Our high school homeroom had four black students out of 21. Some homerooms had five, or six. Nobody was officially counting, but everyone knew what was happening. Our formerly all-white high school had new feeder schools. There was no busing here, just new maps. Shifting demographics. Subtle, new balances. And lately I’d noticed a lot of the Jewish students were leaving, going to another better school.
Marilyn’s locker was next to mine. She reminded me of Diana Ross, with her high-swept hair, glossy lips, and smile like a bright string of pearls. She was a year above me. She had style, pazazz, and she was pregnant. Cal, one of the football players, was the dad.
“I’m not quitting school,” she said. “I’m staying in full term. Then I’ll decide. Probably take a year off.”
No longer in separate classes, we all chatted together. Yet we traveled in separate cliques. The black students grew in confidence and comfort. They went out for track and basketball and football, and they were good, especially in football. Cal became our Homecoming King. And Marilyn looked stunning in a royal blue empire-waist gown.
Although we now shared classrooms, the black students—with the exception of Ronald Brown, a straight-A achiever—usually sat in the back of the rooms with each other. They sang Sly and the Family Stone songs as they walked out together after class. In the hallways, sometimes they did Jackson 5 routines, and sometimes some white theatre students joined in.
There was a new club in school called “Soul Folk.” It was only for them. I was curious but too wrapped up in Drill Team, basketball games, and the student paper to wonder much about what they discussed. They hung together, so did we, and we all got along.
I was doing free throws in the girl’s gym after school when the gregarious, ever-smiling Lila Fulton intercepted my rebound and sank a shot from the left forward court. We shot free throws together in gym class and sometimes we met after school to practice. She was my first and only black high school friend. Our friendship existed within the confines of the court, though we also paired up in biology class for the frog dissection. Broaching a friendship for us both was hard, because we lived in different worlds. But shooting buckets was a great equalizer.
“What you think about Mrs. Garland?” she asked. Mrs. Garland was the typing teacher, a young Southern woman with creamy light brown skin that had what we called some “mix” in it. Nobody talked about what that meant. She was considered black.
“She’s neat. I have her second period.”
Lila passed me the ball and I took a futile shot. She retrieved it and passed it to me again.
“Be careful tomorrow,” she said.
“Because shit’s gonna happen,” she said. “We’re tired of some ways, you know? But don’t tell the teachers. I’m just telling you so you know.”
The next day, someone pulled the school fire alarm around 11 a.m. We filed outside without our jackets, grouping according to homeroom. Only a few of the black kids were present. Marilyn wasn’t there. Neither were any of the black athletes. When the principal announced it was a false alarm, we all knew they pulled it.
On Wednesday, someone pulled it again. Twice.
By Thursday, many of us just kept our coats with us as we moved from class to class, Word has spread that the black students wanted an Afro-history class and weren’t coming back to school until they got one. And if they weren’t going, they decided the rest of us weren’t either. When an alarm went off at 10:40, and again an hour later, it seemed dumb to go back into the building. So some of us just skipped for the rest of the day and went across the street, huddling outside of Lee’s Diner, waiting for a table and watching.
Black students began arriving. They clustered in front of the school steps and were staging a rally. Say it Loud, they chanted. I’m Black and I’m Proud! They spread into a long line on the sidewalk, and began marching from one end of the school to the other, then circling back. I saw Lila there in the line, chanting, and caught her eye. Her gregariousness was gone. Her eyes were not smiling. Her lips were formed in an indignant pout. I felt dumb and queasy, wondering if I should cross the street and show support. But there were no white kids there.
I waved to her, and she shook her head. As if to say No. Not now. Don’t pretend it’s all okay.
I turned back to the group of white students waiting for a table.
“Martin Luther King gave them ideas,” one of the jocks muttered under his breath. “That’s why someone shot him.”
“Shut up,” I said firmly. It startled him. He frowned, shrugged his shoulders inside his letterman’s jacket and blended into a mix of like-minded athletes chatting about Saturday’s game.
The next day the hallways were empty of the school’s black students. Rumors flew that the principal was bringing in someone from the Board of Education to suspend them. I thought of Lila. ‘We’re tired of some ways.’ What would happen to her? Why couldn’t we just shoot hoops?
After lunch I walked up the wide staircase alone from the basement cafeteria. When I reached the middle of the stairs, some 50 black students were gathered like a storm cloud at the top. I caught my breath, turned around nonchalantly, and slid over and against one side of the stairwell, frightened. Should I yell a warning? Were they even coming down? And why?
Within seconds, a storm of angry black fists passed me by and burst into the cafeteria below, startling the white students complacently eating lunch. Some freshman girls screamed and grabbed their purses. Others rushed to the fire exit door and cowered there. From somewhere in the clenched mob came a voice, “We’re gonna protest ‘til you’all listen!” Several students scattered to the sides as a black student upturned a table, and trays clattered to the floor. One of the black cafeteria workers laughed, but the lunch duty teachers looked startled. Mr. Horner, my math teacher, saw me on the stairs. He signaled me to go up and get help.
I’d seen the riots on TV, lots of them. In Watts. After King and Bobby were shot. I’d weathered the curfews and the TV footage of protestors being violent and being peaceful. But this was the first time I’d seen black anger in the flesh, just feet away. In my face. It unsettled me. Scared me. The Angry Black Fist shaking at us was not complacent. It knew what it wanted. It wanted us to notice it. To respect its strength. It wanted us to know that it had pride, lots of it.
And it wanted more.