Editor’s note: This story was published in 2018. Some facts and figures have been updated in June 2020.
By Ruth Ann Gaines as told to dsm editor Christine Riccelli
Photographer: Duane Tinkey
Ruth Ann Gaines has served in the Iowa House of Representatives since 2011. Prior to her election, she taught drama at East High School for 40 years, receiving the Iowa Teacher of the Year award in 1998. The 72-year-old Gaines also has been recognized as a national diversity trainer for corporations, universities and nonprofit organizations, and she has taught speech and drama at Des Moines Area Community College since 1971.
A well-regarded actress, playwright and director, Gaines has been involved in more than 200 plays and has produced and hosted TV and radio programs. She has served on numerous nonprofit boards and commissions, including the State Foster Care Review Board, Very Special Arts Iowa, Prevent Child Abuse Iowa, the Des Moines Area Religious Council, Hospice of Central Iowa, the Iowa Arts Council, and Friends of Des Moines Human Rights, among others.
Gaines lives in Des Moines with her 35-year-old son, Brandon, and her partner, Vidal Spaine, a special education teacher at East High School. In a conversation condensed for publication, Gaines reflects on being the single parent of a son with multiple disabilities, battling discrimination, and finding strength through adversity.
Act With Intention
I grew up in Des Moines as an only child. A lot of times people think only children are spoiled, but no one’s ever said that about me. My parents were uneducated, so they could only go so far with me. I had to go the rest of the distance by myself. There was nobody to fight my battles but me.
I went to Catholic schools and then got a scholarship to Clarke College in Dubuque, back when it was a women-only college. I was the only black person in my class, one of only three at the entire college. I was often ostracized because of the color of my skin; I was amazed at how prejudiced Dubuque was at that time.
When Martin Luther King died, I was really sad because I couldn’t be around any black people, and the white students couldn’t relate to it like I could. I decided to stage a one-person protest: I watched the funeral on TV in the lounge and skipped philosophy class. I cried and cried. The other students were very respectful and just kept handing me Kleenex. While I was sitting there crying, the nun who taught philosophy stopped in, looked at the TV, looked at me and then gave me a D in the class.
I was so upset. When I went home that summer I told my parents, “I am not going back to that college. I don’t care what you say. I’m tired of the racism. I’m tired of being the only black person. I’m tired, tired, tired.” My dad said, “You know your mother and I don’t have any money. This is your only chance to get a degree, to make something of yourself. Think about it.”
So I went back. I wanted to be an actress, but my father told me to minor in education because I would need a job in between acting gigs. It was good advice.
Before I started student teaching, one of the girls in the dorm who’d already done her student teaching told me, “They don’t want you at that school.
They’ve never had a black teacher, and you’re going to have to be tough.”
I made up my mind I was going to do a great job and win over those teachers.
At first they tried to make it difficult for me, but I let their comments roll off my back. Then I started going to coffee with them and they began to see me as a person and not just a black person.
And they couldn’t deny I was doing an excellent job with the kids; teaching came easily to me, and the kids really responded, even though I was the first African-American most of them had seen. I eventually won over the teachers, but it was intentional. It didn’t just happen. I knew what I needed to do in order to succeed, and I accomplished it.
Turn Hurtful Experiences Into Opportunities For Growth
In 1968, I got a grant to be one of eight black students in a yearlong master’s program in theater at the University of California in Santa Barbara. Finally I was going to be with other black people, but I quickly realized how different I was from the other students in that group. I was the only one from Iowa and had been around white people my entire life. The black students didn’t like me because I could get along with the white students. I was friendly with everyone, no matter their skin color, and the black students didn’t like that. They hadn’t had the type of interaction I’d had with white people and had experienced discrimination differently than I had.
In a summer program before the semester started, a black instructor told the eight of us, “We’re going to get all of you ready so that you can compete with the Caucasians in the fall.” I said, “I’ve been competing with Caucasians my entire life.” I shouldn’t have said that, because it made the other black students think that I thought I was better than they were, and they did everything they could to make my life hell.
I’d never been around people like that before. They were mean-spirited to my face; I imagine they were that way because of how they grew up and what they had to do to survive.
I learned that discrimination knows no color because I’ve experienced it from both sides. And when you’re hurt, you’re hurt—and I was deeply hurt.
My goal was to stay in California and start auditioning after I got my master’s degree. But those students had me so confused—they kept telling me that I wasn’t black—that I decided to come back to my roots in Des Moines to discover what I had missed.
