Thursday, October 27, 2005

What Is So Cool About High School?

If you have read my previous couple of posts, you know by now that I was raised a racist and stayed a racist all the way through Jr. High.  As I have reread those posts, I am struck by the fact that I believed something so thoroughly based on nothing but what people had told me all my life.  Since I lived my life surrounded by racists in a culture that was racist, I don't recall hearing anyone (in person) argue that racism was wrong.  It is likely that at least one or two folks did say such a thing, but they must have seemed so obviously crazy that it barely registered.  I watched T.V. and saw the debate going on in our nation regarding racism.  T.V. seemed make believe.  I didn't know any of the people that were on T.V.  And I was assured that people "up north" were crazy.  Didn't they prove it by attacking the South during the "War Between the States" as the civil war was always referred to in my schools?  I remember being genuinely amazed when President Lyndon B. Johnson took office after John F. Kennedy was assassinated.  LBJ started talking about how we had to help black people.  He supported the Federal Bureaucrats who were pushing for "equal opportunity”.  Wow, how could a guy who grew up in Texas and taught school in Texas go nuts like that?  What on earth was he thinking?

So it is true, as I entered High School (we started at grade 10) I was still a florid racist.  I was angry with the black boys (all 50 or so of them) who came unwelcome to our school.  I was one of one thousand angry white boys, who all figured that the black boys were doing something really bad.
We also knew that if the black boys hadn't begun attending our school, it could still be a boys’ and girls’ school as it had been in years past.  Five hundred girls were put far away from us.  I couldn't even drive at first.  And when I was a boy, boys behaved much better when girls were around.  Take the girls away and you saw what the boys were really like.  It was not good.

I was pretty mad.  I wished someone would do something.  Pretty soon boys did start doing things.  The least of it was the whispering and pointing, which is pretty awful all by itself.
Then there was the outright name calling and cursing.  That had to be really hard to take for those 50 black boys.  None of that made much impression on me.  I barely remember it.  However, when gangs of white boys began to catch individual black boys alone and beat them unmercifully, I noticed.  I didn't want to get involved.  After all, I might get in trouble.  I didn't even exactly think it was fair for half a dozen white boys to pick out a lone, often small, black boy and beat him to the ground, kick him, scream at him, and leave him whimpering or unconscious.  But after all, if the black boys hadn't come, they wouldn't be getting beat up.  I was a bit scared when a plate glass window shattered near my seat in the cafeteria when a group beating a black boy hit the glass during their vicious flailing.  But a little fear and adrenaline was seen as a desirable thing when I was 15.  It was much better than the tedium of the classroom.  And I never worried for a moment that someone might beat me up.  The black boys who were beaten had done nothing except walk in halls where they weren't wanted.  If they fought back, they would very likely be killed.  After all it was 1000 white boys against 50 black.

Police were sometimes present.  They wore plainclothes, but they looked like cops. When they bent over to drink at the water fountain, their gun peaked out from under their shirt.  We laughed and pointed.  Who did they think they were fooling in those plain clothes?

An especially turbulent time was when crowds formed to catch the school buses home.  It was a restless, difficult to monitor time under normal circumstances.  Somehow, one day, it got worse than usual.  Hundreds of white boys crowded around the huddled group of black boys waiting to board the one bus that took them back and forth from the black part of town.  I had no idea where that was.  It wasn't somewhere I would ever go.

The white crowd began to yell and chant.  And rocks and broken glass began to fly, seemingly out of nowhere.  The single plainclothes police officer that was there began to attempt to break up the crowd.  Boys ran behind him and threw broken glass at him.  He turned and pulled out his gun, but who could he shoot?  We laughed at him.  More glass flew.  More yelling and chanting.  I stood at the far perimeter.  I didn't yell.  I didn't throw anything.  And I thought this might be going too far.  But after all, those black boys were the ones to blame really.  If they hadn't come, none of this would be happening.  Somehow it was over soon after starting.  The black boys were so mobbed that I can't even remember seeing the look on their faces.  But I remember the police officer.  He looked terrified.  I thought that was really funny.  A fat old cop was afraid of a bunch of boys.

