When we moved from Connecticut to Florida when I was 10 years old, I don’t think any of my family knew exactly what we were getting ourselves into. I’m quite sure we didn’t expect to be living in a tent. We had no idea that my stepfather would never have a decent job again, and that my mother would make so little money that we’d struggle to survive.
And then there was the culture shock. I could barely understand what anyone was saying. I didn’t know how to cope with the unrelenting heat and humidity. The food was strange. And after spending my entire school life up to that point in a school where the only black child had to be bussed in, I had zero comprehension of the racial dynamic I was entering when I was enrolled in Phillis Wheatley Elementary School in Apopka, Florida.
According to this report, for context (and, mind you, I knew none of these things at the time): The school that eventually became Wheatley Elementary had been established in 1886 as a school for the children of African American field hands. Segregation was the unbreakable code back then, and the teachers were paid less, had little or no school supplies, and coped with secondhand books and substandard facilities.
When segregation became illegal in 1954 thanks to the federal courts, nothing changed in Orange County, Florida. No, siree. It was not until a group of parents sued the school board in 1962 that the district was required to desegregate fully. And yet 11 area schools, including Wheatley, were still considered segregated in 1970. According to the report, “In 2010, Orange County Public Schools achieved what is called unitary status, freeing the district from the court order and requiring the replacement of a group of aging schools attended predominantly by black children. Those construction projects were completed in 2018.”
That’s right. I said 2018. So now imagine tiny, white, 10-year-old, yankee me wandering into this place in 1974. Even though only a quarter of that county’s population was black, 80% of the students at Wheatley were. (To this day, only 26% of the students are white.)
Not only did I talk funny, but I probably looked funny. I started working at that age, growing and selling houseplants at the flea market, just so I would have a few school clothes and a pair of shoes that I wasn’t ashamed of. I did wear a lot of hand me downs, and this was the 70’s, so you can just imagine what a horror show that was. A lot of plaid bell bottoms were involved. I also remember wearing a pair of faded jeans with about 5 inches of dark jean material that I had sown onto the bottom as I grew. I’m sure my teacher viewed me as white trash.
My first impression of Wheatley was that it looked like a prison, and because of that I was terrified. The buildings are of concrete block. The concrete hallways, at least at the time, were outdoors, with hard plastic patio roofing to keep off the rain, but with no walls. I was introduced for the first time to the concept of “portables”, which are trailer-like classrooms set on wheels. Those were scattered amongst the concrete block buildings.
To my horror, I discovered that none of the bathroom stalls had doors, because of drug deals. I had never even heard of people dealing drugs in Connecticut, especially elementary school students. I was very sheltered, there.
After a few short days in my classroom, I realized that concrete block sweats in the heat as much as humans do, and there was mildew everywhere. There was no air conditioning anywhere in the school, except up at the front office. My teacher would prop open the door and the screenless windows, and lizards and cockroaches would run in and out. One time a snake came to visit.
And as for my 5th grade education, I got none, really. My teacher didn’t know what to do with me. I was reading at a college level. It took my mother several months to realize that I never brought homework home. I could do the work before the teacher was finished teaching it. (In fact, I had been in the Florida school system for 3 years before they taught me anything I hadn’t already learned in Connecticut.)
I had very little respect for my teacher. I had never been taught to say ma’am or sir, and she took great exception to that. I quickly noticed that she would often teach things incorrectly. At first I’d speak up and correct her and explain why. (Yes, I was exactly that brand of obnoxious.) You can imagine that that didn’t go down well. Eventually I just stopped listening altogether.
When my classmates learned about the Civil War, they treated it like it was a football game. All of them, without exception, were rooting for team South, because you root for the home team, don’t you? I remember nearly losing my mind that day. I remember shouting that the South was for slavery. How could they be for slavery? That’s when I gave up all hope. I was just doing time in my violent little elementary school prison.
And violent it was. I witnessed my first knife fight in my first week there. It happened in the cafeteria. Furniture was toppled and thrown. The two boys involved had to be wrestled to the ground and hauled away, kicking and screaming. The rage was palpable. My whole life up to that point, I had never seen anything worse than your basic playground scuffle.
I’m sure that those boys got paddled and suspended. That was also new to me. Paddling. In Connecticut at the time, it was unheard of to lay hands on students, let alone hit them on the back side with a board. No one had ever done that to me, and despite the fact that I never acted up, and despite the fact that my mother had written a letter, on file at the office, saying that she did not give them permission to paddle me, I lived in constant fear that some huge misunderstanding would happen, and I’d be beaten by an adult.
