Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Great Experiment

A year ago I was flipping through Facebook links and I came across one that stunned me.  The high school graduating class that preceded my class was having two entirely different, racially segregated class reunions.  The big printed news outlet in the area made a huge deal out of it.  Major coverage, color photos and student interviews – the students in question having actually graduated forty years previously.  Local television picked up on it, and in a few places it even made brief sidebar mention in a few national outlets.
No one interviewed me.  Of course they wouldn’t – my class reunion was still a year away.  The first planning session hadn’t even been held.  I wasn’t class of 1970, I was class of 1971.
And for all of that I’m still thinking the report was on the wrong school.
I spent three years of my life in what was originally a grand experiment in our town.  Schools came in three flavors.  All white, all Black, and Catholic, with a small sprinkling of church run non-catholic schools.  There simply was no such thing as a truly integrated, racially balanced and diverse high school in the entire county.  Opening its doors for the first time in 1963, we were the test case.  We weren’t the Little Rock 9 – we were an entire new school district with an entire new school reaching out to an entire new demographic.  We were White, Black and Cuban, going to class, riding the bus, eating lunch, doing sports and other extracurricular activities, and doing it together with respect, dignity, and a very high degree of success.
In the fall of 1968, parts of the South were in flames.  Parts of our county felt the shudders of racial disparity and unrest. And in the midst of that confusion, and the peak of a war no one outside of Washington DC wanted or understood, too young to be hippies, but not quite old enough to be ravaged by the senseless scars of DISCO, we entered the grand experiment for the first time, eleven hundred strong, and by the grace of God, it worked!  It worked well enough that three years later over eighty percent of that original eleven hundred who would comprise the graduating class of 1971, finished the course, and walked, with pride and celebratory camaraderie across the stage of the city’s municipal auditorium in cap and gown.  I think we only had one ‘mooning’ incident.
Forty years later, a new building graces our hallowed halls of education, but the graduation rate is closer to fifty percent, and the grand experiment has faded into the memories of the few hopeful who remain to remember when it all began.  The diversity is gone.  The mix of cultures has dissolved, and with it, it would seem, the effort of an education system that once seemed to care.
Two months from now a few of those who can, will gather together at Pier 66 in Fort Lauderdale, to remember.  A week later, a larger group will assemble at the Embassy Suites in Fort Lauderdale for the same purpose.  Sadly, primarily due to the effort on a single individual who even forty years down the road and at almost sixty years of age, still doesn’t get who we were – WHO WE ARE, two groups will still gather on separate days and places to celebrating being one.  The single absurdity that won’t mark these events, is the knowledge there will not be segregated reunion celebrations.
Forty years ago, when there were whispers of racial unrest in the county schools, film crews and reporters with cameramen and notepads in hand showed up on our steps only to leave empty handed and without a story.
I don’t know what happened to the class of 1970, but for all our mistakes and stumbles along the way, the Class of 1971 will come together the way we last were together – Black, White, Hispanic.  One School, One Class, and for this one brief moment in history, the experiment is a rousing success.
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