In the early years of the 1970’s our sleepy little town of Lincoln, Massachusetts rarely was exposed to culture diversity. A Boston accent was rare. Once in a while you’d meet a Jewish family who spoke Yiddish, once in a while an Italian Grandparent who still had their thick accent from Italy, but mostly our town was just multi-shades of white. I remember my excitement when I learned about METCO.
Founded in 1966 in Boston, Massachusetts, METCO is the longest continuously running voluntary school desegregation program in the country and a national model for the few other voluntary desegregation busing programs currently in existence. The METCO Program was designed to bring two very different communities together. City kids, students from Boston, commuted to our preppy suburban Lincoln School. It was a life-changing experience for all of us. I saw it as a chance to learn all I could about Soul Music. I thought these kids could help me groove and sing like Chaka Khan.
Prejudices, often violent ones, were all around us. I remember my Grandmother’s fear of anyone less white than she. I remember vividly a weekend I spent at her house. While playing with a bunch of South Boston Irish kids, all of us bragging about how Irish we were, I tried to show off my “I’m unique, I have a mixed bloodline” card. I was attacked, called names and told to go back to where I came from. I had said I was part French. I was shocked. I went to my Grandmothers door where she consoled and coddled me until I told her why the other kids roughed me up. I remember the additional shock and anger when she smacked me off the back of the head and said, “Never tell anyone you are not all Irish.” I learned how ugly hate was and see this single moment as the most influential element of my moral code.
Yet…even today, when asked what nationality I am, I still only say Irish. Maybe it’s a habit; maybe it’s a teeny-tiny scar that still recalls how scary it was to be judged by race. Mine is such a silly story compared to what others went through but what METCO did was open my mind and be sensitive. I see METCO as one of my very first mentors.
This week I am very proud to present a story exquisitely written by one of my fellow students, Ron Workman. Ron shares his side of the METCO experience. I left Boston for several years and while working in the music industry I learned how many musicians boycotted Boston, calling it a city of hatred. Now that I live in Boston again full time I marvel at how things have changed. I see how my schoolmates have all stayed in touch and I think we are all very grateful to the METCO program for educating us to respect diversity, culture and individuality.
This is mentoring!
-Dawn Carroll, Over My Shoulder Foundation Co-Founder
The Mentoring Experience: Integration of the Lincoln Public Schools
by Ron Workman
A couple of months ago, Over My Shoulder Foundation founder Dawn Carroll emailed me to share her experience of visiting our alma mater, Joseph Brooks School in Lincoln, Massachusetts, where she was asked by a current student what the METCO experience was like in the 1970’s. When Dawn asked the student why the story was important to her she replied, “It was history.” Dawn’s Foundation focuses on Mentoring.
The METCO Process is History
After a brief phone call to Dawn, (a call that took almost 35 years to make) I contemplated how METCO and Mentoring had affected my life. Of course, when I first think of “mentoring” there are the obvious people that come to mind such as my brothers, sisters, father and mother, as well as certain teachers and coaches, and famous figures like Dr. J., Muhamad Ali, Martin Luther King, Diane Carroll, Humphrey Bogart and others. None of which are particularly related to METCO. Then it hit me. With respect to METCO, it was “The Process.” The racial integration process of the Lincoln Public Schools in the 1970’s was a major Mentoring Experience that has affected my life in various ways.
I was born and raised in Roxbury and initially attended Boston Public Schools, as did my seven older siblings. In the mid-1970’s, forced school integration in the Boston School System pushed racial tolerances over the limit. In the heart of the tensions of forced busing were Boston’s working class communities of Roxbury, South Boston and Charlestown. There were daily school and neighborhood race riots along with several individual fistfights. Black students bussed to schools in white neighborhoods were escorted by the National Guard for their own protection.
Forced Busing in Boston
During this time of forced busing in Boston, METCO offered an educational alternative, which my parents wisely chose for me. My METCO years were from 3rd grade through 8th grade, from approximately 1972 through 1977; Ages 10 – 15. Every morning I rode a school bus full of us “METCO students” from our predominantly black neighborhoods of Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan for approximately 45 minutes into non-black Lincoln, Massachusetts. On a long daily bus ride of urban junior high students, you had to be good at “capping” (aka “playing the dozen”, aka “Yo Mama” jokes) or somehow learn to defend yourself when you become the target of capping. The time was passed on the bus by playing card games like Knuckles, hand-clapping games like Mary Mack, and reading popular series like The Adventures of Tin Tin, Encyclopedia Brown and Matt Christopher sports stories. Shortly before arriving to school we passed by ponds, steepled churches, fields of green that are often mentioned in Henry David Thoreau writings. The suburban school had its own streams, riding paths and even a “Dunebuggy Trail.”
