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.