Meeting on the same page

Urban and suburban parents join a book club to explore the tensions of school integration.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Some of the parents have read about it for years, filling the margins of worn books with notes, devising ways to tell their children.

Others have lived with it every day, dreading the moment their children come home and ask why their skin is different from other kids at school.

"I've so much not been in this situation, that I'm not relating to it," Laurie Anello admits to the circle of parents at the Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury, a part of Boston many white people infamously avoid.

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"I've never felt this way," she says. "Definitely, reading this book makes me think about it more."

A few parents flip through the pages of "The Inn at Lake Devine," the story of a Jewish girl struggling to fit in a world that has already rejected her. The silence is stifling.

Sandra Walters clears her throat: "I think about it all the time." Some of the parents shuffle in their seats.

It isn't that they haven't talked about racism before. It's their third meeting, and they're getting used to it.

But the book club is the only one of its kind in a part of the country as segregated today as it was at the start of the civil rights movement, where 10 parents from Boston and 10 from the suburbs are discovering, through the books they are reading and the stories they are sharing, just how different their experiences really are.

Without this group, the parents' only connection would be through their children, who attend the same elementary schools in Needham - a small, affluent, mostly white suburb an hour outside Boston.

The inner-city parents send their children to this suburb through METCO, Boston's voluntary busing system, in the hopes that they might get a better education. Many parents in Needham laud the program; without it, their own kids would be raised in schools with little diversity.

But, the parents realized, if their children are already dealing with the complexities of integration as early as elementary school, then they themselves have some catching up to do.

The integration of Boston's neighborhoods and the surrounding suburbs remains, for many, a distant dream. If not for METCO, Boston's voluntary busing system, many of these parents would know little more about each other's communities than the usual stereotypes.

But today, these 20 parents are discovering that their worlds, while undeniably segregated, have much in common. That what they want for their children is really quite simple: a decent education; a safe environment; a life without drugs, violence, fear.

The parents in the Community Connections book group began to wonder whether integrating their own kids in school was enough. How can they teach their children that racism is wrong without crossing those racial lines themselves?

The group doesn't have any illusions about changing the world. But the parents hope that they might get people thinking differently about the examples they set for their children. And maybe, just maybe, more book clubs will start up in some of the other 32 suburbs that have METCO students in their schools.

"We just started thinking about how wonderful it would be for people to talk together and share their experiences," says Charlotte Sidell, the group's founder and a librarian at Broadmeadow Middle School in Needham.

The book club consists of two METCO parents and two Needham parents from each of the suburb's five elementary schools - the idea being that the younger the children of the parents involved, the more impact the discussions about race might have at home.

The group alternates meetings between Needham and Boston, and while they have met only three times, parents are so enthusiastic about the book club that plans to continue meetings for another year - and maybe to help start a second group for other parents - are well under way.

"The book club is a little light in a dark time of race relations in this society," says Gary Orfield, director of the Harvard Project on School Desegregation, who has surveyed 3,200 Boston parents whose children bused to the suburbs through METCO.

"The tricky part about what the book club is doing is going into fundamental and emotional issues like slavery and the Holocaust," he says. "It's sensitive."

The group first discussed "The Other Boston Busing Story," a history of METCO, with author Susan Eaton, who interviewed 65 former METCO students for the book. Involving parents in the process of integration, Ms. Eaton says, is vital.

"It's so threatening to, before you know each other, sit down and talk about race."

Through intimate contact with METCO families, Eaton has found that integration itself is not always foremost on their minds. "The goals of the parents aren't necessarily starting with the idea that they want their kids to be around white kids," she says. "Racial integration is secondary. Really, they're looking for a better education."

A way to reach out

Rebecca Drill doesn't want to talk to the press. She worries her words will be misconstrued, or that a lifetime of thinking hard about various issues may be diluted in the context of someone else's message.

But the book club is different. Ms. Drill wants to talk about this. She even puts off making Ethiopian flatbread with her six-year-old son - which she promised to do for his multicultural class - to tell her story.

