His mother had had what was then labeled a “nervous breakdown.” Johns Hopkins Hospital didn’t accept Negroes for inpatient psychiatric treatment in the early ’60s. Crownsville, where gravestones bore numbers, not names, housed Negroes, but that didn’t ring a bell when we talked. Ken did not remember where his mother was treated, just that she was gone for a long time. His father, seldom home, was involved in politics. One night, alone at his dining room table, staring hopelessly at a linear equation, Ken was overwhelmed by a vision: He was on a dock. His white classmates were in a boat. If he could not solve that problem, that very night, the boat would sail off, leaving him behind. He burst into tears. Before dawn, he taught himself the logic of the equation. From then on, he was always top of his class in mathematics. He is a successful scientist now, who in addition to his professional obligations teaches astrophysics to at-risk girls.
Brown v. Board of Education, a recent ruling when I was at Garrison, had been received with ambivalence across the nation. In the South, private religious schools emerged so that white families could dodge sending their children to learn with blacks. At newly integrated schools, fostering collegiality and visibility among students and working toward a more inclusive future was rarely a passionately promoted agenda. You cannot get a good education if you disappear from yourself. Being visible and present is crucial to embracing knowledge.
I graduated from Garrison relatively invisible. I don’t even remember my junior high graduation dress. And then it was time to go to high school.
Western High School was an all-girls public school near Baltimore’s most cherished historic buildings. When I crossed the threshold for the first time, I saw down the long hallway a petite, elegantly dressed woman with perfect posture. Her diction, as she called out directives, could have cracked crystal. Moving a few steps closer, I saw that she was a Negro and later learned that she was a vice principal. Not unusual now, very unusual then. As I walked a few steps beyond her, I heard, “Aren’t you a Smith?” I turned. “You look just like your mother … and your father.”
That was the legendary Essie M. Hughes. She’d been a Latin teacher and had taught generations of Negro children, including my parents and aunts and uncles, in one of the two Negro high schools during the ’40s and ’50s. She saw me. I saw her seeing me. Within five minutes of my entering the new school, my invisibility in education was over.
Homeroom seating was alphabetical. In front of me sat a white Jewish girl whose mother was a violinist in the Baltimore Symphony. Until then, the symphony’s musicians were, to me, white and black dots I’d struggled to magnify through binoculars. Yet, when my new classmate and I glanced at each other for the first time, I felt as though I’d known her for a lifetime. The girl behind me, also white (and Catholic), was hilarious. As far as I was concerned, undiscovered forms of hilarity were always welcome.
I like September. Even though it required going back to school, it always filled me with optimism. And my birthday falls in that month. That first year, the violinist’s daughter gave me a book of poems and a card. She signed the card “Love, Ruthie.” She was the first white person in my life who used the word “love” in relation to me. We became close friends, counseling each other until our last gasps of adolescence.
Unlike Garrison, Western was not toxic. I credit its leadership. A commanding triumvirate indeed: Miss Kell, the principal, was a white woman over six feet tall who looked like a mix of George Washington and a Eudora Welty character. Mr. DeWolff, the other vice principal, was a white man with a disability at a time when there were no sloping curbs or much else to aid mobility. Miss Hughes was well traveled, fluent in several languages. She’d grown up when segregation was the norm in much of Baltimore and the surrounding areas.
In spite of their personal battles, or perhaps because of them, they provided contours around which dividing lines melted. I experienced the fractured and often bloody ’60s in an intellectual environment where many voices were heard, many cultures seen. It wasn’t just being visible to myself that made education intoxicating. It was paying attention to the world in the company of those who had different histories, and who followed different paths, that turned on the lights for me.