Delta Winds: A Magazine of Student
M. Sharon Conley
Ruby Bridges is widely regarded as the first African American child to attend a white elementary school in the American South. She first attended William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans, Louisiana, on November 14, 1960. Though I cannot imagine the challenges Ruby Bridges endured, I can relate to her fears of entering an unwelcoming environment. I was a kid bused in from the inner city of Long Beach to a suburban school. My ride to school was 30-40 minutes each way. Remembering the first day of high school is like reliving the nightmare where you walk to school naked. Yes, it was that bad. As bus #4 reached the front of the school, it was met by parents, faculty, and police officers. Some parents were there to protest our admission to the school. The police were there to insure our safety. I remember thinking this cannot be happening. It’s 1990, and we are done with segregation. That day is my most memorable experience of discrimination. That day opened my eyes to the unfairness of stereotypes, the harm of ignorance, and the importance of resiliency.
Lakewood High School had been awarded a large grant, and as a stipulation to this grant the school was directed to bus in kids from the inner city. The new program was focused on aerospace engineering. Its goal was to expose students to the aerospace field. This track offered internship positions with the aerospace giant Northrop Grumman and promised scholarships to students who did well. Without a doubt, this was a great opportunity for anyone. However, what I remember most are the negative stereotypes. There was fear that with our presence, crime, gangs, and graffiti would destroy the school. We were seen only as a problem—ten buses of baby-making, ESL, underachieving gangsters. That experience opened my eyes to the expectations others had of me. The protesters had no idea that on bus #6 the valedictorian of 1994 was arriving. On those buses were future members of academic teams that would win high awards, teammates who would help take the school to the State Championship (more than once), and yes, a few gangsters. The parent protesters only knew that they did not want inner city kids bused into the school. They never stopped to consider the positive contributions we would make.
I am grateful that the opposition to our presence was always non-physical, but, regardless of the protesters’ tactics, harm was still done. In my experience, it was not just the parents who wished we did not exist. Teachers, whose job it was to educate and mentor us, were ignorant of our potential. The harm they inflicted was in having a lack of positive expectations for us. Because of who we were, teachers failed to invest effort in teaching us. In one instance, a teacher sat all the minorities in the front of the class so that she could keep a closer eye on us. In a literature class, the professor was often heard saying he was “not going to waste [his] time on those kids.” That ignorance could have very well prevented a quiet shy kid’s thirst for knowledge from being quenched. I wonder how many of us were given a little less just because of where we lived. The belief that the bused in kids were less capable because of upbringing, family structure, or appearance was unfair and hurtful.
My high school experience was not all bad. This is where I found my independence; this is where I found my strength. This is where many of us made the choice to be the exception to the rule. Many of the bused in kids, including me, had a decision to make. We could let second best be good enough, or we could prove that we were worth the effort. I chose to be resilient, not to be a victim. Not all teachers let their fears contaminate their hearts. I had an instructor who was brutally honest and explained my options. He said, “The world is expecting you to fit in a little box. This box is already picked out and furnished with all you will ever get in life. Are you willing to accept it—or, are you going to make your own box?” He was a true mentor. Many times, he would remind me of the perceptions I was fighting against and let me make my own choices. I decided if I was going to let the labels stick or forge my own identity.
In comparison to the sacrifices of civil rights leaders, my experience was nothing. I did not have to fear for my life, nor endure any physical pain, and for this I am thankful. But who says that harm is only done in those instances? There were people outside a school yelling and picketing against children’s rights to a better education. There were highly qualified teachers refusing to return to school because they unjustifiably feared for their safety. I lost out on a great opportunity through the aerospace technology program because of one teacher’s belief that I would be a waste of time due to my race’s tendency to get pregnant before finishing school. I wonder what could have happened if the bused in kids of 1990 were given as much as the local kids. How much more could we have accomplished?