By Maury Z. Levy
IT WAS RAINING NOW. It was Monday morning and the thick gray air was chilly and damp and it was raining now. The skies had been holding it in for a week and now they had burst open to soak the streets and break the promise of an early summer. People walked along quickly under black umbrellas with their collars up and their faces down and automobiles with snow tires still on made a whirring sound as they moved up Susquehanna Avenue, heading for the Mansion and the Park, never stopping.
For a week, it had been summer again. For a week, the kids with bandanas around their heads roamed the streets in shirtsleeves, while men stood together on corners and drank the contents of brown paper bags and women in housedresses pushed strollers up and down 17th Street looking for bargains.
For a week, the desperation of North Philadelphia was no longer quiet. For one great week of Indian spring North Philadelphia was alive and ticking with anticipation of the warmth ahead and some memories of some heat behind.
But the Monday morning rain put things back to normal. It was trash day and the beginning of another week.
The flat-red pushcart of the 15th Street Junk Shop made its way up French Street toward 17th. The man behind it was old and black and he was wearing a dark plastic raincoat with the hood up over his head and the drawstring knotted around his chin so that all that could be seen were the slits of eyes that stalked the curbside cans for salvage.
He pushed his way between the cars parked on one side of the narrow street of ancient brownstones. It was the side of the street with the signs that read “NO PARKING MONDAY 7 AM TO 7 PM-PARK OTHER SIDE.” It was 7:20 a.m. and French Street was asleep.
Bucking traffic, he turned right on 17th and pushed past the cozy old James L. Claghorn Elementary School. The rain made the gray 84-year-old building wetgray.
Claghorn takes up less than a third of the block. It is surrounded by a big black iron fence that comes to within a few feet of the tiny building. Pressing against one side of the fence—in what is supposed to be a schoolyard—is a black iron pole that holds a slightly bent basketball backboard. There isn’t even enough room in the yard for a half-court game and even less room to hang the blame, because back in 1884 outdoor sports were not exactly national pastimes.
Claghorn sticks out—an ancient school in a procession of old stores. The building was supposed to be torn down back in 1944, when it had reached its 60th birthday, but that was a war year and people had more important things to do than break up little old schools. Somehow it never got back on the demolition list and so for the past 24 years Claghorn has been living on borrowed time.
Across the street from Claghorn is a luncheonette, the hub of what little activity there is at 7:30 on a Monday morning. There is a bus stop on the corner there and a handful of people were huddled in the doorway of the luncheonette to avoid the downpour and wait for their bus.
It was 7:40 now and the bus hadn’t come yet and the doorway was filled to capacity. As they craned their necks to watch for the bus, none of the people in the doorway seemed to take notice of the scattering of kids who made their way down 17th Street toward Claghorn, soggy brown lunch bags firmly in hand.
It was 7:40 and classes at Claghorn, like most other schools in the city, don’t start until 9 o’clock. But these kids weren’t getting there an hour and twenty minutes ahead of time because they wanted to shoot up some baskets in their schoolyard.
In fact, it isn’t even their schoolyard. For these kids, Claghorn is nothing more than a bus terminal. Their real school is Gilbert Spruance Elementary School, which is located a mere 9-mile bus ride away at Levick and Horrocks Streets, which, for the information of anyone not completely familiar with the territory, is located in Oxford Circle.
The bus leaves Claghorn at 8:05 on the nose. It’s been leaving at 8:05 for three years now, ever since some guys down at 21st and the Parkway decided that to relieve over crowding and to help integration, it would be nice to take a bunch of black kids and plop them on a bus every morning and give them a joyride from their ancient elementary school in the North Philly slums to a sparkling physical plant in the heart of the bustling, lily-white Northeast.
And so the kids came, unheralded and unescorted on this dripping Monday, to catch the 8:05 for Fun Circle.
They came and gathered in clusters, some in the foyer of the school, others in the green, wood-soaked doorway of a boarded-up grocery store on the corner of 17th and French. The store, like many others in the neighborhood, used to belong to a Jewish couple back in the days when nearby Strawberry Mansion was Jewish turf. But the Jews are gone now, gone for the greenfields of the Northeast. There are no Jewish kids on the 8:05.
AT FIVE OF EIGHT, the bright orange school bus makes a right on Broad Street at Susquehanna and sways its way, like a giant metal mule, up to 17th Street.
The driver stops the bus at the side of Claghorn and while the kids file out into the rain he mechanically wipes the fog off the windows, methodically pulls the lever that opens the door that lets the kids get out of the rain and onto the bus, and sinks back into his seat as he opens up the morning paper.
The kids file onto the bus quiet and orderly, each to his assigned seat, each barely acknowledging the matron, who stands sternly at the front and stares straight ahead with the poise of a Nazi submarine captain scanning his periscope.
She runs a tight bus.
BUS REGULATIONS: ENTER AND LEAVE BUS IN ORDERLY MANNER. BE QUIET-NO LOUD TALKING OR SINGING. REMAIN IN YOUR SEATS UNTIL BUS STOPS. KEEP ARMS, HANDS AND HEAD INSIDE BUS. KEEP BUS CLEAN. NO EATING PERMITTED.
The rules are tight, and after a two-day weekend back home, the kids are pretty much uptight. They are facing the prospect of a new week and another five days on the 8:05.
