425 South Sixth Avenue, 616, 616 East Lincoln Avenue, Boston, Busing, Classism, Common Ground (1985), Community, Desegregation Orders, Divorce, Economic Inequality, Educational Equity, Friendships, J. Anthony Lukas, Ms. Hirsch, Nathan Hale Elementary, Ostracism, Racism, School Desegregation, Second Grade, William H. Holmes Elementary, Youth
Schooling and friendships have been the main theme of my posts this month. I find myself in deeper reflection about my years before the Boy @ The Window years these days. Maybe because I’ve come to realize that those years between ’74 and ’81 were far more influential in how I saw the world than I’d previously given credit.
One issue that I think I’ve had insight into for years before actually becoming an educator is busing. Maybe not so much in relation to school desegregation, though. As a seven-year-old, it would’ve been in terms of friendships and belonging. The only time I faced a no-choice busing situation was my last two and a half months of second grade, between April and late-June 1977. My Mom and Maurice had moved in together and moved me and my brother Darren to North Side Mount Vernon and 616, the house of horrors that would become the central locale of my memoir.
The only thing I knew of busing before the move from 425 South Sixth to 616 East Lincoln was that Darren had been taking a bus to Clear View School in Dobbs Ferry every school day since my first day of kindergarten in ’74. Also, the images in my head from national news on the three main networks about Boston Public Schools and protests in ’74 and ’75. I had no idea in the spring of ’77 that many White and more than a few Black parents were fighting a desegregation order that required widespread busing in Boston. All I knew at the time was that a lot of angry people with signs and bricks and bottles were on my TV screen at the beginning of September almost every year.
My spring of busing was one of misery. Not because Mount Vernon was under any desegregation order, which it was. Mom had made the decision to not disrupt second grade for me by keeping me at Nathan Hale Elementary, the school that we had lived two doors down from prior to our 616 move. The other option was for me to start at William H. Holmes Elementary five months sooner, so that my transition to third grade would’ve been easier. Thanks, Mom.
Even at the time, I wished she had. Mom had been sick for half that school year. She and my father Jimme were in the midst of a nasty divorce. We had already moved. It made no sense for me to continue to go to Nathan Hale Elementary. I couldn’t stand my teacher Ms. Hirsch. She was the only teacher prior to Humanities, and especially Humanities at Mount Vernon HS, who thought of me and other students as essentially kids without a future. Ms. Hirsch was the only teacher prior to my senior year at MVHS who told me that I wouldn’t “amount to anything.” I hated, hated being in her classroom. It was a feeling I wouldn’t have again until David Wolf and AP Physics my senior year, and even then, that feeling only lasted for forty-five minutes, and even then, it wasn’t with me every day.
By the end of second grade, I was without any friends. Not because I did anything weird, which I’m sure I did. The constant disruptions in our living arrangements meant that I no longer played in the playground next to Nathan Hale after school, where I could hang out with other first, second, and third graders. (I was scared to go there by myself otherwise, anyway — this issue, to be continued.) A bunch of my first grade friends from Ms. Griffin’s class had left during the summer of ’76, leaving Winston, a first grader, as my only friend at Nathan Hale. Yeah, I talked to Lauren and one other girl in Ms. Hirsch’s class, but that was pretty much it.
Taking the bus to and from school for those last fifty days or so of school was torture. Not because kids make fun of me, which they didn’t, or because I was part of some experiment related to desegregation, which I wasn’t. I hated the smell, of bubblegum and Now-&-Laters, of sweat from recess and gym, of exhaust fumes from cars because our little TFD bus wasn’t air-conditioned. Mostly, I couldn’t stand the forty-five minutes or hour that it would take to go from 616 to Nathan Hale, picking up kids all through Mount Vernon along the way.
Fourteen years later, in an upper-level US urban history undergraduate course (my last history class before grad school) at the University of Pittsburgh, one of my required readings was J. Anthony Lukas‘ Common Ground (1985), his Pulitzer Prize-winning book on busing and school desegregation in Boston. There were so many powerful parts of Lukas’ book that piqued my interest. His coverage of parents from all sides of the busing controversy. The sense that school desegregation was a bit of a Pyrrhic victory legally, but not so much culturally, because of the “hearts and minds” issues around race. What struck me, though, was the limited perspective Lukas provided on kids who had to ride these buses between Black, White, and Puerto Rican neighborhoods to get to these schools throughout Boston.
I imagined what it would’ve been like to bus in Boston during my K-2 years. I had it hard enough as a child of abuse and divorce, with a move to an uncertain future, and with at least one teacher who saw me as little more than human garbage. Add screaming and spit-flying from White parents raging over school desegregation? I really could’ve been written off, never having a chance to become a good student, and more importantly, a lifelong learner. Maybe the only lesson I would’ve learned from busing was that Whites against busing have serious high-blood pressure issues. Or, more realistically, that White parents didn’t want me to become friends with their kids.
Either way, Lukas helped me realize, maybe for the first time, how twisted and evil American society would have to be to expose kids to blatant racism and not-so-blatant economic inequalities as demonstrated through busing.