that I could not take any notes.

Being particularly overcome, I looked away from the screen trying to see if my classmates were as moved as I was. Even in the darkness of the room, I could tell that everyone was glued to the speech. Then I looked toward the front of the room. Mrs. Arrington was quietly sobbing into a tissue, eyes fixed to the screen. In that moment, I wondered how it was that she could have taught this same lesson all day and still be so overcome that she cried. To this day, I don’t know if Mrs. Arrington should have had a career as an actress or not, but I like to think that the words spoken to that crowd, which seemed like a million years ago to our young minds, still touched something deep inside her core. Seeing her with that tissue compelled tears to run freely from my eyes, and the blur of the screen and the clarity of King’s final words in my ears still find their way to the surface of memory from time to time.

I’m working in a new school, trying to learn all I need to learn about leading teachers. I pull up to this school everyday, look myself in the mirror, and pray that God blesses me with the knowledge to do a great job on behalf of children, especially those most in need of quality educators and curricula. I pull out my reddish lipstick and begin to apply it to the lips I’ve had my entire life. Realizing that I’ve somehow smeared Revlon on my chin, I look into the rear-view mirror to do it the right way. I grab a tissue to erase cosmetic mistakes, and I remember the confidence, planning, and passion Mrs. Arrington carried every day into her classroom. And I hear her say, “When you get my age, you’ll be able to do that too.”

Well, I may not be able to do that lipstick trick, but I think I’ve got that passion thing down!

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72 thoughts on “Lipstick and History

  1. Pingback: An Anniversary List « Memos from the Middle

  2. beautiful post! thank you so much for sharing

  3. lsurrett2 on said:

    Very moving

  4. Jason C. Stanley on said:

    Amazing. Love the part where Mrs. A continues to ask “Why?” probing deeper. Inspires me to be a greater educator. Thank you.

  5. Very moving! Passion always takes you where you need to go in life, for your highest good and for others. I envisioned everything you wrote. I felt every emotion, and I even felt compelled to want to be like Mrs. Arrignton when i grow up too! πŸ™‚

  6. oh how I love your article! What a brilliant story and all the best to you to keep your passion going and growing because being a teacher you are making the biggest impact on future generations! Good luck and well done for being freshly pressed! πŸ˜‰

  7. Usually when I love the title of an article/story, I am disappointed by the content…didn’t happen here, not at all. A pleasure to read.

  8. Some time ago I wrote a post that talks about red lipstick and what it means. Check it out, you might be interested,

  9. Wonderful, wonderful post. I need to post this on Facebook for all my teacher colleagues. I am a recently retired teacher and I, too, can apply my lipstick without a mirror! Be firm and fair and show them that you love them!

  10. Very evocative. I used to have an english teacher I used to adore: every move, every word, every angry look she shot at a grammatical mistake. She helps me write better even today!
    Congrats on being freshly pressed!

  11. Mad Queen Linda on said:

    You absolutely rock! Congrats on a much deserved Fresh Press!

  12. I really enjoyed reading this post. It brought back memories of various people in my life that have taught me to care about sociological issues and to help others.

  13. Reblogged this on Whenquiet's Blog and commented:
    “‘ …..judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character…'” Martin Luther King, Jr.

  14. My beautiful sister……So many times I, an African American residing in Europe since 1992, have tried to capture via pen and ink, the scars of growing up black in the South(N.C. 1957), the journey through two universities(B.A. & M.A.) and the flight to Europe for employment. I have tons of journals, wonderful poetry, and serious lyrics…But it has been a long time since such eloquent writing has shaken me to the core as your Lipstick and History has done. Thank you, Sister! I am inspired by your writing, inspired by Mrs. Arrington, and this entry could not have come at a better time in light of the forthcoming Presidential election. Kudos to you. Kudos to WP for shedding the light on an extremely gifted one. God bless!

  15. siamneng on said:

    The person who reads too much and uses his brain too little will fall into lazy habits of thinking. β€”Albert Einstein
    Love it.

