I didn’t like school growing up. It was hard because I didn’t have many friends. I felt alone, and to be made to feel different played with the mind in intriguing ways. It made me question if I was good enough even though these external validations didn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things; it made me a little resentful. My father owned a paint business in Andersonville, where I spent the first four years of my life. My father, mother, me, and my mother’s father moved to Lincolnwood. My parents wanted more space and a yard for me to play in. We settled in our new home, a community dominated by people of Jewish descent. The last name Kling immediately set me apart from all the other students. Reminds me of a song by Lil Anthony and the Imperials called “On the Outside Looking In.” I had spent my entire youth feeling this sentiment.
I was bullied because I was different. My complexion was identical to everyone else’s, but my dress was entirely different. My mother was German, and my father was from Sweden, respectively, so even my last name caused pause because it is not a typical Swedish Sir Name. The kids considered me a nerd because I dressed in traditional German garb from head to toe. My mother would only shop at German American stores on Lincoln Avenue by Lawrence. Daily I wore a white button-up shirt and suspenders with a decorative crosspiece that matched the cuffs of my shorts called Lederhosens. To top it off, the outfit was complemented by knee-high socks and open-toe sandals. I am laughing because I look back and am thankful I wasn’t forced to wear a matching feathered hat. I stuck out like a sore thumb, and the kids found my differences a reason to make me feel even more different, if possible. I tried to tell my mom that I just wanted to be like the other kids in school, but fitting in wasn’t on any priority list.
I remember trying to rebel against it all. My stern mother seemed to always be disappointed in me for the littlest of things, so why not take it a step further. In middle school, when I had a little extra money, I would walk down the street in Andersonville, where I helped my father stock shelves and purchase other clothes to hide in my school bag. Every day the school bus picked me up for school. Even the shortest of distances on a bus can take some time. The bus would always stop down the street from the school in front of these high hedges. I began getting off the bus at those hedges to hide and change my clothes.
It was important for me to fit in. I no longer wanted to be the odd man out. I was lonely and wanted to have comrades like everyone else. So I figured I had to wear what everyone else was wearing to get along; white Levi’s and a bright mattress plaid shirt. Sometimes I could put on the entire outfit, but Levi’s was the essential item to wear. What I didn’t comprehend at the time was that, in my loneliness, I was more open to my surroundings. I could view a different way of life without being submerged in it. Some things you can only absorb as a child when your mind is pliable, and you are open to possibility without any bias.
Although I could not relate much to the other children, their ways and customs were a part of my daily upbringing. I became a better chameleon with each encounter with someone of a different background. Just as I had when my mother first had my sister Nancy, a sweet black woman came to help my mother with her newborn. She treated my sister and me as her own, giving unfamiliar affection because that was not how my mother interacted with us. Her nature and background lent to my intrigue with lifestyles not like my own, with no bias. When she smothered us with hugs and praise, I felt pride in being noticed by her.
My mother showed her affection in her devotion to the family. Our family took a trip to Europe the summer before I began middle school. It was warm when we arrived in Spain, so
wearing my Lederhosens worked well. We traveled to Hamburg, Germany, by train. We slept on the train for two nights, me in shorts and sandals. It was cold when we arrived in Hamburg, and I got deathly sick that summer. My family was supposed to go to Sweden to see my father’s family, but I was unwell. My family couldn’t go, at least not entirely. My mother offered to stay behind with me while my dad and sister went for two weeks to Sweden. For two weeks, my mom was locked up in a hotel, nursing me back to health. It was during that time I could see my mother’s sacrifice. Her love language came through her devotion to her husband and children. Now only if I could get her to understand US fashion, but I digress.
As I stated earlier, I was learning about life through the eyes of people from other cultures. Whether it was through the nanny or the school system that catered to children of Jewish descent. Plus, I came from a family where two cultures had come together. It was a smorgasbord of understanding. School was a sore subject for me, mostly because I was misunderstood, and although I tried hard to fit in, I didn’t receive the reciprocal from others. There were times that I was successful at blending in with my Levi’s, but more often than not, I was ostracized. I definitely felt that sentiment of being an ‘outsider’ all the way up until college.