They come with their spitdown hair and spitdown manners and they sit and they stare straight ahead, never looking out. There is really nothing to look out on. No mothers there for a warm send-off, no fathers in parked cars waiting for them to leave. The kids range in age from seven to twelve and they are old enough to take care of themselves. If not, they’ll learn soon enough. They have to.
On a full day, there are 55 of them. A hundred and ten eyes staring straight ahead at the bus regulations sign. Many of them can’t read it, but they all know what it says. They aren’t allowed to forget. The matron makes sure of that.
She is a big, black, unsmiling overseer who is paid by the Board of Education to make sure that the kids don’t forget what the sign says. She sits in her command seat, the first one by the door, eyes trained on her underlings.
And the kids sit passively. Today, most of them are wearing their winter wrappings again. Last week it was warm and they came in short sleeves and cotton dresses. But now the damp chill of early spring was back and so were their winter clothes. A mother named Nature had given them four seasons every year, but many of their own mothers just can’t afford the luxury. So it’s either hot or it’s cold and today it was cold.
The matron is wearing a black spring raincoat and the bus driver is wearing a bus driver’s suit with the hat cocked back on his head.
The bus driver is short and on rare occasions he speaks. He is paid to drive the bus, not to keep order. That’s what the matron is there for. But somewhere along the way, somebody must have reminded him that he is white and that everyone behind him is black and that it would be nice if he would try to make his bus a nice place to live.
And so he comes up with such gems as, “We’re gonna be good little girls and boys, aren’t we?” Most of the time, intentionally or not, he is talking to himself.
The matron is not so subtle.
“Siddown and shuddup, Eugene,” she shoots at an older kid in the next-to-last seat who is standing and talking and wearing a heavy brown coat and a sheepish grin.
IT IS 8:04 NOW and the bus driver is reaching for his gearshift as he spots a thin figure running down the patent leather street, directly at him. He opens the door again and a woman leaps onto the first step. She is young and wet and worried. Her large pleading eyes meet those of the matron just a few inches away. The matron stares back at her with immovable pellets. Nothing had been said, but the conversation was already over.
“Won’t you let Cal ride?” the young woman begs.
“He can’t,” the matron starts almost before the question is finished. “He blocks up the aisle. He won’t behave. He carries on.”
The matron clicks her heels under her seat and turns her back, spitting another “siddown” to the kids in the back.
“Steven, get in your seat,” she orders. Steven, wearing the remains of an oversized yellow canvas raincoat, settles onto the edge of his seat and stares impassively through the hazy windows and the driving rain at Claghorn.
8:05 and the bus starts to roll. Steven half turns in his seat and his eyes follow Cal’s mother back into the rain.
“Steven, turn around.”
The ride takes 25 minutes. It always takes 25 minutes. The bus driver takes the side streets, the back streets, the front streets, anything he needs to speed him up or slow him down to make sure that the ride takes exactly 25 minutes.
The bus grunts its way down 17th Street to funky, funky Diamond Street, where something called the Tanner Duckrey Elementary School is being pieced together. It is big and brick and new and one day it might even put the 8:05 into retirement. The Duckrey School will relieve overcrowding and it will be all black. But right now it’s only another promise to the kids on the 8:05 as they zip past Duckrey, up Diamond to Broad.
It gets pretty stuffy in a big orange school bus when there are fifty-some kids with heavy coats and the windows are closed to keep out the rain. It gets pretty stuffy and the kids get pretty restless. Steven gets the word again as the bus weaves in and out of the Broad Street traffic. The matron now has her eyes fixed on the back of the bus because her instinct tells her that’s where today’s hotspot is.
As the bus passes under the fleeting darkness of a bridge near North Philly station, a little girl in the first seat behind the matron slips into her lunch bag and comes out with a handful of cheese twists. Her eyes point up to the matron in caution. The matron is staring at the back. The girl quickly clops her hand against her mouth and shoves all the cheese twists in at once. She looks again at the matron, who is still on a fixed focus to the rear, and madly starts to chomp away. Breakfast at last.
THE BUS HAS CUT ITS WAY through the mist and onto Roosevelt Boulevard, where the rain is little more than a moderate drizzle. The kids are quiet now, their eyes transfixed on the first real signs of another country. The houses are bigger and newer and the streets are wider. The bus takes the Oxford Circle underpass to Large Street, right past colonial Temple Shalom to Robbins Avenue and down the lumpy block to Horrocks.
Spruance is just a block away and the kids in the bus can look out to see some of their classmates walking to school under brightly colored umbrellas. The kids under the umbrellas aren’t looking back.
It is not really an upsetting factor for anyone in Oxford Circle to see somebody with a black face riding a bus into their all-white bastion. It’s been going on for years on the PTC. The only differences this time are the ages of the riders, the color of the bus, and the fact that when they leave, they don’t collect ten bucks and carfare.
Oxford Circle, though, is changing. It used to be that when you spoke of Oxford Circle, you were talking of two things—both a geographic location and a way of life.
Physically, Oxford Circle is actually a triangle bounded by Roosevelt Boulevard, Castor Avenue and Cottman Avenue. But since the mass migration to Oxford Circle, which began in the late ’40s and peaked in the early ’50s, the influence of the way of life far exceeded the geographic boundaries.
