In resegregation, we've become strangers again

May 19, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

I went to Garrison Junior High School yesterday, to look for a footnote to the nation's history. The footnote was gone, and so was Garrison Junior High. The new name on the building is Garrison Middle School. The footnote lost inside is racial integration.

I went looking for its remnants, which were there when I left Garrison only 34 years ago. I was 15 years old at the time, and moving on to senior high. Public school integration was 6 years old, and already moving toward national footnote status.

This week the country marks the 40th anniversary of the alleged integration of public schools, and everybody wonders what went awry. Integration happened, but only for a moment. In my school life, it started in the years at Garrison. By the time I left college, it was already beginning to end.

But where did it go? Everybody in charge back then said `D integration was the wave of the future. Garrison's student population was about 60 percent white during my time. Everybody in charge today says integration's still the nation's official policy. But Garrison now has 815 kids, and all are black, and the overall population of this city's public schools is now about 15 percent white.

And nobody in Baltimore, and maybe nobody in the country, still speaks the word integration and imagines it has anything to do with the thing made into law 40 years ago. It's just a word now, and not a fact of life.

So I went back to Garrison yesterday, partly because of the 40th anniversary, and partly because I think we lost something promising back there. I know this isn't always a popular view today. Whatever the nation calls its official goal, its reality is a lot of racial edginess we were supposed to have put behind us by now, not to mention schools like Garrison where integration has been replaced by 815 black students and no whites.

"I know," Paula Washington, Garrison's assistant principal, was saying yesterday, "these kids are getting a good education, but I don't know if there's any kind of connection with white people in their lives."

Thus we come to the essence of education. Forty years ago, when the Supreme Court rejected so-called "separate but equal" schools, the hope wasn't just to give everybody a fair shot inside classrooms. It was the broader impulse of education, the chance to let us find out about each other as human beings, which is the thing our children have lost with the resegregation of schools.

We become strangers to each other. In isolation of any kind, suspicion grows. That was always the strength of the integration impulse: We share a small community on a small planet, and we learn to get along with each other or risk distrusting each other in our mutual isolation.

Walking through Garrison yesterday, and peeking into classrooms, memories of academic learning were overwhelmed by a whole rush of human flashbacks, of people from different backgrounds letting each other into the American dream.

That sounds corny today, doesn't it? Today, the impulse is to gather the wagons in a circle, and to find somebody outside the circle to blame when things go wrong. And, today, most of our children are living in different circles.

Yesterday, outside an eighth-grade classroom at Garrison, was this math problem written on a blackboard: ". . . to graph a linear equation in two variables by solving the equation for y and making a table of at least three solutions. . . ."

To someone who hadn't looked at algebra in three decades, it looked like a pretty serious problem. Inside a series of classrooms, the kids seemed attentive, and their teachers authoritative. The rooms and the hallways were clean and well-lighted. There are some who would look at this and say, "You see? We don't need integration to have learning."

Academic learning, no. But a long time ago, the rich appeal of Garrison, and of school integration, was the thing that happened beyond academics. The notion wasn't just to give black kids a chance in modern schools, it was to give everybody a connection with their fellow citizens.

Today, most kids leave school and have to wonder: Who are these strangers I've never had in my life? Why haven't we been introduced before this? What are they like?

The answers are found in a little footnote in American history, which I looked for yesterday at Garrison Middle School. But the footnote was missing, and nobody today seems to know how to find it.

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