A conversation with Vanessa James, retired Marietta City Schools teacher

Vanessa James in Marietta High polo shirt

By Arielle Robinson

Vanessa James is a retired Marietta City Schools math teacher. She taught within the school district for 32 years, her entire career.

She grew up in Marietta and then proceeded to work at Marietta Middle School from 1977 through 1987. From 1988 through 2009, she taught at Marietta High School. She then spent her final years from 2010 through 2011 at Park Street Elementary.

In a phone conversation with the Courier in September, James discussed her time as a teacher, recalling the experiences that shaped her as a teacher and as a person.

What made you want to teach math?

“Everybody says it’s because of my dad,” James said. “My dad was brilliant, he really was a brilliant man. But his major was social studies and his minor was math. My major was math with a concentration in computer science.”

James said her math teacher growing up was Jeanie Carter.

Carter “taught at Marietta’s Lemon Street Elementary School, Wright Street School, and Hickory Hills Elementary, where she was the first Black teacher on staff,” according to a Kennesaw State University archives site where an interview with Carter can be found.

James said Carter was a “really good” teacher.

“I think [she’s] where I got my mannerisms from, because I used to say she was mean—but she just demanded stuff,” James said. “As I got older I understood it was demanding, not mean.”

James said that as a young girl, she would always play pretend school.

“I wanted to be a boss,” she joked.

Before she started teaching, she had an interview with Lockheed Martin, where her father worked.

“But they work too much,” James said. “I told my dad I need to be around children, I need to give back to where I came from. And I know how I felt when I didn’t see anybody like me teaching me, that could really understand and help me when I say I don’t understand.

“I knew I needed to find a way to break it down to my people in a way that can help them, because most kids hate math—they absolutely hate it. So I’m like, ‘you like to play and you like to eat, they like to play and most of the time they’re hungry,’ so we would do math and play games with M&Ms.

“…I tried to find ways that would make [students] see math in the world. And I taught all my babies how to do their own income taxes. If they had a job, we came after school and we did our own taxes, and they loved it.”

Being a Black student in Marietta

James grew up in Marietta and attended Marietta City Schools.

When she was growing up, racial segregation was still legal and she attended Lemon Street Grammar School, which was for Black students.

Black Marietta residents during the Jim Crow era had two schools—the aforementioned grammar school and Lemon Street High School.

Although the 1954 Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education ruled racially segregated schools unconstitutional, many southern states, counties, and cities chose not to abide by the decision at first and prevented integration.

Facing pressure from civil rights activists as well as the federal government, all schools within the Cobb County School District and Marietta City Schools were formally integrated by 1967.

Marietta’s Board of Education closed both Lemon Street schools after integration.

James said she did not attend kindergarten and did not remember if it existed at the time. She started at Lemon Street Grammar School in the first grade.

“They had a morning class session and an evening class,” James said. “Now, I’m in the first grade, and I remember I didn’t go to school until noon. What first grader goes to school at noon? I was in school like from noon to five in the first grade.”

James was eventually sent to an integrated school, and that was when she realized that Black schools were given inadequate supplies for teaching and learning.

“I realized that the books I was using when I was at Lemon Street, the Black school, were the knockoff books that the white schools had sent to the Black school,” James said. “So we were using hand-me-down stuff. And I was accustomed to all Black teachers, then they integrated and I had all white teachers.

“[At the integrated school] I had enough sense to know that I was not up to par, whereas in the Black school, I was top-notch. But when we integrated, I was behind. And it’s because they’re giving you the books they’re [white schools] through with.”

James expanded a bit on what it was like to be Black in the Deep South during Jim Crow. She said she was grateful that she did not have to experience the entirety of Jim Crow life.

“I told my parents if I was born back in those days I would be killed,” James said. “We went on a vacation and we were in Mississippi, and I wanted some water and [the fountains] said ‘colored fountain’ and ‘white fountain.’ Well, the colored fountain was dirty, so I was getting water out the white fountain.

