Houston, Texas: November-December, 1974
It was 8 a.m., the hour that on any other day classes began. The sky was covered with dark clouds, and kids on their way up the long cement walk to the school’s main entrance hunched their shoulders against the morning chill and walked quickly. Some had arrived in their own cars; others had just slid off the front-seat of a car driven by a father in a business suit or a mother whose coat was buttoned up to the neck over her nightgown; a few students had walked; and still others, all of them black, had ridden in one of the yellow school buses parked in a row in front of the school.
The building itself, grimly outlined against the dark sky, seemed aloof to these comings and goings. It is an immense, bulky rectangle, three stories high, built from smooth tight-brown stone. Each story has its row of severe, darkly framed windows. On the right front, a map of Texas two stories high is carved into the wall.
As I walked toward the row of metal doors at the main entrance—doors so dented and bent that most no longer latch properly—I could hear that inside the commotion had already started. Heavy, insistent drumbeats pulsed through the stone walls, followed immediately by the excited voices of hundreds of adolescents chanting in unison. The words of the chants were distorted but the energy was infectious. I walked faster.
Inside, the normally dark halls were bright in contrast to the overcast morning. Kids stood in small groups talking, shouting, poking, or shoving one another. Some were already eating chips from cellophane bags or drinking cans of Coke from the machine at the left end of the hall. Wads of paper and empty cans were beginning to collect at the edges of the floor underneath the rows of metal lockers. A steady stream of kids walking in casual groups of twos and threes threaded down the halls past kids shoving books into their lockers and past the standing groups of talkers and pokers. They were going to the auditorium, where the chanters and drum beaters I’d heard outside were loudly working their way to frenzy.
I climbed a nearby set of stairs, walked down the hall, and entered the auditorium from the second floor. This put me on the mezzanine where I could look down on the action and also observe anything happening in the balcony. Several teachers had also come to watch from the mezzanine; many of them, like many students, wore headbands of red construction paper. Lamar athletic teams are nicknamed the Redskins.
The auditorium was dark except for a strobe light trained on the stage, where six girls danced in a line. They wore short white sleeveless dresses and black tights. The band was seated directly in front of the stage. The brass section blared and the drums pounded in rhythm with a tom-tom beat while the girls on stage twirled and kicked beneath the constant flashes of the strobe. In the audience everyone clapped double-time and swayed back and forth in their seats. Then the lights went up, the band stopped, the girls were gone, and out of the wings came eight cheerleaders, four boys and four girls. The boys wore red and white checked shirts and light blue corduroy pants; the girls, white blouses and blue and white shorts with a matching bib. They were clapping, bouncing on the balls of their feet, charged with excitement. One of them came to a microphone at the front of the stage and announced a skit.
Kids in various school clubs had decorated the auditorium for the rally. Streamers of red and blue crepe paper heavy with the weight of red and blue balloons had been tied to the restraining rail around the balcony and mezzanine and crisscrossed above the cheering students on the floor. Huge signs hung over the rail enjoining the team to “Lynch Lee” or “Jolt the Generals.” Behind the cheerleaders on the stage a sign six feet square said “Blast Lee” and pictured a cartoon Indian shooting a realistic cannon ball through a cartoon Confederate general.
Robert E. Lee High School is Lamar’s biggest rival. When Lee opened in 1962 it took away part of Lamar’s district; Woodrow Watts, who was then Lamar’s principal, became the first principal of Lee. Since both schools are located in the same part of town and both draw students from the same social class, their rivalry is as natural as it is intense. It reaches so deeply into the life of both schools that—for example—the respective Key Clubs know year by year which club has sold more grapefruit in the Christmas drive and more tickets to the spring Pancake Breakfast. But the final arbiter, the only one that really counts, is the football game. It so inflames partisan passions that they cannot be confined to the gridiron. Keith Miller, sports editor of Lamar’s newspaper, described the yearly rituals in a column that appeared the morning before the Friday pep rally:
“The annual battle constitutes two rivalries really-one on the field between the players, and one on the streets between blood-thirsty students from either school.
