On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day this year I watched Oprah's special show about race in America and thought of growing up in Dallas in the '60's. When they talked about the Little Rock 9 I was reminded of the desegregation of the schools in the '70's. I was in the eighth grade then.
The youngest of three children in my family, I followed my older brother and sister through the neighborhood schools where the teachers were well acquainted with my family and sometimes slipped and called me by my sister's name. From first through fifth grade I walked to school or rode my bike since the school was just five blocks from the only home I'd ever known. It was a neighborhood where Beaver Cleaver would have felt at home... simple houses with trees waiting to be climbed, basketball hoops above garages, and everybody knew which house on the block had the best yard for a game of baseball or football. Mine did (level yard, no fences, no trees).
I didn't think much about how white my world was. It was just my world. The people in my school were white. The people at my church were white. I saw mostly white people on all three channels on my black and white TV, too. Except for the news.
On the TV news shows we saw the Vietnam war and race riots and a man named Martin Luther King, Jr.. I can't remember any specific comments my parents made about such things but I know they didn't want to see anyone hurt or killed and they didn't think that we were any better than black people or anybody else. They spoke in respectful tones about Dr. King. At church we sang about Jesus loving all the little children, “red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight.” In my home, we believed that.
When I visited friends in my neighborhood I sometimes heard words of anger and derision directed toward black people and it caught me by surprise. I thought my neighbors were good people, so how could they say such things? How could they think such things? Why would they speak in such hateful tones about people they didn't know, who had never done them any harm?
I began to realize that not everybody will see the world the way I do.
In sixth grade it became clear that I would take a slightly different path through the educational system than the one my older siblings had taken. A new school had been built and the line dividing our neighborhood went right down the middle of my street. I went to the new school. New teachers had never met my family, new students came from different neighborhoods. Paint fumes and sawdust and construction crews were still on site. We ate lunch at our desks for months because the cafeteria hadn't been completed yet. Neither had the gym so we played outside during recess, climbing on the ladders and giant cable spools that littered the schoolyard.
We were all getting used to something new and we had to work together and do the best we could with the inconveniences.
While I was getting used to this new school, my brother was a student at Hulcy Middle School that met in the top floor of Carter High School because the new middle school building was still a work in progress. When I became a seventh grader the next year, I joined him there. That year my brother and sister and I were all attending school in the same building again since my sister was a student in the high school.
With two schools squeezed into a space intended for one, conditions were very crowded. Desks lined up in the alcoves near the stairwells became study halls. Each locker was shared by at least four or five students. I can't imagine the logistical planning it took to get all of the students from both schools in and out of the one cafeteria every day for lunch. PE teachers would flip a coin to see which class would go outside while the other class used the gym. And if there's anything worse than being a lost little seventh grader running into a big ninth grade football player it's running into a big high school senior football player.
That year I had a black classmate for the first time. Robert Ware was the only black student in my junior high and he was my friend. If I remember correctly, the high school had three or four black students.
And then we got word that busing to achieve racial desegregation would begin in the Dallas schools the following year. Buses would start bringing black kids from their neighborhoods to our schools. Black families wondered why their kids were the ones who had to spend hours on the buses every day. Many white families moved to the suburbs or sent their kids to private schools because they didn't want their kids going to school with black kids.
Looking around my crowded classrooms my only question was, “Where are we going to put them all?”
The answer was... here and there.....
The ninth grade stayed at the high school. Half of the seventh grade stayed at the elementary schools where they had just finished sixth grade. The other half of the seventh grade and half of the eighth grade shared space with the rival junior high a few miles away, which I understand made life interesting the week the two teams played each other in football.
I was in the half of the eighth grade that attended classes at the Texas National Guard Armory out on Red Bird Lane, much further from my house than the high school and definitely off the beaten track.
Each morning, my mother would drive me through the familiar subdivisions near my house, out onto the two lane country highway, passing plowed fields and barns. Turning into the unpaved, caliche parking lot of the Texas National Guard Armory and driving around the military trucks and tanks, she deposited me on the doorstep of my new, makeshift school.
Inside I found a cavernous drill hall that I thought was bigger than several gymnasiums. I saw school desks lined up and grouped into four different classroom areas with a few movable blackboards and temporary partitions placed around them as dividers. They didn't help much because we could easily see and hear what was going on everywhere. If someone was in trouble in the English class, everybody at the other end of the drill hall heard the drama play out. Occasionally, a few soldiers in uniform would walk by and students would turn to face them and salute. Teachers had their hands full trying to keep the classes focused on their work. And every other week we helped the teachers pack things up to be moved out of the way while the paratroopers came in to train over the weekend.
The students at the armory were organized into two teams. One team attended each of the four core classes in turn – English, History, Math, and Science – while the other half went to Music, Art and Physical Education. Music class met in an actual classroom, Art class in the armory's Mess Hall. PE was outside when the weather was nice or squeezed into another small classroom inside when it wasn't. We all brought our lunches and ate wherever we happened to be when the lunch period began. After lunch, the teams switched places. The core classes group moved on to Music, Art & PE while the other team took it's place.
You might notice I haven't mentioned that for the first time in my life about half of my classmates were black. To me, this was just another year of classes with students and teachers who were new to me and with circumstances that were less than convenient.
Once again, we were all getting used to something new and we had to work together and do the best we could with the inconveniences.
Oh, and I just happened to have classmates who were black, too.
We spent one semester in that armory. Just a few short months. And little by little we got to know each other. The black students and the white students. The smart ones and the not so smart ones. The funny ones and the serious ones. Some were artistic. Some were scientists. Some were loud and some were quiet. Some you knew would be football stars next year. Some would clearly be voted most likely to succeed or star in the senior play or dance at your wedding.
I would like to tell you that the next semester, when our new school building was finally finished, we entered with hands clasped, singing as one a chorus of “We Shall Overcome”. But of course, we didn't.
Once again, we faced a new environment with lots of new teachers and students to get to know as the rest of our classmates came together from their scattered locations. Some adjusted more easily than others and yes, there were fights. We had police officers assigned to our building, as did other schools throughout the city. I had friends who were drawn into conflicts and some who were targeted. Small incidents could quickly become big ones and as I look back on it I greatly admire the best of my teachers who were able to win our trust and confidence and help bridge the gaps and ease the way for us along with teaching us decimals and literature and the periodic table. I'm sure the students brought their parents' attitudes and prejudices to school with them, just as I carried the lessons my parents had taught me.
I don't recall ever having a conflict with with other students based on race. I do recall some interesting talks with a couple of girls who seemed to always get in trouble and frequently found themselves in the principals office for fighting. We talked about why they got so angry and how they wanted to do better. I'm not sure why these tall, strong willed, outspoken black girls felt so comfortable talking with me, a skinny, artsy-nerdy white girl with long blond hair who was usually the teacher's pet. But I'm glad they did. Sometimes when I saw them getting in trouble again I'd catch their eye. And we both knew that they wanted to do better. And sometimes they did. I recall admiring their strength and hoping they would figure out how to put it to good use. I remember having similar conversations with white friends, too.
When I was an eighth grader I learned that it's not just about race, it's about culture. And I learned that what our respective cultures had in common was much greater than our differences.
I no longer attended a school in my small neighborhood, but my neighborhood grew a little larger that year.