Threat of the School Bus
August 23, 2005

Thinking of Aries Spears yesterday and thinking about the frickin' Klan reminded me that I haven't continued what I started in "Hall of Presidents" (used to be called "The Smile," but I hated that title so I finally got around to changing it).

Like I've said, I was raised primarily in Texas in the 70s. I started school in Austin and ended at a high school in Arlington (yuppie-ville between Dallas and Fort Worth).

At my first elementary school, Pillow, I don't remember ever seeing a black student. We had two students, twins, who were either atheists or, I think now, they may have been Muslim. I was in first grade when I first met Rex and the finer points of religion just weren't a big deal to me. After all, I'd met Jon Comb in kindergarten and he was Jewish and it hadn't been any big deal. Whatever. Seemed to me like there were 18 million different flavors of religion and they were all sure they were the right one. My opinion at the time was very child-simple: God was all-loving, so anyone who tried honestly to do good and right would eventually be all right with God.

So anyhow, the point is we didn't have a whole lot of diversity in my school. I didn't really notice much. I had my good friend, Nancy, and she lived down the street from us. Her brother, David, was my exact same age -- we had the same birthday. I'd known them for ages before I said something to Nancy about wishing that my skin tanned so nicely like hers did. I have always had that pasty Irish complexion, complete with freckles. Nancy's skin was just a nice, tanned color -- not real dark, but not so glow-in-the-dark white either.

When I told my mom what I'd told Nancy, she just spluttered. "You didn't!!"

"Did. I do wish my skin would tan like that."

No one had bothered to inform me that Nancy was half Mexican. Once they did, I still wasn't sure what the BFD was. Great, you get a Mexican and a white person together and you get a built-in tan. Why don't all white people marry Mexicans? All white people want tans. Wouldn't it just be easier to marry a Mexican instead of trying to "cook" your skin into that color?

I really didn't get it.

And my mother was appalled with me.

Evidently there'd been some fuss in the neighborhood when the Tapias first moved in. The scandal! A mixed couple. (I thought that all couples were mixed - one man and one woman. Whatever. I thought adults were completely insane.) And I learned interesting new words, like wetback. But, everyone seemed to like the Tapias now, so I assumed that everything was all right.

But the real eye-opener for me was the first day of second grade. You see, we lived several miles away from Pillow Elementary. The Balcones Woods subdivision was probably a good 5 or more miles away. And you had to drive on the highway (always a big deal in my mom's mind), and you had to drive past an active quarry.

Despite the car pool, the parents complained about this drive constantly. They kept demanding a bus to take us to the school, but it didn't happen in kindergarten and seemed to be getting closer by the end of first grade.

First day of second grade, I walk into the school building and there's a table with a posterboard taped to it. The parent sitting behind the table has plenty of sheets of paper that the other parents are signing.

I was shocked. I turned to my mom and exclaimed, "But I thought we wanted busing!!"

Well, it's not like a second grader can tell the difference between being bused from our neighborhood into our school and "The Great Evil, Busing to Mix the Races" just from seeing a "Stop the Busing" sign!

My panicked mother was frantically trying to get me to shut up and at the same time explain to the other parents that we lived out in Balcones Woods. I was furious at being told to shut up and that I didn't understand. I knew how to read. I knew what the sign said. Why couldn't adults ever just say what they meant?

We walked into the cafeteria to wait for time to start classes and then Mom walked me down to my new school room. Now, Pillow, in my ever-so-humble opinion, had a good system going for teaching to a kid's level. They'd throw any 30 kids into a classroom and then the teacher would evaluate and place students into groups of 2, 3, 5, however many kids were at the same reading or math level. I knew most of the other second graders in my class already, so I'm running up to friends and getting ready to pick a seat and the whole deal. My mom was just kinda standing there in the back of the class, with some of the other parents.

Yeah. Our teacher was black.