“Each year, gang wars develop on Tanglewood Blvd. and River Oaks Blvd., so if you’re planning on hitting one of ’em (or both), be sure you are prepared with lots of eggs, rocks, fire extinguishers, and a sturdy right fist. For anyone who has never witnessed the outcome for the past eight years, this is what usually has happened: both schools get vandalized and painted, students get taken down, the Lamar JV wins, and the Lee Varsity wins. Sounds like clockwork, huh?
“Well this year, the humiliation all comes to an end as Lee looks destined to lose, trying to pull through one of their most disappointing seasons ever.”
Strong words, but Lamar had been waiting a long time for revenge. In twelve meetings they had beaten Lee only twice, the last time in 1965; in the last six years Lee had scored 132 points to Lamar’s 13.
Keith’s words were so strong, in fact, that they provoked a reaction from Lamar’s administration. The afternoon the article appeared an announcement came over the intercom. Mark Power, a cheerleader and the student body president, asked students not to have any off-campus pep rallies that night—the traditional brawls on Tanglewood and River Oaks Boulevard Keith had mentioned in his column. “Such activities are not condoned,” Mark said. “Let’s channel our spirit into beating Lee.” Then Keith was given the mike. He sounded very uncomfortable. “I’m sorry for the trouble I caused,” he said, “I didn’t mean to cause any trouble.”
They had been called down to the principal’s office and told to make that announcement. This provoked some private, grumbling by the newspaper staff and one letter to the editor claiming “the last bastion of the free press has finally been overrun and its occupants tortured into submission.” But no one else really cared. Times have changed. A few years ago tampering with school papers was a frequent cause of student demonstrations. But people in school administration say that “the kids really seem to be with us this year.” When I asked what was the most important thing at Lamar the most frequent reply from both students and teachers was “school spirit.” Even Keith, who had been “tortured into submission,” later justified his column not in terms of journalistic freedom but school spirit: “When I was called down to the office I was really nervous. I guess I should have defended myself but I just didn’t know what was happening. I was real embarrassed and ashamed and just wanted to get it over with. But I received a lot of compliments on that column. I think the role of the sports page is to help the team. The football guys told me that article really helped to fire them up.”
In any event neither school got vandalized or painted this year although Lee students late one night did raise a Confederate flag on the flag pole in front of Lamar and then greased the pole so getting the flag down was an involved operation. Enterprising Lamar students, not to be outdone, managed to steal “Uncle Bob,” the statue of a comic Robert E. Lee that is Lee’s mascot. Lamar’s mascot, Big Red, a large statue of an Indian with large rolling eyes and an obscene toothy grin, was moved from secret hiding place to secret hiding place the week before the game. Ultimate responsibility for the safety of Big Red lies with Dennis Phillips, a biology teacher. He takes the mascot to games in a trailer flanked by a convoy of student cars. The week before the Lee game he sleeps in the Teacher’s Lounge so he can protect Big Red from opposition raiding parties. Last Valentine’s day the school newspaper printed a heart-shaped picture of Phillips, a bachelor, sitting on one of Big Red’s arms with the caption “This issue is dedicated to young lovers everywhere.” Phillips played a prominent role in the skit performed at the pep rally. The cheerleader at the microphone announced he was going to introduce the Lee starting line-up. Each player was a teacher dressed in a bulky sweatsuit and a single piece of football equipment. Phillips was introduced as “Speedy Phillips, who warmed the bench 600 games in a row.” Wearing baggy bermuda shorts and a football helmet, Phillips trotted on the stage and then slapped hands and did the Bump with a black woman teacher in a red sweatsuit who was taller than he was. The crowd shrieked for more and they obliged, bumping hips again.
After five or six more “players” were introduced they all lined up as if to start a play, and then fumbled the ball, stumbled about awkwardly, and fell down on the stage. The band immediately began playing a fight song, the cheerleaders came bouncing back out of the wings, and the crowd came to its feet clapping in rhythm and chanting “Eat ’em up! Eat ’em up! Raw! Raw! Raw!” Then everyone sat back down while a cheerleader announced that week’s winner of the spirit stick, a short white baton signifying that person’s sound and fury at the game the week before. This week’s winner was a boy who stepped up to the microphone and led a cheer. Then Mr. Phillips came back on the stage and he led a cheer: “Give me an L!” and so on until “Lamar” was spelled out. A football player made a short speech promising that the team was going to “kick their butts up and down the field.” That promise elicited a huge roar.