The full-time psychologist and mother of three has lived in Needham for 10 years. She has attended every book club meeting so far, despite her many other activities. Drill is an avid reader, and can rattle off a list of books she has read on race in recent years, books she deems important - even necessary - to read.

"This book club is a way for parents in the community to bridge a gap, to really reach out to each other and learn about people on both sides," Drill says. "And my kids certainly see me enthusiastic about it. It's like they say: Actions speak louder than words. So I'm not just saying, 'Gee, you should be friends with all different types of people.' I'm actually doing it."

Toni Hill-Kennedy, a member of one of only a handful of black families in Needham, joined the book club with Drill. The two have been friends since Ms. Hill-Kennedy moved to the suburb from Houston three years ago, and they are both involved in a variety of activities that promote diversity.

Hill-Kennedy finds the group warm and receptive, and surprises herself at the meetings. "I always tend to sit back and listen to everyone first," she says. "We're providing a narrative ... about our own experiences, and it's a tough thing to do. But the group sets up an environment that makes it easier."

That environment may be the program's strength and weakness. While the parents challenge one another to think differently about racism, diversity, and the roles they play in their children's lives, these are people who already deem the issues important, who are already convinced that challenging discussions and open dialog are necessary.

"Actually, we have the same lives"

Elizabeth Vanallen fell in love with the idea of a book club when Ms. Sidell first called and asked her to join.

But tonight, as she watches her son get off the bus in Boston's Dorchester neighborhood, she doesn't have time to think about racism and all its repercussions. She's got to get Craig Jr. home for dinner.

He saunters slowly toward the car, hands stuffed deep in his pockets as a halo of steamy breath rises above his head. In the backseat, a hat and two gloves have been waiting since morning. When Ms. Vanallen sees them, she laughs: "How typical."

The mother of two constantly asks Craig Jr., who is 12, and Cameron, who is 10, if the bus rides are too long, too tiring.

But they've been commuting to class since kindergarten. Sitting there for an hour, with heavy book bags on their laps, watching the scenery change from bustling city streets to glistening fields of snow, is all that they know.

The hardest part, Vanallen says, is that, at such a young age, her boys are confronting some pretty big questions.

Questions such as why, when they learn about slavery in social studies, all the white kids turn around and stare until they feel their faces burn. Or why, when they want their Needham friends to come home and play, they're afraid of getting shot.

Craig Jr. and Cameron are shy, soft- spoken, well-behaved. And they're both interested in their mother's book club. Cameron keeps pushing her, reminding her to finish the book. But it isn't always easy. Vanallen has only a half hour at lunch, and by the end of the day she's exhausted.

"We do 20-minute readings at the kitchen table," she says, "where each one of us reads our own book." She is determined to keep up with the group's readings.

But Vanallen isn't too interested in discussing racism intellectually. As a black woman in America whose first language is Spanish, her experience doesn't come from books. She likes to listen to other stories - and sometimes she'll share her own.

"It's very interesting to hear how they think about [METCO], because I know I was nervous, wondering how the other kids were going to treat my kids," Vanallen says.

"But when you talk to the parents, there's not much of a difference. Actually, we have the same lives. These are parents who like the idea of interracial schools."

When Eaton spoke at their first meeting, the author was most struck by what the parents share. "We talk a lot in this country about the huge chasm that exists between races, and the difficulty of communication across racial lines," she says.

"But after five minutes in a room with African-American, Latino, and white parents in a book club like this, you see that there's really not this difference. Everybody's acting like human beings, and like parents.

"And their concerns, no matter what side they were coming from, are taken seriously."

Lately, Vanallen has been thinking a lot about her voice, about whether it will carry weight with others elsewhere, or whether it will be nothing more than a message she passes along to her children.

But she also feels challenged by the discussions, some of which address more personal and immediate concerns - such as how her own children think about race, and how they treat other people, and how they are treated themselves.

When Vanallen thinks about what she wants for Craig Jr. and Cameron, the lines around her eyes deepen and she stares off, choosing her words carefully. "I want them to be something good," she says softly.

