Friday, January 05, 2007

Fly High!

On my bedroom wall I have a framed card given to me by my brother and sister-in-law. It is a lovely Chinese-style watercolor of a lily with the words: “Those who say it can not be done should not interrupt those who are doing it”. I find that encouraging, since I am often in the midst of struggling to do something that good counselors have told me was un-doable. Somehow or other, by the grace of God, the worthwhile things I have insisted on trying have pretty much worked out successfully. I guess that is why women like Bessie Coleman are my heroes.

Fly High! The Story of Bessie Coleman by Louise Borden and Mary Kay Kroeger, illustrated by Teresa Flavin.

Bessie Coleman was born in Texas in 1892. Although her family was poor and they lived under the heavy, brutal oppression of racism, she managed to get a good enough education to inspire her to be somebody when she grew up. Her mother, who was the daughter of Georgia slaves, saved up her ironing money to rent books for Bessie to read from the traveling library wagon. Bessie walked four miles back and forth to the wooden shack of a school house for Black children. She had to pick cotton and work the fields when it was needed. Her father, who was mixed race Indian and Black, left the family of his wife and ten children and went to Oklahoma when Bessie was nine. She continued to work hard as she grew, picking cotton and helping her mother with the laundry business. She attended school when she was able and read everything she could get her hands on.

As a young adult she made her way to Chicago where her older brothers lived. She found a job as a manicurist in a barber shop. Listening to the stories there of WWI she learned of the pilots flying over Europe and became determined to become a pilot herself. Everyone told her that could not be done. Women, especially African American women, would never learn to fly. But in France, women learned to fly. Bessie decided to go to France. She worked for years, saving her money and studying French, dreaming of becoming a pilot. Finally, in 1920 she sailed for France. She was 28 years old. She found a flight school run by women and worked and studied and learned to fly. She became a pilot and began to fly in air shows on both sides of the Atlantic. Now her dream was to open a flight school. She traveled to air shows and drew huge crowds. She loved to tell people “You can be somebody; You can fly high, just like me.” She still had money troubles and had to borrow planes to fly. When she had a bad crash in California she was in the hospital for three months and couldn’t fly for a year. But she didn’t give up. She began to travel the country visiting African American schools and telling her story to inspire more children to work for their dreams. In 1926, when she was 34 years old she was in an air show in Florida and there was a problem with the plane. She wasn’t wearing her seatbelt and when the plane went into a tail spin she fell from the plane and died. Five thousand people came to her funeral in Jacksonville, Florida. Her casket was taken to Chicago by train and thousands more lined the streets to say goodbye to her. Bessie was the first African American to earn her pilot’s license. She inspired many, many people to try to reach beyond their limitations and fly high.

I learned all this from reading this biography, written for K – third graders. The text is written simply and clearly and the message is inspirational. The artwork is warm and charmingly drawn. Although her life was often brutally hard and the obstacles to her success could be crushing, the story is told without emphasizing the harshness of the racism and sexism she struggled against. Her continual encouragement and enthusiasm is the focus of the book, making it inspiring for young readers. I read this book to my second graders every year, and I find that age to be particularly interested in flight, the drama of her struggle, and the tragedy of her death. This biography is highly recommended!

1 comment:

priscilla said...

fly high! is so inspiring i t made me think more about life and how we should treat i t. and to also be thankful for all we have. i also dedicate this to many people in my life