Monday, May 5, 2008

High School Memories across the Racial Divide

I went to an experimental high school in the 60's. It was experimental in many ways. It was a brand new high school built to handle the first wave of baby boomers then beginning to clog up the educational system. In its first year of operation, I entered as a 9th grader. In an effort to build up some kind of school history, it was the first high school to allow 8th graders as well. So I managed to avoid the problem of being a freshman low-man/woman on the totem pole.

Our campus was college-oriented with much emphasis on critical thinking as the pathway to knowledge. Honor students were allowed to sky-out of any class at half-time. This idea was meant to encourage those students who didn't need intensive teacher time to pursue their own interests in the library or science labs (my two favorite haunts). Classes were 65-minutes long. At the half-time 5-minute break, heralded by muzak over the P.A., the sound of books snapping shut and many feet exiting the classrooms must have been depressing for those non-honor students who were stuck in class for another 30-minutes. The only class you weren't allowed to leave at half-time was Phys Ed (more about that below*).

The classrooms themselves were made up of modules of moveable walls that did not extend up as far as the ceiling. This would supposedly allow for future classroom size changes, but in reality all it did was allow sound to penetrate from classes on either side. For some reason, those other classes always seemed to be having MUCH more fun!

Being a brand-new school, we had brand-new teachers, too. Most of them were only recently credentialed, so this was their first job. We had the highest rate of "single" teachers, too ... at least they were single at the beginning ... by the time I graduated, many of the "singles" had married each other. These marriages usually happened during summer vacations, thus causing great confusion when your new fall curriculum schedule would arrive in the mail at the end of August naming who you thought was the baseball coach as your english lit teacher. These mailed schedules were also when you would find out that not enough other students had signed up for "history of poetry" or "russian revolution" for them to honor your first- or second-choice electives, thus ensuring you would be spending at least a semester studying "typing" or some such third-choice (actually typing turned out to be one of the more useful electives I ever fell into). One year none of my 3 choices were available, so I received a note telling me to call my counselor for an appointment. I ended up with a semester of "Mythology" which turned out to be one of my favorite classes.

Another barrier we broke in our new school was the color barrier. Being a brand-new school, we were also the first school in our city to be part of the mandatory bussing requirements of the 60's. About 1/3 of our school were black students bussed in from the west side of town where no high school, new or otherwise, had ever been built. Another 1/3 of the students came from a very wealthy area of town, the elite kids who for one reason or another were attending public school rather than private. The remaining 1/3 were students like me who happened to live near the new high school. This made for an interesting culture clash. I think I can safely say that most of these groups of students had never had much, if any, contact with the other groups. Throwing us all together in a new high school did not make us any more inclined to be friendly to each other, either.

The student parking lot was telling. Mercedes and BMW's were parked side-by-side with junker corvairs and dented ford fairlanes. Gas was cheap, so every once in awhile a big Dodge Charger or Pontiac GTO would peel out, burning rubber, which nicely covered all the cigarette fumes. Teachers usually went for sensible cars, like impalas or volkswagons, although Mr Fox drove a mustang and Madam Adam drove a pink T-Bird convertible. To the side, the big yellow busses would line up as each school day began and ended. I envied all of the students with cars and even the busriders, because I had to walk to school, pouring rain, winter wind or sweltering heat.

There was much racial tension. Race riots occurred many times as the tumultuous events of 60's America boiled over into flashpoints. The Watts riots were reflected at my high school. When Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated, we had race riots for a week. A race riot meant that all the classrooms were locked down. When it came time to go to your next class, teachers would escort the students past throngs of "rioters". During these times, there were no black students actually IN class. They were holding meetings in the cafeteria or other common areas. At some point during these meetings, waves of black students would spill out and roam the hallways, driven by the heat of the moment or pent-up feelings of anger and despair. At these times, we would hear lots of yelling and banging around of lockers and other school property (remember our walls didn't go all the way up to the ceiling). I'm sure these outbursts would seem very tame by today's standards. While the property damage was pretty bad, the amount of actual personal violence was minimal. Since these were the years before metal-detectors or gun-carrying school police became commonplace (meaning we had no use for such things) you might wonder what we were all so fearful of.