In the balcony about 150 kids sat silently. Some had either outgrown school spirit or had never been interested in it in the first place; they watched the rally with bemused smiles. Others suffered from the awful adolescent feeling of being out of it; the mass chanting emphasized their isolation and they sat in glum, slumped postures. Still others were, for whatever reason, malcontents and troublemakers, bored and enraged by high school; they glared straight ahead or spoke and gestured contemptuously among themselves as the excitement below rushed toward its climax.
By now the lights were out and the strobe was on again. Everyone was standing, swaying back and forth, shouting with new found force:
“V! I! C! T! O! R! Y!”
“What’s it spell?” the cheerleaders shouted back at them. The strobe was like flashbulbs going off every other second.
“VICTORY!” This last shout was so loud it jolted me. I stepped back as if I’d been hit. The band’s insistent drums and brass and the swelling roar of voices swept up over the mezzanine like a huge wave. The lights came back on and I looked down on the floor to see the kids standing with their right arms raised at a 45-degree angle and their forefingers pointing toward the sky, the traditional pose for singing Lamar’s alma mater. During the song, kids began to crowd around the mezzanine rail fingering the ends of the crepe paper streamers. The moment the song ended, they pulled the ends of the streamers loose. The streamers and their attached balloons floated down to the outstretched arms of the kids below.
I filed out with everyone else. I was surprised at how quickly it had gotten quiet; at how reserved, how normal everyone had suddenly become. The cheering was replaced by the clanking of locker doors as kids picked up their books for their first period classes. The large auditorium had barely been able to contain their energy but now they seemed very matter of fact and moved swiftly through the halls toward their classes.
That night Lamar won 14 to 6. Sitting in the bleachers, I had the feeling most students were bored with the game long before it was over. A student told me later, “All that week everyone was really together. The spirit was great. But the game was an anticlimax. We won, but nothing happened.”
I had been told several times about a party after the game. But when I arrived, the house was completely dark. I found out later the kid’s parents had arrived home unexpectedly and angrily stopped the party just as it was beginning. I drove past twice, making sure I’d found the right place, then parked a little way down the street. I watched car after car of couples cruise by the house, turn and cruise by again, then drive on.
The Last Remnant
Mrs. Gould, a red-haired woman about 50, who is an assistant principal, must approve every poster placed on the walls of the school and every announcement read over the intercom during home room. She was sitting behind her desk when a plump blonde girl came into the office. The girl was wearing a full-length cotton dress and a black turtleneck sweater; she might have just emerged from a Fifties beatnik coffeehouse. In a breathy British accent she said she wanted a downtown March Against Racism mentioned in the announcements the next day. Mrs. Gould’s expression turned skeptical. The girl sat down in a chair opposite the desk and shuffled through her pile of books and notebooks until she found a flyer about the March, which she handed to Mrs. Gould. “It’s all very legitimate,” she said in her breathy accent. “There’s a list of endorsers on the back. Some very prominent people. Ministers. Even the Houston Teacher’s Association endorsed it.”
Mrs. Gould hesitated, looking at the flyer. “Bring in your announcement in the morning, honey,” she said. “I’ll take it to Mr. Costlow.”
“But I could write the announcement right now.”
“That’s all right, honey. Just bring it in in the morning.”
“But I was also wondering if I could read the announcement over the intercom.”
“No, honey,” Mrs. Gould began, feeling more certain on this point, “there’s so many people making announcements right now and they have to pass the microphone back and forth. Andy will do a good job reading it for you.”
“But there are so many announcements and they’re so hard to understand. People start talking in the middle and miss them. I thought a different voice might snap them back to attention.”
“But honey, there were three people on there today.”
“I know,” the girl said, “And it didn’t work.” She quickly gathered up her pile of books and notebooks and left the office.
Mrs. Gould, grinning, said to me, “Do you know who that is? She sells Socialist newspapers across the street. She’s the last remnant. And that British accent is a fake.”
I never heard another word about the March from anyone.
“Lamar is an academic school,” I heard a bright senior girl tell some friends. “Be sure to go there for academic reasons, not social reasons. Because if you go for social reasons you will fail.”
