I was sent across the city to Newton D. Baker Junior High on West 159th Street because it was a mostly white school.
I was one of the many students who started riding a bus that year because a judge had ordered the Cleveland schools to desegregate.
As an African-American eighth-grader, I never realized my school was segregated. I knew that I lived in a black neighborhood and all my friends looked like me, but that was just how things were. Still, my neighbors, whom I lovingly called Mom and Pops, were Hungarian. There had been one white boy in my classes in elementary school, and my best friend was biracial. We were kids, and segregation was the last thing on our minds.
I climbed on board that bus wanting to be like the kids on television. They were always riding a bus to school, and they looked like they were having a great time. I was excited to see a different neighborhood and new faces. I was ready for an adventure. I sat on those ugly green bus seats and bounced up and down with every pothole the bus hit. I did not know what to expect. Would the girls be as pretty and kind as Joanie on Happy Days? Would they all look like Marcia from The Brady Bunch? Would they like me?
I was not expecting angry white faces to be waiting for the bus. They thrust signs in the air that called us names like coon and monkey. It was a few angry parents, but it felt like hundreds. "Go home, blackie!" some shouted. "We don't want your kind here."
They're going to take us back home, I thought. No way will they make us get off this bus.
A couple of small rocks crashed against the bus' side. Security officers ran toward the protestors and pushed them back.
Tears stung the corners of my eyes. These people didn't like me and I didn't understand why. I was a good girl. I was even in enrichment because I was so smart. But these people could not see me. They couldn't see past the color of my skin.
The security guards gathered outside to protect us. In my mind, I heard my mom and dad reminding me to hold my head up high and to remember that I was there to learn. I got off that bus, and I walked into that building determined to make my parents proud.
We were guided into the auditorium for a welcome. Most of the students there were African-American like me. Many of the white students had transferred to Catholic or private schools. A few white kids, all sitting together, watched us come in. Others, chosen as ambassadors by the staff, said hello and showed us to our seats. I felt like we were on display. I wondered if these kids hated us too. The principal and staff welcomed us, told us we were Baker students now and assured us they'd work hard to make the school feel like home.
In class, the white kids who wanted to get to know us sat next to us. The rest steered clear. Some black kids avoided them as well. I was determined to be different. I didn't want to be afraid. I made friends, and I learned we had more in common than we knew.
Some thought we'd be like the family in Good Times, poor and living in the projects. I explained I'd never been on welfare, that my father worked in construction and my mother was a nurse. I found out The Brady Bunch was not their experience either. I like to think I helped break some stereotypes, like they did for me.
I went on to attend John Marshall High School. In the 11th grade, I was sitting in English when this tall, Irish blonde sitting in front of me turned and introduced herself as Julie. We started talking and never stopped. Our friendship continued to grow after high school. She's been my best friend for more than 30 years.
At the College of Wooster, I was comfortable around white students because of busing. Some black students criticized me for having white friends or listening to Duran Duran (it was the '80s). Some white students who'd never been exposed to black people asked me awkward questions: "What color is your dandruff?" and "Why do you get a suntan?" Some reached up and touched my hair without permission.
Moments like that cut me to the core, worse than junior high. It saddened me that they'd reached college without some understanding about people. Instead of getting angry, I'd ask how they'd feel if I asked them that question or rubbed their hair. Some apologized. Others got offended that I was offended. I realized we had a long way to go toward understanding each other.
When Barack Obama was elected president, Julie and I and our families attended the inauguration together. While we stood on the National Mall, Julie's husband leaned over to my girls.
"Did you guys know that you're Irish?" he asked.
"We're not Irish, Uncle Mickey," they replied.
"Yes you are," he answered, smiling. "You are in our family, and that makes you Irish too."
In that moment, I appreciated that long-ago bus ride.
My children, who've grown up in Cleveland Heights, have gone to diverse schools all their lives and made friends with people from all races and backgrounds. If anything, they've had to fight against discrimination within our own culture, the dreaded "You talk white" and "Why do you hang with so many white kids?" Hearing statements like that makes my girls cringe. They tell everyone that their family is a rainbow.