A lesson in togetherness

September 04, 2001|By Benjamin L. Cardin

ON THE first day of school this year I attended the opening of the new Bonnie Branch Middle School in Howard County. As I sat in the gym facing several hundred sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders, I was transported to my first day of junior high school in 1955.

I was back at Garrison Junior High School in Baltimore City, and it was the first year of racial integration. In the spring of 1954, the Supreme Court had changed the laws of the land with the Brown vs. the Board of Education ruling outlawing segregation.

When I arrived at school that September morning, tensions were very high. Everyone - children, parents, school administrators - was anxious about what would happen. While the school was now officially integrated, there was no interaction between the two races. On one end of the schoolyard, all the white children stayed together; on the other side of the schoolyard, all the African-American children were together in a group.

There was no effort made to get to know each other. There was no pep rally. There was no school spirit. There was no effort to share different cultures or experiences.

Instead, I remember being warned that the hallways were unsafe and not to talk to children of a different race. I am sure that the African-American children were told the same thing.

At home, parents reinforced the status quo. After all, was it safe for a white child to get to know an African-American child or for an African-American child to get to know a white child? And what purpose would it serve, anyway? There was never a thought that we might become friends, study together, visit each others' homes. In 1955, those were considered unacceptable relationships.

Certainly there were changes as I went through high school, college and law school. But even then, whites always seemed to stay with whites and African-Americans with African-Americans.

On this first day of school in 2001, as I looked out at the young faces of Bonnie Branch Middle Schoolers - faces of African-American, Asian, white children - I realized how much things have changed. The children gathered at this pep rally for their new school were representative of our community. And they were together, not in groups according to their race or ethnic background, but truly together, speaking and laughing with each other.

And it wasn't an accident of seating. Not at Bonnie Branch Middle School. When the rally was over and the students got up to leave, I saw a diverse group of middle school students old enough to make their own judgments about friends, free of social constraints that forbid interactions.

I'm no Pollyanna, and I certainly know that race continues to be an issue in many of our communities. Our schools are a microcosm of the larger world. In fact, on that same day Bonnie Branch opened its doors, the politics of hate threatened to undermine the U.N. World Conference Against Racism in South Africa.

But it is a world that has made progress in breaking down the racial and cultural barriers that isolate us.

It's time that all of us learn from the students at Bonnie Branch Middle School.

These are the children of the future, and they can show us how to get along.

Benjamin L. Cardin represents the Third Congressional District in the House of Representatives.

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