Among Houston public high schools Lamar has always had a reputation as a school of snobs. Its district is bordered by Loop 610 on the west, Montrose on the east, Katy Freeway on the north, and Braes Bayou on the south, a district that is middle to upper-middle class with the exception of one neighborhood. River Oaks, which is one of the wealthiest in the country. Traditionally, when sons and daughters of Houston’s first families went to public school, they went to Lamar.
Its front doors look right out on River Oaks Boulevard along which stand some of the grandest mansions in Houston—John Connally’s, Oscar Wyatt’s, Frank Sharp’s. The Boulevard stops about a half mile from Lamar at the club house of the River Oaks Country Club. A constant reminder of the close presence of great wealth, it shimmers in the distance, brilliantly white, like the palace of Oz. That wealth once held such sway over the school that Lamar was known as the country club at the other end of the Boulevard, and the rich kids dominated the school.
“Ten years ago,” a teacher said, “if you let kids sit where they wanted to in class, all the rich would sit together off to one side and right next to them kind of like a buffer zone would sit the sycophants and social climbers. And then the rest of the kids would sit here and there and try to look aloof from it all.” Much of the administration and faculty were zealous in their role as tutors and guardians of the children of the socially elite. A woman in River Oaks once received a call from a Lamar official who said, “I’ve driven by you and your husband’s lovely home and I thought you’d want to know that if your daughter keeps dressing like she does she’ll be associating with children whose families live in apartments and whose mothers work.”
Those days when the privileged set the tone at Lamar, halcyon days to some of the faculty and staff, are no more. One third of the 1900 students are black. Of the white students, increasing numbers are middle class, since more wealthy parents send their children to private schools since integration. Many students, perhaps as many as one in four, work after school or on weekends. Some work to keep up their cars or to buy extra clothes; but others work, in these hard times, because their families need the money. About 100 students rent apartments of their own, family circumstances of one kind or another having thrown them early on the mercy of the world. Students both rich and otherwise often have divorced parents; one teacher told me that while preparing for a teacher-parent night at school he was astonished to learn how many of his students had last names different from their parents, ten or twelve in one class of 30. Average scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Tests and the National Merit Qualifying Exam are down, and only two-thirds of the graduates go on to college. Ten years ago virtually every student was college bound.
These changes have transformed Lamar from an adolescent Camelot to a school very much in the American grain. The kid whose father controls millions walks the same halls as a kid whose mother must use food stamps to buy her family’s daily bread. But the social conventions that rule student life are still those that evolved during the days of yore. They are essentially a Lilliputian version of the social life of The University of Texas.
No fraternities or sororities are allowed at Lamar but there are social clubs whose membership is limited, but, in theory at least, not exclusive. Kids who want to join apply; if there are more available openings than applications, everyone who applied gets in; if there are more applications than openings, names are picked in a blind drawing. Still the clubs have an aura of exclusivity; kids can tell whether or not they’re really wanted there. With the student body changing, fewer students feel like they’re wanted or feel like they want the clubs. The two boys’ clubs, Ramal and Pow Wow, are not filled to capacity, and of the five girls’ clubs two are moribund, leaving only Mirabeau, Niwauna, and Wichaka still active. Each of the boys’ clubs has about 30 members and each of the girls’ clubs, about 50.
Kids who join must go through a brief period of hazing that corresponds to pledging a fraternity or sorority. Pow Wow, for instance, calls its new members “peons.” The initiates must do favors at the members’ request, wear strange things, memorize obscure facts. All this comes to a climax at initiation. The girls are subject to mild abuse like having peanut butter and honey put in their hair. They are made to dress in outlandish costumes and walk around the Galleria eating potato chips from a Tampax box. Later they are taken to someone’s house where, sitting in a dark room with the members, the new girls must answer any question a member puts to them. Sometimes a girl must put a pillow in her dress, walk around looking pregnant, then go through a mock birth before the other girls.
No other club activities are quite so fascinating. Clubs sponsor parties in the spring and fall; they donate food to needy families at Thanksgiving and give to various charities. To raise money they sell mums during football season, mistletoe sprigs during Christmas, cookies and jelly beans in the spring. But what they do is really secondary, just as what fraternities and sororities do is secondary. It is the belonging that counts.