The Pop Culture of our METCO Times in the 1970’s
The hit television shows were The Brady Bunch, All in the Family, Happy Days, Good Times, Sanford and Son, Flip Wilson and the epic Alex Haley’s Roots. Being one of the largest Black males in the school, I endured many derogatory Roots-related comments. Also, during the 70’s Bruce Lee kung fu movies were very popular and every inner city male thought he had advanced fighting skills after watching “Enter The Dragon.” Unfortunately, the combination of racial teasing and the imagined expertise in martial arts sometimes resulted in physical altercations that ultimately ended in suspension.
Popular music was Rock and Roll or Rhythm and Blues (now known as Rock or R&B). Some may remember Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, which came on TV after Saturday Night Live. Disco music was in the early stages, which could be considered the beginning of different cultures coming together musically on a mass scale. There was no rap and no crossover artists, although Elton John had performed on Soul Train. The early 70’s was before Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” record introduced Rap music to the public. Aerosmith and Run DMC had not performed the rock hit “Walk This Way” together yet. As I recall, the hit songs at our school dance was the original “Walk This Way” and “A New Kid In Town” by the Eagles.
I recall in music class being taught about Cat Stevens and Loving Spoonfuls. I also recall a METCO student, by direction of her mother, bringing to class a Little Richard 45 record and asking the teacher to play “Tutti Frutti.” As an adult, I understand why the parent wanted to make sure all the innovators of Rock and Roll were represented.
There were many cultural and lifestyle differences that were brought to my attention. The 70’s was a time of Afros and Afro Picks. A student, unaware of the use of a pick, once asked me “Why do you have a fork in your hair?” None of my inner city friends rode a horse or a motorcycle to school, although it was not uncommon in Lincoln. Also this was the first time I was exposed to students who had their own swimming pool at home, which doubled as a skating rink in the winter.
Culture Shock from the City to the Suburbs
There were times when we METCO students observed the culture shock of the Lincoln students coming into the City of Boston. For instance, there was a field trip to Boston to see Sounder, a movie about a dog owned by a family in the old south starring Cicely Tyson, Paul Winfield and Kevin Hooks. Also, our French class traveled to Boston to eat crepe at The Magic Pan. For most of us Boston students, going downtown was something we did regularly on the weekends to go to the movies, shop and just hang out. For our Lincoln classmates, downtown was a once in a while trip to the big city. Most of the METCO students had a host brother or sister and sleepovers were arranged at each other’s house in Lincoln and Boston for the students to get some exposure to the others lifestyle. The entire class collectively, enjoyed the traditional 8th Grade Trip to Washington, DC to visit the White House.
Shared Culture in the City and in the Suburbs
I learned that some things were beyond cultural differences such as sports. An athlete respects another athlete. A teammate defends another teammate. Period. Many of us METCO students had a different style of playing basketball than our Lincoln teammates. Many of us METCO students had not played soccer until we arrived in Lincoln. Nationball was a playground activity that many of us enjoyed, but did not play in the city. The need to fit in during junior high school is also beyond cultural difference. I recall sneaking away to smoke cigarettes with my Lincoln classmates.
METCO Helped Me Become an Agent for Change
How has this experience contributed to my life today? African-Americans, as well as other people of Color remain under-represented in Corporate America, and particularly in the legal profession. Unfortunately, I am usually the only black male at the law firm who is billing his time to a client. As a result of my integration experience in Lincoln, I am confidently familiar with this dynamic and can be an active vehicle to help a corporation expand its cultural diversity profile. A colleague once told me that not everyone is willing or equipped to be the cultural pioneer for a company or department. Here, I think the METCO/Lincoln experience provided me with a good foundation for being a change agent.
My Mentoring Experience from METCO
I guess the true direct mentors that I had during the METCO experience were the students that came just a year or two before me: The Joseph Brooks graduating class of 1975 and 1976. I was able to watch them interact in Lincoln and in Boston. They were the ones who truly broke the color lines. There were other New England suburbs involved with METCO as well. Most of my classmates went on to Lincoln-Sudbury High School but I did not. Eventually, as the program grew, we METCO students were able to recognize and identify with each other in our urban communities. The indirect mentors were the visionaries who blazed the institutional path for the METCO program to come to fruition.
In thinking about Dawn’s encounter with that current Lincoln student, I had an epiphany about the evolution of life. As the students of the Brooks Class of 1977 approach 50 years old, I realized that our individual and collective memories and experiences of the 70’s formed some type of basis for who we are today. Perhaps more importantly, I realized that our memoirs are a living and breathing history lesson to a current Brooks student and should be passed on. I thank that young student for sparking this reflective journey and for mentoring upward.
Joseph Brooks, Class of 1977