It was fear of the unknown. Fear of the other. Fear of people who didn't look like you, talk like you, dress like you, or act like you. Fear was present in all three groups of students, across the racial divide, and between the have-mores and the have-littles, too. Everything and everyone in one of the other groups seemed so strange, and strangers can do you harm, right? So it seemed we were at an impasse in my first couple years of high school. No group really understood what the other groups were so upset about. Aaah, but then came the summer of love, 1967, and a new way of thinking was born, so powerful that it even penetrated my desert backwater of a town. Returning to school in the fall of that year we found the old groupings of students had suddenly morphed into anti-war protestors, long-haired hippies, afro-wearing black-power proponents, feminists, sports jockeys, popular society-types and/or egghead nerds. The original three groups had branched out to encompass a whole range of individual interests!

*Time out for sports: We were only required to take 2 yrs of high school P.E. Nothing could have made me happier since I was so small & unathletic. Even though I aced the written tests, P.E. invariably brought down my gradepoint average. Some semesters it almost cost me my honor student status. The only P.E. activities I was any good at were gymnastics and modern dance. Team sports were torture for me. I sure hope no gym teacher today is still allowing team captains to pick their own teams. It is completely humiliating to be among the last to be picked because nobody wants to be stuck with you on their team. This is where the black basketball players taught me a good lesson. Of course, the black girls would always pick their friends first, the same as any other team captain. And at the end of these miserable popularity contests there would always be me & few other klutzes to be forced on whatever team was unlucky enough to still need players. It was 50/50 that I would end up the only white girl on the black girls' team. At first, this terrified me. They were all so big! They were all so fast! They were all so fit & they played to win! I thought they would just run rough-shod over me, pound me into the ground & wipe the floor with my ass. But they didn't. They knew the value of teamwork & they worked hard to give me some unimportant play that wouldn't cost them many points (because they knew I would blow it). I can't tell you how good that made me feel. At some point, they discovered I knew all the rules of any game being played (as I said, the written tests were my ace-in-the-hole to getting a passing grade in P.E.). From then on, they would always say, ask D.K. if this is a foul or if this is allowed or whatnot. Not so when I was forced on the white girl's teams where I was benched & forgotten. One of my fondest P.E. memories was when Althea was a team captain. No one was bigger or faster than Althea. Everyone respected her (if they didn't, she would teach them respect, and they would have the bruises to show for it). I don't know if it was because she knew she would end up with me one way or another, but I'll never forget the times she actually picked me early on, not making me wait with the unwanted until the very end. Althea was also patient in giving me free-throw pointers. She didn't guffaw and make rude remarks when I airballed. She'd just throw back the ball and order me to TRY AGAIN. To this day, I think that was one of the most important lessons I ever learned in high school.

OK, back to post-1967/68: By this time, we'd started having black history assemblies (Bill Cosby spoke at one of them) wherein racial diversity was suddenly seen as something to be proud of, not something to fear. I think it was obvious that something wonderful was happening when the junior class president started dating a black girl. All of a sudden, even the cafeteria, last bastion of separatism, was breached. Black and white students began eating lunch with each other, finding humor in each other's stories and vowing we would NEVER let fear rule us again. We made it through my final high school year without a race riot. We even had a black cheerleader and a black prom queen & king that year. These were major achievements for the once disenfranchised because we ALL had to vote and that meant whites voted for blacks. At graduation, my "escort" down the aisle toward our diplomas was one of the black basketball varsity players. He was so tall & handsome, I think all 400 of our graduating class were jealous!

I bring all this up because in this election year we are suddenly seeing race front & center. It didn't start out that way, but ever since the Ohio and Pennsylvania primaries, we are hearing more and more that many white people simply won't vote for a black man. I never realized closet racism was so rampant. This makes me sad because I thought we were beyond that. Apparently not. Apparently some people think that a candidate's leadership qualifications, their ability to win votes, and their vision for America don't count if they aren't white. If that is where we are in America, 150-yrs after the civil war, 45-yrs after civil rights, then it is a very sad statement about us as a country. I'd like to remind people who find themselves feeling this way, that fear is the way we die. I'm sorry if laying this out so starkly is offensive.