“I thought my dad was about to kill me, he said, ‘do you know that they will hang you and there’s nothing I can do?’ And I’m like, ‘why? They need to clean that fountain, I don’t want to drink that nasty water.’ Daddy said, ‘get your behind in the car and do not get out.’

“And I also remember the movie theater. I didn’t get to go often, but when I did, the Black people had to go in in the side. The seats were all raggedy, and we were upstairs in the back. And the white people, whoever else, went in the front door. And we paid a quarter, I don’t know how much they paid. But now I’m looking and the side door is locked. Everybody goes in the front door. I tell my son, y’all just don’t know what we went through. And I can’t imagine what my parents went through—that was worse than me.”

James graduated from Marietta High School.

She noticed that when she went back to teach there years later, some of the teachers she had when she attended were still teaching there. James described seeing those teachers and then working alongside them as “funny and a good experience.”

James said that when she first started teaching, there were a handful of Black teachers.

As the years and decades went by, she said that she saw more Black teachers in schools but not in the major subject areas like math, social studies, English, or science. Black teachers were often hired for physical education classes or to be team coaches.

In Marietta, James said she did not see many Black women teaching in STEM.

What did you learn over your 30+ years of teaching?

“I can only speak for me, but I got bolder and wiser,” James said. “I learned that depending on who’s in your class, what position you have, you have to learn how to play the game.”

She said that she sometimes had to deal with difficult parents who could not accept when their child needed improvement.

With regard to difficult parents, she said, “You’re trying to help their kids learn what they need to learn to get out there in the real world, they don’t see that. They see, ‘she’s always made A’s, she gets you and she’s not making the A. What’s wrong with you?’ Not what’s wrong with the child, or why the child didn’t study to pass the test.

“…[Some parents would say] ‘you’re messing up the GPA, she’s trying to go to UGA,’ I’m like, ‘what about she needs to know the knowledge?’ And then they’re like ‘well you didn’t teach it.’ I said, ‘well what about the answers that were on the board and are still on the board?’”

James said her father told her to keep a journal and to take note of the good, the bad, and everything in between.

“I don’t think I was right all the time, because I was wrong sometimes, too, but that was in my diary,” James said. “…sometimes you need to be the better person. But sometimes you can only let them down you so much, and you got to defend yourself.”

James said that white parents in particular gave her a harder time and questioned her skills more, especially if said parents were wealthier and could afford to give gifts to certain teachers who they were friendlier with.

“I got in trouble a lot, I really did,” James said. “But I’m telling you, when you can back it with writing and say, ‘on January 1st at 2:30 p.m. this is what happened’ instead of ‘I think,’ you’re going to go a long way.

“That’s what I ingrained in those Black children’s heads in my classroom—document. Document me! I’m not going to be always right, I’m not Jesus Christ, document!”

James said that a lot of her trouble stemmed from defending her students.

“I also told [my students], because I knew there was a strain of stuff going on that I did not like, ‘listen, if you get in trouble, you need to come to me first. Come to me, ask your teachers can you come to me’—and most of the white teachers don’t let the Black kids come anyway because they want to get rid of them—I said, ‘but you need to tell me the truth. Let me deal with the adults because you don’t need to deal with them, but you better be telling me the truth,’” James said.

As a teacher, James prioritized getting to know her students.

One of the ways James has gotten to know her students has been through index cards.

“I would say, ‘it’s one of me, and it’s 18 of you. So let me tell you my likes and my dislikes…’ And they looked at me like, ‘yeah, right.’ Then I gave them three index cards and I said, ‘tell me your likes, your dislikes, if you get in trouble how you want me to handle you’…And I read every single one of them, they were shocked,” James said.

James also encouraged white teachers to get to know their Black students more, especially those from poor and working-class backgrounds.

“One of the principals that we had at the beginning of school got several school buses,” James said. “And we went in different directions as to where the kids lived. And he made sure that most of the white teachers went to the ghetto so they could see these kids living in houses with half a door, no food, whatever. Some of us actually visited the homes. I enjoyed that, and it opened up a lot of the white teachers’ eyes to how these kids were living.”

