“There’s a little colored girl coming to Ludlow,” our teacher solemnly told us. I was around 9 years old at the time, and I remember thinking there was a nervous sadness as she spoke. “What do you children think about that?”
I tried to look serious, as though I knew what she was talking about. I had never heard of a “colored girl” before. I wondered what she would look like, imagining sort of an other-worldly hybrid appearance — antennae sprouting from an otherwise normal head, like actor Ray Walston’s character on the television show My Favorite Martian.
And then the “little colored girl” arrived. My classmates and I never said anything to her those first few days she was in our classroom, a shameful shunning quite different from what she and her parents must have imagined.
The truth was simple. We didn’t mean to hurt her by our silent staring. We thought that at any moment she might do something magical, the inner “colored girl” taking over the body of this otherwise normal new classmate — Diana Prince spinning into Wonder Woman. Our parents shunned her parents, but that was hate we didn’t comprehend. We had no intention of hurting her with our silence. We just didn’t want to miss whatever magic might suddenly turn her into a “little colored girl.”
The following year, with more families integrating not only my neighborhood but other areas of Shaker Heights, I understood that in my parents’ minds, and the minds of their friends, the concern was with skin color. This became most obvious at Halloween, when my mother placed two bowls of candy on a table near the front door. There was freshly purchased candy given to white trick-or-treaters, and stale candy from the previous year to be given to any “colored child.” And by then I understood that this meant children whose dark skin color was actually lighter than the country-club tans of upscale Caucasian Shaker Heights mothers I knew.
I write this by way of background to explain why I wept the first time I heard the news that Barack Obama would speak at Shaker Heights High School, and found myself wiping away tears again this past week. I had a good education at that school, the teachers stimulating enough curiosity about the world around me that I began freelancing news not long after graduation. I watched sit-ins and marches in Cleveland, Akron, and Harlem. I saw death and destruction. I saw the same kind of hate that forced my elementary school teacher to “help” us deal with the trauma of a colored girl daring to be seated quietly in our midst, and I saw it on a scale that drew members of the nation’s media to first one city in turmoil and then another.
Two generations have lived in Shaker Heights since I grew up. Residents are rich and poor, whites, blacks, Asians, Eastern Europeans, and Hispanics. The school system remains desirable to parents, though it is now so inclusive that the racist past is often viewed with revulsion. And on Wednesday President Barack Obama spoke for the second time at Shaker High School.
The color issue wasn’t completely forgotten when Obama first went to my school in July 2009. The birthers still weaved their fantasies, briefly elevating Donald Trump to the level of a man who allegedly had a brain. He tried to mask his own bias as a constitutional issue, but ultimately his hair pieces had more weight than his arguments.
A walk through my old neighborhood and talks with a variety of people in different areas of Shaker led to surprising reactions. Some had children in the high school or coming up in the system. Some were black, others white, Asian, Hispanic, and Eastern European. Some hated Obama. Some loved him. Some were disappointed in the partisan fighting of both parties, which they felt hamstrung the President. But all welcomed the idea that “their” President came to their community, their high school.
No matter what you may think of Barack Obama, his second visit to my old high school reminds me of just how much our community and the nation have changed. Sometimes the old saying that “you never can go home again” brings not heartache but joy. As the President’s presence proved, the past can be an undesirable relic of the worst in our hearts, not the best. — Ted Schwarz