There's a great speech in Spike Lee's "Malcom X" which I think applies to these retrograde racial attitudes that seem to pop up whenever we begin to feel pride in our progress or at least hope that the issue has receded in importance: "You’ve been had. You’ve been took. You’ve been hoodwinked. Bamboozled. Led astray," Malcolm (Denzel Washington) says in the movie (I can find no record that Malcolm X ever said this in real life, but no matter). These words have special meaning for me this election year when I feel it is so important to vote for change, to vote your conscience in spite of (maybe even because of) the diversions being thrown down our throats.

Thanks for allowing me to walk to down high school memory lane, and most especially for enduring my Phys Ed humiliations.


Cart said...

What a compelling story, a time capsule of a short period of so many changes.
Thank you

D.K. Raed said...

thanks, Cart. I was just editing for spelling errors, so hopefully it's a bit more readable now. I didn't realize bussed and bussing had two s's. They were violent times with many changes occurring so rapidly.

TomCat said...

Excellent story, DK. My father was an avowed racist bigot, and being a rebellious sort, I tended to look beyond racial differences early on. In the 1960s, I was well enough known locally as a anti-war, civil-rights activist that I could walk at night safely in the projects in Harlem or Brooklyn without fear. The only time I was harassed, there soon gathered a crowd behind me larger that the one confronting me.

It is sad that race is still an issue in this country. It ought not be. One can only hope that our nation comes to experience what you did in high school.

D.K. Raed said...

I guess I was lucky, my parents were only minor racists, they got over it years ago. Still it was kinda fun to shock them back in the day.

I am so impressed that you were able to garner such support in places like Harlem! Not many people get put to that kind of test. It really says a lot about you & your commitment to equal rights. Well done!

Utah Savage said...

d.k. I will come back and read, but I am at the moment glued to the "news." But I wanted to thank you for visiting me. Your comments were so kind. Without the help of my fellow bloggers I would be without a clue. I have a friend in San Francisco who provides serious technological support for a living. When I get in a real pickle I call on him, but hate to overdo it, since I getting it for free and it's what he does for a living.

Fran said...

dk wrote:
I'd like to remind people who find themselves feeling this way, that fear is the way we die. I'm sorry if laying this out so starkly is offensive.

>>> No offense taken. It's a sad state of affairs where skin color or gender get in the way of rational thought.

If any example of that theory of white supremacy existed, one would think the last 8 years of the bush regime would have proven, without a doubt, the flaw in that line of thinking!

Thanks for sharing your high school observations. My graduating class was the first to have black students- I thought it was cool, some people were much less accepting.
But your story has a happy ending & I hope this election does too.

Utah Savage said...

D.K. This is a great read. As compelling and well written as a great short story. I write "fiction," and it is all based on my own experiences. it has always been my belief the best fiction is taken from ones own experiences. Whether or not you decide to take to writing, thank you for sharing this portion of your life with us.

enigma4ever said...

Isn't it so odd that many of the experiences of the past are coming back to light...and that there is so much unhealed and tattered from the past.....and how Hill has exploited those wounds and rifts....

really beautiful post...really amazing when you weave your own history with real history....and it all matters...really brave post...

thank you...

enigma4ever said...

BTW I do love the Malcom X quote and he did say it I saw it on a Documentary a few years ago...

D.K. Raed said...

Utah Savage:
Nice to see you here & glad you liked my little story. Fiction based on one's own life is an interesting blur of reality. I don't think you have to worry so much about all the fancy computer blog tricks. I think it's more about having something to say. I'm not a writer; I write like I talk (only in more complete sentences).

I wonder if the white supremacists are stoking this (because I really didn't think there were that many of them), or if it isn't more about each person's inner fear that the world might suddenly fall apart if someone of a different skin color were to be in charge. If Bush is an example of the pinnacle of the ANY race, it is the race to abscond with all our cherished rights & freedoms, all our & our children & grandchildren's money, the race to make the world a much worse place for everyone except him & his rich cronies. He has been running that race for years. Now it's time for him to race out of our lives.

Thanks. I couldn't get those memories out of my mind until I wrote them down. True, much is unsaid, but I really never thought any of this would be a topic of conversation this year. I think Hill found herself a better fear card than terrorists (Karl must be sooo proud). I am embarrassed that it plays so well in certain communities. I was also sure Malcolm X DID say those words in the Spike Lee movie, but I sure couldn't find them online. YouTube has TONS of Malcolm X speech vids, but not that speech.

TomCat said...

