The Dayton Dropout Center was an alternative high school for young people who’d dropped out of the public school system, but still wanted to work for a diploma. On Saturday, I explained that sixty of these sixty-one students were African Americans. Five of the seven teachers were also African American. Only Denny and I were Caucasian, and we two caused a brief uproar among the other teachers.
Denny had been at Woodstock, and his view of the prevailing culture was even more jaded than mine. Both of us were somewhat aligned with the counterculture of the 1960s and early 1970s—he, much more than I. Denny never spoke of his background, but I assumed, because of things he said and his casual approach to money, that he was of the upper class. I’d come from a working-class background, and had little money, but I surely was part of the prevailing white culture.
Woodstock Poster for the 1969 gathering.
I’d been involved in the Vietnam War protest; I wasn’t married, nor did I have children; and I’d been a Roman Catholic nun. So my concerns differed somewhat from many other women.
Denny was a Jewish man of fierce intelligence who didn’t suffer fools gladly. Like myself, he felt that much of what happened in Washington, D.C., the Pentagon, and Vietnam was accomplished by foolish men whose value systems had gone astray. They’d lost their way.
The peace symbol created in Great Britain.
The students valued Denny’s opinion because he seemed so confident in himself and his views. He seemed to simply know the answer to any problem a student presented. Moreover, his wit was dry and sometimes acerbic. The students, to use a word I seldom use, adored him.
The dropout center opened its doors to students in late November 1971. By March, Denny and I both felt that the school’s goal was misguided. Its founder wanted to help African American students enter the middle class of the dominant culture. Denny and I both considered this white culture to be shallow and materialistic. Despite that, we’d done our part to fulfill the school’s goal. Yet both of us were beginning to balk.
We wanted the students to embrace their own culture. Motown records had made people everywhere aware of the richness of the Black culture. Moreover, universities around the country were establishing Black Studies programs that explored the contributions of black writers, musicians, athletes, scientists, and entrepreneurs to American society.
J. C. Penney, Jr., who established the J. C. Penney department stores in 1902.
Denny and I wanted the students to reject the dominant culture, just as we’d rejected it—or so we thought. One afternoon we seven teachers sat down together in a spare classroom to discuss what seemed like a dilemma to Denny and me. The two of us explained where we were coming from. Then the conversation went something like this.
“You’ve got it all wrong,” the teachers told the two of us.
“Why should anyone want to be part of this culture? It stinks!” Denny and I countered.
“The two of you are well intentioned. A bit idealistic, though. You’re part of the culture you’re putting down.”
“We’re opting out.”
“Just how are you doing that? You both live in white neighborhoods. You shop in any store you want. You don’t worry about the police following you down streets when you drive around town. You both have bank accounts. You’re both highly educated in predominately white universities. Tell us—just how have you dropped out?”
“But we didn’t choose that. We were born into it. Now we’re rejecting it.”
“Doesn’t look like that. You haven’t rented a room in the inner city and tried to shop at the grocery stores there. You don’t frequent the stores in this neighborhood. You drive away from this school each day and into your side of town—with its clean stores and advantages. You talk the talk. But you don’t walk the walk.
“The truth is you’re asking these children to reject what they’ve never had.”
“You can’t reject what you’ve never had. You need to have it first.”
“But it’s not worth having.”
“You say that because you have it. These students need to taste the good life. Only then will they know both lives and only then can they choose—with knowledge and experience—to reject one or the other. Or to somehow embrace both.”
Silence and then, “That makes sense.”
Denny and I returned to the classroom. We both continued to help the students prepare themselves to become part of white neighborhoods and businesses—to become welcomed additions to the dominant culture.
What we also did was to teach them all we could about the richness of their own culture. I used black poetry, short stories, and novels and encouraged the students to use these to write about their own lives. Denny taught American history with an emphasis on the contributions of African Americans.
Zora Neale Hurston, a noted author of the Harlem Renaissance,
whose most famous work is Their Eyes Watching God.
Today, I know that my fellow teachers were right in their assessment of Denny and me—two young, white idealists who tried to tell our fellow black teachers how to teach and what to value. Our hubris knew no bounds. Both of us were articulate; we could “talk the talk” with ease. As Mary Turpie, the professor at the University of Minnesota, said about people like us—we could “b---s---.”
But I never “walked the walk.” I still live in an all-white neighborhood. All my friends are white. I feel no apprehension when I go into stores. No fear that the security guards will follow me around. I’ve even stopped protesting injustice. What happens to us? Do we just wear out? Or do we give up? And when I say “us,” I mean “me.”
In a recent posting, Penny, of lifeonthecutoff, said she’d “lost her bounce.” I have, too, and I don’t know where to find it.
All photographs from Wikipedia.