How ironic that I became a teacher as an adult. As I grew up, the goal of becoming a middle school teacher wasn’t on my radar. I graduated from Loyola in Chicago and worked at my dad’s business in Andersonville. After graduation, I drove the business’s truck for a while but knew deep down that I could not take over the paint shop. First, it wasn’t a passion; secondly, I wasn’t as personable as my father was. My father was a man’s man; he would spend hours at his business advising husbands, fathers, and men from all walks of life. Men from all over would come to talk to my father and get advice, a skill I knew wasn’t ornately a gift to my personal qualities.
I had married a gorgeous woman, a little out of my league, I would profess. I found her physically beautiful, and upon conversations, I found we did have compatibility. We had some good times together, and I didn’t want them to end. We hitchhiked all over and really lived life to the fullest together. We both brought out the best in each other in some ways, but in others, not so much.
Her beauty seemed to attract everyone, and I became a little possessive of her. So when an ex-boyfriend of hers came back into the picture, she asked if she could spend the weekend with him. I knew that he was a drug dealer and that, at the end of the day, I would have no standing in her life if he reentered. But I also knew that answering that question could lead to the nail in my coffin. I never said yes or no to her, whether I minded. It was apparent that I minded, and I knew that she knew. Needless to say, I don’t know if she ever did see him that weekend, but what came to mind was a song by Jay and the Techniques. If you have never heard of them, they had a song called “Apples, Peaches, Pumpkin Pie.”
The lead singer Jay Proctor talked about marrying a woman to keep her at home and keep her faithful. I thought if he could sing it, I could act on it. Instead of replying to her request to see an ex, I told her we should get married. We had only been dating since December, and now only five months later, I asked for her hand in marriage.
The proposal was very informal, which she was okay with at first. She accepted, and life moved forward, as it always has through time. The thing is, people are people. They have a history, baggage, and experiences before they met that may or may not have been dealt with. Either way, history can disrupt the future or make them second-guess their present choices. We all succumbed to our insecurities at one time or another, and my lovely Tina did.
My dear Tina began to reminisce about her own childhood and the abuse her father gave to her mother. Which made my fiancee’, at the time, question if marrying me was the right choice. It was the beginning of a wedge that would grow to affect us for most of our marriage. Needless to say, we married at a Catholic Church on July 3, 1971. Tina and I rented an apartment in near Evanston after our honeymoon to Galena. The carefree days of hitchhiking in the States and traveling had long passed. We were now official, and the rest of our lives, for better or worse, were to be spent together.
I looked at the metro tracks on our second-floor apartment porch. My wife joined me on the porch with a glass of iced tea. The tea was filled with all these cloves and spices and looked deliciously thirst-quenching during a warm summer sunset. An incredible scene to set up the romance that would encompass our years together today and beyond. A site for sore eyes to see my wife standing on our porch in our first place together. The hues of the sun reflected upon her skin, a surreal experience that I soaked in with all of my being. I felt hopeful and complete for the first time, in total control of my future without any questions or deviations. I smiled and looked at my gorgeous wife as the wind picked up slightly and blew her hair to one side. I was madly in love, looking forward to our forever.
Tina remained standing as if momentarily she was going to return inside. Again I looked at her tea and asked, “Do you mind when you go back in the kitchen if you could bring me out a glass, too?” I am not good at asking anyone for anything, but I felt we had finally reached another level of intimacy in our relationship and that it would be okay.
“No,” She replied curtly. She turned her beautiful face towards me to reveal a look that I never wanted to see on her face again. My lovely wife had disappeared behind the folds and creases of anxiety. At that time, I didn’t know precisely where her anger came from. I knew I would do whatever I needed to keep her from it, though. “I’m never going to let you become like my father was to my mother. You will not demand, not at all.” She told me before leaving me alone to contemplate what had just happened.
I was quickly put in my place and knew that her response was a looming reality that our years together would not be as pleasant as I thought. Needless to say, I did not ask my wife to do anything else for me. Instead, I tried my best to show her how different I was from her father, but nothing I did seemed to work. I felt like a little boy again, trying to please but coming up short every time.
