High School Reminiscence: Subtle Segregation

WHEN a journalist attends his 60th high school reunion, the occasion provides a rare opportunity for observing, comparing, and assessing.

My Urbana, Ill., high school graduating class consisted of about 140, many of whom served in World War II. When we lined up for the class picture we found there were only 30 who could be with us.

A high point of our reunion weekend was a visit to our old school. It looked about the same, but an addition had been built to accommodate growing enrollment.

The new semester had not yet started, so no students were around. At one point the school's principal, who was our tour guide, brought us to the front of the auditorium and talked to us there.

I felt something (could it be nostalgia?) as I looked up at the stage and remembered the exact moment when I discovered that I really enjoyed speaking to an audience.

I was a freshman then and was competing for a spot on the school's speaking team, members of which would deliver orations or dramatic readings in competition with other high schools. Offstage, I had been terrified. But once I began I found that it was great fun to talk and interact with people in this way. The memory was a very pleasant one.

We learned that the school's administrative staff had become, as we viewed it, exceptionally large. It seemed that almost all of these trained people were needed to deal with 10 percent of the students - those who were viewed as ``problems.'' Drugs and crime had come to my city - as elsewhere. I shouldn't have been surprised. But I was saddened.

Later, I took out my old ``Rosemary'' (``Rosemary for Remembrance''), my 1933 yearbook, and looked at all the pictures of my fellow graduates. I had grown up in the school system from kindergarten on, so I knew almost all of those who graduated with me. A number of them were quite good students. But only a few in those days went on to college: We were then in the midst of the Great Depression; youngsters needed to get to work if they could somehow dig up a job.

There were no criminals or drug users in the group. There had been little drinking when I was in school. Nobody - to my knowledge - ever became an alcoholic. And there have been no suicides. Few women were smoking then. But many of the men were already heavy smokers. I noted that only one of those who smoked heavily was back to the reunion - and he had stopped.

We had only one black in our graduating class. To me, her success story was the best of them all. Our Urbana schools then were not segregated, yet there was de facto segregation. Black students, who all lived in poverty in a rundown neighborhood, sat together in the corner of our school room.

I suppose that blacks then made up about 10 percent of our population. But they were pretty much out of sight. Very few of them went on to high school and most of them soon dropped out.

In the seventh grade, a black girl sat next to me in an English class. When we were all asked, as an assignment, to write about a trip we had taken, she raised her hand and said something like this: ``Miss Bresee, I can't do this; I've never been anywhere.'' Miss Bresee: ``But Mary you've been some places, I'm sure. Haven't you been to a picnic or fishing or something like that?'' ``No,'' she replied, tearfully: ``I've never been anywhere.''

Well, this young woman graduated from both our high school and the University of Illinois with high grades, became a teacher, and then married a professor at the university. She is my high school class hero.

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