By Nadine Defensor
There are many who pursue a bachelor’s degree in Education and some who go on to receive a teaching certificate. However, to become a devoted and passionate educator, who would make a profound difference in a child’s life is a completely different route to take. It takes commitment, dedication and patience to see a child grow to his or her fullest potential.
Carrie Owens is one of those exceptional educators who worked tirelessly on a life-long effort to help improve the lives of her students, even when she faced certain hardships herself.
Born in West Palm Beach, Florida on April 29, 1936, she was part of a brood of 9 children, including 1 half brother from her father’s side. She grew up on the segregated side of town, where Negro children would commute 40 miles to attend the only colored school in the area. They could not go to public libraries or pools. Regardless, she remembers having a very happy childhood as she was always surrounded by family and friends.
Carrie, however, was a very sickly child during her elementary school years. After first grade, she had double pneumonia, which held her back from second to fourth grades.
“Colored people were not supposed go to the hospital, but for some reason the doctor told them that they had to admit and treat me. I received 23 shots of penicillin during my 10 day stay,” she recalls, helping her to become immune to childhood diseases. When she was 10 years old, she was sent to Ephesus Seventh-Day Adventist Church School, a two-room school that separated children from grades 1-4 in one room and grades 5-8 in the other. Determined to make up for her lost years of being sick, Carrie caught up and was placed in her regular fifth grade class. While she was recuperating for 2 years, she still studied at home with her two older sisters.
At age 10, when Carrie returned to school she was in the second grade and in two weeks she had tested into the third grade. She also tested out of the fourth grade. In six weeks, she swept through three grades. She also graduated as valedictorian of her 8th grade class in junior high school.
Tragedy struck her family when her mother, Hattie Mae, passed away in 1949 at 39 years old from breast cancer a month before she turned 13. Yet, she saw the positive influence that her mother left on the family. Carrie says that her mother was a dynamic woman and taught her so much about herself, even at a young age.
“She has always been alive in my life. My mother taught me about having faith in God and seeing everyone equally and fairly,” said Carrie.
She added that her mother’s teachings helped shape her perspective on children’s education as an instructor, later in her life.
She attended Roosevelt High School in West Palm Beach Florida in 1949 and reconnected with most of her friends from public school. She graduated in 1954 along with 104 classmates. In 2009, she attended her 55th high school reunion.
In 1954, she attended Florida Memorial College in St. Augustine, Florida on scholarship, where she majored in elementary education and minored in secondary social studies and English. As a very outgoing person who loved talking and entertaining people, she dreamed of becoming a commercial airline pilot or musical performer, but she said that God had other plans for her.
Carrie said, “In those days, Negroes could not be flight attendants or engineers. Although the whites did not have high expectations of us and most thought Negro men should be in jail. Our families and teachers had high expectations of us. I was in plays in high school and college but we could not even imagine having an integrated cast. We succeeded despite the challenges.”
She always knew that reading was the key to knowledge, she was determined to help children achieve this skill as well as learning how to do arithmetic.
“I knew that every child could learn something and it was my job to find out what that “something” was and to teach him or her,” she explained. That ideal became her deciding factor on why she chose to pursue a career in teaching.
The Teaching Years
After graduating from college in 1958, she went back to her hometown in West Palm Beach and taught at Roosevelt Elementary School.
At that time, schools were still segregated and the South was facing racial struggles and tensions.
Carrie recalls that despite having “separate but equal” public facilities and accommodations between races, it never remained equal. She described that though segregated schools had buildings they did not have adequate equipment and textbooks.
“The Negro schools received dirty, torn, and written in books from the white schools that were 7-year-old hand me downs, while the white schools received new books and equipment from the district,” Carrie lamented.
Carrie took a lot of risks for her students in order to educate them properly and fairly. For one, she did not allow her students to use the hand me downs from the white schools but instead, facilitated her students in writing their own stories from their backgrounds and experiences.
“The students really enjoyed reading because they knew the authors and characters of the textbooks. They were classmates and neighbors and it was interesting to read about each other. It was an innovative way to encourage reading,” said Carrie.
During the 1950’s, Palm Beach County expected its students to take standardized tests, regardless of how much information the students were taught. There was a countywide grade level guide and all students were expected to be on the same page at the same time regardless of the individual.
Carrie saw a flaw in this system as she realized that her students learned at individual and different levels, and should only be tested on what they were taught. She took another risk and did not give her students the standardized test. She did not feel as though her students should be subjected to the possibility of failing. One of her principals thought they were going to get fired for not following the rules, she felt her students were worth it and they never got fired.
