Yes, I’m that old.
Every other year, when I’m not teaching Our Nation’s Foundations and Constitutional principles, I introduce my Artifact theme by displaying a pair of tiny tap shoes.
These shoes are one of many objects I display in my Library “museum” to help students discover that everything tells a story. I also display a zither, a small kaleidoscope, and an antique pair of binoculars, among other items that help students create stories.
The tap shoes are my ice-breaker for the beginning of the school year. I want my Intermediate students to see how the most unlikely things are often connected to tell fascinating stories.
First, I show an old movie clip of Shirley Temple and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson dancing up and down a staircase (see movie clip here). I tell the students that Shirley Temple was my father’s childhood neighbor, so when he grew up and had twin daughters, he wanted us to take tap-dancing lessons. There was a dance studio near his workplace, so he enrolled my sister and me in the Les Williams’ Dance Studio when we were five years old.
Mr. Williams was almost denied the opportunity to open a dance studio in San Mateo, California, in the 1950s, because of racial discrimination. Thankfully, sensible heads prevailed at the City Council. My parents were not prejudiced, so my twin sister and I were two of Mr. Williams’ youngest students.
He was 40 years older than we were, went to the same community college I attended as a young adult, and was one of the original Tuskegee Airmen. But I was unaware of this fact, as were my parents, until 2009, when I was researching people who had shaped my life.
Les Williams was my first hero because he was my first tap-dance teacher. I had no idea he was a WWII and Civil Rights hero as well! He was the first “Black” American to achieve the rank of Captain in the U.S. Army Air Corps, trusted with training the famous Red Tail bomber pilots.
In his autobiography, he said that he decided to volunteer for the Air Corps to be a pilot because he did not want to risk debilitating injuries in the infantry. He preferred the death from a plane crash to the risk of losing his ability to dance.
I reconnected with Mr. Williams just as he finished his autobiography: Victory – Tales of a Tuskegee Airman. I purchased several copies, including those autographed for my school Library. I show a televised video interview he did for a local Bay Area station when he was in his late 80s.
He taught dance well into his 50s, then utilized the law degree he earned at Stanford University after the war, before becoming a Realtor in his 80s. He enjoyed speaking at schools and civic events, revealing his story that was a surprise to many who had known him for decades as a sweet, humble man of many talents.
Sadly he passed away on April 1, 2015, at the age of 95.
I hope my 5th and 6th graders are inspired by my connection to Les Williams and learn to look for interesting narratives being written in their own lives.
In the Spring semester, I invite them to join my after-school Tap Club, where I teach them the steps I learned from my hero over 52 years ago.