One of my favourite memories from elementary school is the Scholastic Book Catalogue!!! Do you remember that Catalogue? In my school we started to receive the catalogue in Grade 4. It was the first place I actually purchased books!! It was so exciting! I can remember pouring over the catalogue, reading the descriptions of all the books, and seeing how much they cost! As you can imagine, my parents had a slight cap on how much I could spend, at times bending the rules when I could not decide between titles. I filled in the order form, gave it to my teacher, and waited. Waited for the arrival of THE BOOKS!! When the day came, I would come back to my desk after recess, and there they would be – a neat little pile on my desk. Oh, my! That was thrilling!
For the most part, I still have my Scholastic books, which proudly occupy a shelf in my ‘book room’! My all time favourite Scholastic book and actually I would say it is still my all time favourite book, was and is “Mary Jane” by Dorothy Sterling. I purchased it in Grade 5. The lead character is Mary Jane Douglas, who lives in High Ridge, in the southern United States. The book is set in the early days of integration; Mary Jane is a black American – who has decided to go to what was an all white high school – Wilson High – simply because it was the best high school in town. Integration had just started and Mary Jane, and her friend Fred Jackson, were the first, and the only, black students starting at the high school, junior level.
After Mary Jane has spent the summer on her Grandfather’s farm, she returns home to find her mother talking about getting ready for high school. Mary Jane’s Mother is putting more excitement in this new year, than ever before! Mary Jane is overwhelmed by her Mother’s purchases: new clothes, shoes, school supplies, and even a new ‘big’ bed.
On the first day of school, Mary Jane and Fred are escorted by their fathers, right into the door of the school. To get to that door Mary Jane, Fred, and their fathers must go through a large crowd of white protestors – they even have a police escort. The crowd is filled with angry townspeople, neighbours, students, and parents, and is a startling experience for Mary Jane.
Mary Jane does not really understand what the problem is – she is simply starting high school! All around Mary Jane, other characters in the book, especially in the first half of the book, frequently speak about “they”: ‘they won’t like this’, ‘they have rules’, ‘what will they say’ and ‘what will they do’? This puzzles Mary Jane, who really cannot understand what the fuss is about and cannot figure out who are ‘they’?
Mary Jane faces discrimination, taunts, and physical hurts; but that does not stop her. When shunned in the lunch room, she calmly sits alone. When hurtful words and hurtful names are thrown at her – she forges ahead; learning new subjects, completing projects, she is befriended by one fellow classmate, two teachers, and eventually entering a Science Fair with trained white mice. Mary Jane even becomes part of a Junior Science Club, where she meets students who do not care about the colour of her skin – a happy experience for Mary Jane.
A typical first year high school student, Mary Jane does get mischievous, visits the science room after school is over, hides a squirrel named Furry, and hides secrets from her parents. The book ends just as the Science Fair is getting underway, and although the mice act as they were trained, whether or not Mary Jane wins a prize, is left to the reader’s imagination.
I just re-read this book about a month ago and it held my interest as much now as it did in Grade 5. I enjoy the fact that Mary Jane is a strong young girl, who accomplishes everything she puts her mind to, and my imagination sees her becoming a leader as she continues through high school, and moves forward to a career. Mary Jane’s grandfather is a retired biologist university professor, her father is a lawyer, her elder sister is a nurse, and her brother is studying to become a lawyer. Mary Jane’s great-grandmother was a slave who fought to educate herself, knew things “were better up north”, and eventually escapes the south, only returning after the Civil War. These are Mary Jane’s heros.
I love the way this book is written so easily, and flows so gently, while attacking the painful hurt of discrimination. Dorothy Sterling’s writing just draws me in – even after all these years – into Mary Jane’s life and world, and eventually I feel like I am Mary Jane, feeling all her challenges and emotions through the difficult beginning of high school, and the difficult time of forging new friendships in a world that could be peaceful, but instead is alive with racism. This book is definitely written for a grade five student back in the ‘60’s. Some of the phrases are outdated today, but the sentiments are still real. The lessons and teachings of this book contributed to the lessons and teachings I received at home from my parents. Be kind to everyone. Treat everyone the same. Treat everyone as you would like to be treated. And 45 – 50 years later the world still needs to know about Mary Jane.
It was only recently that I found out that Dorothy Sterling continued her career as a writer, completing approximately 35 books for adults, including some of the first non-fiction works about black history. The attached article was written when Dorothy Sterling died in 2008, at the age of 95. Interesting reading. I think a trip to the library is in order!
<a href=”http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/05/arts/05sterling.html” target=”_blank”></a>