Two weeks into the school year -- so fast that I literally remember nothing about second grade at Pillow except that first day -- I became a part of white flight. My mom pulled me out of the local public school and enrolled me at St. Louis elementary.

At the time I was terribly confused. Here we were about to get buses and now Mom suddenly wants to carpool. And I have to wear a uniform. And go to Mass ... was it every day or just Fridays? I think it was just Fridays. We had to go to this church that I'd never been to and go try on uniforms -- some green plaid jumper with a white shirt. Before I could burst into tears over the jumper -- we'd already had this discussion in kindergarten when I insisted on wearing jeans or pants every day -- Mom told me that we were buying one jumper and I could also wear a white shirt and green jeans. Now that's a progressive Catholic school for the mid 70s.

I hated it there.

I was utterly miserable the whole year I spent there.

And I don't think I saw a single black student there. Certainly no Jewish kids like Jon. Or atheist or Muslim kids like Rex. Just a bunch of pasty-white kids. And school was every bit as boring here as at Pillow. In fact, I was a bit behind where I had been in the public school.

I asked Mom years later about that. Why she had sent me to the Catholic school and avoided the public school. She had thought it would give me a better education. And, honestly, she was afraid of the busing.

She knew me well enough to know that whether other kids were bused in or I was bused to another school, I'd be in the middle of the trouble. You see, I was always the kid who was looking to smooth things out between everyone, the peacemaker. I had declared with the frequency of a kid who has NO idea that she is in the middle of the South in the 70s, that I wished I had been able to work with the civil rights movement. I declared frequently with no notice of the rednecks around us in Shepler's that I thought blacks were just the same as whites and how stupid did people have to be to try to make them use a different water fountain? And why couldn't they sit in the same lunchroom?

Mom told me that she knew before I even entered a new school or before the new kids entered ours, I would be right there, trying to make friends with the new kids and getting mad at anyone -- including adults -- who made racial comments about anyone else. She told me she was afraid I'd get hurt.

She was probably right that I would have been in the middle of things and that I probably would have gotten hurt.

But she was wrong to take me out of public school for that reason. And I have to wonder if her real reason wasn't what she saw in my classroom on that first day of school: a black teacher.

I wish I remembered that teacher's name. I'd apologize to her for my mom's fears. It probably sucked for her that year, knowing the racial tensions that were rampant in the school, in the town. I doubt I was the only kid who was pulled out of school and that kind of extra tension on a teacher is an immense load.

to be continued further ...

Posted by Red Monkey at August 23, 2005 11:38 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble |


Andy T. said:

I think the first black kid I got to know was in third or fourth grade... even in the 70's our hometown was segregated, just not on the law books.

August 25, 2005 5:55 AM


Present Storm said:

Wow that is so interesting .I grew up going to a school where whites were the minority .It is amazing at how different each of us were raised .Thanks for sharing your story .I look forward to the rest of it . Thanks for stopping by my place earlier :)

August 25, 2005 11:01 AM

I took my time to read your story. And I was not in hurry to move on to the next blog. Because, this is a classic narrative testimonial from an honest to God point of view.

The title should be "Sunflowers in the Snow". Sunflowers for the tanned people in the Snow(white country).

This is a story that is worth publishing in the New York Times magazine for wider read.

Yes, racism is bad.
But, among us in Nigeria and the rest of Africa, Tribalism is our own sin. And Class discrimination is also as bad as racial discrimination.

Do you know that many African-Americans who are rich discriminate against their poor folk?

Personally, it takes great humility and wisdom be colourblind.

August 25, 2005 12:08 PM


Dirty Butter said:

Having taught elementary school children for 25 years, I can really identify with the purely innocent way a young child views issues that adults can make so complicated.

I, too, remember being puzzled by warnings from my parents to "watch what you say". They were only trying to keep me from getting hurt, too, but I didn't understand that then, either.

I look forward to reading more of what you have to say.


August 27, 2005 3:22 PM
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