James said she told that principal, “if you get to know these kids, they may be bad, but if you get to know them, and they know that you really know them, you’re going to see a change in their attitude. You really will.”

In her time teaching, James taught summer school every year and did credit recovery after school. She said she noticed that many students were hungry.

After James continually pressed the principal on it, the principal eventually provided James with a budget—which she was explicitly told not to go over.

“I told the principal I cannot stay in this classroom after school with these children that are hungry,” she said. “…I knew the school had a charge card and I knew the bookkeeper well, so I got the charge card, went across the street to Kroger, ordered sub sandwiches, had them to cut them up, bought chips, and got drinks. They had 20 minutes before class to eat.

“What I saw in my classroom, the kids that wanted to be problems—it was because they didn’t have any food…they’re hungry, and we’re staying after school until 6 o’clock at night—they got to eat. I don’t know if they were eating at home, probably not, but they were going to eat with me, because I’m like, I cannot sit in here in front of a computer with these children and I hear their stomach growling.”

One year during summer school around the Fourth of July, James had a barbecue for her students.

“Who in their right mind has summer school on the Fourth of July? I called the store and ordered ribs. I said if we have to go we’re going to have barbecue. So I called and we had ribs, potato salad, baked beans, bread, and a drink. That principal I thought was going to kill me. He was laughing, saying ‘you know what, you’re really pushing it aren’t you?’ I said ‘we had to come on the Fourth of July and we had to stay until three o’clock and my family was through, so I needed something for a barbecue too.’ We had the best time. Now summer school is set up that it’s over before the Fourth of July,” James said.

Overall, James said that simply listening to students helps, especially with those who are more difficult.

“Those [index] cards were my best weapon,” she said. “They really worked. I asked…your name, your mom’s or your dad’s [name], wherever you’re staying at, and a phone number. And I ask do you feel safe at home?

“And every single one would be like, ‘why do you ask if I feel safe at home?’ I said, ‘well, some kids go home alone, some kids go home and there’s no food. How can I expect you to do my homework if you’re already hungry?’

“Some kids go home and don’t see their parents, they work at night. Some of them, we just don’t know where they are. Some kids are in environments where the parents are on drugs or alcoholics, whatever. I said I’m understanding. I tell them, I grew up in the projects, my mom and dad divorced when I was young, my dad was a weekend alcoholic…

“[The students] could relate to stuff, and they were shocked, a lot of kids are shocked, so sometimes it’s just opening up.”

James said she was open with her students when she was having a bad day, and they also informed her of when they were having bad days and to not call on them. The index cards helped her to remember if a student was having a bad day.

Because she’s been in Marietta for so long, James has come to know the parents, grandparents, and other family members of students she has had.

“I truly had an advantage because I went to school there,” James said. “And if I didn’t, I knew somebody in their family. I knew somebody and everybody’s family Black that I taught. And once I started working with cheerleaders, I got to know some of the upper-class white people.”

James, while acknowledging the positive aspects, also said she believes there is too much technology in schools today. That was another adjustment she had to make as technology advanced throughout her time.

“I’m old school,” she said. “I want to stand up there and use my chalkboard and show you. I need to know why, who, what, when, where, and how…Whereas [now] just get on the internet and it will tell you the answer and you’re good. Copy and paste—finished.”

James also said she had to learn to be more nurturing with elementary schoolers.

“The elementary kids are very loving—snotty nose and all,” James said. “One got in my lap and was hugging on me and peed on me, I’m like, ‘oh my God.’ They don’t necessarily say I’m sorry, but they will hug you.”

Do you find that as a teacher, you had to take on additional roles on top of teaching, such as acting like a caregiver?

James answered yes to the question. She said that she once got in trouble and feared losing her teaching certificate because of the following situation.

