Shirley was born in Farmington, New Mexico before it was cool to say the Four Corners Area and immediately started a life as a cast-off and nomad. Abandoned by her mother weeks after birth, she was taken in by her very generous, very kind and very young Uncle Bob and Aunt Doris. When Shirley was two, her mother returned, saw that Shirley had dimples and curly red hair like Shirley Temple, her namesake after all, and ripped her out of the only home she knew. To avoid family interference, her mother transported Shirley across the country to mid-century North Carolina where the standard practice among white folks for keeping children in line was to threaten that the boogey-man, “nigger,” a term Shirley despises to this day, would take them away and “do bad stuff to them.” Shirley’s mother also planned to present the older, potty-trained little Shirley to her biological father for blackmail.
The plan ricocheted big time. The biological father had married and moved on, the kindly black man on the other side of the tracks became her protector and Shirley thought his daughter was her long lost sister.
Soon Shirley’s mother realized that a child needed stuff, like food and clothes, and shazam, Shirley was in an orphanage. Just before an adoption could be finalized, Shirley’s mother married and the new stepfather insisted on “taking back the child.” He also insisted on meeting the mother’s family in Farmington, NM. So off they went. Shirley cried for her black sister and father all the way there.
In Farmington, home to one of the largest Native American tribes in the nation, and barely out of toddlerdom, Shirley developed a scrupulous curiosity. One Saturday afternoon in the old drugstore, she decided it was time to set the facts straight about the folklore that Navajo ladies wore several skirts at a time, one over the other—newest on top. Shirley and her grandparents were having their weekly ice cream next to the charming soda fountain and postcard rack. Shirley had first one lick then another of her strawberry cone while an elder tribal woman lined up to pay her bill at the counter. She was decked out in the velvets and silk of traditional dress. Shirley crept over and lifted the majestic lady’s cascading skirt, merely to count, of course. That was the end of the ice cream and Shirley was never allowed back in the store. She was five years old. She thought for most of her childhood that was the reason her family was always on the run because Shirley’s father, generous, kind and feckless, moved at the drop of a funeral or wedding from one side of the country to the other. The family moved over 23 times, always in search of the “better deal,” before Shirley was 15. Along the way, she learned a great deal about applied geography, integrating herself and four younger siblings into new situations, finding the humor in the manners and habits of humans and mastering the art of reading in a home where the only printed material was tomato soup cans, cereal boxes and stolen comic books.
From birth, Shirley was destined to become either an investigative reporter or a special education teacher. She opted for teaching as the one with a paycheck and Naked Teaching: A Love Story became the zygote forged of opportunity and temperament—with a decades-long gestation. And here we are.
“When people try to bury you, remind yourself you are a seed.” Matshona Dhliwayo