Teachable Moments

04 Sep 2017

Retired English Literature teacher Shirley Murphy living most of the year in Florida speaks about her relationship with students

Shirley Murphy says she’d still be teaching English lit at Idaho Falls High School if it weren’t for all the papers to grade.

“That’s the only reason! I miss students. I don’t miss papers!” she says.

She and her husband moved to Florida after retiring in 2008, but they kept their home in Idaho Falls and come back every summer for a few weeks to get a dose of mountain air and reconnect with friends. She’s called Idaho Falls home since 1972 after growing up in Georgia, a long way geographically and culturally from this rural town in Idaho. Idaho Falls was not a particularly diverse place back then. It’s still predominantly white and Mormon.

She was Idaho Falls High School’s only African-American teacher for the four years the graduating class of 1992 was enrolled there.

“When I first got here I asked my husband what had he gotten me into because I did not see anyone who looked like me. But I saw people who acted like me. They were friendly,” she says.

The lack of exposure to African-Americans like her left people with a lot of questions and some stereotypes, too. For an example, she says, the Avon lady came to her house and said things like “Every time I come to your house it’s always clean” and “You only have two kids” and “Do you know that they are building a Kentucky Fried Chicken?”

“I knew exactly where she was coming from,” she says. “I said, ‘You know, I don’t even eat chicken.’ And I love chicken and she could not believe that I did not like chicken, that I only had two kids. She couldn’t understand.

“But you see, as opposed to becoming offended I used that time as a teaching tool,” she says.

Each year, she led an assembly around Martin Luther King Jr. Day, where the student body would gather in the gym and ask her questions about what it was like to be an African-American.

“I wanted to create a safe zone for the students to ask the question that they’ve always wanted to know regardless of whether they thought they knew the answer,” she says.

She says during multicultural week, she had a lot of white students who told her they felt left out because they didn’t have an opportunity to go and talk about their race.”

I said, ‘Excellent. I’m glad you came to talk to me about that. So if you feel that way for a week, how do you think these students feel the other weeks?’ ” she says.

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