The spirit of Western High

October 24, 1995|By Norine Lovett Schiller

MERIDEN, Conn. -- Between reactions to the Simpson verdict and the Million Man March, I have wondered why I am so hurt by the assumption that I must think and feel a certain way because I am white. I think it must be because of Senior Day, 1975.

Our senior class was large, more than 600 girls. Most of us had spent four years together at Western High School in Baltimore, and we were about to leave a golden time in our lives.

Our all-female public high school was evenly divided by race, half white and half black. We were only a few years removed from the race riots of the late '60s; most of us had been 10 or 11 back then and had been touched by them in some personal way.

Western was on the edge of a very white neighborhood; quite a lot of the students were bused in from all over the city. Once inside those school doors, we mixed and formed our own insular community.

At the Senior Day assembly, we had an African-American speaker whose name I am glad to have forgotten. He began his speech with, ''As I look out into this auditorium, and see all of you beautiful young black women . . .''

He spoke for about five minutes to the black members of the senior class, pointedly ignoring the white girls. People began to shift uncomfortably in their seats.

He talked about white oppression, about what a struggle it was to be a black woman in this racist society. Now the white students were feeling not just ignored, but insulted. We were white, so we were guilty.

A couple of white girls in the back got up and left, but most of us sat there, mortified yet unwilling to risk rudeness by leaving. We looked at our black friends. What is she thinking? Does she agree with him? Will she be insulted if I leave? What do I do?

Designed to divide

The speaker went on and on. The speech felt almost designed to divide us, to anger us, to pit us against one another.

A couple of black girls got up and left.

Then a black girl near the front stood up.

''Excuse me, but I think we've heard enough of your speech,'' she shouted, and a few people clapped.

''We have a really good relationship here between black and white, and we respect and care about each other. We don't need somebody like you coming in here and trying to tell us what to think,'' she said. We all leaped to our feet and cheered and clapped and hugged each other.

The speaker tried to continue, but we drowned him out. One of the vice principals, a black woman, came onto the stage and led him off, amid his protests that the second half of his speech was to be addressed to the white girls.

She returned to the stage alone, and we cheered for her. She waited until we grew quiet again, and then she spoke.

''I have never been more proud than I am at this moment,'' she said.

She told us that we had shown great maturity and intelligence and spirit. She said we embodied the true ideal of what a Western High School graduate should be. She said it was time for us to go out into the world and make it a better place. ''The world needs all of you very much right now,'' she said. And then she cried.

I was so proud of that girl in the audience. I never found out who she was, but I like to think she was someone I knew.

And I was proud of us. We were together; we thought and reacted as one unit, at once angry and proud, caring and defiant. A man who could have divided us only made us more sure of who we were and what we stood for. In spite of himself, he made us shout out loud what had been in our silent hearts.

That day set a standard for me in race relations; this is how our RTC world should be and can be. I know it can be, because I saw it happen once.

Norine Lovett Schiller grew up in Hampden. She is now a copy editor at the Hartford Courant.

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