You could get away with a lot in the south in those days.  You could drink, and driving drunk was just funny.  You could beat up black boys, and what were they going to do about it? Stealing and fighting were common and treated lightly by the authorities.  I remember the principal of my elementary school asking an over grown 6th grader "What made you think it was o.k. to beat that boys head against the pavement after you got him down?"  That same principal was now the assistant principal at the high school.  He looked the other way when the smaller freshman white boys were subjected to the usual initiations of having their pants ripped off or of being dropped headfirst into trash barrels.  I remember him as an assistant principal, walking up to the tough kids who were smoking on the school grounds.  He asked them for a light and joked with them.   The one fight I got into in my Jr. High earned me the nickname of Rocky Schnake. The nickname came from the same coach who laughed at me and kicked me when I was writhing on the ground with a knee destroyed during football practice.  Coaches at the high school took roll at the beginning of physical education, and then told us to "get lost" so they could get back to their cigarettes and magazines in the lounge they had set up in the gym office.
I could go on, but you probably are getting the idea.  It was a pretty rough place and you could get away with a lot.

However, I believe that one thing is true of police everywhere.  They get really, really mad if you hurt one of them.  Can you imagine how mad they were at us boys who had terrified that lone police officer?  I have some idea.  Because I arrived at school the next day to find policemen standing guard all over the campus.  They jeered at us and taunted us with "try something now, punk".  They desperately wanted us to do something so they could get us.  We walked on eggshells and gave them as much space as we could.  But there were many, many police.  Some had dogs.  Some of their greatest amusement occurred when the officer controlling a dog would jerk its chain and make it leap, snap and growl at whoever happened to be walking by.

I don't remember how long the police occupation went on.  I do remember that somehow it got quieter.  The beatings stopped, at least in public.  No more riots.  Sullen, bitter submission.
A new principal was hired.  He had a reputation for being the toughest principal ever.  He called us into an assembly.  When we began to shuffle our feet and mock him, he shouted us down. "Youse guys think you are tough, well you ain't nothin. I been at schools where guys got killed. You guys are nothin and you better not mess with me."  He seemed like the real thing.  Assemblies got quiet.  Classrooms got quiet.  No one wanted to risk being sent to the principal's office!

I even got an honest PE coach later in the year.  He actually taught us about health and exercise and made us play sports.  And that is how I came to talk the black kids.  Even at a twenty to one ratio, it was not unusual to have a black boy or even several black boys in a class with us.
I remember a couple of the guys who were in our P.E. class.  One was tall and lanky.  He seemed a little rough and carefree.  I didn't speak to him much.  But the other guy was clean and soft spoken.  He was a great athlete, and when we chose sides everyone wanted him on their team.
It was a strange thing, but sports were the exception when it came to racism.  Playing sports together was o.k.  In fact we laughed and talked and probably had the best time of the day out on the touch football field.  We kidded around with the black kids, but it wasn't mean.  We kidded around the same way we did with each other.  We talked a bit.  I found out that the athletic boy worked at a shoe store after school.  I remember thinking that I had never seen a black person in a shoe store.  It had never occurred to me before that they had to have their own clothing stores.  Obviously no one was going to try on clothes that a black person might have tried earlier.  And a black shoe clerk at a white store was unthinkable.  He would have to touch the feet of white people.  He might even touch white women.  Nobody ever thought that desegregation could go that far!  Now, forty years later, I still walk around shopping malls in awe at the mixture of races!  I could never have imagined such a thing when I was fifteen.

Once again, I wish I could change this story to make myself look better.  I wish I could tell you how that black boy and I became good friends, and my prejudice and hate just melted away.  But that isn't what happened.  We did talk and joke. That fact that I cannot remember his name is not terribly significant.  I can remember very few names from forty years ago.

I do remember something that happened soon after we got to know each other a bit.  In a school of one thousand boys, we didn't run into each other in the halls right away.  I don't know how long it was, before we did, but I had had time to get to know him better than I had known any other black person of any age.    So when the day came that we did pass each other in the hall, he broke into a broad grin and called me by name.  I looked straight ahead without changing my expression one tiny bit.  I acted like he wasn't even there.  I couldn't be seen socializing with a black boy off the football field!  My heart and stomach seemed to switch places.  I was terrified.
But I showed nothing.  The black boy's face fell.  He looked so terribly sad and lonely.  But I walked on and tried very hard to forget that it had ever happened.

But I have not forgotten.  That moment is etched in my mind as clearly as the moment my first child was born.  To this day I regret walking by that boy as if he wasn't there.  It is almost as if the story of my racism is broken off there at that very moment.  I do not mean that I ceased being a racist.  I know that despite a vast change in my outlook and beliefs, I still harbor pockets of racist thoughts and attitudes that resist being rooted out.  I do not mean that my story became one of a march towards renewal, day by day.  My racism story just ends there.  I can't remember ever playing football with black kids again. I don't remember speaking to them or even thinking much about them.  I must have done so.  But I don't remember it.  Maybe I am like someone who has gone through something so terrible that they have somehow blocked it out of their memory.  I am pretty close to crying as I write this.  I don't think I ever realized until this very moment that the rest of my high school story was gone with respect to black kids.
I suppose they were there again the following year.  I honestly don't remember.  There is a blank spot in my memory wherever I might have interacted with a black boy from that day on.