Unless you count noses, there is really no telling how many Jews there are in Oxford Circle. They came from Strawberry Mansion and South Philly to build a monolithic and prosperous Jewish community. And they managed to keep it this way for a good twenty years.
But now, Oxford Circle is starting to harden at its arteries. Its face is changing, most visibly by a nose job. Most of the generation of kids who moved in with their parents a couple decades ago have now grown up and gotten married and have gone to set up house in the farther reaches of the so-called Greater Northeast.
And left behind are parents with empty houses, many of whom end up following the same route as their children and pulling up stakes in favor of a cozy little apartment with a swimming pool, just a bit farther out.
The original Oxford Circle way of life is alive and thriving just a few miles up the road. Today Oxford Circle, the neighborhood, just ain’t what it used to be. Now you need more than one hand to count the Christmas lights. So it is not very surprising that the people of Oxford Circle now can sit back in their nice little brick row houses with the cement patios and the grassy hills in the front and not blink when they see a busload of black kids rolling past their curbs.
And the kids on the 8:05 have sort of gotten used to not being noticed. And as they coast down Horrocks to Levick and see the nice new Impalas and Le Sabres stopping in front of Spruance to let off their classmates, it really doesn’t matter much that they have reached the promised land on an orange bus.
IT IS 8:30 on the dot and there is the cocky satisfaction of punctuality on the face of the bus driver as he pulls his machine to a stop at the side of the school.
For an elementary school, Spruance is massive. The school grounds encompass a very large city block. The building itself, constructed for the most part in 1950, is made of an uncommon-looking yellow brick and there is a nice green lawn in the front and a giant cement school- yard in the back, surrounded by a huge cyclone fence.
The school is right next to the Max Meyers playground, which is owned by the city and has a nice big swimming pool and a whole bunch of basketball courts and grassy baseball fields.
The rain, which had all but stopped now, was good for the grass.
The kids are shepherded off the bus, through a big gate in the fence and around to one of the back doors and into the school, crossing paths along the way with some of the white Spruance kids.
As they enter the neatly scrubbed building, the first thing they see is a nicely framed reproduction of Marc Chagall’s ”The Rabbi.” The painting is there by irony, not design. It’s one of over a hundred pieces of art that hang on the walls of the school. The idea for the display is that of Joseph Agin, the school’s principal. Collecting reproductions of famous paintings is one of his few vices and they are strategically hung all over the place. Right across from Agin’s office is a portrait of Abraham Lincoln, who freed the slaves and helped make this country what it is today.
On this Monday morning, Agin stands right next to his portrait of Abe Lincoln as he watches his children, black and white together, file by. He is wearing his permanent- press smile. Some of the kids smile back, some say hello and others just giggle and walk on by. And once he is sure that all of his children are soundly tucked away in their classrooms, Agin walks confidently back to his office to begin another week of principaling. But as he nears the office door he is beckoned by a fast-walking, fast-talking man in a gray coat and a gray hat who is carrying a black attaché case.
“What happened Friday? Why didn’t you do something? My kid was afraid to come to school.”
The man in gray was white and he was talking about a knifing incident that never happened. There was this rumor that spread very quickly that some black kids had planned to do some cutting on Friday. It turned out to be only a rumor, but it did shake a lot of people up. It shook up the man in gray enough for him to stop at school on his way to work to try to get to the nitty-gritty of it.
Agin assured him that there was nothing to worry about and that it was nothing more than a rumor. They exchanged a few uncertainties and the man in gray started to leave and Agin turned and walked past a portrait of John Kennedy and into his office.
Safely inside, he sat down, lit his first cigarette of the day and took a large drag.
Agin’s office, furnished in Early Elementary School, is fairly large and has a nice view of the neighborhood.
Joe Agin is a middle-aged Jewish man, which is not necessarily an indication of his age or religion. It’s just the way you get to look when you work in Oxford Circle for so long. And Joe Agin has that look about him. After eight years at Spruance he looks like the guy who never let you read the magazines at the stand in his drugstore.
He leaned back in his chair, took the cigarette from his mouth and mused about the knifing rumor. “That’s a big problem here—communication—because the parents are so far away.”
Agin’s statement was the first of many indications that the street of communication between black and white is a narrow one paved with eggshells.
When Agin spoke, it was from Levick and Horrocks Streets, not from 17th and Susquehanna. “The initial reaction to the busing program was excellent in this neighborhood and still is,” Agin said.
He stopped for another puff on his cigarette as he looked out his window. It was still very cloudy as he watched the man in gray hustle down the rain-soaked walk and into his car.
Agin readily admitted that reaction to the busing from the sending end was much harder to gauge since participation by the Negro parents of bused-in children in the Home and School Association is nearly negligible.
But together with the Home and School Association, Agin is trying everything he can think of to make both the parents and the kids feel welcome.
Just this past Christmas, they gave a ball-point pen to every kid in the school, regardless of race, creed or means of transportation. And engraved on each pen was a two- word message of brotherhood and peace on earth and goodwill to men. It said “Spruance School.”
