Me and Mr. Bridgeman: How a teacher transformed a student's life

How one Black teacher on one day helped me — a Black kid in a mostly white school — feel less alone

Lee Hawkins school photo
1979 third-grade class, Weaver Elementary School in Maplewood. Lee Hawkins is pictured in the second row from the bottom on the right.
Tim Evans for MPR News

On even the most ordinary days, teachers can impact the lives of their students in extraordinary ways. I learned that on one morning in 1979, as a third grader and one of the few Black kids at Weaver Elementary School in Maplewood.

That day, I was swarmed at the coat rack by a cluster of hyped-up, freckled and rosy-faced classmates who greeted me by yelling, “Your dad is here! Your dad’s gonna be our teacher today! Is that your dad?”

The year was already a disaster. A small few of my tiny classmates were calling me the n-word more than they called me by my actual name, prompting me to respond with my fists. In fact, my teacher had sent me to the principal’s office several times and called my parents to complain about my behavior — including one time for punching kids who had a fascination with touching my short afro and would follow up by saying, “Ewww, you have grease in your hair!”

Sometimes, my teacher’s in-class punishment for some errant students was placing our desks in the corner facing the wall, surrounded by a foldable wooden partition that felt like a little pop-up jail for budding juvenile delinquents. Much worse, was the belt whipping that followed at home. Like many parents from the ‘70s and ‘80s, my folks considered the belt to be the highest expression of love and protection that a Black parent could show. They believed it was a way to scare me — as a third grader and a Black male — into learning how to self-govern my behavior to keep myself away from street violence, the drug trade or gangs, or deadly encounters with the police.

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My mother worried that bad reports from teachers was the beginning of what we now call the “school to prison pipeline.” Considering the statistical reality that Black students across America are more likely than their white peers to be suspended, expelled or arrested for the same kind of conduct, I now know that, in fearing that possibility, she wasn’t entirely wrong. 

When my classmates greeted me, I was immediately overcome with worry, thinking that my father came to the school to do what my mother often promised she’d do if I didn’t straighten up: Give me an ol’ fashioned, American Southern Baptist belt whipping in front of all of my white classmates.

I bravely took off my red snowmobile suit and silver moon boots and walked into the room. And then, there he was, my so-called “dad,” looking down at all our innocent faces. Thankfully, he carried a welcoming grin and a kindly introduction. “Hello boys and girls, my name is Mr. Bridgeman. Mrs. Blumer is out, and I will be substituting for her today.”

Indeed, he was Black, and he was rather tall compared to all of us, but he wasn’t my dad. In fact, he looked nothing like Lee Hawkins Sr. But his paternal spirit immediately filled me with a sense of wonder and a brand-new feeling of security. Without him saying a word, I felt a higher standard of expectation and sensed a loving, but no-nonsense accountability that my father inspired at home.

Maybe Mr. Bridgeman would understand that this Black boy’s errant behavior had more to do with boredom and with there being a loss of challenge than there was with any kind of instinctual criminal disposition. Maybe — just maybe — if I were to punch a kid for touching my hair, this guy would understand why and talk to the kid and tell him to stop, instead of just sending me to the principal’s office and just saying I hit somebody.

On some of the days when Mrs. Blumer called home, Dad explained things from his point-of-view to try to reason with me. “I don’t care what name they call you, boy. If you keep fighting these white kids, you’re always gonna be the one to get in trouble,” he said. “Don’t you know that when these white teachers see those kids, they’re seeing the faces of their own kids, and their nieces and nephews? When they see you, they don’t see anything but a trouble-making Black boy. That’s all they see.”

I never wanted to believe him, but when Mr. Bridgeman introduced himself to the class that day, I guess I’d just hoped that, if only for a second, the opposite would be true. Not that I wanted preferential treatment or anything like that. I just wanted a day where I could feel less alone in that classroom. I wanted a clean slate, with no labels or assumptions. I wanted to rid myself of that feeling that was gradually building up in my brain, that maybe I was just “that bad Black kid” who would inevitably end up in prison one day. And I knew I would finally get a break from the stuffy air in between the walls of that wooden partition. Even more, maybe my white classmates would get to learn firsthand that not every Black man wearing a shirt and tie had to be my dad.

That day, all those wishes came true. It was just another day to Mr. Bridgeman, but it was a turning point for me. I stood up straighter, listened more intently, talked less, and read out of my workbook louder — with more clarity and certainty than ever before. It felt a lot like the Sunday School at my family’s church, Mount Olivet Baptist Church, in the heart of St. Paul’s Black neighborhood. My teacher there, Deaconess Verda Williams, never once felt the need to threaten to whip me or to give me the trademark “look.” With her, there was never any talk about prison because she never feared that I would end up in one, because I never disappointed her — and that’s probably due to the fact that she never made me feel like I was a disappointment.

