Reflections on back to school in Durham

Aug. 31, 2013 @ 11:28 AM

“They paved the entrance!”  My older daughter and I were at Riverside High early, sorting her schedule, and she was touched by this simple thing.  Like locking doors on the bathroom stalls, a library catalogue system, or a tuned piano, that smooth asphalt showed that someone allocating money cares about Riverside.  She is a senior this year, with one wing already out of the nest.  My baby started at Lakewood Middle on Monday, anticipating her first locker.  This has been a week to have a dream, and I am unabashedly wishing for lots more money for our public schools.

I moved to Durham 14 years ago, and I did not give schools a second thought.  Both of my daughters’ grandmothers retired from public school teaching in Texas, and choosing differently would have seemed as traitorous to my parents as buying a foreign-made car would have seemed to theirs.  I could not initially interpret the awkwardness around the school question.  I eventually realized that people’s anxiety was not about salaries for teachers and such, matters I’d been taught to worry over.  Friends were concerned about race.  One with a daughter who looks like mine explained she was concerned about “experimentation.” She did not mean studies conducted on kids in a region replete with social scientists.  She was worried her daughter would crisscross the color line.  

It took years of legal wrangling to integrate Durham’s children.  One photo from that era is as iconic in Durham as Norman Rockwell’s “The Problem We All Live With.” In the 1959 picture, Floyd and Evelyn McKissick escort their daughter Andree and Henry Vickers to attend the previously all white Carr Junior High.  I’ve heard stories about the African-American children who were trailblazers in Durham, and they had to practice composure beyond reckoning.  For my own girls, the most pointed question they faced each new elementary year was whether they “go for” UNC or Duke.  The question of the desegregation era was “the NAACP versus the KKK,” as one trailblazer put it.  His mere presence at the school signaled not only his allegiance, but his role as a free-throw shooter for the opposing team. 

Around 1922, the city of Durham had budgeted $325,000 to build Durham High School (white) and $125,000 for Hillside High School (Black).  Almost 50 years later, the city redrew zoning, and Hillside, a remarkably successful black school, integrated.  For some white teenagers, it seemed like their world had shifted “overnight.” Jean (Rogers) Flowers related how this felt.  “My parents told me: ‘This is where we live, and the plan says you’re going to Hillside, so we’re going to try it.’”  She continued, “It was a beautiful time, but we were so green.”

“I was disappointed not to be with my girlfriends,” she explained, “but, in retrospect, it may have been good that cliques were broken apart.”  Jean began to crisscross the divide.  She had been a cheerleader, and Principal John Harding Lucas encouraged her to “go out” for the squad.  “I had learned a cheering style that was stiff and jilted,” she laughed, “and I didn’t know if I could learn a different style, but to this day I prefer rhythm and blues.”  Lucas taught them to stitch friendships along the 20 percent-80 percent racial seam, and her French teacher, Mrs. Christopher, organized her inter-racial class to fundraise for a trip to France.  “Over time, we grew to be not scared of each other.”  “I prefer to be on a road where I know what’s ahead, and we didn’t know,” Jean said. She now counts this uncertainty a blessing. 

The movie about a 1971 integrated football team, “Remember the Titans,” is a favorite.  It reminds Jean of her alma mater.  Roger Ebert wrote of that movie, “Real life is never this simple, but then that's what the movies are for.”  Which brings me back to my dream.  What Jean described is close to kinship.  The Latin phrase “alma mater” means, after all, “nourishing mother.”  She learned how to cheer differently, and she learned to root for a new team. 

Today, with cut after cut to public schools, parents are set up to argue over a smaller and smaller slice of money pie – a strategy designed to divide and conquer.  I counter division with a dream – a dream of a Durham where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.  I am dreaming of a Durham where black boys and white girls figure out their lockers together, and save up for a school trip, and savor ample classroom space and their teacher’s attentive time, discovering their individually unique gifts alongside one another.  Some people making decisions seem scared of this dream.  Why?

Amy Laura Hall is an associate professor of Christian ethics at Duke University.