Oklahoma Fellow Gives Unique History Lesson

Darla Splike
The Oklahoman

PONCA CITY – When she was in the eighth grade, Maurisa Pruett asked a friend to join an invitation-only group at their school.

Other group members rejected the girl because of the color of her skin, Pruett said. It was 1978, and segregation was illegal. Pruett got no support from adults she consulted, so she ended up quitting the club.

But the situation changed her outlook.

Now a science teacher at East Middle School in Ponca City, Pruett uses that experience to teach her students about history and civil rights. “My hope is that they will be brave enough to take a stand if they’re ever in a situation that needs that to happen,” the Ponca City teacher said.

During a three- to four-week enrichment class called “Taking a Stand,” Pruett discusses historical movements and contemporary events where courageous individuals made a difference by standing up for what they believed in.

Pruett received a fellowship last summer to visit some of the places about which she teaches. She spent three weeks driving across part of the southern United States. She visited museums and historic sites along the way.

One of the most moving experiences on her trip was when she visited a slave museum and saw cramped quarters where slaves lived, Pruett said.

She said she was appalled by stories she heard about children whose job was to drink water from the rice paddies to make sure no salt was getting through when the paddies were flooded.

Visiting those sites and talking to people who had lived through the history has helped her to connect those experiences to her students in a more dynamic way, Pruett said.

“When you go there and you hear people’s stories, it starts to come to life,” Pruett said. “You feel how humid it was and how miserably hot in the summertime, and yet the people worked from sunup to sundown in terrible conditions.”

Those travel experiences fuel many of her class discussions.

On Friday, Pruett paused a civil rights documentary her eighth-grade students were watching to interject with a story from her summer travels.

She met a man in Birmingham, Ala., who lived there when the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed, killing four girls in 1963. More than 45 years later, the man still got misty eyes as he recalled the chaos of that day, Pruett said.

Students said the class has been inspiring. “It’s really opened my eyes,” said eighth-grade student Lexi Smith. Smith said the stories make her want to visit some of those historic sites, too. Her classmate, Megan Alexander, agreed.

Alexander said many students at school forget that certain words or actions can be hurtful to others. Pruett’s class is a good reminder, Alexander said.

“I think more people should learn about this, and more people should be thinking about this,” Alexander said.