This moment set a precedent for the next two years of our marriage. We lived as a married couple for a couple of years, and what should have been the honeymoon years was everything but. It was a tough two years together for her and for me. We could not find a rhythm to sync us as well as the traveling did for us when we were just dating. All felt like tragedy until the surprise announcement of our child.
I say surprise because the doctors had previously told her that she was incapable of having kids. So we didn’t use protection. What was the point? One day while driving the truck, I got the news that she needed to speak with me. They patched her through to the radio inside the vehicle.
“Guess what,” she says.
“What?” I reply.
I was taken aback but also very happy about the news. Except, my happiness came with
doubt because of the state we had been living in for the past two years. I wasn’t sure how this would work, but I set in my mind that I would be the best husband and father I could be. My first decision was that I could no longer drive the truck for my father’s paint business. I needed to find something more stable.
When I returned home that night, I walked in the door of our Roger’s Park Apartment, and Tina had a full dinner waiting for me. She looked like a housewife. Her whole demeanor had changed in one afternoon. It was like the television series ‘The Twilight Zone.’ I had walked into an alternate universe where my wife showed me some attention. She was attentive, and I felt like, for the first time, she was trying to do something for me as I had done for two years of marriage. It was an ego stroke that I could bask in and enjoy as a man. We had a wonderful marriage once we knew about Daniel. We didn’t have to wait until he was there; just knowing he was coming was enough. Her energy changed towards me. It lasted her entire pregnancy and for some years after the birth of our son’s life. Daniel was born in March of ’74.
I began in the Chicago Public School system in the fall of 1974 at the Drake Education and Vocational Guidance (EVG) center on the Southside after my son was born. When the position was closed some years later, and the school closed, I was guaranteed a job as long as my record was clear. I went to the board of offices down on Lasalle St. in Chicago. Over a period of two meetings, I chose Fredrick Douglass. Two reasons made the decision final: I wanted to work where I could do a lot of good and was also familiar with the Austin Neighborhood. I had finally found a way to give back, make a living, and still be present in my son’s life. It was a win, win, win situation.
So I began at Douglass in 1983 as a seventh-grade teacher who would transition with the same group of students until graduation. I was looking forward to creating bonds with children and helping them to acclimate to a world outside Chicago. It was important that I was stimulating. I wanted them to relate, unlike me as a child in school. Since childhood, I knew I was privileged, even with those challenges. My upbringing had been relatively good, but I knew circumstances weren’t always as good for these children. Not to say that it wasn’t a possibility, but the struggles they endured were more ingrained into the fabric of society. A reality that screamed at me every day, and I felt that I had to try to even the playing field in whatever way I could. Teaching had become a catalyst for my own selfish gratification. A gratification that actually was rewarded and commendable, although I had not thought that intricately when I began.
Two years later, I had a new class of sixth graders to influence, educate, and bond with. It was difficult initially to get some of them to buy into my process, but slowly and steadily, I built bonds. Sometimes, I brought their parents in for presentations and competitions. Every lesson was created the day of, and I tried to integrate things they were familiar with into the lessons and activities we participated in. So at the end of my sixth-grade year, after exposing these extraordinary children to literature that not only looked like them but sounded like them. Undoubtedly, I was doing the right thing, no matter what anyone else said.
The principal at Douglass was a liberal guy who supported all my efforts and ideas. Plus, I think it helped that all the funds used to buy the supplies were my own. The money came from an inheritance I received from the passing of a relative. I used the entire sum to purchase enough to buy a copy for every student. These books were not to be returned when they were done. It was to build personal libraries that I would help them continue building throughout our three years together. Field trips to the bookstore happen three times a year to allow students an opportunity to choose individual titles of their liking. I made sure that every student had the money for at least two paperbacks, so by the end of the year, each student owned at least twelve new books.
