I finished my glorious career at Central Junior High on a high note. Not only had I done well on the French scholarship test of achievement, my grades were sufficiently high to inspire the administration to present me with my school letter, tastefully done in real red chenille. I am not sure how many of my fellow students received such an honor but my memory reports that it was far from a rare occurrence.
As the great day of graduation approached–yes we had a graduation ceremony for having completed junior high, small town school districts are big on pomp and circumstance, we had to go shopping for the appropriate attire. Girls were to wear white dresses boys were to wear black pants and white shirts. Suits were okay for the boys but not mandated, I am not sure about ties. Because this was a de facto admission to high school status, even though 9th graders were technically freshmen, since we were at Central Jr. Hi we were not viewed as high school students, it was understood that we needed to look like young adults at this ceremony.
That meant the females were expected to wear heels. If not required by the school dress code it was definitely required by the standards set by your peers, a much more stringent coda than anything the school could pronounce, of course.
I had worn high heels a time or two, to church functions and the occasional fancy dance, but this was different. The ceremony was held at the Field House next to Xenia High School. This venerable edifice was where we played basketball games, had the occasional other sporting or social event. It was a big deal. Most of us had been going to something or other at the Field House for a long time. The plan for the ceremony was that we would all be seated in chairs set up on the floor, our parents, other relatives and friends would be seated in the stands.
We had assigned seats, I do not remember if we were arranged alphabetically or by height. Anyway, your row would be led out by a faculty usher and you would go on stage, one at a time to receive your diploma ( certificate) and any other awards you might have won–this is actually when I was presented with my certificate for the French test and with my vaunted chenille Central “C” and be applauded by the crowd for your achievement(s).
This sounds relatively easy, until one considers that in order to go on the stage we were not to go through the usual egress route, doors to the left and right of the stage. No, for some reason, lost in the misty mists of time, it was decided that we needed to go up some temporary stair placed on the right side of the stage and down another temporary stair placed on the left side These wooden stairs, which definitely smacked of a relatively rudimentary shop project, had no banisters, no sides at all and they did not seem to be of a uniform height.
As a result during our practice sessions a lot of people had difficulty navigating them. I was one of the ones having difficulty. I have always been very near-sighted and not being particularly athletic I always wanted to look down at the stairs while attempting to climb them. This meant that I was prone to not see the next step coming up and therefore I would stumble. I stumbled in the first rehearsal I stumbled in the second rehearsal and I almost fell off the stairs completely at the third rehearsal where we ( the girls only)had been encouraged to “wear the shoes you plan on wearing to graduation.”
As graduation day approached I was a nervous wreck. Here it was my first official public appearance as a newly integrated member of the CJS student body and I, a black girl, was going to fall off the stairs at the ceremony, I just knew it! What would them mostly white crowd think? What would they do?? Laugh, yell things, snicker, pity me?I would not only be facing personal embarrassment, I would be letting down the entire black student body, recent and not always so welcome immigrants from the East End.
The day of graduation dawned sunny and bright, nothing like my mood, and the entire family piled into the car to go to graduation. I had on my new white dress and my new white heels which looked very good but which I was unsure I could trust not to betray me during my integrated public debut.
We arrived at the Field House and I bid my family adieu to take my seat with the rest of my classmates. Music was played, speeches were made and then the moment of truth arrived. A teacher appeared at the end of my row, it was our turn to go on stage!
I gritted my teeth, stuck out my chin and marched towards the treacherous stairs, wobbling a little even on the flat in my unfamiliar footwear. I made it to the foot of the stairs and on the signal of the faculty member stationed at the foot of the stairs, began the climb. There were no more than six steps, but to me it seemed like Everest. I made it up the stairs without incident, and when, having received my awards, I made it down the other side uneventfully, a small round of cheers and applause went up from quite a few of my classmates.
My mother commented on the small outburst after the ceremony. She thought it meant I was massively popular, and considering I had not been at CJS but one year and that some of the apparent accolades had obviously come from my white classmates she was very impressed. Actually, of course, they were expressing their relief that their ceremony would not be interrupted by the arrival of an emergency crew in an ambulance summoned to tend to me as I lay broken at the bottom of the rickety stairs.
I have chosen to let her believe this 40 plus years that I was, indeed massively popular with both my black and white classmates. I learned a long time ago never to correct folks who give you more credit than you are due. There are always far more who are willing to give you less than you are due. Just take the compliment, try to live up to it, and consider it necessary for the balance of the universe.