The same goes with Mr. Bridgeman. He gave me the basic respect that all the other children got. And because of that alone, I wanted to make him just as proud as he made me that day. To this day, I hope that I did.

After that day, Mr. Bridgeman never came back. In fact, for the rest of my educational career, I never had another Black teacher or professor, male or female. For years, I wished that I could thank Weaver Elementary and Mr. Bridgeman for giving me at least one day with a Black teacher.

Representation matters

As the years passed, I became a journalist, working at two newspapers before landing at the Wall Street Journal, where I was a reporter for 19 years before joining American Public Media as a special correspondent last month. From my research, I’ve learned that Black men make up only two percent of the country’s teaching force in the modern day, but the presence of Black teachers in the classroom is shown to improve outcomes for students. A 2017 study by the Institute of Labor Economics found that low-income Black students who have a Black teacher — man or woman — for at least one year in elementary school are less likely to drop out of high school and more likely to consider college. Still, only seven percent of teachers nationwide are Black.

Off and on through the years, I have often thought about how cool it would be to finally find Mr. Bridgeman. I believe devoutly in the power of expressing gratitude to the people who give to us and impact us. Before my father died in 2019, I got to thank him for being an omnipresent, extraordinarily loving and principled dad. And weeks before Deaconess Williams passed in 2015, I talked to her on the phone and even spoke at her funeral. But maybe the chance of finding long lost Mr. Bridgeman, just for a chance to send him a card, a pair of cufflinks or even just buy him a cup of coffee, was forever gone.

Still, I recently posted a message on Facebook asking my Minnesota friends to ask around and see if anybody knew of a Black man by the name “Mr. Bridgeman” who would have been a substitute teacher at Weaver Elementary in 1979. Droves of my friends, of all races and walks of life, reposted the message and did everything they could to try and help me find him.

What’s fascinating is that many of the approximately thirty classmates I had in Mrs. Blumer’s class are now my Facebook friends, and I consider some to be family. Several wrote that they were excited to see the post, but none of them remembered Mr. Bridgeman. Though nevertheless, in a true display of how small Minnesota’s Black community can be, it only took a few days to get some promising responses from a few long-time family friends. They each told me that my Mr. Bridgeman was probably one of the two 80-something-year-old Bridgeman brothers — John or Harold — who had lived in the Twin Cities for decades. John, they said, was a teacher for his entire career, and had died in 2015, while Harold taught off and on while putting himself through law school and later became a psychotherapist.

I prayed that my Mr. Bridgeman would still be out there somewhere, and eventually, his daughter and a few others from the community eventually reached out and gave me his contact. I called Mr. Harold Bridgeman, and we had a nice one-hour interview and chat, in which he told me that he remembered me, and that to him, it was “a pretty normal day,” except for him having to explain to the kids that he wasn’t my dad.

But the deeper significance of that reconnection was the fact that I was able to find out more about Mr. Bridgeman, including how he ended up teaching, particularly in Minnesota. He explained that as a student at Indiana’s Ball State University in the 1950s, his white academic advisor told him to forget about his interest in studying business, because a corporation would never hire a Black man. Education, the advisor told him, was a safer bet, because at least he could teach at a predominantly Black school. He also told me about how he’d worked in a factory for two years to save up money for school, and that since most white landlords would not rent to a Black student on campus, he had to rent at a rooming house several miles off of campus from an older Black woman — who cooked him one meal a day. Most often, that one meal was his only meal.

Two men speak to each other in a building.
Journalist Lee Hawkins speaks with Jonathan Palmer, Executive Director of Hallie Q. Brown Community Center, about the history of the center April 13.
Nicole Neri for MPR News

But most importantly, I got to thank him, and ask if he would be open to meeting me in person. He agreed and asked if we could meet at the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center in St. Paul. That, coincidentally, is where I attended preschool before my family moved to Maplewood — a place where we were taught about Black History icons every day.

Meeting Mr. Bridgeman, again

When Mr. Bridgeman and I finally got the chance to meet in mid-April, he looked a lot younger than 83. We became fast friends, quickly easing into a conversation about how it was that he became our teacher that day, and then into a wide-ranging conversation about his life as a Black man, a few generations older than me, in America.

I’m happy that I got the chance to meet and finally thank Mr. Bridgeman. Even though that one day didn’t mean much of anything to him, it meant — in that troubling period of my life — everything to me. He helped me see what class could be like outside of that wooden partition, and showed me that I — or any other student for that matter — didn’t belong there. And he came at just the right time. Because being underestimated as one of the few Black kids thrusted me into so much of a racial identity crisis that I had begun to personify the stereotype of the J.J. Evans class clown, a younger version of the character portrayed by Jimmie Walker on the 70s show “Good Times.” That disappeared upon the sight of Mr. Bridgeman.

 It really is true: Teachers, especially Black teachers, can impact the world, one student at a time.

Lee Hawkins is a special correspondent for American Public Media.