Thursday, March 5, 2009

My Escape from Junior High and Race Relations Camp

My torturous junior high experience inspired me to apply to an international business magnate program offered at a high school across town that began in ninth grade (high school typically began sophomore year in my district at the time). Things did get better for me after seventh grade but it never fully felt like my school. I realize that if I had never left The States - if I would have continued on at my original elementary school - that I probably would have found a more comfortable niche in junior high. I would have likely been a PACE kid or even a soci. (Probably not a hession - it wasn't my aesthetic.) I might have never understood how it feels to be marginalized. I doubt I would have ever tried a new program.

Going to the magnate program meant that I had to wake up much earlier to take a bus across town. My school day was longer and I didn't necessarily feel more comfortable at the new school, but it was a fresh start. I no longer had to wear my back brace to school. I could start over with new people.

The international business program still exists. This is how it is described on one website: This program brings in gifted students from throughout [the school district] for college-preparatory classes with an emphasis on international studies and commerce. During the time of my involvement, the program focused on the Pacific Rim. We all planned to become wealthy by doing business in the region. It apparently was the wave of the future. We studied one of three languages: Chinese, Japanese or Russian, and the curriculum included classes such as International Marketing and Maritime Law.

Both PACE and the business program were located at the same high school. Someone once explained to me that these programs were placed there for integration purposes, which made the the school eligible for funding. At that time, the students in these programs were predominantly white although this was shifting by the time I graduated. The concept of race became one of the themes of my high school experience.

The beauty of the racial breakdown at the school was that no one group had a clear majority. The current breakdown is roughly what it was when I attended in the late 80s: 35% Asian, 24% Latino, 29% Black and 12% White. In addition to race, there were students from all economic spheres.

But there were racial tensions. I was called white bitch too many times to care by strangers. On a couple occasions wb was followed by a minor incident of violence. Someone who I never even saw  in a school hallway threw a battery so hard at my chest that the bruise took weeks to heal. Once in the library, another anonymous person hurled a very sharp pencil at my legs, which pierced the skin.

Every sophomore had to go to Race Relations Camp. It was a weekend away in the mountains. We played games, went on hikes, etc. I believe the idea was to take kids out of their usual environments and social circles and try to get them to see past race, finding similarities where none were perceived before. Despite better intentions, I felt the camp made us more self-conscious about race, not less. I already had friends of different races, and so did most people I knew. Why force it? During one of the exercises, I was led to a remote tree where two chairs were placed. The teacher sat me across from a kid who was black. The teacher told us to relate to each other then walked away. Total silence. We stared at each other. I made a couple lame attempts at conversation. He was polite. It felt really awkward.

Coincidentally, I did make a new black friend on the way back from Race Relations Camp (I feel the need to clarify that this very same person would correct me if I described her as African-American.) There was a girl sitting behind me on the bus who stared morosely into space as a boy, also black, taunted her incessantly. No one said anything and I couldn't take it any more. I turned around and told him to shut up. He told me to stay out of it. I told him to stop picking on her. I didn't want to hear it any more. He eventually gave up. It was a random incident that was the beginning of a lifelong friendship. There were a few of those back then.


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