Agin said that in allocating funds for school use, there is never any question for whom the money is being used. ”They are definitely Spruance children,” he said with all the benign condescension he could muster. “If there is any animosity, it is because kids from a lower economic level have been bused into an area where the economic level is higher. The sending school doesn’t sense any resentment among those left behind.”
In the past year, the composition of those left behind has changed drastically. When the program first started, if they wanted to bus fifty kids, they sent the top fifty. Now, they take a random sampling. If there are 200 kids at a school and fifty are to be bused, they pick every fourth one. “Of course, we’d prefer it the old way,” Agin said. “To take the cream of the crop.”
FACT SHEET-HISTORY OF BUSING
To Relieve Overcrowding and Foster Integration School District of Philadelphia, Pa.
• January, 1964: Board of Education adopts policy calling for redrawing of school boundary lines and busing—to stop double shifts, relieve overcrowding and to foster integration.
• February, 1964: Busing program begins with 110 pupils bused from all-Negro school to a 95% white school.
• August, 1964: School District announces plans to expand its busing program (for overcrowding and integration) to some 3000 pupils in September.
• August, 1964: Parents and Taxpayers Association (all- white anti-busing group) files suit to stop busing, charging School Board with acting against State School Code and against best interests of city’s school children.
• September, 1964: School Board buses 3831 children to relieve overcrowding and foster integration. Of this number, approximately 1900 are Negro children going to predominantly white schools.
• December, 1964: Judge Ethan Allen Doty, of Common Pleas Court, dismisses busing suit after one-day court hearing.
• June, 1965: Busing total has risen to 4527, of which 2228 are Negroes going to predominantly white schools.
• September, 1965: School Board buses 7039 children, including 4988 Negroes to predominantly white schools. Ninety-seven schools involved.
• September, 1966: Busing program expands to 9150 pupils, including about 7000 Negroes to predominantly white schools. Schools involved: 116.
• September, 1967: Busing program up to 11,664, including about 9000 Negroes to predominantly white schools. Schools involved: 130.
“SURPRISINGLY,” Agin said, “it didn’t take too much time for the kids to adjust to coming here—only getting to the bus a little earlier. Children can adjust,” he said.
If she could afford it, Cal’s mother would probably have that statement laminated for her wallet. Evidently, Cal couldn’t adjust. Cal is the kid who wasn’t allowed to ride the bus, and the real reason Cal couldn’t ride the bus is that he is under suspension. He won’t be back unless his mother comes to school to iron out everything and to assure everyone that Cal won’t make any more waves.
The people at Spruance are very wave-conscious and they want to make sure that everyone fits in as perfectly and smoothly as possible. The bused-in kids are balanced into classrooms very carefully. There are 55 from Claghorn and if they go into five classes, that means 11 in each class. Only special arithmetic and reading classes are structured and kids are placed according to their ability. “We have found that quite a number of the children from the sending schools were behind,” Agin said.
GEORGIE IS ONE OF THE KIDS On the 8:05. He lives on one floor of a crumbling brownstone, along with his mother and 13 brothers and sisters.
Georgie can’t read very well. He is in the fifth grade at Spruance and he is reading at a third-grade level.
The people at Spruance have been trying to help Georgie, but they haven’t had much effect because they only have him for a few hours a day, and when Georgie gets back home he finds it a little hard to practice his reading in a nice quiet place with 14 other people around.
Conditions at Georgie’s house have gotten a little better though. He used to share one bed with six of his brothers. But a couple of months ago someone was nice enough to give Georgie’s mother a slightly used mattress, which she plopped on the floor and now four of the kids are sleeping on it—to relieve overcrowding and foster public health.
But the new mattress hasn’t helped Georgie’s reading problem any. What Georgie and his family need is real help and that help is not about to come from anyone at Spruance because when Georgie leaves school at 3:15 and goes back home, he is no longer their problem. There has been little effort by anyone at Spruance to try to help the home situation. The farthest they go is to give the teacher the option of writing a note on Georgie’s report card alluding to the problem. Something like “Please include a study when you get around to building the new wing on your house.”
“IT TAKES UP a lot of the faculty’s time, trying to raise their level,” Agin said. And the faculty has enough things to do to keep it busy. Things like maintaining the cool.
Agin admitted that there are minor disciplinary problems, and that the handling of such problems is complicated by the fact that the bused-in child can’t be kept after school. The
bus must leave promptly and everyone must be on it.
There has been a definite increase in certain disciplinary problems since the busing program started. Agin attributes this to the fact that “there are certain standards of behavior that some of these kids need to learn— their behavior is probably based on their background.”
One of the problems is the use of profanity. There have been many complaints from Spruance parents that their kids come home from school using words that warrant mouthwashing. The picking up of profanity has long been one of the evergreen arguments against busing. And it does have a basis in fact because the kids do pick up some bad words at an early age in school. Under normal circumstances, it would probably be another year or two before the kids picked these words up at home and brought them to school.
“Kids adapt to a situation,” Agin said. “There is some fighting here but it is mostly among the colored children themselves, not among colored and white children. I would like to say it’s a way of life for them. They’re taught to take care of themselves, and their differences are settled by fighting.”
