On the first day of school, as I waited with my grandson for the big yellow bus to arrive, my mind wandered to my first day at a new high school in East Texas. On that steamy September day in 1965, entering the auditorium for the all school assembly, I was directed to the front row where all the new students were sitting, waiting to be introduced to the student body. I’m embarrassed to say, I just didn’t get it when I sat down among my fellow nervous newbies, who for some unexplained reason were all African American. I was awash in egocentric teen angst, still shaken by my parents’ decision to move from Oklahoma to Texas right before the most exciting time of my life – senior year. And I was totally oblivious to the history being made not only in this school, but in many schools across the nation. It wasn’t till weeks later I learned that all these new students had till this year attended a segregated school, that the feds were forcing school integration, and that not everybody was happy to make the change.
Growing up a Navy brat and attending schools in every region of our country, I had never really paid much mind to the ethnic makeup of the schools I attended. In South Texas some of my classmates were from Mexico, in the bay area of California some were black and Asian. I attended schools with Aleutian children in Adak, Alaska, and Native Americans in Oklahoma. In fact, it wasn’t until 1965 when I visited my dad’s new workplace in a stately old courthouse in Marshall, Texas, that I was shocked to see separate restrooms and water fountains designated specifically as “colored.” That fleeting moment, though 50 years ago, made such an impression on me that I can still picture that hallway as clearly as the day I saw it.
My eyes were truly opened the next year when I went to college and became acutely aware of the radical changes our nation was undergoing during the latter half of the 60’s. In the three short years I attended NTSU in Denton, my fellow collegians across the nation were marching, sitting - even rioting and burning – protesting not only discrimination against people of color, but also the forced induction of our young men into the military. The specter of being sent to an unpopular war, along with the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., led to nationwide demonstrations of solidarity, the likes of which I’ve rarely seen in our country since.
After college, I began my journey as an educator, and through my years in the Irving and Grand Prairie school districts, witnessed a dramatic change in both cities’ demographics. When I started teaching, a few of my students were African-American, even fewer were Hispanic, but most were white. But as the years have progressed, the minority and notably mixed race population has increased each year, to the extent that in both school districts the “minority” is now the majority. In fact, a 2013 study published by Trulia.com claims that the 75038 zip code in Irving is the most diverse neighborhood in the entire United States. Many longtime residents of both cities, especially of my generation, are, to put it mildly, troubled by these changes.
Of course, it is human nature to be more comfortable with “our own kind.” I have to admit I felt very awkward that day in September of 1965 and still do when I’m outnumbered. And sadly, as recent events in Missouri have proven, racial tension is still far from being a thing of the past.
But, as my beautiful mixed race grandson excitedly hopped on the school bus, heading to his new charter school for gifted children, I thought to myself that this opportunity wouldn’t have been extended to him in 1965. We are changing, gradually and inevitably becoming a blended nation, and for that I am grateful.
Pictures from October 2013 National Geographic, “The Changing Face of America.” Article by Lise Funderburg, photos by Martin Schoeller