"The main thing is your heart. Go wherever, do whatever, but remember: Nothing good is easy. You work hard, you will feel good. That's the important thing."

Empty chairs

If anyone knows that nothing good is easy, it is the circle of parents gathered at the Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury at 7:30 on a Monday night. Many of them had to find baby sitters, or drive an hour into Boston, or pick up cookies and soda - not to mention finish the required reading.

But no one sighs or yawns. In fact, the first 20 minutes are spent naming a time and place to get together for dinner and continue the last meeting's discussion - a particularly heated debate about slavery and reparations that was cut short when the library in Needham closed at 9 p.m.

But after they settle on a time and place, they look around: Why all the empty chairs?

Vanallen, for one, couldn't make it to the meeting. She had to pick up a friend at the airport and, by the time she got home, was too tired to head back out into the night.

In fact, nine parents are missing. Maybe they didn't get the e-mail, some speculate. Or maybe they couldn't find a baby sitter. Or maybe they were just too tired.

But no one is here to judge. After all, they're not out to change the world, and they understand what it means to be busy.

Everybody shrugs, and brings the circle of chairs, only 12-strong, closer together.

Books that highlight race

Formally, the book group is called Community connections: understanding race and racism to impact school and community culture, and it comprises 10 parents in Needham, Mass., and 10 parents of METCO students in Boston. They meet every several weeks, alternating between the two communities.

A grant helps pay for 25 copies of each of the five books the group is reading. When the parents are finished reading their books, they return them to Charlotte Sidell, the group's founder, and the copies then become available to the community.

The group is reading the following:

The Other Boston Busing Story by Susan Eaton (Yale University Press) A history of METCO through the eyes of 65 adults who were bused to schools in Boston suburbs over the past few decades.

The Accidental Asian by Eric Liu (Random House) A former speech-writer for President Clinton recounts the shifting frames of ethnic identity as he grew up as a second-generation Chinese-American.

Slaves in the Family by Edward Ball (Random House) A white journalist tells the legacy of his family and its ties to slavery.

The Inn at Lake Devine by Elinor Lipman (Vintage Books) In the only fiction on the list, a 12-year-old girl tries to enter a community that would have excluded her had it known her true identity as a Jew.

Down These Mean Streets by Piri Thomas (Vintage Books) A Puerto Rican struggles both to survive in Spanish Harlem and to come to terms with his own identity.

Busing with a gentler history

METCO is often called Boston's "other" busing system - "other" because it is voluntary, unlike the forced desegregation busing of the 1970s that placed students from black, poor, and working class areas into schools in white, poor, and working class areas (and vice versa).

And unlike the violence that erupted in the '70s, only a smattering of controversy has touched METCO, which has existed for nearly four decades.

The program began in 1965 as "Operation Exodus." Founded by inner-city parents and activists, it was seen as a temporary but immediate means of providing Boston's children - who were attending infamously poor and segregated schools - access to quality education. Sometimes, children had to bus two hours to get it.

In the program's first year, 220 students traveled from their Boston homes to one of seven suburban towns. The commutes were long, the homework difficult, the cultural differences often uncomfortable. But many parents and children saw real benefits and applauded the program.

In 1966, Operation Exodus was renamed the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity.

It was three years after Alabama Governor George Wallace stood in a doorway and defiantly declared the presence of black students an "unwelcomed, unwanted, unwarranted, and force-induced intrusion upon the campus of the University of Alabama."

Today, about 3,100 METCO students travel to 32 communities. More than 4,000 have graduated from high school in the program's 36-year history.

By some estimates, the METCO waiting list has reached 13,000. Many parents sign up before their child is born.

But, according to Gary Orfield, director of the Harvard Project on School Desegregation, Boston is one of only five cities in the country with a voluntary busing system - the others are in St. Louis; Milwaukee; Rochester, N.Y.; and Hartford, Conn. The book club that brings together parents in Boston and Needham is the only one of its kind in the country.

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