They have tried to promote the right attitudes at Spruance by means of special programs. There is one where they try to teach the kids to be very tolerant of others. It is called “The Green Circle Brotherhood Program,” which is really the name of a bi-racial rock group. They feel that antagonism can be eliminated by programs like this. “That is why there is fighting only in their own groups,” said Agin. “There is a tendency for the 11- and 12-year-old children to segregate much more so than the younger ones,” he said.
Agin was on his third cigarette now and he was starting to turn on. “With three or four schools represented here [currently, there are 280 kids bused-in to Spruance from three schools in North Philadelphia, and they make up about one-third of the school’s present population], there is more of a tendency for areas to compete, but we haven’t had any white versus colored business.”
There have been some manifestations of economic resentment among the “richer” and “poorer” kids at Spruance. It has turned up most in the lunchroom where there have been incidents of stealing that were not sensed before. “Petty thievery,” Agin calls it, “like pencils, books and lunches.”
But most of the kids come to school with something in their stomach. And if they don’t there is a program that allows them two pints of milk a day, free of charge. Also, most of the bused-in kids either carry their lunches to school or come with enough money to buy one. (For about 35¢ you can get a pretty good gut-full from the Spruance lunchroom.) “And if they don’t have the money, we will buy them lunch from our own pockets,” Agin said.
He explained that the help program goes even farther than lunches. “If we spot a person who needs clothing, we have clothing from residents in the area. In providing clothing, we take from other schools so that a child can’t point to a dress a little girl is wearing and say, ‘That used to be mine.’ ”
Agin took another puff on his cigarette and half-smiled as he turned to look out upon the benevolent citizens of Horrocks Street. Outside, the sun was trying to burn its way through the clouds and women with baby strollers and shopping carts had begun to appear, going about their delayed daily business. It got Joe Agin to thinking about how Oxford Circle is changing and talking about the area that Spruance services. It was obvious that he was thinking more than he was talking. “We have few gentiles,” he said, of a school that never even thought seriously about them. “But more than we used to. Someday, this may be a problem. Previously, this neighborhood was the next step up from Strawberry Mansion. Now they’re moving in from all over— Kensington and all over the city.” Agin seemed to be talking almost to himself now as a somewhat puzzled look crossed his face as he thought of the past and future of Oxford Circle.
“The reason kids were bused in here was that we had room,” he went on. “People with school-age children started to move away. At one time the population of this school was two thousand, but that was a few years back when this neighborhood was booming with kids. Now we’re down to about eight or nine hundred, and we’ve got plenty of room. So I’ve become the vulnerable one.”
Agin reiterated that those families left in the neighborhood have taken the whole thing very well—at least there hasn’t been any sign of mass exodus since the busing started, and property values have remained about the same.
Acceptance has been both passive and active. Some of the bused-in kids have been invited home for lunch by some of the kids in the neighborhood. They are not allowed to miss the bus to go to parties after school, though.
Agin admitted that it took some time for the invitations to start coming. “They had to wait for the formation of friendships.” He feels that the neighborhood kids shouldn’t be actively encouraged to take a Claghorn kid to lunch. Official encouragement might lead to neighborhood criticism. And criticism is one thing that Joe Aging doesn’t want to encourage.
From the start, he has tried to make sure that everyone involved knew exactly what was going on. He tried, the best he could, to have the neighborhood parents recognize the need for busing and become better informed about it. “Right from the beginning, we gave them the whole picture,” he said. “And by arranging them heterogeneously, we avoided having a presaid.
When the program first began, Agin spent quite a bit of time trying to indoctrinate the parents of the bused-in kids. He attended meetings with them down at the Claghorn School and spoke to them and invited them to visit Spruance. But that was three years ago, and he hasn’t seen very many of them since.
Some of the parents do come up when they are invited for such special occasions as teacher visitation, but few of them ever make it for regular Home and School Association meetings. Those who have come expressed concern mostly over the facilities at Spruance, the lunchroom in particular. Since their kids would be eating there every day, they had a natural concern over what was being served. Most of the parents were pleased with the facilities and pleased with what they saw and pleased that they had come. And at least one of them kept coming. And coming and coming.
THERE IS A LITTLE ROOM just down the hallway from the principal’s office that has a sign on it that says “HOME & SCHOOL ASSOCIATION.” Actually it’s not really a room, it’s a converted book closet, and really, if you took all of the active members of the Spruance Home and School Association and put them all together at one time, they would quite easily fit into a book closet, with plenty of room left over for a couple of pinball machines.
Seated in the barely furnished room this morning for an impromptu meeting were five members of the Association. One of them was black and she dominated the meeting. Her name was Earthilee Gray and she was the neatly scrubbed mother of an equally neatly scrubbed bused-in son, and somewhat of a new breed of cat.
Earthilee is an honest-to-goodness black yenta with Della Reese intonations and Eartha Kitt tendencies. She sat at a wooden table with some papers in front of her and, with one profound pronouncement, she brought the informal conversation to a halt and got down to the business at hand.
“I’d like to make a statement,” she said, as if to give fair warning to all the hypothetical news cameras present to start rolling. “I have visited this school as much as any other mother, if not more,” she said, and you just knew it was more. “Not because of integration, although I’m for freedom and equal rights and all the things people are fighting for, but because I’m interested in my son getting a good education. I’ve sacrificed hours to get here, and I’ve eaten lunch here with the kids. The general picture I’ve gotten here is that there is no direct adverseness on anyone’s part.”