But there is at the same time a broader social current which touches many more students. A few weeks after the Lee game, I attended a post-game party. It was held in a large fenced patio behind a home in Southhampton, a middle to upper-middle class neighborhood near Rice University. Cars were parked in every available space for blocks around the house. On the front lawn and on the sidewalk nearby, groups of kids stood debating whether or not to go in the party, how long they would stay if they did go in, where they might go instead. A table had been placed across the entrance to the patio where a group of guys collected the $2 admission from every arrival.
One kid hesitated when I first tried to hand him my money. This party, like the others after football games, was not officially sponsored by any organization, student or otherwise, at Lamar. Faculty and administration were supposedly ignorant of it and definitely were not invited. No posters advertising the party hung in the halls the week before. There were no Come-to-the-victory-party-after-the-game enjoinders in the morning announcements. Instead its location was passed from student to student by word of mouth. And although all the kids knew which group at school was responsible for organizing any given party, the fiction was that the parties were private, given at a private home by a private individual. This fiction was the defense if school authorities were to get wind of something and start asking questions. The reason for all this mystery and plotting was simple: the kids wanted beer at the parties and no group at the school could sponsor a party where alcohol was served. Consequently I wasn’t at all surprised when the kid, not sure where I stood in the order of things, hesitated before taking my money. Then another kid said, “Aw, let him in.” He took my money, stamped my hand so I could leave and come back if I wanted, and let me through. What he didn’t do, as I found out only when it was too late, was hand me a paper cup so I could draw beer from the kegs that stood in tubs of ice near the center of the patio.
The patio was very crowded. Everyone was dressed down for the occasion—lots of old jeans and old shirts. Under a carport, a band from the school played confused rock and roll from unexpected sources: “Now we’re going to do a song by the Jefferson Airplane.” In front of the band about twenty couples danced listlessly. The rest of the crowd either stood talking or moved in widening orbits around the beer kegs. Many kids, of course, had come with dates, but it was not at all unusual to see girls and guys arrive separately in groups of three or four. Invariably they had come in the hope of meeting some particular person. They stood on tiptoe and stretched their necks to scan the crowd expectantly. No one was especially boisterous: few staggered drunkenly about; some couples stood or danced with arms wrapped around one another; others talked shyly as if they were afraid to touch. There was some talk of the game, some gossip about this person or that, a heated debate about whether or not Elton John was queer. As I left, two cop cars, drawn like ants to a picnic, cruised by, and kids who had been standing on the lawn and sidewalk faded back into the shadows. The cops slowed down but kept on going.
Mr. O. B. Harris is the assistant principal in charge of disciplining boys. Those male students judged in need of discipline must assemble in Mr. Harris’ office at 8 a.m. The office is very large, perhaps twenty feet on a side, and very bare. Pipes and a radiator line the ceiling and walls. Mr. Harris’ desk is in one corner and before it is a hard wooden chair. Beneath the chair a small carpet makes a kind of island in a sea of linoleum. Facing the desk but against the far wall is a wooden bench. That day two black kids were sitting on the bench while a white kid with long dirty-blond hair stood beside it, leaning against the wall. To the left of Harris’ desk is another desk where a fourth student sat. A small light-haired kid wearing a plain shirt and plain jeans, he was Mr. Harris’ flunky. He was reading The Home of Seven Gables for all he was worth, thereby avoiding looking at any of the three kids glumly waiting on the other side of the room. The room was very hot and there was a heavy air of silence.
Mr. Harris entered. He is a thin black man with greying hair. He walks stiffly and holds his elbows tightly against his body. His clothes reek of tobacco. On one finger an ornate diamond ring glitters. He sat at his desk and for a moment shuffled papers, apparently unaware anyone else was in the office. Then he looked up and motioned to one of the kids sitting on the bench, “Whadda you need?” he asked. His voice, rumbling and deep, exploded in short blasts.
One kid sauntered up to the desk. He was smiling and his body curved slightly like a cat getting ready to play with a string. “The coach sent me down,” he said, “’cause I didn’t have no note for being absent.”
“Why were you absent?”
“I couldn’t find the right school.”
“Couldn’t find the right school? Hey, what’s wrong with you?”
The kid, still smiling, started offering his excuses, a complicated tale of transfers and phone calls and automobile rides to missed appointments. Mr. Harris grumbled down at his desk for a while, then sent the kid off to try to straighten the thing out. Then he motioned for the kid remaining on the bench. Harris had called him to the office because he suspected him of forging the note excusing him from school the day before. The kid was short, round-faced, and wide-eyed. He looked hardly old enough for junior high, much less senior high.