Oh, but perhaps that is not quite true.  The summer following my junior year of high school, I participated in a science program at a university in the northern part of Louisiana.  Racism in that area was even more virulent than at my New Orleans area high school.  And of the 30 or 40 students in the science program, one girl was black.  One boy was known to be Jewish.
We lived in the campus dormitories for 6 weeks or so.  We studied together and went on field trips together.  We ate meals in the cafeteria, sticking together in quiet recognition of the fact that we were the only high school kids amongst the sizable number of summer students at that university.  Perhaps the blank spot in my memory would have gone right on through that time. However, a few incidents stuck with me.  Wherever we went as a group, someone in the town or on the campus was likely to shout out ____ lovers at us.  There was pointing and staring.  The boys were ridiculed and taunted in our dormitories by the few college students that were there for the summer.  I didn't like it, and I felt sorry for the black girl.  But I think the thing that really hit me hardest was the night I was walking a girl home from the movies.  I dated several of the girls during my time at the University.  I was almost desperate to make up for the time I had spent in an all boys school.  And one of the girls was very pretty and very mysterious.  Something in her drew me to her. She seemed very special, but she was also often sad, and I didn't know why.  That was the girl that I was walking home.  Fifty or one hundred feet ahead walked another couple.  It was a white girl and the boy who was known to be Jewish.  A car load of rowdies careened past us.  One of the guys in the car yelled out "Hey Jew boy, we don't want you here".  I was vaguely aware of the fact that my date was also Jewish.  But I was surprised when tears rushed out of her eyes.  Why was it such a big deal to her?  Somehow I began to realize why.  One of my best buddies in high school was Jewish.  My dad was prejudiced against Jews also.  But only in the same way that he put down Italian people, Polish people, women, yankees, southerners who acted like yankees, rock and roll stars, kids with long hair, poor people, rich people, and so on.  I used to think, "So who are we for, if these are all the people we are against".  My dad never made me stop playing with my Jewish friend.  He ridiculed him behind his back, but he did that to just about everyone I knew.

That night after the movies, I think I became dimly aware of the fact that if my friend had been walking ahead of me, he would have been yelled at as a "Jew boy".  I knew that the girl I liked felt just as bad as my friend would have.  Probably a lot worse, he had grown used to a certain amount of bile spilled his way.  This girl had not experienced it before.

So there is that one segment left in the missing line of my story of turning my face away from racism.  Just before my senior year started, my dad was transferred to headquarters in Ohio.  I started my last year of high school with 500 strangers.  Half were girls, and that made me very happy.  But I was very aware of being an outsider among these northern kids.  I recall there being a black boy in that Ohio school, but no one seemed to treat him much differently.  In hindsight I believe that folks in that town may have gone out of their way to be nice to the "black family" in town.

Some of the girls loved my accent.  I became something of a social butterfly.  But scholastically things were grim.  Believe it or not, the curriculum in my southern school had been much more demanding than what I encountered in that small Ohio town.  This was especially true because I had been an honor student in all "honors" classes where the competition was fierce.  Now in the Ohio school, the teachers seemed to believe instinctively that I was slow witted.  After all, I spoke in a languid drawl.  I walked slowly.  I talked slowly.  It was widely believed that all southern schools were second rate at best.  Despite my protests, I was put in classes for slow to average students.  Only after an entire semester of acing every test and assignment that came my way was I allowed to join the honors classes.  I began to realize that my accent was a liability.  I listened carefully to T.V. and radio announcers.  I adjusted my pronunciation and sped up a lot. I was successful.  Soon new acquaintances would say, "You can't really have grown up in the south, you don't have an accent at all."

Once again it is only hindsight that enables me to think that being the underdog must have had a powerful influence on my views about racism.  It was, of course, only a tiny taste of what I had dealt out all my life.  But it was very bitter, nonetheless.  And somehow, by the time I entered college, I was determined to be as different as possible from the boy I had been raised to be.
My struggles with racism will go on all my days.  I believe that is true for all people of all races, other than tiny children.  However, think I will end the story here.  There are other stories to tell, but those are stories for another time.          
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