“I felt that my students had to experience success in school and see learning as fun. I provided this for them through my philosophy, style and method of teaching” she adds.
It was impossible to escape the growing racial tensions in the nation, especially in the South, where it remained the most visible. Carrie describes growing up segregated and oppressed as a “very devastating experience” for her and her family, but she was taught to cope with this by “loving everybody if we wanted to be saved”, which means “to go to heaven”.
She recalls having bitter feelings when she saw older Negroes or those with babies give up their seats in back of the bus and stand in order for young white people to sit down, which seemed as if they did not have any conscience.
“Most people who have not lived through segregation do not know that when the bus was full, we even had to give up our seats in the back of the bus. I had to stand for almost 3 hours once. Sitting in the front was not even an option or thought about. The signs were clear ‘Whites seated from the front, Negroes seated from the back’. We knew not to even try to sit in the front or we would be beaten, jailed or worse,” said Carrie.
When Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated, she felt some of her dreams and hopes were shattered. To Carrie these men represented fundamental change for people, like herself. However, when she was given the opportunity to finally vote, it was a monumental moment in her life.
In the 1960’s very few Negroes in the South were allowed to vote. Southern states used economic coercion to stop them from registering to vote. Literacy tests and physical aggression were also tactics used by whites in an effort to stop Negroes from voted. The state legal system supported these practices, leaving Negroes and other minority groups with few opportunities or resources to challenge discrimination in voting. Public protests, demonstrations and voter registration drives were organized by civil rights leaders but they met intense and violent resistance from local authorities.
Moving to Michigan in 1964, was a turning point in her life as it gave her more freedom to exercise her teaching methods. Carrie was the first Negro teacher hired into the Okemos School District. When interviewing for a teaching position at Cornell Elementary School in Okemos, she emphasized that she wanted to work individually with her students since all students learn at different rates. Keeping her promise, she worked independently with each student, allowing them to reach their highest potential in basic educational skills at their own individual pace.
The success of her teaching methods in a “traditional classroom setting” with 25-30 students excited her principal into asking her to teach in a “transition room” which placed 15 students in her class from age 7 to 10 years old who had experienced limited success in school.
With her tireless dedication, she made sure that each of her students progressed to grade level and successfully accomplished reaching their grade reading level. Parents became interested in her philosophy of teaching and many moved to Okemos, so their children could be in her class.
Her perseverance and making a difference in a child’s educational career grabbed the attention of a child psychologist at Ingham Intermediate School District, who praised her teaching style as being more effective than special education classrooms. She reveals that at the time, she did not know anything about special education, but just enjoyed working with students and seeing them succeed. Carrie kept motivated and confident with her abilities that she was not frightened about her lack of knowledge but determined to conquer any obstacles that may have presented themselves.
In 1969, she then became a teacher consultant at Ingham Intermediate School District (IISD).
Carrie said, “I taught teachers how they could adapt, change and modify the curriculum to each individual student’s level.”
In addition, she became a part-time adjunct professor at Michigan State University (MSU) in elementary and special education departments, while getting her K-12 certification in special education at the same time. In 1984, after being retired for a year from IISD and MSU, she taught a number of special education, elementary and secondary education, psychology and leadership courses at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan before finally retiring in 2001. She still supervised teachers who were getting endorsements to teach students with autistic and emotional impairment and learning disabilities for 10 more years.
Carrie credits her family, extended family and God for being the most influential factors in her life. She is grateful for her forefathers who died for her freedom, equality and justice to pave way for the opportunities given to her.
Over the years, faith has also allowed her to overcome the tough periods of her life, especially when she was discriminated against for being a minority teacher. Yet she continues to help people of all ages, races, colors and creeds to the extent that she can.
She is thankful to her students for teaching her that they are such caring human beings with unlimited potential. She feels rewarded when she receives calls from her former students to say that they have become educators themselves. Carrie’s former students remind her that due to the difference she has made in their lives, she hopes they do the same for others.
It is no wonder that Carrie L. Owens was destined to be educator, as her influence and passion has inspired many. Her greatest achievements in life includes to have touched so many lives and taught thousands of teachers. Yet, she expects nothing in return. And if all of us can have a little Carrie L. Owens optimism in our lives, then we will surely go a long way.
Editor’s Note: Carrie Owens was adamant about using the word “Negro” as it was used during the 1950’s and 1960’s. Rina Risper contributed to this article.
This was printed in the July 1, 2012 – July 14, 2012 Edition