Peeking Back Through the Schoolhouse Door

Standing in the Schoolhouse Door
Standing in the Schoolhouse Door

In the hot summer of 1963. Governor George Wallace, already campaigning hard for the 1964 presidential election, made his infamous "stand in the schoolhouse door" of Foster Auditorium, where registration regularly occurred. Wallace summoned the Alabama National Guard to block black student Vivian Malone . Attorney General Robert Kennedy then nationalized the Guard. Thus, at showdown, state's rights yielded to federal rights; the law of the land was national, not just local.

With less fanfare, other black students began to enroll, but precious few at first. Slowly some whites joined the blacks in sharing their cultures, previously juxtaposed but fiercely segregated. No blacks were on the faculty at that time.

Two students memorialized the personal details of their experience in essays for my course in freshman English.

“Unknown, Unnamed" by Oleta Jackson

I make this trip five or six times a day; sometimes dodging baseballs or footballs, sometimes looking up, sometimes straight ahead, or sometimes down — anywhere except at the people around me. How comforting to see a familiar face, hear a familiar voice, see a familiar smile—things I didn't notice before.

It's a funny thing how surroundings can change a person, and how a person performs while on stage. There may even be a change in speech. stride, or even the style of dressing. Some of these things may go unseen, but they are there—things I didn't notice before.

It's almost like being a fish in a glass bowl. with people staring, peering, as if to see what kinds of stuff you are made of; because, as everyone knows. you aren't one of them. One of them: why should I be? And to think I never noticed before.

Walking alone, wanting to talk, trying to smile; but they either turn and laugh. or lower their eyes. I smile anyway, pitying them all, for I know why they act as they do. "Unsmiling faces, sneers behind hands: these things don't bother me,” I say to myself; when all the time I'm screaming inside: “Talk to me! Smile at me! Make me feel wanted. welcome!" But all in vain, and I go on as if I don't notice.

Even the squirrels are friendlier; they don't run from me. Sometimes I think I see smiles on their faces. Probably my imagination. But spring is here and maybe things will improve with the weather.

Now I'll only have to dodge baseballs and a bat every now and then. Maybe they don't come my way on purpose each time; it's just a coincidence that the batter always stands in the direction that I'm headed. Funny thing, but I try not to notice.

Always hoping for the better, but trying not to appear as if waiting for a handout, I keep smiling. But my smile is now turning hard, cold, like a mask. I used to smile without thinking, without effort. How sad, when it is no longer possible to really, I mean really smile. It never was before. But turned heads, giggling mouths, hateful eyes, all present on each day's journey. I wonder, what would be their reactions if I stood atop Denny and shouted: "I do notice: I do notice!"

Denny Chimes
Denny Chimes

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Not surprisingly, Ms. Jackson soon transferred to the more urban campus of the University of Alabama in Birmingham. Today she is Ms. Oleta Jackson Harden, attorney, and lives New Jersey.

Carey Varnado was enrolled in an honors section of freshman English. He dropped out of Bear Bryant's star football team to have more time for his intellectual growth.

"Two Cultures" by Carey Varnado

I moved instinctively to the desk across the row from him and slid into place warily, observing but unobtrusive. My attention was focused immediately upon the thin paperback book that he studied intensely. Soul on Ice, the title read; and the author was one of the angry young black men who had come into my den in living, vivid, frightening color every afternoon. courtesy of the National Broadcasting Company, a leader of my world bringing bits of his into my consciousness--and conscience. The book was worn and tattered; the cover had been taped together. I had not read it. Many of his people obviously had.

The teacher called the roll; and I learned his name, a useful fact in starting conversation. I wanted to get to know him, this dark, serious young man who had recently acquired the "freedom of choice" to obtain his rightful share of the educational substance of my school. I felt it important to bridge the racial barrier on an equal basis. I did not know how difficult it would be. "I've never read any Cleaver." I began, haltingly. “What are his major tenets?"

The black head turned slowly toward me without changing expression. He remained silent for a moment, then grinned slightly and said, "He funky.” He went back to the page of "funkiness" and left me with an understanding of what the school year would hold. He probably knew what tenets are, and I had heard the word funky in soul music; but that exchange, I think, awakened both of us to a difference in cultures that was to be explored and, at least partially, bridged that year.

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Today Carey Varnado is a lawyer in Mississippi.

I am grateful that both Oleta Jackson Harden and Carey Varnado gave me permission to share their papers.

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