Read & Write with Dr. Han: Educators, My First Grade Teacher Mrs. Cromarty, Seoul, Korea

Look for new posts MWF. This week, it will be posts on teachers. Audience: teachers, students, parents, educators, anyone who reads and writes…


I’m probably inviting students to roll their eyes, but I will state that even if I had a teacher who was less than inspiring, I reflect now and acknowledge there was some takeaway from that experience.

More later on Mrs. Martinez who carried a yardstick around and took the kids to the coatroom for a beating. Lesson learned there was that sometimes tension runs high in a classroom and you had just better shut up or you’ll get beaten. This was not an ideal lesson, but I suppose it has had some use in my life…


This post on Mrs. Cromarty was inspired by Steven Dunn’s social media feed asking people to comment if they had a black teacher.

I had two black teachers in my K-12 years: first grade and tenth grade. Both memorable. Mrs. Cromarty made a deep impact on my life. I am not sure if she is even alive now, or if I am spelling her name correctly, as Cromarty, may have been my childhood pronunciation of another name. Through second grade I proudly recited the Pledge of Allegiance “FOR RICHARD STANDS” instead of “For Which It Stands” figuring that Richard Nixon was the president, so Richard Stands was some other equally important fellow. Mrs. Cromarty’s name was quite long and written in black marker on a piece of heavy construction paper taped to the front of her big wooden desk. The few end letters were squished up. I’m not even sure if I am spelling the name right.


I thought about the knowledge I acquired that first grade year, or the first part of that first grade year while she was my teacher in Seoul before my family relocated back to the US. As an adult who has been an expatriate, all I can say was that she was a brave warrior woman because any non-Korean woman, and especially a black woman in 1970 Korea would have been treated, at best, as if she had descended from Mars. As an adult I would have loved to have gotten to know Mrs. Cromarty. Even now, I am impressed with her very existence.


I believe that the single lesson Mrs. Cromarty taught me about VOTING was probably one of the most important lessons that any teacher I ever had taught me. I mean, EVER. And I was in a lot of schools. I have two master’s degrees, countless workshops and programs under my belt, and a PhD. So when I state that she taught me one of the most important lessons I have ever learned–and when I was only 7 years old–well, that is saying quite a bit. I had to keep relearning it, but I feel now, decades on, I’m in the swing of what Mrs. Cromarty would be proud of.


I tried to catalog the lessons I learned in first grade. I am sure I learned certain academic skills—but the academic skills escape me and are simply too far away for me to parse. Such a recounting would never be accurate because as an educator and a parent, I know that certain skills are acquired during first grade. I have no idea if I made the mark during that time.

In no particular order, the year’s lessons (some had nothing to do with Mrs. Cromarty) boiled down to the following:

1. Make sure you have an extra set of clothes, especially underwear.

Mrs. Cromarty told everyone to bring an outfit with an extra pair of underwear to school. I did this. My mom had me bring one.

2. When someone borrows your underwear you should not ask for it back.

Sonya did not have an extra outfit. She wet her clothes. Mrs. Cromarty informed me that Sonya would be using my outfit. A few weeks later, she told me that her dad was washing the clothes and she would give the underwear back. I told Mom. Mom told me to tell Sonya not to return the underwear. So she didn’t. I got the outfit back, not the underwear.

3. Mothers may or may not have anything to do with extra underwear.

Sonya’s mother had died. There was some discussion that this was why Sonya did not have an extra pair of underwear in class. Apparently mothers were associated with ensuring the child had underwear. If your mother dies, you have no extra underwear! Who knew that this was the case! A lesson, I now see, in default gender attribution to childcare issues.

4. Sometimes treats can make you feel better.

Mrs. Cromarty had a stash of candy. This was completely exciting and there would be certain times when we might have the opportunity to earn a piece of candy. Sugar free parents, I know, this is not such a great practice, but as a kid, it’s awesome.

Confession: I was that drag of a parent who was horrified by my precious homemade squeezed orange juice non-TV watching before age 2 son getting sweets at school. Note that it’s amazing how we can lighten up about that stuff. He probably has a pile of plastic in his stomach from ramen noodles. Although I wish the food court at the mall did not have every fast food franchise in the US, I still let him eat that stuff. Plus, he loves gaming, but whatever. I digress…

5. Koreans can have wavy hair.

Like William, my true love of first grade. William, where are you?

6. Chasing can be more fun than catching.

The boys chase girls, girls chase boys game meant that usually someone was caught, but the kissing part that followed the chasing, was a somewhat uncomfortable encounter—often the chaser did not want to do the kissing after catching someone! Peer pressure ruled. You HAD to kiss the person. I know there are certain discussions now that are had to prevent this kind of thing. Before, admittedly, sometimes you really didn’t run so fast to catch the person. Yuck, who wanted to end up kissing or being kissed? Gross! For example, I did not want to kiss Victor. My best friend did. I only wanted to kiss William! Unfortunately, I never caught William. Victor was apparently OK with getting caught and kissed. William didn’t want to kiss anyone ever.