“I was doing credit recovery and some of the kids had babies,” James said. “They couldn’t come to school and in credit recovery, if you missed so many days you were kicked out. They couldn’t come to school because they didn’t have a babysitter…So I didn’t ask permission, I just [told students] because the school was open on Saturdays and some Sundays just bring the baby and come on Saturdays, I’ll help you.

“Well, a teacher was in the building, and I knew who the teacher was, and she saw me with those children and she told on me. I got called to the office…I got in trouble for coming on Saturdays and some Sundays. I [told the office], ‘I didn’t ask y’all for one penny, I’m not asking anybody to pay me, I’m here for these kids. I keep telling you all, these kids can get my last dollar…It’s my time. What’s the problem?’

“[They responded] ‘well, it’s a matter of security.’ [I said] ‘well, the building was already open, and we made sure we were out before whoever [like maintenance] was in the building left’—I just didn’t understand. The kids found out that I got in trouble, and they said, ‘Miss James,’ I said, ‘you just let me deal with adults, I’m not going to stop helping you.’

“[The students said] ‘Miss James, you’re going to lose your teaching job.’ I said, ‘it’ll be okay, somebody will hire me somewhere doing something.’ All of a sudden, the principal was not there [anymore]. I’m like, see how God moved that man right out our way?… I don’t know what happened to this day.”

James said that her doing those weekend sessions allowed some students to complete credit recovery and graduate.

She went beyond math when it came to helping those students.

“It was…math, science, English, I think it was just those three subjects,” she said. “I had a good rapport with the science teacher and English teacher. I would tell the kids, ‘if you come in for science and English, that’s fine, but don’t expect me to help you. Now we can probably sit down and try to figure it out, it might take us five hours to figure it out.’

“I finally got the science teacher, I said, ‘can we lock you down for an hour so that we can call you?’ And he said yes. So I told [my students], ‘y’all better write everything down, we got one hour.’ English, we could figure it out.”

Despite certain children being able to get free lunch, some parents did not fill out the forms. Sometimes James would pay out of her salary for students’ meals in the cafeteria if necessary.

“I went to the cafeteria workers and I said, ‘look, if any of these kids come down and use my name, please feed them,’” James said. “‘Just tell me at the end of the month’—because we got paid once a month— ‘how much I owe, and I’ll pay it. No questions asked.’

“I announced to my classes so that everybody could hear, ‘I don’t want you hungry. When you go to lunch, if you don’t have a lunch, you don’t have any money, just tell the cafeteria lady Miss James and they’re going to take care of you.’ I said, ‘now, don’t be trying to drain me. But yeah, they’re going to take care of you.’ And a few of them did [get lunch under my name].

“I know the year before I retired, I went to Park Street. And the cafeteria people didn’t know I wasn’t in the building, so at the end of that school year, they call me and they said, ‘well, we hear you’re retiring,’ I said, ‘I am.’ They said ‘well, you got a bill of $138 and something.’”

James paid the bill.

One of the cafeteria workers told James, “You’re a good person.”

James replied, “No, I just don’t like children hungry. I’d rather feed them and I go hungry, I don’t want them hungry.”

Do you think it is important for Black students to have a teacher that looks like them?

James said it depended on the circumstances.

A 2020 Brookings study reported that generally speaking, there is racial bias among many educators in the United States, with educators holding “slight pro-white/anti-Black implicit bias.” The same study reported that teachers of color on average ranked lower than white teachers when it came to anti-Black bias and Black teachers showed the smallest amount of anti-Black bias.

“Some kids need a Black teacher because they understand them and they can get down on their level without messing up their integrity or hurting their feelings,” James said.

James said some students thought white teachers were better educated and gravitated toward them.

“There are some brilliant white teachers,” James said. “But there are some brilliant Black teachers, too. And a lot of kids are thinking, ‘I need Dr. Willard because she has a doctor in front of her name instead of Miss James because she doesn’t have a doctor.’”

James pushed back on this kind of thinking.

“Well, Dr. Willard may not know what Miss James knows,” James said.