She did admit, however, that at meetings some people did refuse to even say hello to her, but she did not consider this adverseness. “I’d rather just leave it up to their own intelligence,” she said.
What she’s interested in primarily, she reiterated, not for the last time, was that her child was getting a well- rounded education, regardless of integration. Although she admitted that her child had never told her that he had been abused or had seen the staring eyes of hate, Earthilee Gray said she felt sure that Oxford Circle parents are telling their kids not to play with black kids.
“We need more involvement at home as well as with teachers, principals and administrators,” she said. “I have talked with parents in my neighborhood. Some feel that the teachers at Spruance are very prejudiced. I’ve been given statements that have said so, but I never told anyone here because I thought they were too petty.”
Somehow, Joe Agin had squeezed his way into the closet to give Earthilee Gray a verbal pat on the head: “I value your opinion more than the opinion of a parent whose kid is a disciplinary problem, who tends to be more prejudiced. You are more unbiased than other parents who pass judgment in a biased way.”
Everyone at Spruance knows Earthilee Gray. She is in such close contact with the teachers that when she talks of her son’s education, she says, “I had a wonderful teacher last term,” or, “We have a real gem this term.”
Earthilee Gray is not at all typical of her community and she knows it. But she is perhaps very typical of a new breed of outspoken leader with bootstraps whose influence can and will be felt by anyone she comes in contact with, and the people at Spruance know that well.
She is part of a black middle class that has suddenly become militant in this country over the past few years. She owns her own beauty parlor and makes enough money from it to comfortably and smartly furnish her house and herself. She is the first to tell you what a helping hand she has been to her neighborhood and how she takes other mothers’ kids to ball games and gives them lunches and new shirts when their own become too tattered.
Earthilee Gray makes her kid wear a necktie to school even though she knows that he gets beaten up on the bus a lot because of it. And she is the first one to respond with a kneejerk defense, usually in the form of a letter, a phone call or a visit, when her kid is in any danger of having his tie stepped on. The tie serves more as a status symbol than an adornment. Earthilee Gray knows where she’s at. She’s the first to scorn a lot of the people in her neighborhood who “don’t want to work.”
And she is well aware of what the people in her neighborhood think about her. “You think you’re scared in that neighborhood,” she tells her white soul sisters. “Well, I’m doubly scared. I can’t leave a window or door unlocked.”
Earthilee Gray’s minor confession of weakness gave the white mothers present an opportunity to jump in.
First, there was the president of the Home and School Association, Ruth MacAndrew (MacAndrew!? There goes the neighborhood). Yet despite her looks and her name, she too had definite yenta tendencies. “Look, let’s face it, we don’t want reverse busing,” she said, as though someone had brought the subject up. ”All we want is a good education for our kids.”
Also there were three Jewish mothers. There was Gloria Richman, a well-dressed woman with a giant opal ring and a puffed-up hairdo. With her were Jeannette Toman and Gilda Dunoff.
Jeannette Toman looks like the kind of mother who would probably make her kids wear earmuffs in April. Gilda Dunoff was later to be affectionately described by Joe Agin as “the quiet one.” The three of them chimed in almost in unison with Ruth MacAndrew.
“We just don’t want reverse busing.”
This, Ruth MacAndrew said, was the initial reaction of most of the parents when they learned of the busing program. Busing was a good idea for relieving overcrowding and fostering integration, just so long as it didn’t inconvenience their kids.
She felt that the parents hadn’t been “informed right” about the busing when it first started. “A lot gets blown up, you know,” she said. “At first, many parents got the impression that the busing was simply to promote integration and not primarily for the sake of education.”
Earthilee Gray was alive and stirring again now, and saying that the only disadvantage of the busing program was that she had to get up at six o’clock in the morning to have breakfast with her son. “If there is any prejudice between children, it is taught in the homes,” she said from her seat in left field.
Ruth MacAndrew said that there has been a “slowdown” in the learning pace in classrooms that have bused-in kids. “Not everyone is ready to go on.”
Everyone was getting into the fray now and all kinds of things were starting to bounce off of the walls, in no particular direction Earthilee Gray said that another problem with busing was the fact that if a Claghorn kid gets sick in school, it is too far for the parent to come get him. She grabbed at the opportunity of having the floor again to get in a word about discipline: “If my child needs slapping, slap him, I always say.”
Gilda Dunoff turned to Earthilee Gray and said, “If all Negro mothers were like you, there would be no problems.”
Jeannette Toman said that the language coming home with the kids has changed since the busing began. “It has put the parents a little more on the ball,” she said.
“It’s a real eye-opener, eh?” chimed in Joe Agin from somewhere.
Gloria Richman told how her son has been ridiculed for his friendship with “a lovely little colored boy.”
Earthilee Gray said that the black kids from Spruance come home to a segregated neighborhood and that when they do, some of their parents think that they are “too good to go out and play with the other kids.” She doesn’t consider herself to be one of those parents, because every day, weather permitting, when her kid comes home, she lets him take off his tie and get on his bike and ride around the neighborhood for forty-five minutes. Exactly forty-five minutes.
Jeannette Toman said to Earthilee Gray “there are not many of your people at the Home and School meetings.”