“Who wrote this note?” Harris asked him.
“Where I live.”
“This note is supposed to be from your mother. Don’t you live with your mother?”
“No. She snatches the phone all the time.” The kid paused for a moment. “She tol’ me to leave anyway.”
Harris tried to call the kid’s mother but no one answered the phone. “You go back to class,” he told the kid as he signed an admit slip. “But we’re not through. You can’t have people write notes for you and sign your mother’s name.”
The kid left the room. Harris motioned to the kid who had been standing against the wall. He had been tardy the day before. “Why were you tardy?”
“I left my books in my car.”
“I left my books in my car. I had to go get them.”
Now Harris shrugged. “I’m going to have to keep you after school.”
“I can’t. I’ve got a job after school.”
Harris looked down at his desk. “Want some swats then?”
The kid nodded, almost imperceptibly.
Harris stood up and the kid got out of the chair and the two of them left, heading for Mr. Lane’s office down the hall. Mr. Harris needed a witness while he gave the swats.
I turned to the kid who was reading The House of Seven Gables. He had never taken his eyes off the book. “Is this usually what it’s like?” I asked.
“Don’t ask me,” he said. “I’m just supposed to help out. I’m just here. I don’t know anything.”
The Ugly Ticket
Integration hasn’t caused unfortunate incidents at Lamar. There are whites who don’t like blacks and blacks who don’t like whites; but these feelings, however strong they may be in individual cases, do not seem to meld students into antagonistic groups seeking confrontation. Whites who don’t want to associate much with blacks can still participate in the activities and social life of the school. On the other hand, blacks who do not want to associate much with whites exclude themselves from virtually all school activities. When friends from black schools chide them for attending Lamar, they deny they’re any part of the school: “Listen, I just go there.”
Still, blacks can be quite successful on Lamar’s own terms. Last year the president of the student council was black; there are black cheerleaders, black athletes; the present “Lady of Lamar” is black. And blacks are members and officers in most school clubs including social clubs, perform in dramatic productions, sing in choral groups. Most come because their parents want them to have a better education than they would at a black high school. One girl told me, “At Yates I could just smile and never do homework and make straight A’s. I had a friend taking chemistry at Yates the same time as I took it here. They had just gotten to chemical symbols and valences by the end of the term.” Some blacks may actually like the school, but most, I think, do not. Many white kids, though they may not be overtly hateful, regard going to school with blacks as a duty they must perform, a quirk of history they must indulge. Those feelings are not disguised. “I’m finding out what people are like too early,” a black student said. “I’m too young to be going through this.”
Minor annoyances keep cropping up for a student who is black and at Lamar. Two black girls were driving home late one night from a party in West University Place. A cop pulled them over. He discovered that the driver had let her license expire and gave her a ticket.
“But why’d you stop me in the first place?”
“Because you looked funny.”
“Well, I knew I wasn’t Miss America,” she said, “but I didn’t think I was ugly enough to get a ticket for it.”
Anyone Else in the World
A senior girl wrote in her notebook, “I have made for myself a convenient little hideaway. It is my own world no one can enter and would understand if he did. I have my own hero, a real person, too. He is someone I know I’ll never meet in a million years so I have no fears of his real personality shattering the person I have molded him into. My true self appears and all of a sudden, the sun shines brightly in a blue sky everyday, I am gloriously in love with my hero who loves me and we are rich and happy. I give us problems sometimes, but naturally we pull through even stronger in our love. Sometimes I honestly wonder, what am I going to do with myself? I’m even making me sick.”
The pinnacle of success at Lamar is to be a cheerleader. This year the four boy cheerleaders also held these offices: president of Ramal, president of Pow Wow, president of the Key Club, president of the student body. The wide popularity that made them cheerleaders spilled over and won the other offices, not vice versa. Being a cheerleader was the one ambition kids would openly admit to. A sophomore girl told me that ever since she could remember, the thing she has wanted most was to be a cheerleader at Lamar. And a sophomore boy, strong and athletic, said he was going to try for cheerleader rather than go out for football because being a cheerleader meant more: “People remember the names of the cheerleaders a lot better than they remember the names of the football players.”