At the end of the 6th-grade year, a student from my class went to jail for carrying a weapon to school; I sympathized. I understood his plight to preserve his way of life. All my students had come up against their peers because they were brilliant. I watched as many of them would be attacked after school for carrying bookbags, but they persevered. If they didn’t give up on me, there was no way I could do anything less than give them my all. The student wanted to survive and live a day longer; in a weird sense, I could relate. It was nothing for me to go down to the jail and post bail for him to get out. To be ostracized to the point of fear because you decided you loved to go to school was absurd. The students and parents of that class found it an endearing quality they would talk about often, but it was an obligation for me. If his parents could not, as his teacher, I should, not because it looked good but because it was the right thing to do.
Although my parents immigrated from Sweden and Germany to build a life for my sister and me, this concept of service didn’t become a reality until our travel within the US. It was these trips that helped me to recognize my privilege. I was afforded opportunities that I knew African-Americn children weren’t receiving. I was again as a little boy soaking in the plight of yet another race of people that was the polar opposite of our lives in Lincolnwood. Even the students there, who thought I was so different, probably never got to see the US as I did during our travels.
My mom had rheumatoid arthritis. Many summers, my mother would fly to Florida with my sister, and my father, uncle, and I would drive Route 41. There was no real reason to drive. Our family could afford a flight, and my father was not afraid of heights. I thought it was because my father wanted me to see the world for what it was. No blinders, the pure unadulterated truth. Or it may have been that we often traveled with my father’s older brother
because of his mental health and physical limitations; driving may have been best. Regardless, I received a first-hand lesson about life on those drives.
Roy, my father’s brother, caught Plolio as a young child in a lake he was swimming in. He became paralyzed on one half of his body. It could have been the trigger or onset of his schizophrenia, but he was deep into his issues by the time I was familiar with him. He was a genius as far as I was concerned. He and my father had a unique way of communicating which made their relationship all the more endearing to me. I knew his issues caused him to speak backward; words, sentences, and paragraphs of information spewed from his mouth as if they made total sense. It was baffling to me. The care he received from my father was beguiling. His ability to give, even if you never can take anything away from the encounter, became a spiritual goal I didn’t acknowledge until at least a decade after my retirement.
This overt sense of service was an innate part of my DNA. I had been socialized to believe in my privilege, and because of that, I could not escape my duty as a grown man. I knew some people were discriminated against because of the color of their skin. Our travels down south helped to solidify the truth in my mind. Us men would travel to Florida, and I saw things that brought my thoughts to the center. It was during the Civil Rights Movement and inequality in a way that I could not escape as an adult. I was either trapped in my thoughts, or I was to release myself with whatever small efforts I could make to even the playing field. I choose the latter.
After finding out where my student was being held, I used some of my extra income to release a child that never should have been detained in the first place. It was despicable that we could ask these children to attend institutions and leave them to their own devices when something threatened their physical security. We expected them to do nothing. My kids were learning, and because of that simple fact, they were being ridiculed and bullied. How could I just sit by? It made it even more important that I tried my best to spend more time with them after the school bell rang at the end of the day. But I was conflicted; I had a family at home that also needed my attention. The pull of both sides of my being began to fill me with anxiety, but I held on tightly to my sanity through their first year with me.
Posting bail gave me some unneeded attention from the other teachers, even more so when the test scores came back for the Iowa test at the end of the year. I had gone from a nobody to somebody in seconds when it was announced that my children had received the highest scores in the building, let alone the district. Teachers of color applauded me, but it was the beginning of the ending of my tenor at Douglass because my own disassociated with me.
Our end-of-the-year meeting was supposed to celebrate our attempts as adults to create change. I was the stand-alone teacher, and it put a target on my head that every white female teacher could use to take me down. In a matter of minutes, the energy in the room shifted. For most of my career, I had done some remarkable things that I just played off as ordinary. It wasn’t until my third year at Douglass Middle School that it became apparent that I was a different type of educator. I was used to being alone by then.
Memoir Writing Sample -Kling A Hidden Hero
The documentary "Kling - A teacher That Defied the system" served as the catalyst for this story. This narrative delves deeper into the relationship between Demetrius Matthews and his former teacher, Mr. Kling. As they fight for their ways of life and defy the odds, together they achieve greatness, create lifelong bonds, and share a love that saves them both.