This story is by Marchel Alverson and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The Problem with Dottie
Black Girl Magic.
The sixth-grader’s t-shirt danced in front of her eyes as soon as Donetta “Dottie” Kennedy entered into Ms. Alexander’s third-floor classroom. Ms. Alexander hadn’t realized she was staring at the silhouette of afro-puffs on Dottie’s shirt until the bell rang. She turned her back and finished erasing the previous lesson from the whiteboard.
I am not a racist. Ms. Alexander had taught American History 101 at Piper Middle School for 31 years, and in all those years she’d never had a student like Dottie. Her hand began to shake. She gripped the eraser and scrubbed hard. Droplets of sweat began to form on her forehead as she erased imaginary smudge marks. If only she could make Dottie disappear.
Dottie, of course, didn’t know any of the goings-on in her teacher’s mind. How could she know that her mere presence her teacher? She sat her lean body down in her assigned seat in the front row and reached in her backpack for her textbook, notepad and pen.
Ms. Alexander didn’t hear the final bell ring so consumed was she in trying to hold herself up and prepare for fifty minutes of battle. She hugged her emerald sweater tighter and turned to face the class, but her eyes could only latch onto Dottie’s molasses colored face and braided hair that fell to her waist in a maze of brown and lavender twists.
“Class, turn in your textbooks to page one forty-two. Your homework assignment was to read chapter four. I trust that you all completed your assignments,” Ms. Alexander said.
“Yes, Ms. Alexander.” The class sung in unity.
“Good, let’s begin.” She called on Justin to read the first three paragraphs.
“Okay, so what have we learned?”
The white hands of suburbia raised up throughout the room.
Ms. Alexander exhaled and managed to look past Dottie.
“Yes, Destini. What did you discern from the lesson?”
“That our founding fathers were all great men who came up with the Declaration of Independence so that we can all be equal in America today.”
“Very good Destini.”
“Who else wants to share?” Ms. Alexander’s legs grew weaker. Here it comes. She took a seat at her tidy desk.
Ms. Alexander’s shoulders dropped when Megan Farmer raised her hand. “The founding fathers’ created the Constitution in order to have more equality, national control and create the three branches of government.”
“That’s exactly right, Megan.”
Dottie raised her hand then and locked eyes with Ms. Alexander who felt as if, in this moment, her soul was beating out of her chest. Thump. Thump. Thump. I am not a racist. I voted for Obama…twice.
“This country was built on a bed of lies and the founding fathers weren’t great men or legends. All we’re being taught are myths. Ten of the first twelve presidents were slave owners. In fact, George Washington’s teeth weren’t even wooden. His teeth were made from slaves and animals,” Dottie said.
“Gross,” the class said in unison.
“Class, let’s not encourage Dottie.” Ms. Alexander’s voice quivered.
“This textbook isn’t really American history at all. Every lesson in this book is made to ensure that ‘We the People’ continue to believe and live a lie. These men couldn’t have believed that all men were created equal. They made sure slaves weren’t considered human, but property. They were only three-fifths human so they wouldn’t have the same rights even though slaves fought beside them in every war, even crossing the Delaware. But this textbook says none of that.
“Christopher Columbus didn’t discover America. He traveled in the wrong direction and found us already here with Indigenous people so he killed them, raped their women and stole their land. This wasn’t a ‘New World” when the Mayflower docked in Plymouth, we were already here…slaves and indentured servants. They weren’t even the first Europeans to make it here. There were many established settlements before them, and they were bringing slaves across the shores before 1620. The first slave ship arrived in 1619, a year before the Mayflower. This country’s founding ideas were false when they were written and we’re still reading these lies today in your classroom. I’ve read ahead, and there is only one black inventor named, George Washington Carver, when there were dozens more. You see…”
Ms. Alexander stood. “That’s enough, Dottie!”
The ticking of the clock was the only sound in the room now.
“I will not tolerate these outbursts from you any longer. Do you understand me. One more and I will send you to the principal’s office.”
“Oooh,” a chorus of students exploded and pierced the silence.
“Shut up class!” It was the first time she’d used such a word in front students. Ms. Alexander usually prided herself on her calm demeanor. She’d won Teacher of the Year of the entire district for three years in a row and it was rumored she’d win again this year. Dottie was jeopardizing all of her achievements and this thought alone is what caused her next outburst.
“You people keep trying to rewrite history. I’ve taught from this textbook for over 30 years now and …”
“For 30 years, you’ve been teaching lies. How does that make you feel Ms. Alexander?” Dottie stood up from her plastic chair, crossed her arms around her budding chest and stared directly into her teacher’s eyes. At almost five-feet seven inches she towered over Ms. Alexander who was now visibly shaken. Why she’s just a child. A child in my classroom that has no manners and no control.
“I will not let you tarnish American history. Your people were nothing but slaves who contributed nothing to the founding of this country!”
Dottie’s voice remained surprisingly even. “There would be no America without our people. We built this country, even as your people enslaved us, raped us, killed us, experimented on us and tutored us and this textbook proves that you’re still trying to keep your knees on our necks.”
Was this child referring to George Floyd? How dare she! Not in my classroom!
“I’m sending you to the principal’s office, Dottie. And, don’t come back to my class until you learn some respect for me and the lessons I teach. You have…you have…you…have…”
The room began to spin. Ms. Alexander gripped her chest. She fell onto the gray carpeted floor. Justin ran and pushed the intercom button. Dottie grabbed the hoodie of the student seated next to her and folded it. She then placed it under Ms. Alexander’s head.
“Can I help you?”
“Yes, come quick! Ms. Alexander’s on the floor!”
“Look at what you did,” Justin said to Dottie.
“I didn’t do anything. I just told the truth.”
“You practically called Ms. Alexander a liar.”
“That’s not true. You take that back right now or I’ll slap the taste out your mouth,” Dottie yelled!
“Oh yeah, I’d like to see you try. Go ahead. Dooooo it!”
“What in heaven’s name is going on in here?” Vice Principal Pearson shoved the students to the side. He dropped to his knees when he saw Ms. Alexander laying on the ground. Next, he put his face next to hears listening for sounds of life. Then he checked her wrist for a pulse. The thumping was slight, but he found hope in the slightness.
“Students, get to the library NOW!”
He shouted into his walkie-talkie. “I need an ambulance in room 318.”
Twenty-five students shuffled to retrieve their belongings, all except Dottie. “Is she going to be okay Principal Pearson,” she asked?
“I sure hope so, Dottie.”
She stilled herself at the entrance. The smell of puberty musk, Bath & Body Works perfume spray and hot Cheetos suddenly made her nauseous. She ignored Mr. Pearson’s instructions and pressed herself against the cement walls in the hallway.
Dottie watched as three paramedics came barreling through the hall with a gurney in tow. Principal Pearson was pounding on Ms. Alexander’s chest. One paramedic pushed him to the side where he remained as they took the graying woman’s vitals and wheeled her away. On the gurney. Then, she made the call.
“Mama,” she began to cry.
A muffled voice on the other end of the phone told her to wait downstairs until she arrived. She was coming to take her home. Dottie bounced down the stairwell so fast she failed to notice the contents of her backpack falling on the steps. She made it to the bottom in time to see them hoisting Ms. Alexander’s body into the ambulance. Bang. Bang. The doors of the emergency vehicle slammed shut and sirens began to blare. Dottie slid to the floor. Ring. Ring. Ring. Passing period. Students shouted in the hallways as they enjoyed their five minutes of freedom before the next class.
Upstairs, a white eighth-grade student reached for a book on the fourth step. He read the title – The 1619 Project. He placed it into his backpack and walked away.