Man·tle1 – noun: an important role or responsibility that passes from one person to another; verb: clothe in or as if in a mantle; cloak or envelop.
Last month, I felt an unexplainable urge to call my first grade teacher, Mrs. James*. Yes, it’s been quite a while since I was in the first grade, but Mrs. James was someone not easily forgotten. She and her husband worked side by side as civil rights activists while raising two daughters. She was devoted to her church, belonged to numerous civic organizations, fought for a progressive education for all children in our small New England town, and had a list of accomplishments too numerous to list here. In other words, as the old folks might have described her back then, “She was a credit to her race”.
But, at 5 years old, I didn’t know any of that. I just knew that she was pretty, dignified and elegant like my mother, and she seemed to like me a lot. She made me feel special, and she always found ways to highlight my drawings for projects in class and events at school. I wanted to be an artist, a teacher, a writer, and a dancer, and through her, I saw no reason why I couldn’t do it all. She was one of the first adults outside of my family who not only saw and promoted the best in me as a student, but she also saw the woman I could become.
As an adult, I’d kept in touch with Mrs. James, even joining her in civic endeavors over the years. And when I announced that I would be looking for photos for a book which honored African American community, culture, and civic achievement, she was among the very first to respond, sending her precious family mementos encircled with a special encouraging and supportive note.
On the night last month when I’d called her home out of the blue, it was her husband who answered the phone. He immediately explained, as if I were waiting to hear some sort of news, “She’s still in the hospital. She’s in a coma now though, after the stroke…”
Everything went quiet in my head. Mr. James continued to speak to me for a few seconds, then the phone went quiet on his end. Moments later he asked, his voice barely audible, “How did you know?
In 1 Kings 19 is the story of how God reveals to the great prophet Elijah that, after he’s gone, a young man named Elisha would carry on his ministry. When the time had come to pass the torch, Elijah, in symbolic gesture, threw his cloak – also known as a mantle – over Elisha; who then met, with total commitment and enthusiasm, the challenge of taking over as spiritual leader for his people (2 Kings 2). Mantle here represents not just a garment. It also symbolizes the responsibility of the present generation to use its spiritual gifts to further the mission God placed within the previous one. Like passing the baton in a race, the mantle also symbolizes the “covering” and protection we receive when we, in total surrender, continue on our leg of the journey God ordained to move His people forward. The question is: are we, as a generation, prepared to take the baton from our forefathers? Or will we allow the dream die with us?
When I learned that Mrs. James had passed away, I felt that maybe the “baton had fallen”. There couldn’t possibly be anyone else like her again. Who had her will to teach children to see the best in themselves? Who saw her vision of the promise of America as a people, and as a nation? And who was left to fight so tirelessly for us now? And then… I remembered.
Karen Lascaris is a regular contributor to Westa.org. She’s an artist, designer and author of “In Our Own Image: Treasured African-American Traditions, Journeys, and Icons”, which can be found in libraries, schools and archives across America.
*The name has been changed to protect the privacy of the subjects.