Two signs hanging in the halls:
Of all the others / running, be wary! You can trust Rosa / for senior class secretary.
If you’ve got a question on life come to the next Christian Students Union meeting and maybe you can find the answer within yourself. We hope so!
There was a fire drill one day. Walking down the steps to go outside, I ran into a boy I knew. He was seventeen, quite intelligent, handsome; but he was erratic, not yet able to control the impulses of his adolescent glands. He had a way, like many smart kids, of asking annoyingly unanswerable questions; this morning he asked me, “Why don’t more American newspapers print the truth?” I was mumbling something evasive about libel law, which wasn’t at all what he wanted to hear, when he saw a popular girl walking ahead of us with a group of friends. He waved good-bye to me and trotted off, gangly-legged. A few strides brought him close behind her where for a few steps he walked unnoticed. Then he tugged sharply on her hair. She turned around in a fury. “Go away,” she shouted. Her friends, standing now in a crescent around her, were all staring at him. He faded back into the moving crowd.
A review question in the American History textbook: “The quality of life in the United States has become a major concern of many Americans. Why?”
One kid, a junior, told me he wanted to go to Princeton. I asked him what he wanted to study. “Well, one idea,” he said, “is just to take business and architecture and do that but I’ve got this other wild idea. A friend of mine from Colombia told me about this plant the Indians take that makes them able to do astral projection. I’d like to find what part of the brain the plant affects and if you knew that, you could find a way to trigger that part of the brain without using the plant. I mean it would be a real gift to mankind. Of course, the trouble is, you couldn’t make any money out of it unless you really found the trigger.”
From the 1972 yearbook, the Orenda: “But in the search for self-identity, one finds others in his path.”
A guy asked a girl, “Do you remember L—–?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Sure you do. He was kind of a dorky guy.”
“A twirpy guy?”
“Oh, yeah,” she said. “I do remember him.”
A second senior girl wrote in her notebook: “It’s 3 a.m. on (of all things) a Sunday morning. Here I am cutting up (of all things) orange peels. I wonder if anyone else in the whole world is doing what I’m doing right now.”
Students rarely enter one of the most important rooms in the school. The Teacher’s Lounge is about the size of an average classroom and, except for a small alcove where there are such simple amenities as a Coke machine, a coffee machine, and a refrigerator, the Lounge is not divided by any partition. It is divided instead by social custom which has neither dictated nor adapted itself to the room’s furniture arrangement. On one side two black leatherette couches face each other over a low coffee table; nearby a table about three feet square stands surrounded by straight-backed chairs. The other side of the room, though there are a few cushioned chairs pushed up against the walls, is dominated by a round wooden table large enough to seat at least ten teachers. All the black teachers and some white teachers sit on the side with the couches. But convention decrees that no black teacher and only certain white teachers may sit at the round table. These teachers do not speak to the teachers on the couches and the teachers on the couches have given up trying to speak to them.
This convention did not originate as a result of racial prejudice. The table was an island unto itself before any black teachers came to Lamar. The unacceptable whites are as unwelcome as the blacks. “Actually it’s even gotten a little better,” one teacher told me. “It used to be if you sat there they would lean over and say, ‘You’re sitting in Miss So-and-So’s seat.’ Now they just kind of pretend you’re not there.” The excluded teachers do not spend any time scheming up ways to get included: the life and conversation around the round table hold no particular charms. But they cannot ignore the table either, since the teachers who sit there act as if the hordes were beating at the door to get in; and more important, they hold all the power the faculty has to hold. At the round table sit all the counselors except the black one, all the administrative staff, all the old teachers who have been at Lamar forever, all the middle-aged teachers who are going to be there forever, and those young teachers who feel some sense of kinship with Lamar’s traditional elements and are accepted by them.
Important politicking goes on at the round table. Mr. Duke Lane, an assistant principal, comes there frequently to chat. He is the heir-apparent to the principal’s job. The present principal is Harold Costlow, who has held the job since 1962; consequently, it has been during his tenure that Lamar has undergone its great transition from the society school of Houston to a pluralistic American high school. Mr. Costlow commands a certain respect for the way he has brought the school through some difficult times. But his health has been fragile the past year or so and it will not be long before he retires.
