Chester Parker: Connecting–or Not–In a Time of Desegregation

By Storyteller Priscilla Howe

Story Summary

An African-American boy named Chester Parker helped Priscilla Howe feel less afraid in first grade. When their paths crossed years later, she missed the chance to connect with him again.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:   Chester Parker-Connecting–or Not–In a Time of Desegregation

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you remember the first time you were in an unfamiliar place with diverse groups of people? Did you feel scared, shy and out of place? Did anybody help you feel more included, or did you help anybody else feel more included?
  2. How do you feel when friends or family tease you?
  3. Have you ever missed a chance to make a real connection? What do you think Priscilla could have done differently? How do you think this experience changed her?

Resources:

Themes:

  • Education and Life Lessons
  • Family and Childhood

Full Transcript:

My name is Priscilla Howe and this story is called Chester Parker.

I was bused across town to my first day of first grade, in 1967, in Providence, Rhode Island. I went with my big sister, Deb, and she held my hand as we walked into the brand-new school. We went into the big, white room called the cafeteria. I’d never heard that word before. And it was full of kids. There were white kids and black kids, and kids who spoke Portuguese, the kids were from the Azores. And there were kids everywhere and they were all really excited. And I was scared and I was shy and I felt out of place. The teachers were calling off names from long lists. Deb heard her name called and she went off to her class. And I heard my name called but I was scared, so I didn’t answer. I just stood there and I waited ’til they gathered us all up, and took us to our classrooms.

In my classroom, in first grade, there was a boy named Chester Parker. Chester Parker. He was he was a wiry, black boy with big teeth, big teeth. He, he was funny. He was smart. He was curious. He was a bad boy. Not a bad, bad boy, just a clown. He was always talking. We were supposed to be quiet. And oh, but you know, he would do things like they’d give us paste on pieces of, little squares of paper. And well, we all ate that paste, tasted like spearmint, and and, he, he put his on his chin like a beard.

And one day, one day, Chester Parker went around to everyone in the class and said, “Is jackass a swear? Is jackass a swear? Is jackass a swear?”

And when it came to me I said, no. Because I didn’t know what a jackass was and I didn’t know what a swear was either. He, he noticed me. I wasn’t invisible. And that one day, in line on the way to the lavatory, I never heard that word before either, Chester Parker kissed me…on the cheek. And I liked him. I liked him. I talked about him.

At home, I talked about what he’d done the day before, what he did that day, what he might do the next day. Oh, and that was a mistake. Not because he was black, no, because he was a boy. It was automatic. My brothers and sisters started in, “Priscilla and Chester Parker sitting in a tree.  K-I-S-S-I-N-G.”

It would make me so mad! How they teased me. They teased me. I walk into a room and my brother, Tommy, would say, “Chester Parker.”  Oooo! In fact, Tommy teased me about Chester Parker for a long time. Longer than Chester Parker was even in my life, ’cause he moved to another school.

After quite a while, my brothers and sister stop teasing me about Chester Parker. And I forgot about him until the summer after sixth grade. I went to church camp, the Episcopal Church Camp. And I was still scared. And I was still shy. Still felt out of place, a lot. And I was in the dining hall with a bunch of kids. I was kind of on the edge of this group of kids. And the door opened, and a big, big group of kids came in. They weren’t from our camp. They were kids who had been bused in just for the day, for the morning, and then lunch. I guess to give them a, a break from their lives in the projects, in Providence, And I looked up, and in that in that group of kids, there he was. Chester Parker. I recognize those teeth anywhere.

I ate my lunch and I kept kind of looking at him out of the corner of my eye. I wanted to go up and say, “Hey, Chester Parker, how are you? Chester Parker.” But I didn’t. I was too scared. I went outside and I waited outside, outside, the door of the dining hall. And after a bit, that group of kids came out. They had to go back home. And they walked right past me. Chester Parker looked at me. He looked me right in the eye. I don’t know, maybe he knew me.

They got on, they got on their bus. I watched that bus go down the dusty road. And I wished.  I wished I’d said something. I wished I’d said, “Chester Parker.” I wished I had made a connection with him, across that time. A connection across all of those lines of time and race and class and group. And I don’t know why I didn’t. Wish I had. Because I remembered that curious boy, who helped me feel not quite so shy, not quite so scared, not quite so out of place. Those years ago, that boy, that curious boy who asked that puzzling question, “Is jackass a swear?”