“They feel they’re outcasts,” Earthilee Gray said. “They feel they may be out of place or not accepted.” She felt that the teas that were held before the busing started were helpful for the parents at the different schools to get to know what was going on, but that the next step is for the teachers to get involved in the home life. She also cited a need for “more meaningful parental involvement.”
Ruth MacAndrew, who schedules all of her Home and School meetings during the day, when most of the black parents couldn’t come if they wanted to, said that white parents feel education is falling behind because there are too many discipline problems in the classrooms. This was Joe Agin’s bag and he was quick to blame whatever lag there has been in the classrooms on the teachers.
Everyone present agreed that they are walking on eggshells and that communication is not what it should be because of what Joe Agin called “the Black Power thing.”
“Sometimes you just don’t know what to say or how to say it so that it doesn’t come out sounding wrong,” Gloria Richman said.
Earthilee Gray said that she even felt shaky about what she said in her own neighborhood because she thinks that many people resent the fact that her kid goes to Spruance.
“Education of the parents in that neighborhood can only come from their own people,” Jeannette Toman said. “What is needed is more people like Earthilee. But see, they resent her too.”
Yes, everyone there was convinced that if all black people were like Earthilee Gray, there would be no problems and that everyone could live together in harmony. They all looked at Earthilee Gray and the air reeked with brotherhood as smiles crossed their faces and bells rang.
IT WAS RECESS.
Out in the schoolyard, the sun had broken all the way through and except for a heavy and chilly breeze it was turning out to be not too bad a day after all.
Out in the schoolyard was where it was really happening. It was where the kids were all on their own and didn’t have to listen to the bigoted garbage from their parents or swallow any of the brotherhood bullshit that was stuffed down their throats in school.
Out in the schoolyard was where kids could be kids. And it is here that the ultimate test of integration is being taken. It is here where there is no supervision and nobody to tell the kids what to do or not to do. It is the things that happen in the schoolyard that these kids are going to remember ten, twenty, thirty years from now, and not anything that is told to them in a classroom about race relations. Most of them don’t even know what race relations are. All they know is that they are kids. They are kids and they are beautiful.
While their mothers are inside for a session of para-liberal mutual back-patting, the kids are out in the sun, black and white together, with their arms around each other.
In one corner of the yard was a gaggle of girls jumping rope, and there was a black girl holding one end of the rope and a white girl holding the other. And nobody had to tell them to do that, because it just happened and none of them even thought about it.
Across the yard, there was a softball game going on and it was the same scene.
It was a choose-up game, which means that you start out with two captains and they alternately pick kids to be on their team. And when you’re playing baseball in a schoolyard you’re playing to win, and so the selections of team members are made with all the calculation of a professional draft. When your pick comes up, you don’t take a buddy, you take the best available ballplayer. And that’s just what the kids did. It was an integrated game, but nobody had to tell them to make it one.
Just past center field, there was a fight going on. The fight was between a white kid and a black kid. One was calling himself Jerry Quarry and the other was Jimmy Ellis and they were jabbing away at each other’s hands. It could have been nothing but a draw.
A little crowd had gathered around them and some were rooting for Jerry Quarry and some of them were rooting for Jimmy Ellis Their rooting got so hot that a small skirmish broke out in the crowd and pretty soon three black kids and one white kid were on the ground laughing their heads off.
Right in back of them, a group of girls was looking on. One of them was named April and she was a chubby little fifth-grader with a long blonde braid and she was white. She said she didn’t like it because the black kids fight too much.
“That ain’t true,” one of the black girls said.
“It is too,” April yelled as she sent the black girl flying with a quick karate chop to the chest.
At the far end of the yard, on one of the basketball courts, a long semi- set shot by one of the kids from Claghorn was just bouncing its way through the iron hoop when the buzzer went off.
Recess was over now and a school- yard full of color-blind kids slowly made their way back into the building. Back to their heterogeneously-placed classes and the teachers who would tell them what a great world this would be if only people could learn to live together.
So back into the building they went, black and white together, to wait for the next recess when they could go outside and just be kids again. Waiting for the next recess when they could go outside and, for fifteen minutes in a concrete yard surrounded by a big cyclone fence, solve all the world’s problems.
Funny how kids start out with the answer and end up with the question.
BACK INSIDE, Ann Lichterman sits by her window, wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door. Ann Lichterman is the school’s guidance counselor and her nice little office with a view is filled with psychology books and potted plants. On the top shelf of the small bookcase across from her desk are two almost identical dolls. One has yellow hair and blue eyes and a peachy complexion. The other one has black frizzy hair and brown eyes and brown skin. The dolls make nice bookends.
Ann Lichterman was reading a note from a mother whose kid had been given some clothes to wear because the ones he had had been condemned. “Isn’t it heartbreaking? They don’t have all we take for granted,” she said piously.
She wiped a near-tear and went on. “The parents are so far away and it’s difficult to have communication with them. They are physically far away and it’s a long ride.
“We haven’t kept any hostility on race,” she said. “From the day a bused-in child enters this school, he is reminded constantly, ‘You are a Spruance child.’ ” (Many of the kids found this a bit hard to swallow. When asked what school they went to, most of them gave the name of their sending school. And the few who said Spruance, did so with some hesitation.)