Last spring when Mr. Costlow was hospitalized for an operation, Duke Lane became acting principal. Things did not work out at all. There is a desperate sadness about Mr. Lane which shows in his solemn face. He is originally from rural Arkansas and his first job in Houston was athletic director of the Boys’ Club. Later he became a coach at Aldine, at Johnston Junior High, at Westbury, and then at Lamar, where he was head basketball coach for nine years before becoming assistant principal. When he took over during Mr. Costlow’s illness, he ended up alienating much of the faculty. They felt, among other things, that he spent too much time checking on them, lurking in the shadows watching their every move. Mr. Lane is aware of this reaction and, wanting to be principal, he must get back in the good graces of the faculty. The round table is where he pays court. Last fall, when he took over a second time while Mr. Costlow was again hospitalized, Mr. Lane got along better.
Some of the teachers who sit at the round table are among the best in the school. They are the kind of high school teachers who believe in hard work, concentration, and knowing the subject, and they have the energy and the brains to make students think those things are important too. Others are not so good. They have given up or turned sour and they slump listlessly in their chairs waiting for the bell that calls them reluctantly back to class. A few, over the years, have simply lost touch.
The freshest young teachers do not sit at the round table and are consequently outsiders in their own school. Their ideas are not given much attention in faculty or departmental meetings and they get tired of the social customs that rule the Lounge. For a while idealism may sustain them, but as the days go by it is not enough. They complain of fatigue, of frequent depression, of feeling that things at school never will get better. And it is then that they make their decision. They either quit or they retreat back to their classrooms and no longer go to the Lounge, no longer worry that they are ignored in faculty politics, and depend on their students and their teaching to sustain them.
Early one afternoon I walked out behind the school to a row of low wooden buildings built to house additional classrooms. I was going to see Mrs. Ford, an English teacher, who had a free period then. She is a short, rotund woman who has taught at Lamar for many years. She looks to be in her late 50s. She has a positive, assured, somewhat pugnacious air about her that reminded me of a bulldog. Observing her strong jaw and sharp, black eyes, I suspected that she was a woman who, once she got something between her teeth, would not easily let go.
The sun was shining brightly through the windows of her room and falling in square patches on the hardwood floor. She was sitting at her desk and I sat in a chair on the other side. A few days earlier I had attended one of her classes and heard an energetic vocabulary exercise on a list of foreign phrases (“Today, the piece de resistance,” she had said, stalking over to the bulletin board to consult a cafeteria menu, “is fish sticks.”) and a clear, detailed analysis of Galsworthy’s story, The Japanese Quince. Students either revere or fear Mrs. Ford. She is a demanding teacher, at her best with the brightest students. She teaches energetically, even flamboyantly. She can intimidate a class when she wants to, she can make a class laugh when she wants to, and she doesn’t hesitate to berate her students with her long-nurtured, sometimes eccentric grudges. But her students learn. After a year with Mrs. Ford, one girl improved her score on the Scholastic Aptitude Tests in English 100 points.
Now, in a lull in our conversation, Mrs. Ford turned to look out the window just behind her. Outside on a large playing field behind the school, boys’ and girls’ gym classes were running laps, doing calisthenics, playing catch. Their gym suits were white as sails against a background of green grass. “No,” Mrs. Ford said, ‘I’m not as discouraged as I once was.” In her own mind Mrs. Ford is a soldier in the battle against the forces of darkness. That afternoon she had told me in all solemnity that she started teaching because she thought she should “do something to help save the country.” Her citadel in that fight is public education, since she believes educating everyone is “the only way to keep alive what we’ve got.” The changes taking place at Lamar were what had worried her. But the changes had come and now, when I asked her if there wasn’t some good to be found in a school with different races and different social classes, she had agreed, providing the education of the best students didn’t suffer because of it. And when I asked whether it wasn’t still possible for the best students to get a good education at Lamar, she said that it was. And that was when she added she was no longer so depressed.
Outside students were still playing in the sunlight. Abruptly Mrs. Ford turned back from the window and said, “All we need to do at this school is teach these children that there’s a god behind the god.” Then, sitting behind her desk piled high with textbooks and examination papers and student themes, she set her jaw firmly and fixed me with her dark eyes.