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Popular teacher retires Breaking ground on integration was just a start

By William Inman Daily Planet Staff
Tuesday September 26, 2000

Warner Freeman knew when he was in the eighth grade – the same grade he taught science to for 32 years at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School – that he would someday be | 

a teacher. 

In those days, the early ’50s, Freeman, an African-American, delivered newspapers in the deeply racially-divided town of Little Rock, Ark. 

One of the people to whom he delivered the State Press – Little Rock’s black newspaper – was Civil Rights Activist Daisy Bates. She recognized Freeman’s candidness, intelligence, progressive thought and social ease, and she asked him to be a member of the group that would desegregate Little Rock’s Central High, later remembered as the Little Rock Nine. 

Though the city and Bates knew it had to come up with an integration plan after the 1951 Brown vs. the Board of Education decision that required public schools to desegregate, it didn’t happen until 1957 – three years after Freeman graduated from Dunbar High, the city’s black high school. 

Instead of integrating the high school, Freeman and five others broke ground as they tried – though unsuccessfully – in 1954 to integrate Little Rock University, now a campus in the University of Arkansas system. 

Though he was unable to integrate the university, he said he doesn’t hold a grudge. He went on to earn his degree in chemistry and biology in 1959 from Philander Smith College in Little Rock.  

“I don’t fault any education that I had,” he said. “I had great mentors and role models.” 

Perhaps it is the mentorship he had growing up in the segregated South that fostered those qualities that Daisy Bates recognized, and it’s those qualities that have made Freeman an award winning public school teacher and one of the most beloved teachers ever at King Middle School.  

Monday night, the crowd of about 50 friends, teachers and students toasted the instructor, at the Brazil Room in Tilden Park for his over three decades of dedication and his trail blazing hands-on style of teaching science. Freeman retired at the end of the last school year. 

“King Middle School has been a blessing,” said Freeman. “When I became a teacher is when I came alive. I did what I was born to do.”  

Through his travails in the Civil Rights movement, his years as a researcher at the Lawrence Hall of Science, even those smoky nights when he picked guitars with Bob Dylan and Bobby Blue Bland, he said that he knew all along he’d be a teacher. 

When Freeman arrived in Berkeley after his college graduation, he became a lab assistant and then a lab technician at UC Berkeley. After a while, he said, the researchers noticed that he had talent, and wanted him to get his doctorate. 

“I told them no,” he chuckled. “I didn’t want to go back for all that schooling.” 

So they told him that “they would fix it,” he said, and he was bestowed with official researcher status without the full amount of education that it requires.  

Only one person before him has been given such status without a doctorate at the university. 

But it was a serendipitous trip to Oakland as a tutor in the public school system that kindled the fire. 

“When I saw those faces light up when they understood what you were explaining, it was like I knew it all along,” he said.  

He quickly enrolled in a brand-new program at the university that allowed grad students to teach and take classes to become certified. He earned that certification in 1968, and started teaching at King that same year. 

Students and parents remembered Freeman for his presence as well as his instruction. 

“He was the nicest, most laid back and intelligent man with a great demeanor,” said Marlin Bayless, who joined Freeman as an assistant teacher in 1977. 

“I was on the bus the other day and about five kids started talking about how he was their favorite teacher,” said Pauline Bondonno. “‘He shakes everyone’s hand, and he can break bricks with his bare hands,’ they said. He just makes everyone feel comfortable. That’s how my kids feel about him.” 

When the tall, dignified Freeman shakes your hand, it is memorable, and the part about breaking bricks with his bare hands is true, too, he’s a practitioner of the Qi Gong martial art.  

“It’s a Chinese martial art, but there is no fighting,” he makes clear. “Just the movements.” 

To Freeman, teaching science is his real skill. 

“I was taught science from the book and by the book,” Freeman said, “That’s how I learned it and I didn’t like it. My basic philosophy is teaching the process of finding the answers. I don’t really want all the kids to become scientists, I want them all to become thinkers. When you become a thinker, then you can do anything.” 

He piloted a program called the Intermediate Science Curriculum Studies in which he co-authored the textbook that guided students through specific hands-on experiments. 

“I knew it was just what I’d wanted. It was more hands-on and adjusted to sequence and pace. Those that could go faster did. Instead of teaching a class, I was teaching individuals,” he said. 

Besides his unique style of teaching, it’s his demeanor and his rapport with the students that may be the most memorable. 

“I’d have kids that were flunking every class but his,” said Resource Specialist Terri Gerritz. “He has a way with kids that were disenfranchised with school and get them to work with him.” 

“It’s the minds talking to each other, not just student to teacher,” Freeman said. “You can teach me just like I can teach you.” 

Now that he’s retired, he’s taken up classical guitar, a far cry from the folk songs in the San Francisco hootenannies where he would play guitars with Dylan and Joan Baez and sing protest songs back in the sixties. 

“Yea, it’s the music I wake up and hear in my head every morning,” he said.  

He also loves to bowl, grow orchids and practice Shiatsu, which he explained as acupuncture without needles. 

“Instead of using needles, I use my fingers to press on the various energy portals,” he said.  

He also added that he enjoys making trips back to a much different Little Rock. 

“That’s the place that made me what I am,” he said. “I haven’t forgotten where I came from.”