“Busing has been going on for years, and will continue to go on,” she said.
THE POLICY OF the Board of Education states that a more extensive use of busing to foster integration is part of its current general plans. How long the busing will continue depends on how rapidly new schools are built and antiquated buildings replaced. In an effort to determine what effects the program is having scholastically, the Board has put out an achievement study or two, filled with means and medians and modes.
When you put it all together, though, the results are fairly inconclusive. Some kids have done better with the busing while others have stayed about the same. The Board is quick to point out, though, that no one, at either the sending or receiving schools, has suffered scholastically as a result of the program.
There is one major hitch in these findings. The latest study the Board has to offer is dated December 1966, and in those days the kids who were being bused were still pretty much from the cream of the sending school’s crop. Now that the selection is basically a random one, the situation quite possibly may have changed. The Board is now in the midst of giving it another long, hard look.
Ann Lichterman says that children are not prejudiced and that any hostility among them on the issue of race comes from the family She spoke of the two black teachers among Spruance’s faculty of forty as a case in point.
On parent visitation day in November, many of the Oxford Circle parents were a little shocked to find out that their kids had a black teacher. Somehow, it just hadn’t occurred to the kids to mention something as significant as color when talking about their teacher.
On the subject of the faculty, Ann Lichterman noted that inexperience is the key factor in any difficulties in handling the bused-in kids. “If we know a child is a problem child, we will place him with an experienced teacher,” she said. “We’ll assign him to a teacher we feel can handle him.”
She doesn’t think that the black kids have any trouble reacting to white authority figures. “They respect people,” she said, “not for their color.”
JOE AGIN HAD JUST finished making one of his frequent tours of the build
ing. He visited the science rooms and the reading rooms and the classrooms. Everyone is used to Agin’s popping in, and things just go on as usual. It was late in the day now though, and you’d think even the teachers would be getting sick of the brotherhood bit.
In one third-grade class, the teacher asked the kids what the most wonderful thing in the world was.
A white girl in the front row said ”money.”
The question was repeated.
A black girl three rows back said ”people.”
AGIN SMILED AS he closed the door and hustled down the hallway to the now vacant faculty dining room. There, he was to meet with Reba Hoffman, his assistant, a matronly professional educator who keeps all her pencils sharpened.
In addition to being assistant to the principal, Reba Hoffman is in charge of the reading program at Spruance. She and Agin sat at separate tables and spoke of some more of their problems. One of the answers, Reba Hoffman feels, is to have smaller classes, to be able to show the kids that someone is interested in them, to form closer relationships and, hopefully, get through to them.
“Their home life affects them a lot,” she said. “In most cases, there is so much to be done—too much. And if the child is too far behind, we can only bring him up one or two levels. The earlier we get them, the more we can save,” she said, as outside, the heavens rumbled with thunder.
Reba Hoffman underscored the need for experienced teachers, and the fact that getting them to work with underprivileged kids is difficult with the system’s policy of voluntary transfers, which doesn’t allow the placing of experienced teachers where they are most needed.
“As room becomes available here, the amount of busing to the Northeast will increase,” Agin said. “Because of overcrowding, ghetto schools are always going to need relief.” Agin added that it is hard to get more Negro teachers to come to the Northeast, mostly because of distance from the neighborhoods where they live.
In many ways, Agin would like to see more Negro people and more Negro life brought into the school. He has gone so far as to set up a display right outside of the school library, including in it such books as ”The Negro Heritage Library,” “Playtime in Africa,” and a variety of novels and biographies of the George Washington Carver-Booker T. Washington ilk.
But both he and Reba Hoffman agree that the kids at Spruance are really too young to relate to the teaching of Negro history.
“Maybe integration is not as important as it was first thought to be,” Agin said. “Maybe what we need is smaller classes and more quality education.”
THE DOOR OPENED NOW, as one of the school’s non-teaching assistants came in. And as the door opened, the room became flooded with the sounds from the auditorium, just across the way.
Agin got up and walked across the hall to see what was going on. It was an assembly of the sixth-grade graduating class, some of whom had taken more than six years to make it. Many of them were white and some of them were black.
At the podium was a woman named Mrs. Flinker, who, if she weren’t leading the meeting, would make a good dowager in an English drawing room comedy.
Mrs. Flinker was telling the kids some of the great things in store for them at graduation. Things like a banquet and a full-length feature movie, and more. And as she mentioned each of them, the kids cheered and shrieked with delight.
And after the last hurrah had died, Mrs. Flinker led them all in a song they would be singing at graduation. The song is called “Good Neighbor” and it comes from the Southwest and it’s all about extending a friendly hand to the people across the Rio Grande. The words go, “Show we belong to one big happy family; good, good neighbors that are free.”
And when they finished singing the song, Mrs. Flinker was nice enough to point out the moral. “But we can’t be good neighbors to our friends across the Rio Grande until we are good friends with each other, now can we boys and girls?” she asked.
The boys and girls agreed.
And so this month, on graduation day, they will all stand on the stage as one, black and white together, and they will sing “Good Neighbor” and other songs of friendship and brotherhood.
And when it is all over, they will say good-bye, and the white kids will get their hugs and their presents from parents and grandparents, and the black kids will all get on the bus and go back where they came from.