originally published 2009-03-14 15:56:39 -0500. bumped by carol.
I grew up in a working class neighborhood on the far north shore in Chicago in the 1960s and 70s. In those days, Chicago was segregated. Blacks and whites rarely lived in the same neighborhoods and we didn't attend classes together.
Michelle Robinson was several years younger than I. She grew up in a black, middle class neighborhood on the south shore.
More about how I ended up going, in the midst of an era of racial unrest, to Chicago's first voluntarily integrated high school with Michelle Obama (and yearbook photos) after the jump.
I moved to Chicago in 1968, the year the police murdered Fred Hampton, a young black activist (who had advocated, among other things, for hot lunches for African-American children), and the year of the infamous police riot at the Democratic Convention. I was eight years old and didn't know anybody.
My brother and two sisters were still living in New York with my step-father. My parents divorced after my mother suffered her first psychotic episode.
She was schizophrenic.
My Mom's illness was intermittent, and when I moved in with her, it was in remission. She worked as a case worker in predominantly black neighborhoods on Chicago's South Side. I had never been there. White people rarely rode those trains or those busses.
Mom used to leave for work early. I would get dressed, make my breakfast and lunch, and go to school.
I was new and had no friends. One day I dawdled, remaining at home in my pajamas watching cartoons. On that particular day a man broke into my apartment and sexually assaulted me. He happened to be black.
School became a nightmare. In the weeks immediately following the assault, I was picked up every day by a police car and driven to the school playground. I would get out of the car in front of all the other children.
The girl downstairs who was two years older than me, knew about the assault. I had fled to her apartment, seeking refuge, but her mother called me a slut and slammed the door in my face. This girl informed my classmates that I was under arrest because I was a "ni**er-lover."
I was seldom spoken to by other children at my elementary school from that day in fourth grade through through my eighth grade graduation.
By the time I reached high school, I couldn't remember the assault. My classmates still avoided me although nobody could recall the reason. Fortunately, I met a terrific girl named Didi who had gone to a different grammar school, who didn't care that I was a geek, and wouldn't have given a hoot about my being a "ni**er-lover" even if she had known.
During those intervening years between my fourth and ninth grades, the Supreme Court had ordered Chicago to integrate its schools. The Board of Education tried bussing which invariably ended in riots. In 1974, when Didi and I were high school freshman, the District came up with a new plan.
One day, our classes were cancelled and all the freshmen were herded into the auditorium. I was only too happy to skip algebra class. Every time I asked a question, that teacher told me, "Your mouth is as a sewer. It is always open and it smells." Once he pulled me aside and said, "You and your friends will never graduate. The sooner you accept this, the better off you'll all be." This was a telescopic algebra class, one step above honors. We were the star students.
A group of well dressed black and white adults gathered on the stage to speak to us. "We're opening a new experimental racially integrated school on the near south side," said a man in a suit. "We'll be accepting students from every neighborhood. All ethnic groups will be represented. Our teachers will be hand-picked. Only the best will be allowed to teach at Whitney Young. In a few years, Whitney will be the top school in Illinois."
He showed us photos of the professional auditorium, the olympic sized pool, the ballet studios, the fully equipped labs. "We're looking for white students who are willing to go there. You'll have to maintain a 3.0 GPA. Your class will be the first to graduate from Whitney M. Young Magnet High School."
Didi and I raised all four hands for the application. Didi jumped out of her seat. "Hey Mister!" she shouted. "Mister, we'll take two applications right here!"
Meanwhile, in the middle class African-American neighborhoods on Michelle Robinson's South Shore, black families who had struggled to educate their children were seeking an affordable alternative to the poorly funded, segregated high schools on Chicago's South Side. Many of these families had produced exceptional students, far more consistent in school than me or Didi, but there was no place for their children to attend. Fortunately, the man in the suit was visiting their schools as well, convincing them to board trains and busses and undertake the long daily journey to Whitney Young.
Every day from my sophomore year forward, I got up at 5:00 and met Didi at the El station. We took two trains (and Didi also took a bus) to the near south side. Sometimes we waited on the platform when it was twenty below. On a good day, it took an hour and a half to get to school. On a bad day, Didi smoked packs of cigarettes trying to make the train come.
The route from the train to the school was lined every thirty or forty feet with armed policemen. Police surrounded the perimeter of the school, and guards were posted in hallways, to make sure we were not accosted by segregationists or by gangs. (At that time, Whitney Young was plunked smack in the middle of skid row...Chicago's roughest neighborhood.) But despite the heavy police presence, the school felt warm and cozy. I was more at home in school than I was in my own neighborhood. At this school, it truly did not matter who was black and who was white.
When I was little, I yearned to be a physicist like Marie Curie. My first high school chased those visions out of my head. By the time the recruiter came from Whitney Young, my only aspiration was to not become a prostitute.
It wasn't easy for me to graduate. My mother's remissions became shorter and less frequent. By that time, all four of us were living with her. I was the eldest and I worked after school for grocery money, or else just shoplifted dinner for my siblings. When Mom became too incapacitated to care for us, my step-father would take my siblings away.
Sometimes I lived with my grandmother. Sometimes I crashed in basements, in the park, or at friends' homes. I knew a 17-year-old who was a call girl and had her own apartment. It was filled with homeless kids. She would clear out a spot in the corner and tell everyone to leave me alone. "This girl's gotta do homework," she'd say. "Someday she's gonna go to college."
No matter where I slept, I got up and went to school. By my junior year, Didi, and most of the other kids from my neighborhood had left Whitney, because of home problems or the long commute.
Grandma had spoken to one of the assistant principals, and Mrs. Simon would come up to me every day to welcome me. My physics teacher tutored me in algebra and took me to Wisconsin to make a hologram. He called a recruiter from a college in New Mexico and arranged for them to interview me.
I got a scholarship to St. John's College, thanks to my teachers at Whitney Young. After I graduated from high school, I moved to Santa Fe, NM, the farthest place from Chicago I could imagine.
I didn't realize that a freshman at my school should have been voted "Most Likely to Succeed." I had gone to school with America's first African-American First Lady! I knew that we had made a safe place for blacks and whites to attend school together. I didn't know that the students and teachers of Whitney Young had helped to change the world.
In November of 2008, a few weeks after the election, I was picking up my kids from school listening to Democracy Now. Liz Mundy, a WaPo reporter, was talking about the amazing high school that changed Michelle Robinsons's life, and the teen-agers who travelled so far every day to get to that school. As soon as I got home, I dug my yearbook out of my garage.
And this is what I found: