(This is also part of my contribution to Black History Month.)
1979: 6th Grade, Another New School
I can remember the first day of school for me entering the 6th grade just like it was yesterday. I was nervous about attending middle school and I was about to go to a school I had never heard of until about a month ago at that time. I thought I’d be attending Foster Middle School like everyone else, but instead I was being shipped to a place called Judson Middle School, home of the mighty Blue Devils (so they said). I was also nervous about leaving my sister behind at Jodie McClure because this would be the first time ever we would be going to separate schools and not the same school. (We wouldn’t attend school together again until we were both at Longview High School, me being in the 12th grade and her being in the 9th grade.) And for the first time since kindergarten, I was going to be riding the bus to school rather than walking or my mom taking me. All of these factored into me being nervous about my starting the 6th grade.
However, I was also excited because I would be changing classes on a regular basis for the first time and meeting a lot of different kids. I would have seven periods worth of classes, each with a different teacher and different classmates. I was also excited about wondering which of my classmates from Jodie McClure would be attending Judson with me. I had no idea if my entire neighborhood was going or just certain kids- I was really naïve about the busing situation back then- and although this sounds silly right now, I was also thinking about how I was going to look and dress. I had never given much thought to the clothes I wore to school, and usually I just put on whatever I grabbed first out of my closet. However, this time I picked out my clothes real carefully (As I recall, it was a light-blue Dallas Cowboys shirt with blue jeans), and I got to wear my hair in a nice-sized afro. I assumed I was wearing an afro for good this time because I had always worn a short haircut from the time I was able to get haircuts. Needless to say, short haircuts were out and afros were in and had been in since the late 60’s. (Even though they were on the verge of fading away too.) I didn’t wear my glasses (because kids were still calling other kids who wore glasses “Four-Eyes” and other bad names), and I thought I looked decent for a change. So I was nervous and excited at the same time as the first day of school rolled around.
I was still disappointed that I wasn’t attending Foster Middle School, and I truly hoped that my best friends from Jodie McClure- Marion Burton, Roy Craine, Rhonda Jackson, Tammy Allen, Kim Harris, Robert Taylor, and Tracy George- would be attending Judson also, and not Foster. As it turned out, Marion, Robert, Tammy, and Kim would wind up going to Foster, while the rest would be with me at Judson. That Marion, probably my “best-est” friend at Jodie McClure, would be going to Foster was probably my biggest disappointment on the first day of school, but I had learned over many years of moving back and forth that friends come and go, and that we must always continue to be friendly and make new friends as we continue the journey of life itself. Whatever. Anyway, my experience at Judson would sorely test my ability to do so in the next three years, and in going from an elementary school to a middle school, I was going to have to make new friends galore.
The trend for the next three years was set the first time I set my foot on and got on Bus 55, probably the worst running school bus in Longview history. This was the beginning of the trek across town from one end to the other end. When I got on the bus, I saw a few familiar faces- Roy Craine, Wilbert Thomas, Rhonda Jackson, Daphne Thompson, Charlie Templeton, Bridget Wallace, Lisa Miller, and Shelby Murphy. I also saw a LOT of faces I didn’t know (I didn’t know any of the 7th or 8th graders). And I saw….that there was NOWHERE TO SIT. In fact, there were already seven kids standing in the aisle when I got on. I figured this out later, but on the bus, there were 24 seats in all, and there were 3 kids in each seat. So there were over 80 kids riding the bus that morning, because like five or six more got on after me. Today, that would be hazardous, unsafe, stupid, and totally ridiculous. Back then, it was just ridiculous. I did NOT enjoy standing up the entire trip from my house all the way to Judson, which felt like going from Longview to New Mexico back then. And if I thought that that would be a one-time thing, I was very sadly mistaken. I was in for a great many trips standing up, sitting on the floor, or sitting and/or standing in the bus entrance. It wasn’t too bad that first day, though. Everybody was talking all at once and basically having a good time. Nobody hadn’t decided to be a bully…yet. The fights wouldn’t start until the second day of school.
I remember we travelled all the way up Eastman Road, and this was to be my first time ever crossing Highway 80 going north on that particular road. I was wondering how we were going to get to Judson going this way. There weren’t any traffic signals once we crossed over into the north side of town (now there’s about five of them), and the bridge crossing over the Loop hadn’t been completed yet. We had a HARD time crossing the Loop, where there was only a measly stop sign at the intersection, and with the traffic being what it was back then, it made it real difficult to get across. That, combined with the raggedy state of Bus 55, would make us late almost every morning. But we finally made it across, and after going a few miles further and making a couple of left turns, we finally arrived at Judson Middle School.
The campus, at the time, was the biggest campus I had ever seen. I hadn’t been to the practically brand-new Longview High School yet, and Foster had a big campus, but Judson practically dwarfed it. There were four (actually five) good-sized buildings, a big football field, some tennis courts, and a huge cement courtyard in the middle of the school. The front building was called the new building back then, there was the old building combined with the gym, the annex building, the girls’ gym and choir building, and the band hall. And you talk about seeing a bunch of kids! I’d never seen so many kids in one spot or area before. And although there was probably more white kids than anything, the black/white ratio looked to be almost kind of even. (Which was the purpose of busing us black kids all the way across town like that anyway.) It was exciting, and it got to be even more so when I saw a bunch of guys playing what looked to be football on the concrete courtyard except they were playing with a tennis ball instead of a football. I joined in and over time I would develop the (bad) habit in playing the game I learned was called “Toss-Up”, where you toss a tennis ball in the air and whoever grabbed it would run with it until he was touched (or sometimes, tackled). If he didn’t get touched, he could run it all the way for a touchdown. Then he could either run it back in the other direction or toss it up for someone else to grab. My bus had arrived so late that I only got to play for about 5 minutes and didn’t do anything. At 8:00am, the bell rang, meaning it was time to go to my first period class.
My first period class was Advanced Math, and it was somewhere in the new building. I had an idea where it was located, but when I went and found the room, I said to myself, This can’t be it. I looked inside and had seen nothing but white kids and a white teacher, and so I passed it two or three times always looking in and hoping that someone I knew would show up, but no one did. The tardy bell rang and I jumped in and sat down way in the back of the room. There were like 20 kids in there, but I was the only black sitting in the back by myself and setting the Civil Rights era back some 50 or 60 years. The white kids of course all acted like they knew one another and had known each other since they were babies I’d imagined. This really made me feel much better. (NOT!) Then my teacher, Mrs. Henderson, made me feel even more welcome by asking me to move closer to the front of the room. I would grow to really like Mrs. Henderson that school year, but on that first day of school I was thinking, This white teacher doesn’t like me. Which was wrong, of course- I just didn’t know that yet. We all had to introduce ourselves and say what school we came from, and I noticed that the majority of kids had come from Mozelle Johnston Elementary. When I said I came from Jodie McClure Elementary, they all looked at me like, Where the hell is that? Is that in Longview? Never heard of it. I said to myself, 2nd period has GOT to be better than this.
Forty-five long, painful minutes later, the bell rang. It was time to go to 2nd period. For me, that would be Advanced English with Mrs. Starr as my teacher. Advanced English was right next door to my Advanced Math class. I went into the room, and the kids I’d just left seemed to follow right behind me. The tardy bell rang, and I thought to myself, NO…. Same kids, different room, different subject, different teacher. Again, I was the only black kid in the room and I still didn’t know anybody or have a class with anybody I knew. Needless to say, the day was going downhill quickly. My excitement had turned into misery. I was almost ready to go home and ask Momma to switch me to Foster somehow some way.
After an instant replay of first period, it was finally time to go to my 3rd period class, which was Regular Reading and Spelling (or Regular Spelling and Reading). It was a regular, not advanced, class, and it was taught by a black teacher, Mrs. Fricks. And I finally had a class with some black kids in it. (Yes, although I was unaware of it at the time, the racial overtones were staggering, to say the very least.) There were at least five of them from Jodie McClure- Sheryl Perry, Danny Polk, Lisa Miller, Shelby Murphy, and Bridget Wallace. I was happy about that and felt a little more comfortable. Unfortunately, after having to take a couple of tests to see what our level was, I was separated from the class and put in the back of the room, which ironically was called the “advanced section”. I would do higher level work separate from the rest of my class and graded accordingly, which meant that this became another “advanced” class, with me being the only “advanced” student that period. Interestingly, in all of the other Reading and Spelling classes, there were at least five kids who got put in the advanced section for each class. In one class, there were ten kids placed! My class was the only class where there was just one….me…..sitting back there. But hey, at least if I finished all of my work, I could get up and help some of my classmates, which I did. And this kept me from feeling like a total hermit.
4th period turned out to be my PE class, in which almost every 6th grade boy had to take, and if my memory serves me correctly, I believe that there was only one 6th grade boys PE class that year, and that there must’ve been close to 70 or 80 boys in that class alone. Maybe more. So every 6th grade boy was in that class, including my friends Roy, Tracy, Wilbert Thomas, Charlie, Shelby, and Danny, and a friend I had made over the summer, a fellow named Keith Taylor. This was going to be nothing like elementary school PE- we were going to be expected to “dress out’ in white shorts and a white t-shirt (white socks, too) and take showers. And no, I was NOT looking forward to that at all.
My 5th period class took place after the last lunch. There were 3 lunch periods, first, second, and third lunch, and I had the last lunch period. Once the lunch period was over and the bell rang, everyone would head for their 5th period class. This for me was Physical Science, and this class was located in the new building also. (My 3rd period class had been located in the annex building.) I came into the room and sat in the back on purpose, because this class was full and there wasn’t hardly an empty desk. I didn’t know anybody in this class either even though there were some black kids in the class. A girl sat in front of me and she turned around and spoke to me and said hello. I told her hi. She had a deep voice for a girl (that’s the first thing I noticed about her) and she asked me what my name was. I told her and I asked her what her name was. She said, “Vickie.” And that’s how I became friends with Vickie Starts, and we would spend the year talking to each other in our Science class.
My 6th period class would also result in a bit of history. I had Choir this period, and yes, I USED to like to sing. (Emphasis on USED TO-) From the start, I sat next to this real friendly guy who acted like he had been knowing me for a really long time. He did look familiar, but I didn’t recognize him. He told me we used to play together on the playground when we went to East Ward Elementary. However, he was always in a different homeroom from mine, so he was never in any of my classes back then. I remember playing with different boys on the playground whose names I didn’t know back then, but this one (and later on, another classmate would tell me the same thing, that he remembered me from East Ward) remembered and knew my name. His name was Wray Wade. And like me and Vickie 5th period, Wray and I clicked 6th period. We talked nonstop and became great friends. Unfortunately later on, we and two other black boys who sat at the other end of the room got into trouble for talking so much. The teacher, Miss McFarland, decided to fix things by switching Wray and one of the other boy’s seats. This meant that Wray switched places with one of the boys. Here’s the funny thing- now this boy and I became best friends that year and all the three years at Judson, and Wray and the other guy became really good friends. However, we ALL were really good friends that year and forward. So instead of Wray, that’s how Antonio Jackson and I became best buddies, and how Wray Wade and Brian Robertson became really good friends, and how we ALL became like the Four Musketeers during 6th period.
7th period was the Special Interests period, but for us 6th graders, we got moved around each six-weeks to a different teacher, and determining on who the teacher was, you either could talk quietly or keep your mouth shut and study or do homework. We couldn’t sign up for art, tennis, games, etc. yet- We wouldn’t be able to do that until the 7th grade. Then at 3:30pm, the final bell would rang and we’d have to go to the turnaround by the boys’ gym to find our buses. I got to sit down for the trip home this time, and that’s when I learned that the bus went through all the neighborhoods from I-20 (the Front) to Wells Street. No wonder it was so packed. We really needed two buses going through there, but that would’ve been too much like right. The first day of school, for what it was worth, wasn’t too bad, and it had obviously improved the second part of the day. But, how long would it last?