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A real-life history lesson

When it comes to teaching, Jackie Zerr has quite a history. And the Marshall resident taught in the South during a historic period of time when desegregation was still proving to be quite a challenge.

July 2, 2011
Story, photo by Elaine Zarzana , Marshall Independent

Jackie Zerr of Marshall is a teacher at heart.

In addition to teaching in Marshall for many years, she taught in a small southern Georgia town in the 1960s and played an important role during the years of school desegregation. But that was neither her first nor her only experience of valuing equality and open communication across diverse perspectives.

Zerr grew up near Terre Haute, Ind., on a farm that had been in her family for generations. When she was a child, her father loved playing baseball for the local team. "In 1936, the governor of Indiana was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. In Indiana, all these baseball families were getting excited about the Klan."

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Jackie Zerr, who now resides in Marshall, left Indiana for Minnesota, then ended up as a teacher in the South in the ’60s during a tumultuous time when schools were in the midst of desegregating.

Members of her father's team decided that they should all join. When her father told his own father, Jackie's grandfather, that he intended to join the Klan along with his teammates, the older man had only one thing to say, said Zerr.: "If you join the KKK you will be disinherited." Jackie's father was his only son. "And he meant it," she said.

Zerr went to college at Indiana University and became a teacher.

"When I was in college, I majored in history. I was fascinated by other cultures," she said.

In 1951 she married Bob Zerr, whom she had met while in college. The couple moved to Marshall in 1960 when Bob was hired with Swift & Co, developing large-scale turkey operations. By then they had four children. Three years later the company transfered Bob to Douglas, Ga. "It was a town very similar to Marshall in size, located in south Georgia, closer to Alabama," said Zerr.

After about a year, Zerr decided to apply for a job as a junior high teacher at the Douglas school.

It had been roughly a decade since Brown vs. Board of Education ruled that "separate-but-equal" schools were inherently unequal, yet the challenges of desegregation were ongoing, civil rights protests were still facing violent backlash, and more legislation was still in the works.

"I hadn't been there very long - only a few weeks - when the superintendent talked to me about integration and the problems he was facing," said Zerr.

He asked her to accept a role as a kind of spokesperson, helping to address parents' concerns about the process of integration.

"Since I grew up in the North, he thought I'd be able to help... Later I found out there was a lot of discriminatory thinking in Marshall as well as the South," she said wincing at the irony. "But I said, 'yes.'"

Zerr has many fond memories of the students and fellow teachers she worked with in Douglas, but there were serious challenges as well.

"I'll never forget the day a man from the Ku Klux Klan came to see me," said Zerr. "He had been told that I had a special role in the integration. I took him on a tour of the school grounds. The first thing I noticed was the alcohol on his breath. He was going to 'enlighten' me about why we didn't need integration... why blacks and whites should be separate... I didn't argue."

Although it was a scary situation, it wasn't intimidation that kept Jackie from "enlightening" this gentleman in return.

"I knew I had to just listen. You don't change the thinking of people who are so dedicated. You can't change their minds," she said. "You just have to decide how to express your own opinion."

Discussion, not argument, has been integral to Zerr's life as well as her teaching. She taught her junior high students that there are many ways of living.

"We don't all have to be alike," said Zerr, "We can find ways of living with other human beings that are respectful to all. I know sometimes that isn't easy... Sometimes people want real answers for how to do things. 'My way is the right way' and such," she said. "We're still dealing with those cultures that want to be the chief, the king."

She tried to help her students understand this when looking at historical and present day events, rather than just teaching them a view of history from the perspective of those with the power at the time.

In 1968, Zerr was recognized for her work the school with a full fellowship to get her master's degree. However, just as she prepared to continue her education at a nearby university, her husband's company transfered him back to Marshall. Fortunately, South Dakota State University in Brookings, S.D., agreed to honor her fellowship.

The couple had seven children by that time, and two of them were not yet in school.

"I went all day to classes on Tuesday, stayed over night, got a few more classes in on Wednesday morning and got home by noon. I didn't socialize much," Zerr said with a smile.

Neighbors were able to help babysit the children while Jackie was studying.

"My husband and I worked it out very well so the kids always had a parent or a caregiver around." Looking back, she's amazed that they were able to make it happen but, she said, "It all seemed to fit in at the time."

Zerr received her Master's degree in counseling, but decided to return to teaching.

"It's been fun being a teacher. I just love seventh- and eighth-graders; they have a great sense of humor," she said. "I used circle discussions with my students, and it's amazing when they realize you respect their ideas - they become more dedicated and involved in the community," she said. "I think one of the best things you can do is let kids ask questions and discuss things with each other, if you can help them do it in a respectful way," Zerr said.

Zerr is proud to have spent many years as an active member of the Marshall community, participating in efforts to address rural issues and build communication.

"Leaders in Marshall have for the most part been dedicated to creating a community where everyone feels they can excel here, build lives, make friends. Marshall is just a special community. For me it is. You get to know your neighbors very well and if you want to have input into what's going on, that's OK."

Some of the experiences Zerr values the most are times spent sitting in a circle where everyone's ideas are heard; whether as a teacher, as a student, or as a community member. "When everybody could discuss their ideas and also listen after discussing and reach an agreement. I think that might be the potential of democracy," said Zerr. "That's my philosophy."



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