7. Don’t let anyone touch you if you don’t want him/her/they to touch you.

Russell. I am not sure what happened to Russell, and looking back I wonder, of course, about Russell’s home life. Russell frequently inappropriately touched girls when they did not want to be touched. His hands would touch your knee during story hour. He would do it even if you were not signaling you wanted to be touched.

To me, he looked really strange, mostly because he had this buzz cut, and rather large bulgy sort of green eyes. He probably ended up being quite handsome, who knows, but he seemed peculiar to me. Now if Russell was an adult and engaging in this type of behavior he would be a ‘creep’, or something more, but he was a child. He got so bad with certain girls, myself included, that Mrs. Cromarty had to tell him once during story hour: “RUSSELL. Stop bothering Stephanie, Russell! Keep your hands to yourself! No touching!”. I can see now I was unable to stop it because it was a combination of not knowing how to stop it, and being uncertain if I should say something. It was likely that I had tried to move away or say something, but he persisted. After that time Mrs. Cromarty called him out, he never did it again to me.

8. A certain kind of voting transparency can be a good thing.

There was a drawing contest: What it was for, now escapes me. But the students raised that they wanted to vote with their heads up and see. Mrs. Cromarty agreed that we could do this instead of having our hands down. The winner was going to get a chocolate candy bar. Maybe a Snickers bar from the base. I never got candy bars at home.

My idea of a wild snack was going to my dad’s lab and him popping open a can of sardines. I lived for canned fish. I loved sardines as much as those sickly sweet orange and yellow peanut shaped marshmallows.

Everyone was pleased to be able to understand something about who people might vote for and why. A good many lessons were learned. The dodgy gerrymandering and all sorts of nonsense people currently engage in is really not in anyone’s educational interest.

9. Good friends usually vote for each other over what is truly best for the group as a whole.

We were able to vote several times. The picture was supposed to represent the class on some level. It was to be the best work of such and such, and in this way, we were to all be invested in this picture. But what happened? People voted for their friends. I was shocked, I tell you. Just shocked. And probably, because I was decent at drawing at that age, I was upset to find out that it came down to friendship over skill. And this came down to even some of the worst drawings. For example, there were two boys, great friends. Neither one of them had nice drawings, as they were more of the stick figure variety. And they voted for each other and only for each other. Maybe their third wheel friend also voted for them, but really, the two drawings each got only a few votes. They didn’t care. It was about loyalty, not the drawing.

Then came the turn for my drawing and my best friend’s drawing. Ours were the two best drawings in the class. Was this friend’s name Diane? Let’s say it was Diane. She and I were neck and neck in most things, including our mutual loves for both Victor and William. I loved William and she loved Victor. Diane was half Korean with lighter brown hair and ran fast. I was full Korean with black hair and ran medium and if chased, very fast. We were both good students.

My picture was displayed. Everyone voted. I had around 16 votes. I even remember, vaguely, the number. Diane voted for me. I’m pretty sure William did. Victor was in another class. I did not vote for myself, of course. In my mind, that was inappropriate. In my mind, one did not vote for oneself. I had many votes and was fully confident of my win.

Diane’s drawing: 17 votes. She won! I voted for her too. She won by one vote because she voted for herself. I was really surprised she voted for herself and remember looking over and thinking, wow how embarrassing, how shameful that she is voting FOR HERSELF. One did not put oneself forward like that. I was confused. Diane went to the front and got the Snicker’s bar.

10. Always vote for yourself.

Mrs. Cromarty later pulled me aside: “Stephanie, you always have to vote for yourself. If you don’t vote for yourself, why would anyone vote for you? You have to vote for yourself. Always!”

It took me many years to understand the depth of the concept that she was trying to convey. Over the course of my life I have learned to vote for myself, but in many past instances, did not vote for myself in a metaphorical way. To vote for yourself is to fully believe in what you are as an individual, and the act asserts your claim to occupy a particular position. To vote for yourself is an exercise in confidence; it requires an understanding of your worth as a person. You must believe that you can do whatever task that is set before you. Too often, we fail to vote for ourselves, especially girls. Do I vote for myself now? YES. But truthfully, it took a long time to do so with a deep knowing of all that voting for oneself symbolizes and implies.


Last fall, an assignment was handed out to my 11th graders. One of the choices had to do with asserting yourself as president of the United States. Out of nearly 55 students, only one girl put herself forward and wrote a paper on her possible agenda or priority. You can imagine how many boys freely imagined themselves as President. I tried, as best as I could to channel Mrs. Cromarty in my comments to the girls, but it is unlikely I did it as well as she did.


Mahalo and warmest thanks to Mrs. Cromarty. My first black teacher. My first African American teacher. My first grade teacher. The woman warrior who was in Korea in 1970 defying everyone’s idea of place, race, and geography, the woman who first taught me, a young Korean American girl, that voting for oneself was neither rude, nor wrong, and that if I didn’t vote for myself, no one else would.

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