  16. After 11 years I’m finally going back to finish my education degree. People ask me why I think I will make a good teacher I tell them I have had many great role models who have helped mold me into the teacher I should become. It seems as though you’ve had an excellent role model. Good luck!

  17. I sure hope Mrs Arrington is still around to read this. I can think of nothing more thrilling than to know that one’s life’s work made such an impression on someone else. If only all teachers were like you and Mrs A.

  18. Reblogged this on elketeaches and commented:
    this is good reading…I hope everyone has had at least had one great teacher in their lives

  19. interesting..n impressive ofcourse

  20. That was a very well-written post. Your lead-in is brief but compelling. I will read more from you.

  21. Reblogged this on jaalanjr's Blog and commented:
    Unatambua nini kuhusu Martin Luther king jr?

  22. Well, I don’t know if you two have the same lips (which might explain why she mastered the lipstick trick and you haven’t yet) but you seem to have the same passion! I think you’ll do a great job teaching and inspiring young minds! Thanks for sharing!

  23. HEHEHEE I just want to say that the writer on here is just a creative person. I like them. I am going to follow them.

  24. I have a Dream,the trials and tribulations of a mind seared in spiritual awakening; trusting the love of JESUS, praising the deft brevity of the wisdom shown with blithe dexterity.

    To show disdain and loathsome passion for a enforced human condition vocally and through written words brought together by faith, fasting and prayer, simultaneously delivering subliminal hits to one’s soul, the oppressed and the oppressor.

    Tears are a payable honor to this speech which tells a story of the past, while at once being present and futuristic.

    The children are our future…(your daughters are beautiful) speak and write on as high or abstract a level as you are led to, not to temptation, it would seem that our eyes have seen the GLORY! and oh yeah, thanks for your story.

    (abstract- and what you do..Teach)

    Peace and Blessings John Gary Dewberry Jr.

  25. phreak on said:

    Thanks for this πŸ™‚ This is inspirational!

  26. Like your post, sob.

  27. What a fantastic story and beautiful tribute to Mrs. Arrington. God Bless her, the work she did & the example she set. God bless her lipstick & others like her…..Here is another Mrs. Arrington — kind of πŸ™‚

  28. Great teachers always leave the best footprints. Great post and I’ m sure your dedication and vision will carry you through. Good luck! I hope you will get to leave such footprints.

  29. Good job. Keep the ink flowing

  30. Your post also provoked a memory of going to Washington, DC, in 1983 for the 20th anniversary of this speech. We went from Boston in several buses leaving from the Boston Common around 11 p.m. or midnight. I fell asleep, as did everyone else, probably, and we woke up around 8 the next morning when the bus driver turned up the volume to the “I have a dream” speech. What a way to wake up. It was wonderful.

  31. What a wonderful tribute to a great, great woman. Thank you for the reminder that history is important, and that what is left out (when we can find it) is at least as important to what is left in. Your students are lucky to have you. Congratulations on getting this conversation into FP.

  32. Wow! What a great post! If only all of us could have had teachers as dedicated and passionate. What a great role model for you. You’re students can only benefit from these lessons you learned in her classroom.
    Ruth from At Home on the Road

  33. You sound like you are already there. I have a dream to be a teacher. I hope it’s realized and I am as passionate as yourself. Thanks.

    • Here’s my advice: Being a great teacher means remembering one thing above all others. We teach kids! Everything else is a distant second.
      Good luck to you and keep working toward that dream. We need passionate people in the profession.

  34. I think we all need a Mrs. Arrington in our lives, regardless of where we’re from and what ‘history’ we have. Thank you for your inspiring story. πŸ™‚

  35. popculturechicka on said:

    Truly inspiring. Thank you for sharing your passion!

  36. princesscarleyunderground on said:

    The word that came ot my mind was impressive, as well. But tell me, who are those badass looking dudes in white behind Dr King?

  37. Impressive. I love your passion. Wishing you good luck, M! I’m sure you’ll do as good πŸ™‚

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