Arriving in Bulgaria: Overturning Assumptions in the Communist Era

By Storyteller Priscilla Howe

Story Summary

When Priscilla Howe traveled to Communist Bulgaria in the 1980s, she found herself in a difficult situation. She found help from a Bulgarian man who reminded her to look beyond appearances.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Arriving in Bulgaria-Overturning Assumptions in the Communist Era

Discussion Questions:

  1. Can you think of a time when your assumptions about someone based on appearance were proved wrong?
  2. What do people assume about you based on what you look like? Are they right?
  3. Have you ever been helped by someone unexpected?
  4. Do you know the expression “pay it forward”? Have you ever done that?

Resources:

  • http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-feffer/remembering-the-calm-life_b_2671955.html
  • http://www.clarkhumanities.org/oralhistory/2006/1283.htm

Themes:

  • Education and Life Lessons
  • Family and Childhood
  • Living and Traveling Abroad

Full Transcript:

My name is Priscilla Howe. I was on a train pulling into Sofia, Bulgaria in 1983. I had been traveling from Belgium, all the way across Europe, to Bulgaria. It took three days and that was not just a journey of, of time but it was a journey of political systems. Because I was going to a communist country to study the language for a year.

One of the things I love about traveling is that it makes you challenge your assumptions about who people are by… based on what they look like. So that’s what happened on this trip. I was on this train. I had… when I bought my ticket, I didn’t realize that I was going to be coming into Sofia at 1:00 in the morning on a Saturday morning. I didn’t realize that.

And I was… the train was pulling into the station and this guy was talking to me. He had a gold tooth and rumpled clothes and he was old. I mean he was at least 35. And he was a little more curious about me than I was comfortable with. He was talking to me in German because I looked German, but I’m not. And I was talking to him in my best Bulgarian, which was not very much at all but I did understand him. His name was Roman. I understood that he said that his name was Roman. And I understood him when he said, “You have nowhere to go. Come home with me.”

And I was exhausted. I’d been on that train for so long. I stood up for eight hours going through Yugoslavia because there was no space to sit down. I was exhausted and so, I said, “Yes.”

I went with him. I had all of my belongings for a year in the cab. We put them in the trunk. All the way to his apartment, I was thinking, “Oh. Crap, crap, crap. What am I going to do? What am I going to do? What am I going to do? I can’t jump out. All my stuff for the year is in the back of this cab. I can’t jump out.”

We went to Lyulin, which is a housing development that has 10,000 people. And every building looked like every other building. There were huge cement block buildings. We got out of the cab. Roman took one of my bags and I took my other bags. And I walked next to him up to the apartments. We went inside. We went up the elevator. And I was trying to remember my 10th grade personal self-defense classes. I was trying to remember if I had anything that could possibly be a weapon if I needed it. We went up to the door of his apartment and rather than taking out his keys, he rang the doorbell. He rang the doorbell! Somebody else was there. His wife opened the door.

His two kids got out of bed. His father got out of bed. And we all sat up and ate stew and bread for quite a while after that. Oh, you need to know this was dangerous for them. In a communist country at that time, that they were not allowed to have Americans stay in their apartments without, without proper permission. I was supposed to be registered with the police every night I was in the country. If they’d been caught, Roman and his family, Roman could have been fined and maybe he would have gone to jail.

Well, it was a Saturday morning, early in the morning. They insisted that I stay until Monday morning. That was dangerous for them. But we hid my bags so that the neighbors wouldn’t rat us out. And on Monday morning, he helped me find out… find where I needed to go. He showed me how to use the, the bus and the tram, the trolley. Showed me where to change, change money. He helped me find out where I had to go. And he and his wife had invited me back to come visit any time.

So, my first impression of him, which was he was kind of questionable. I was wrong. Roman, Roman was the first person to welcome me to Bulgaria on that trip and such a kind man. Such a kind welcome I received. So, I love the way that travel can turn your assumptions about how people are based on how they look, can turn those assumptions upside down.