When I was five years old, I went to the Head Start program at our elementary school. We had beautiful classrooms and we learned how to be real students. At lunchtime, we went to the cafeteria and ate lunch with all of the big kids, and then we got on our bus and went home again. It was scary.
So I was excited to make a new friend the very first day of school. The bus driver sat him across the aisle from me, and he had a nice smile. When we got to school, we filed off the bus and the school looked so big. I didn’t even think; I reached out and took his hand. It made me feel safer, somehow, to know I had a friend. The next few days were exciting and frightening, but I felt better about my adventure as long as I held my friend’s hand.
But the next week, the bus driver moved my friend away from me. We couldn’t see each other anymore on the bus. In class, my teacher moved him as far as she could from where I sat. We couldn’t walk together in the halls anymore, or sit together at our table in the cafeteria or even play together on the monkey bars.
School wasn’t as much fun after that. I made new friends, and so did he, but I never felt as secure at school ever again.
It wasn’t until much later, when I was in high school, that I learned what had happened. My friend and I had begun school in 1970. Although it had been fifteen years since the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka had declared segregation illegal, my class, that first Head Start class of 1970, was the first class ever when black children and white children began school together. My friend and I were the first class ever to begin school in our hometown without legal segregation.
I was a little white girl, and my friend was a little black boy. Our teachers were appalled that we walked around together, hand in hand. Our school administrators were appalled that we walked around together, hand in hand. The parents of other students were frightened that we walked around together, hand in hand.
And so, we were not allowed to walk around together, hand in hand.
My life as a white woman, as a wife, a mother, and a pastor, has been indelibly marked by my first harsh experience with racism. Yes, my friend’s black life mattered back then. It still matters now. But it occurs to me that not only was my friend discriminated against, but so was I. My school, in fact, the whole world, felt a little less safe and a little less secure because I wasn’t allowed to continue a friendship with a boy I met when I was five years old. Both of our lives were diminished when we were denied the freedom to choose our own friends.