And while the school was theoretically desegregated, none of the black kids would talk to me other than to threaten my life. They didn’t even speak as they beat me up, which happened pretty much daily. I was smaller than everyone. I learned to curl up into a ball to protect my stomach, and wait for them to get bored and stop kicking me. I have no idea where the adults disappeared to during these events. They certainly weren’t rushing to my aid. I spent most of 5th grade being afraid for my life.
After much pleading on my part, and after bruising that could no longer be ignored, my mother spoke up about this eventually, and the school’s solution was to have the secretary escort me to and from the school bus every day. That made me even more of a target. All the kids jeered at me as we walked by. My own little walk of shame. I got my mother to call me in sick a lot. I attended school maybe 3 days on a good week. The rest of the time I’d stay home and read books all day. In my mind I can still see my mother’s handwriting on my notes.
“Please excuse Barbara from school yesterday and the day before. She was ill.”
These notes were never questioned. I still got straight A’s all the way through school, so I don’t think anyone much cared.
On the rare occasion that something good happened at the school, it was quickly trampled on. Once, my class planted 100 tree seedlings on the hill beside the playground. I was really proud of that. But they had all been ripped out of the ground and thrown over the fence in less than 24 hours. No supervision. Students gone wild.
The one bright spot in that year was that my teacher operated the class on the star system. You got gold stars for good behavior. Good behavior included things like actually doing your homework. Actually showing up. Actually staying awake. Not attacking anyone. Remaining seated. Thumping the chalk dust out of the erasers. At the end of the week, your stars would be tallied up, and you’d get to bid on various privileges or treats. I always had the most stars, so I always got the most “expensive” privilege: the opportunity to go be a teacher’s aid for a few hours a day for the kindergarten teacher.
The kindergarten class was my oasis. I was surrounded by kids who were much too small to hurt me. I got to eat cookies and milk with them. I did cool stuff like go to the air conditioned office to run off dittos on the ditto machine that the kids would then get to color on. And the teacher was very kind. She always made me feel safe.
On the last day of school, the kindergarten teacher gave me a ring as a thank you. It was big and clunky and it turned my finger green, and one of the big blue plastic “gems” fell off and was never seen again, but I wore that ring for years. For me it was a symbol that somewhere in the world, someone liked and understood me.
I never saw or heard from her again. The next year I went to Ocoee Junior High School, where things were still pretty bad, but I only feared for my life about half the time. That was a vast improvement, relatively speaking.
When I look back at my 5th grade experience, which I try not to do very often, the adult me gets very angry. I’m sure that that year damaged me in ways that I still haven’t grasped. I know I was beginning to learn that people in positions of authority could not be trusted. I also started to believe for the first time that the world is an inherently unsafe place, and that most people are basically stupid, and that, most of all, my cries for help would, by and large, not be taken seriously by anyone.
What horrible lessons to teach a child.
Oddly enough, I never blamed the school itself for the chaos and neglect that surrounded me. It didn’t occur to me. I had always viewed schools as being beyond reproach up to that time. Education is precious. Thinking otherwise was a very bitter pill to swallow.
What I couldn’t accept or understand was my mother’s passivity. I still can’t, really. I know she was under a great deal of pressure herself, just trying to keep us fed. She was unable or unwilling to hear about the constant danger I was in. She didn’t take my 3 year gap in learning seriously. She did take me to the library a lot, but the rest was up to me.
She heard about my daily beat downs and watched my self-esteem and my sense of security get chipped away, and yet the only thing that changed was deep within me. I became more determined to grow up and get the hell out of Apopka with each passing year. I’m not a parent myself, so maybe I can’t understand it from that perspective, but I do know this: if someone I was responsible for was thrown into the equivalent of a child prison, where she was chewed up like raw meat in a lion’s den, I’d move heaven and earth to change that one way or another. If there was ever a child who was meant to be home schooled, for example, it was me.
I think this is perhaps why I am so sympathetic toward immigrants. I know what it’s like to feel constantly terrified, and to want, more than anything else in the world, to go somewhere safe. No one should have to experience that. Especially at age ten.
I have no idea what Wheatley is like these days. I hope there are doors on the bathroom stalls. I hope there is air conditioning. Their website is awash with pride, as all school websites tend to be. It’s also sprinkled with spelling errors. According to this report card, the parents give it high marks. Based on the standardized test scores, which I take with a grain of very conflicted salt, approximately 55 percent of the kids are doing “satisfactory or better” in English and Science. The students are also now required to wear school t-shirts, which suggests that the administration worries about gang activity. So yeah, it’s a mixed bag.
I just hope that none of the kids who go to Wheatley today will have the same visceral, tear-filled reaction that I do, nearly 47 years after the fact, when looking at this picture of that school’s bleak and relatively unchanged façade. I see they’ve added a second floor, and the windows look closed which suggests climate control, and the 8 foot high chain link fence appears to be gone. That’s something, anyway.
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