James said parents have contacted her in the past with the hopes of their child having a Black teacher, which she had no control over.

James said that she would want her child to have a variety of teachers across different races.

“I wouldn’t want all Black and I wouldn’t want all white [teachers] because Black teachers can give you some culture that the white teachers can’t, and the white teachers can give you some culture that the Black teachers can’t,” James said.

James said she always thinks there should be more Black teachers.

She said she thinks many people, regardless of race, are shying away from becoming teachers because of safety issues, such as guns and fights in schools, but also because of the lack of support from school administration.

What were some of the most rewarding experiences of being a teacher?

“Graduation, graduation,” James said. “Or passing a child that ain’t never passed a math test in his life…just the light in the students’ eyes when they feel they’ve accomplished something.”

In addition to teaching, what has been some other work you have done for others in the local community?

“One of my favorite things was Cobb Christmas,” James said.

Cobb Christmas is a non-profit organization that helps low-income and working-poor families in the county receive food and toys for the holiday season.

James knew what it was like to be in need as a child during the holiday season, so when she became older she wanted to help other children who were unsure if they would get anything for Christmas.

One of the places the organization collects goods from is the different schools around Marietta.

James said she ran the Marietta school district’s program in support of getting donations for Cobb Christmas.

“I told every elementary school, ‘alright, can y’all get canned corn, canned whatever whatever,’” she said. “I gave every school something different to donate if they could. Then the high school, since we were the biggest, we had clubs. So I told the clubs, ‘okay, we need this, this, this,’ so it was broken down so that when it got to the site where they were delivering, we didn’t have to sort or anything because if it came from Marietta city, the boxes were labeled. If it said ‘corn’ then everything in that box was corn.”

James said that with the permission of their parents and the school, she had some of the cheerleading students she worked with become involved with donations for Cobb Christmas.

“I got the kids involved, and they in turn got their parents involved, I’m like ‘oh my God’ it just turned into so much,” James said.

When James saw that 17 and 18-year-olds were not included in the groups of children who can receive gifts, she pushed for this age group to be included as well. She thought of giving them gift cards.

Through working with other teachers and a local shoe store, James was able to make it so that 17 and 18-year-olds in the schools could receive a pair of shoes and a gift card each around Christmas.

“I was so excited, they [the students] were so excited,” James said.

James said some of the former cheerleaders she worked with still do Cobb Christmas, and some are even doing it with their own children now. She said some cheerleaders have reached out to her asking if she wanted to join them, to which she was excited to hear about and still join.

Since retiring, James has done a lot of work with her church and has worked the gate at Marietta High School’s homecoming game.

If you could tell your younger self who was just starting out teaching something what would it be?

“To stand up for yourself,” James said. “When I first started teaching, I cried all the time. Because I was raised that when an adult tells you something—that’s it.”

James said her father was one of the people who encouraged her to stand up for herself in the face of fellow adults, like those she worked with in the school system.

“The first two years of my teaching, I was shy, believe it or not,” James said. “I was shy, and my mentor used to tell me all the time… ‘Vanessa? Is that the truth? Is that the way it happened? If that’s not the way it happened then you need to straighten it out, do not let them let you feel like you did something wrong when you didn’t. Speak up for yourself.’

“She used to say that all the time, my dad too. I wish I had come with that knowledge in my head in the beginning—not to be disrespectful, but to just say, ‘no, that’s not the way it was.’”

What message do you have for teachers today?

“Teachers—I hope they’re in it for the job, for the students, for the teaching—not for the money,” James said. “And be true to yourself and be honest. You have a lot of teachers that were not honest because they knew they would get in trouble so they’d tell a lie to get out of it. Document your stuff—that was the…best thing I could have done because it sure did come in handy.”

Arielle Robinson is a student at Kennesaw State University. She also freelances for the Atlanta-Journal Constitution and is the former president of KSU’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists as well as a former CNN intern. She enjoys music, reading, and live shows.