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Marsha Pincus in a screenshot from a reading of her play, “Chalkdust,” about being a white teacher in a mostly black community.

Experience at Gratz inspires retired teacher to write a play

In “Chalkdust,” Pincus reflects on being a white teacher in a black community.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Some teachers chafed at the racial-balance requirement that was in force in Philadelphia for more than 40 years because it limited where they could teach. At the same time, over the years that it was in effect, the court order led the careers of thousands of teachers to go in directions they never anticipated. Many found it transformative for both them and their students.

“The forced race-based transfer to Gratz [High School] proved to be the most generative move of my career,” said Marsha Pincus, a two-time city Teacher of the Year who spent more than three decades in the system and whose students wrote nationally award-winning plays. “Once I realized that I could learn from my students how best to teach them, all kinds of things happened that were life-changing for all of us.”

At Gratz, Pincus participated in the founding of Young Playwrights, which now works with dozens of schools and thousands of students in the region and helped start the pioneering school-within-a-school called Crossroads.

Pincus, who retired in 2011, wrote a play called Chalkdust that reflected on her career, with emphasis on her experience as a white teacher of black students. She is still in touch with many of her Gratz students, who are now in their 40s.

“The fundamental lesson I learned as a white teacher in the black community is that it’s all about respect and empathy,” Pincus wrote in an email. “Both are necessary for real learning to take place. A teacher must walk into the classroom first GIVING rather than demanding respect. With all that entails. And once that respect is felt by the students, it will be reciprocated and that’s when empathy is possible.” Following is a scene from Chalkdust:

LESSON 5 – White Man’s Bullshit

Writing on the blackboard – November 10, 1986

Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton

I’m two months back from my maternity leave … and I am feeling anxious.

The years home with my children have changed me … and I am feeling all of this dissonance about my teaching – not really knowing how to connect to my students the way I want to … and I’m bored with that stupid anthology.

So I go into the book closet, a dark, dusty cavernous place, looking for something new to teach. The closet’s a joke. Filled floor to ceiling with books that haven’t been touched in decades!

I feel really lucky then when I find two full sets of Cry the Beloved Country. I don’t really know the book, except that it takes place in South Africa and that my friend Suzanne, who also teaches in high school in the black community, loves it and teaches it every year.

I load the books onto a cart and I call Suzanne and ask her to send me her lectures and lesson plans.

I’ve borrowed a map from the Social Studies teacher for this special lecture about the history of South Africa.

Which of course begins in 1652 when the Dutch land at the Cape of Good Hope, starting a trading base. And then continues in 1688 when the French Huguenots show up, fleeing religious persecution and then finally in 1795, the British arrive, who eventually drive the Dutch north.

You get the picture. Africa. The Dutch. The French. The British.

And this to a group of African American 12th graders who are compelled by law to be sitting in my classroom.

“That’s white man’s bullshit!!!” Steve calls out from the last row.


“That’s white man’s bullshit. You’re just repeating some white man’s bullshit and we don’t have to listen to it!!!”

I like Steve a lot. He’s a good guy. And smart. On the basketball team. Funny.

Only he’s not being funny. He’s dead serious, and the class goes silent except for a couple of “whoas” and “whoos” and “he tole hers.”

And I’m standing there feeling naked, map behind me, pointer limp in my hand.

They are waiting to see if I am going to write Steve up.

Thirty years later, I can be there again in an instant – seeing myself through their eyes … this 34-year-old white, Jewish woman pretending she knows something she doesn’t … speaking with an authority which isn’t mine … seeing my classroom, with the posters of Shakespeare and Chaucer and Hawthorne and Twain – these icons of greatness staring down at all of us – none of them looking anything like my students.

Steve continues, quieter but still enraged.

Man, none of this can be right! Where the black people at???? This is Africa!!!

Mercifully, the bell rings for lunch. The class saunters out, still looking to see if I’m going to write Steve up. I approach his desk.

He looks up at me and says: Ms. Pincus, I mean, didn’t the Zulus live there?

I honestly don’t know. Let’s go to the library and see what we can find out.

So we go to the school library, which is run by a white librarian who’s been there since the early ’60s, and I say this only because the school has had an exclusively black student body for over 20 years at that time, and Steve and I can’t find ONE BOOK about South Africa from a black perspective. Not one.

See. This is the moment. The moment in a string of moments that connect to all of the other moments going backward and forward because it’s here that I begin to see something that I hadn’t been able to before.

It’s not just that I don’t know about the true history of South Africa. It’s that I was educated in the same system I am now teaching in, and no one ever taught me anything about it.

The school system decides whose stories get told.

And I remember the curious little girl I was in 6th grade, when we were studying American history, who went to the school library and asked: Do you have any books about the Revolutionary War from the British point of view?

No, the librarian says, without even checking.

Or the silent girl in 12th-grade World History class, who knew there was more to the story of the Holocaust than the one paragraph about it in the chapter on World War II in the textbook, but couldn’t speak up.

And as a student in this very same system, I’d never been assigned to read a book by a black writer, and as an American Lit major in college, the only woman I’d ever been assigned to read was Emily Dickinson.

So how the HELL am I supposed to teach my students when I know nothing about their culture and their history?

Hell, I don’t even really know my own.

Thus begins a 10-year journey to re-educate myself. I start taking courses, seminars, workshops, reading books, going to museums and movies, listening to music … and I learn about the Harlem Renaissance, the Black Arts Movement, the Talented Tenth, Booker T and W.E. B. … Marcus Garvey, double consciousness, womanism, Malcolm X, Richard Wright, Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, August Wilson, Toni Morrison.

And with each new thing I read, I find ways of bringing it into my classroom – applying for grants, spending my own money, Xeroxing pages.

“You’re being brainwashed,” Suzanne says when I tell her how my teaching has changed, how my students are engaged and loving the books we are reading.

You’re being derelict in your duties as an English teacher. You’re supposed to be teaching them the canon!

But it’s the 1990s, and multiculturalism has become a buzzword.

So in the summer of 1994, I am taking a course focused on African Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans – the dominant groups of students in Philadelphia classrooms. The teachers in the course are diverse, though still mostly white. The atmosphere is tense – many of the white teachers have a very hard time when they are asked to see things from an “Afrocentric” point of view. It’s not comfortable for us, being on the margins.

During the third week, we are watching a documentary about Hmong refugees who have been displaced from the hills of Laos by the Vietnam War. Hundreds of these families have settled in West Philadelphia, and their children are in our classrooms.

On the screen, we see dozens of refugees getting off an airplane in Seattle in the winter. It is cold and damp, and these people do not have coats and they have never felt this kind of coldness before. It’s poignant and I feel myself tear up when –

“Damn! Please! At least they’re coming here on airplanes, not filthy slave ships!” says a black woman.

Oh yeah? Well, at least they weren’t gassed and burned in ovens!!! says a Jewish one.

That seminar ends with the teachers still duking it out to see whose oppression is the worst – without ever coming to a place of humanity and empathy.

And those people are going back into classrooms in the fall.