I was integrated in the 9th grade. After having lived next door to East/Lincoln all my life I was suddenly confronted with having to walk 4 blocks down and one block over to a brand new school that was going to be peopled with a kind of human that I had only seen in passing before and had never had a person experience with before. Except, of course, with Ms. Mary Langan who was the district school nurse who showed up periodically to give us vaccinations of various sorts.
My mother seemed to imply, during our discussions of the logistics of changing schools, that I needed to be very careful of the white kids and she stated unequivocally that I should absolutely, positively not trust them. As far as the white teachers were concerned that I would encounter for the first time her primary advice was to make certain I told her or my father if they said or did anything questionable.
Despite my mother’s caveats my primary fear was not that the white kids would be mean to me or trick me, even then I had an inkling that I would probably have quite a bit in common with kids my own age, no matter what color they might be. My primary fear was that I would not be able to tell them apart. I had never known a white person my own age and it seemed to me from casual observance that there were so many of them and that a lot of them looked alike! I wondered how humiliating it would be to make a friend and then not be able to pick them out of the crowd of other white kids. As ridiculous as that sounds now, you have to realize that in 1962 Xenia, Ohio, my exposure to white people was sporadic and impersonal and, although I definitely realized they were human beings, I did not necessarily think of them as the same kind of human beings as we were for a variety of reasons.
We only had about four television channels and the shows for kids were very limited, mainly the Mickey Mouse Club, Bozo the Clown, etc. I could surely pick out Annette Funicello from Darlene another Mouseketeer, but then I had no belief that the white kids who went to Central Jr. Hi would look like a television star.
Within the first day of my classes that fall of 1962 my fears were allayed. The white kids were just as distinctive looking as the black kids and came in the very same varieties;nice/mean,cute/plain,loud/quiet,smart/stupid,funny/serious,popular/picked on. As a matter of fact, once I made friends with a few of the girls I totally forgot they were white most of the time. Only when something happened at school that involved race, like when a teacher said something that singled out a black student, did I remember that my friend Mary Beth, Sue, Jennifer, was white.
When I say we made friends I mean for school and school activities only. I never went to a white friend’s house or invited one of them to mine. My mother was very clear that she would not be comfortable with white kids in the house. One of my white, male classmates came to pick me up for a meeting for a planning committee we were serving on together when I was a junior in high school. I had forgotten to warn my mother that David B., my classmate who was coming to pick me up was white. Truth be told I did not think of him as a white boy, I thought of him as David.
My mother answered the door and immediately shut it in his face. By that time I had come out of my room having heard the door open and presuming it was David coming to pick me up. My mother whirled around and said to me “Why is there a white boy on the porch asking for you?” The way she said it implied that why ever he was there it was for a bad reason.
I explained who he was and that he was giving me a ride to the meeting. Slightly mollified she still gave me all kinds of instructions about what to do if he attacked me. I had to stifle a grin since David was one of the most reserved, polite boys in my class. I could no more imagine him attacking me than I could imagine my mother inviting him in for a coke. Finally, she agreed I could go and cracked open the door to find poor, patient David still standing on the porch. I slipped out of the partially open door–I was slimmer in those days, and made my escape.
Central Jr. Hi the site of my integration was a cool building, lots of marble and a truly imposing front double staircase. The teaching staff was relatively young for the most part. I had Mr. Stroop, who would later for some reason become a bus driver, for English, Mrs. Boli for French and Ms. Dickerson for Algebra I. Ms. Dickerson was a very masculine specimen, from her walk to her voice to her demeanor.
Because we were new to Central the white kids filled us in on the teachers, sometimes pulling our legs. What I was told by one white boy was that Ms. Dickerson used to be a professional wrestler–she was terribly bow-legged and walked like Popeye–and that she had retired to teach math at Central. If I had asked my brother, who was nine years older, he could have told me that she had taught him Algebra and that the same rumor had been going around back then.
Mrs. Boli, a red-haired woman, was fragile. A good teacher she never managed to detach herself from her students’ performance. She would go down the rows checking homework, a very tense time, because if she found that a number of students had not done their homework she would burst into tears and tell us we had disappointed her and that she tried to be a good teacher. I am convinced it was not a strategy, but true heartfelt concern and engagement with her students, but it surely worked as a deterrent to skipping your homework.
I was on the French Scholarship Team in 9th grade since I was a very good French student. I rather believe in DNA memory since I could read French almost as soon as I picked up the book and could not explain the ease with which I mastered the language any other way. I decided one of my white ancestors must have been French–of course, when we learned about the race of the Dumas’ I discovered it did not have to be one of my white ancestors who was French, it could have been one of my black ancestors.
Anyway, after the first six week grading period Mrs. Boli, in order to encourage me to work harder, decided that I would not receive an “A” if my average was 95. I had to earn a 97 average to get an “A.” Her rationale was that I would not push myself if the lower score would rate me the best grade. To tell you how different the times were, I had no thought that she was being unfair. She was my teacher and she wanted the best for me, and I accepted her rule in that vein.
So, she put me on the French Scholarship Team to compete with other Ohio students on the state achievement test. Early in the year we met after school in our classroom, but as the test drew nearer Mrs. Boli had the three of us, Sally, Sharon and me, come to her house for the study sessions. She lived on Edison Avenue, right across from the Field House. Her neighbors two doors down, the Gs, were the owners of a restaurant in town where they would not serve black people, although black people cooked there, which always struck me as odd.
One afternoon when I was on my way into the Boli house for one of our meetings, Mrs. G happened to be in her yard. She watched me walk across the street, up the sidewalk and to the door of the Boli house where I rang the doorbell. When Mrs. Boli came to the door I was staring back at Mrs. G–rather rudely for a teenager probably. Mrs. Boli was puzzled and stuck her head out of the door to see what I was looking at. I turned my head to greet her and told her, without thinking,” Mrs. G is staring at me. She probably thinks I am coming to clean your house.” Mrs. Boli melted. She began to sob and fell into a chair near the front door, devastated that I would have that reaction. I tried to assure her that I was kidding ( I had only been partially kidding) and that everything was fine, but she was still a mess. Finally she mopped her tears up, went and washed her face and then, taking my arm, she marched me over to her neighbor, who was still outside and loudly introduced me, “This is Melva Mann, she is my BEST French student and is coming to my house to study for the Scholastic Test of Achievement as part of our academic team.”
She then marched me back to her house and we calmly began to review the subjunctive tense of irregular verbs.