DK, part of what I did in NYC in the 1960s was to help coordinate activities between SDS and other groups. Hence, I was a familiar face at SNCC and CORE.

eProf2 said...

I really enjoyed reading your post. I thought you did an outstanding job of connecting your personal high school experiences with today's politics. You said in an earlier comment that your parents were "minor racists." As I used to tell my students, we are all racists, some more than others. Likewise, we are all sexists, some more than others. Understanding who we are and what we are going to do about it is half the battle. Education is the other half.

an average patriot said...

That was very interesting. You had an interesting time in High School and at a very tumultuous time. i can not comprehend prejudice of any kind. The best person period is all that should matter particularly today.
The 60's with Vietnam, racial equality, civil uprisings, resultant deaths, MLK, RK, JFK assassinations, scares me to death because I fully expect all of it to not only be repeated but dwarfed. I am very concerned for Obama!
Despite what these fools try to tell us today about seeing better times we baby boomer's have seen the best of times period!

D.K. Raed said...

TCat: SDS recruited in vegas, too, but around that time, I started to get more involved with the reemergence of The Troubles in Ireland. I worked on the RFK, McCarthy & McGovern campaigns, sometimes in very poor neighborhoods w/community outreach programs. I am always so proud of the democrat's Big Tent and can't imagine similar feelings being held by many repugs about their party's goals.

Welcome! Yes, understanding is the key. Understanding points the way toward change. I used to delight in pointing out unfair racial stereotypes that were key to many of my parents' jokes. I think the 60's were a time of their education, too. Once we got beyond all that, and especially after all their daughters married such diverse racial types, they were fine.

Avg Patriot:
Of course you are right about "the best person, period". It's a simple concept, so why is it so difficult for so many people? I wish I knew. As much as I enjoyed growing up in the 60's, I sure wouldn't want to relive the assassination part. Too scary to think about it happening now that so many more people are heavily armed, thus leading to even greater violence, which might in turn lead to a repressive crack-down far beyond anything we've ever seen.

an average patriot said...

I guess the 06s were scary but remember with the passing of time just look around, look at history, look what we have at our disposal, and remember man learns nothing and as such is doomed to repeat history over, and over, and over, until...
We have seen nothing yet and what happens will be blamed on everyone else while it is our fault but just relax, enjoy, but be prepared!

D.K. Raed said...

Avg Patriot:
The '06s, hmmm? That would be my great grandma's time! LOL, I know what you meant! Your last stmnt sounds like: turn on, tune in, stock up!

an average patriot said...

06's that's funny! guess I got ahead of myself but you got it. Stock up is just an absolute scratch on the surface. I woke this morning to hear many are maxing their credit cards to try Nd keep up with the rapidly increasing prices.
They better wake up! This, absolutely everything in the entire world is just the beginning and that is just plain fact. I have tried to wake people up for 35 years now and the time is near. This is a very long subject but I have written many times that$5 gas has to happen and soon also we are thanks to Bush on the fast track of a normal cycle heading the way of the Roman Empire. Total Breakdown! That I hate to say is just the beginning.
Worse there is no doom and gloom here just reality and there are many here that know it and some as weaseldog well prepared. Just relax, enjoy, but be prepared for the future. That's all I'm saying! There's no surprises here!

azgoddess said...

thanks for the wonderful memories - great post!

now about racism resurfacing - problem i see is that it never really went away and it wasn't hidden nor closeted

look at our prison system - the minorities are like 80 percent and male! the laws within the last 20 years have been racist...sigh

hugs and peace my friend -

DivaJood said...

"Love is but a song we sing, fear's the way we die.
You can make the mountains sing
Or make the rivers cry.
C'mon people, smile on your brother
every body get together
Gonna love one another right now"

Or something like that.

D.K. Raed said...

Avg Patriot:
The Roman Empire was in decline for 400-yrs, but I guess everything happens faster today

I know you must be right. If I didn't know it before, it was confirmed by Hillary's comments yesterday about White Americans.

I can hear it in my head & wonder why not everybody else can...

"If you hear the song I sing,
You must understand.
You hold the key to love and fear
All in your trembling hand.
Just one key unlocks them both,
It's there at your command."

an average patriot said...

That's pretty good!
Yes we are on the road to the natural process of a societies life cycle. Things do move faster today but i credit Bush a million% for speeding the process up exponentially.