I think I’m an effective diversity trainer because I went through that experience and I had to find myself again after it. I learned how to be with any kind of person—whatever their background or skin color. It’s one of my greatest strengths.
Appreciate Your Gifts
After I returned to Des Moines, I was hired as a long-term sub at Washington Irving school. During the first few weeks, those kids would come to class when they wanted and they’d leave when they wanted. But I worked with them so that they came to class on time, stayed in their seats and did what they were supposed to do. We even wrote and performed a play together.
In the fall of 1971, I was hired as the drama teacher at East High School. Teaching was always easy for me, but I still had it in my mind that I wanted to be an actress and so occasionally I would say, “I’m not going to do this anymore.” And some student would always say, “Oh, Miss Gaines, that’s too bad because you’re the best teacher I’ve ever had.”
At the time, I didn’t appreciate the gift that God had given me. It took me to the ‘80s or even the ‘90s to really realize how much of an impact I was making on the lives of young people, and how fortunate I was to have this gift to motivate students to become better learners and better people. In 1998, when I was named Teacher of the Year, I knew I had been at the right place doing the right thing all along. I finally knew teaching was my calling.
Take Responsibility For Your Decisions
In 1989, when my mom was 74, she contracted spinal meningitis and went into a coma. When she came out of the coma, she had no memory. My father didn’t want her in a nursing home, so I moved back in with them to help take care of her. She couldn’t speak or feed herself. A year later my father died, but she ended up living 15 more years.
I took care of her all those years. It was a real struggle. As a single parent, I was also taking care of my son, who has multiple disabilities, and I was working full time. Still, as I look back now, those years were probably some of the best of my life, most likely because I was giving so much and because my mom got well. In her final years, she was even able to help me with my son.
When I talk about this, I see the concern on people’s faces because, knowing me publicly, they don’t know what I carry privately. But I’ve learned how to cope and to accept my plight without blaming anyone. Everything I’ve experienced is based on decisions that I’ve made. I made the decision to take care of my parents. I made the decision to adopt my son and raise him. And I think I’ve made the right decisions.
Accept People As They Are
My father was an orphan, and I always believed if someone had adopted him, he would have had a better life. So I always thought about adopting. At first my parents didn’t support the idea; they said, “Why do you want to take on someone else’s problem?” But I kept pursuing it. About six months after seeing a lawyer, I got the call—“I have a little boy who was born yesterday.”
My dad didn’t talk to me for about two weeks, but he came around about a month later. One day when I was at my parents’ home, my dad looked at the baby and said, “His parents partied a lot, drank a lot, took a lot of drugs.” He knew that just by looking at him.
And I think that’s true. When I adopted my son, I was told he was normal but he wasn’t. He has Asperger’s syndrome and multiple other disabilities—obsessive-compulsive disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, attention deficit disorder with hyperactivity, receptive language disorder and Type 2 diabetes. When my colleagues go home, they get to rest. I go home to another full-time job. I’m always on duty, even though Brandon is 33 now. Because of his disabilities, it takes him a long time to understand certain things, and he has no friends.
There are plenty of days I’ve been pushed to the brink, when I’ve wanted to give up. But I can’t give up.
If I did, who does Brandon have? I don’t know where my son would be had I not adopted him. I don’t think he’d still be living if I didn’t have him. I really don’t.
I believe God wouldn’t have given me this child without giving me the skills and the stamina to manage him. When Brandon was younger, I thought maybe he’d grow up to create something special, but that was just me soothing myself. Sometimes God chooses us for certain things, and I think I was chosen to be Brandon’s mother. I believe God might be using me as an inspiration to others who are struggling to deal with difficult things in their lives.
And I realize that Brandon can’t help most of what he does. It’s the way he is, and to be able to accept him makes me more understanding and accepting of other people. I’m a better person because I’m Brandon’s mom.
Stay the Course
I retired from teaching after I was elected to the Iowa House. I’ve been surrounded by adversity my entire life, so in politics I draw on the toughness I’ve always drawn on. I have the strength and know-how to take the punches. I won’t be scared off. You have to let the fray fall around you. You do your job and don’t let anything or anyone pull you down.
Some days in the Legislature have been extremely difficult; some days I’ve wanted to walk out. But I stay focused on why I’m there—to represent my constituents. I am their voice. They elected me for a reason, so I will stay the course and serve them the best I can. I’m there for the long haul; I have faith it’s where I’m supposed to be and what I’m supposed to be doing.