Perspectives on Brown from behind the front desk

May 17, 2004, midnight | By Kedamai Fisseha, Feza Kikaya, Robin Hernandez | 20 years, 1 month ago

Blair teachers weigh in on their experiences with integration

Silver Chips Online talked to long-time Blair teachers about their opinion of the changing conditions in public schools since the pro-integration ruling in Brown vs. Board.

Paul Grossman, Math teacher
Paul Grossman, who has been teaching at Blair for 10 years full-time after he substituted for the school, stated that "this is a much more integrated society than I grew up in."

Grossman attended Shepherd Elementary School in the 1940s and graduated from Coolidge High School in Northwest D.C., the school where Principal Philip Gainous was eventually the athletic director. Grossman stated that, of his graduating class, approximately 10 percent of the students were African American.

Grossman believes that "a couple of big changes" occurred over his years as a student, but the two that were most significant were the Brown vs. Board of Education decision and the Skelly Right Decision, a case in the District where a judge ruled tracking in schools illegal. Grossman believes that the latter decision is "a forerunner of what's happened in the country" and that we still see the remnants of the ruling at Blair, where some classes have mostly minority races while other classes have students of majority races.

Vickie Adamson, English teacher
Twenty-six years after Brown vs. Board of Education, Vickie Adamson was graduating from her Los Angeles high school where she was often the only African American in her honors classes. "Schools were very divided," says Adamson, who graduated in 1980 from a largely Chicano and Latino high school. As a teacher in L.A., Adamson continued to see a lack of racial integration in high schools. Adamson taught at one school with 4,000 students, and she says there was not a single white student.

Adamson admits that it's not a simple task to go to a school where you are a minority. In one instance, a white female student had to call her mother before the end of the school day because she felt so out of place. "It's not easy to be the only one," said Adamson.

Moving from L.A. to Silver Spring really opened up Adamson's eyes. "Children are the same," says Adamson. "The biggest variable more than race is class," Adamson explains. "When you're in economically depressed areas, you're dealing with students of color."

"I have never doubted the ability of students, it's just that circumstances put them at a disadvantage," she says. Reflecting on Brown vs. Board of Education, Adamson feels the landmark case was a "big step" in the right direction, but "we are nowhere near the ideal."

Karen Hillmer, Physics teacher
"I think that, although we have made progress, we still have some issues to deal with. A lot of people now are confusing race with class and a lot of the problems that we are having now are not over race but over socioeconomic disparities. This fits into something else that I have noticed over the years. Before integration, I heard that kids in all black schools worked more out of a sense of personal pride. After integration though, black kids who were succeeding out of pride would be told 'you're an Oreo', 'if you achieve, then you're pleasing whitey.' There's pressure on African American kids to not succeed, because to succeed is to be white. I think that today there are more similarities between a successful black kid and a successful white kid than between the successful white and a less-achieving white student, for example. It's not race, it's class. While tolerance has increased a whole lot in the last 50 years, we still have a ways to go, but we can give ourselves some credit for making progress."

John Mathwin, Journalism teacher
"My father was in the Army when I was growing up, so I didn't encounter segregation until I moved to Virginia in 1956 and went to school in the civilian community where I first heard the "n" word. I had to ask what it meant. We started each school day by singing "Carry Me Back to Ole Virginia," which, according to its lyrics, was where "darkies" used to play. In the early 60s, my brother and I picked up two black hitchhikers in rural North Carolina. They were huge, and terrified. As a couple of white kids, we could have made their lives miserable, although I didn't understand that at the time. I'll never forget the way they avoided eye contact, the way they said 'yes, sir' to us although they were twice our age (and size), the way they kept their heads down and the way they asked to be let out almost as soon as we picked them up. White people had that kind of power. Brown began to address all of that terrible racism. No, it didn't end it. But we at Blair can see that we have come a very long way in the last 50 years."

Ralph Bunday, Thermodynamics teacher
"I graduated from high school in 1952 in Nashville, Tennessee. I lived within two blocks of a black neighborhood for, I'd say, eight years – about half of my life by the time I graduated. I didn't go to school with anyone who was black. I tried to make friends with black kids and, in fact, had my first and only experience getting [rocks thrown at me] by black kids. My training that everyone was equal was always hypothetical, so I tested it out. I attended college from 1952 to '54, then from 1959 to '62, and there were no black students in my college classrooms. When I started teaching in Woodward High School in Montgomery County in 1956, I had taught for three years before I had the first black student in my class. I had only one, and we are still friends to this day. After Woodward, I went to Walter Johnson for two years. I don't think that I had any black students at Walter Johnson. I came to Blair a year after Mr. Gainous, who many people felt was here for a purpose. And, though that purpose seemed to be racial, I don't think it was. The main problem, instead of being racial, was economic. Blair had evolved into a school where it wasn't white flight, it was black-and-white flight – middle-class flight. No self-respecting black family wanted to send their child to Blair. And while we have addressed that – the Magnet and CAP – somewhat, the new question today is: why aren't high-school students in general coming to school ready to learn? It seems, at least to me, that Brown ensured that blacks and whites together have equal opportunity to reject their academic potential."

Pam Bryant, English teacher
"I was two years old at the time of Brown v Board. Although I realize that I probably got a better education because of Brown, the idea still got across to me even as a child that white people were better than me. I've had teachers who felt I wasn't smart enough to succeed, to go to college. Let me tell you, teachers don't have to say that aloud. And since [teachers] were really the only adults in my life, that led me to think that maybe I was dumb.

I lived in Teaneck, New Jersey. My neighborhood was pretty much white, but by the time I was five, many of the white families had moved out. One of the big pieces about Teaneck schools was that the powers that be in the town voluntarily tried to even out the schools, in terms of integration. In 1964 they voluntarily started an extensive bus system that exists to this day, to help with integration. But even in Teaneck, the segregation continued in the same way that it does at Blair: tracking.

One of the things that burns me up the worst today is that people will criticize kids that have been integrated into one school for breaking up into separate groups. In my time, there were clear social and class lines. Blacks and whites didn't date; those who did were ostracized immediately. I think that that's the root of that separation between the different groups [today].

Ultimately, what Brown did for the betterment of this country is that it broke the back of Jim Crow. I think that the next step [for us] is to work out the institutionalized problems, namely tracking."

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Kedamai Fisseha. Kedamai Fisseha sorely misses the computer lab where Silver Chips was born and is daily reborn. He is currently living and writing from London, England where he is glad for the chance to continue his participation in the organization. More »

Feza Kikaya. Feza Kikaya is finally a SENIOR in the CAP program at Blair. She enjoys driving, hanging out with friends and laughing. Most importantly, Feza is counting down the days to graduation so she can begin a new chapter of her life in college. Her favorite … More »

Robin Hernandez. Robin Hernandez is a SENIOR! She works part time as a plumber. Her creative ideas to unclogging toilets have proven to be very successful, as long as she isn't too loud in the process. If you want to enlist her help but can't find her … More »

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