By Kelundra Smith
"Something Came to Me (Moses in Blue)" by Dominic Chambers. Courtesy of the artist; Luce Gallery, Turin; and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul, and London.
My earliest memory of school is in first grade, running phonics drills. I attended a private school in Lithonia, a predominantly African American suburb of Atlanta. We lived in Stone Mountain, and the public school was in our subdivision, but driving twenty minutes to private school was a minor inconvenience my parents willingly endured. Little did I know, it would be one of the shortest journeys to school for half of my time in grade school.
From late 2001 to 2004, I was bused out of my neighborhood for school through a holdover school integration program. This marked the beginning of my educational experience as one of the few Black students in predominantly white schools. However, that’s not how my schooling started.
At my first private elementary school, everyone looked like me. Plus, for my mother, private school for the first few years of elementary school was a given. During the 1980s and ’90s, the “whole language” approach to reading versus phonics became the subject of contentious political debate. In whole language reading, children are taught to recognize words as whole pieces of language as opposed to phonics, which teaches kids to break words into sounds and syllables. Many public schools in Georgia were teaching a hybrid approach, but my mother was on the side of phonics, which was mostly taught in private schools.
Every morning, during our reading lesson, my teacher, Ms. Battle, made us stand next to our wooden desks and recite word sounds. She pointed a meter stick at the pastel charts at the front of the room. As a little girl dressed in a pale-yellow Peter Pan shirt and pleated skirt with Mary Janes, I sounded out “tr,” “sh,” “th” with my class. If one person messed up, we all had to start over. Any misbehaving and you might be on the receiving end of that wooden stick.
It was the mid-1990s and corporal punishment in schools was still relatively common. Ms. Battle had one mission, and that was to make sure we all left first grade reading on at least a fourth-grade level. We were going to defy statistics.
Education as the ticket to true freedom was an idea that my family believed in deeply. My dad spent an unspeakable amount of money on the 1989 edition of World Book Encyclopedia the year I was born. He never went to college but wanted my younger brother and me to have access to the world outside of our immediate surroundings. My mother would often say, “I go to work and every two weeks I get a paycheck. Your report card is your paycheck. I expect all A’s.”
Growing up, time spent waiting in doctors’ offices or long road trips was filled with writing drills and worksheets. If you weren’t doing something, you were going to learn something. We spent many Saturdays at Zany Brainy, because it was one of the few stores where you could get both math workbooks and Kwanzaa coloring books. The closest one to us was about thirty minutes away in the suburb of Duluth, Georgia. One of my favorite sections of the store had bins of plastic food, meant to teach kids how to grocery shop and eat healthy meals. I loved playing chef back then, and my parents loved that I was learning.
By third grade in 1998, due to rising private school tuition, I started going to the public school in our neighborhood in Stone Mountain. Most people know Stone Mountain Park for that notorious Confederate monument emblazoned on its side, but the city itself is situated in the predominantly African American, southern part of DeKalb County. It’s the fourth-largest county in Georgia, with just over 764,000 people, and the home of both Fernbank Museum of Natural History and Emory University.
I don’t recall a difficult transition from private to public school. The only thing that stands out is lunch. I can say without a doubt that the food was better in private school, where pizza that looks like breakfast pastries was not a thing. Otherwise, I adjusted just fine.
Thanks to Girl Scouts, I made a core group of four friends with whom I kept in touch into my early high school years. We played capture the flag with other troops in the area. On our camping trip, it rained as if God were pouring out buckets and a water bug got in the tent. We screamed so loud I’m pretty sure they heard us in the past and the future.
We were a nerdy foursome, and I vividly remember afternoons spent swinging upside down on the monkey bars belting the lyrics to TLC’s “No Scrubs” and Brandy’s “Almost Doesn’t Count” as if we could possibly relate. We were carefree Black girls before it was a hashtag, but we were also pushed to excellence. We all participated in chorus, Junior Beta Club, and the safety patrol program, where older students helped younger kids get on the right bus or to their parent’s car during dismissal. Safety patrol was a highlight, not only because only the best students got to participate, but also because patrols got to take a trip to Washington, D.C. Though, by the time we went into fifth grade, ours was one of the few predominantly Black schools in DeKalb County that still participated. Most other schools cut the program to save money.
DeKalb had been mostly white since its founding in 1822 as the home of several first-ring suburbs. However, the county started to diversify in the 1960s and continued to do so throughout the twentieth century. By the mid-’90s, changing demographics and new leadership made the divide between the predominantly white north end of the county and the Black and Brown south end stark. We were the south end. It was not dissimilar to what many people assumed was a bygone era, but DeKalb’s journey in school integration was a decades-long effort and I came along at the tail end.
Brown v. Board had established the law of the land in 1954, but by 1967 when my mother was starting kindergarten in DeKalb, not much had changed. Her older brothers and sister had all gone to segregated schools in Decatur. However, my mom was seventeen years younger than the sibling closest in age to her, and from second grade onward, she only attended integrated schools, making her a part of the generation that was the guinea pig for integration. DeKalb closed the last of its schools for “colored” students by court order in 1969, and as Rachel Devlin notes in her 2018 book, A Girl Stands at the Door, in the Deep South, girls and women far outnumbered boys as the first to integrate segregated schools.
In 1970, a federal judge in Charlotte, North Carolina, ordered busing to integrate Mecklenburg County’s still segregated schools. The county took its appeal all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, and in 1971 the nation’s highest court upheld the decision. Even before the Supreme Court verdict, the case created a sense of urgency around school desegregation in the Deep South. Dekalb County had its own cases that played out in federal court for almost thirty years, as retired social studies teacher J. Marcus Patton details on his blog. This social and political turbulence enabled my mother to go to her neighborhood schools.
My mom doesn’t talk about her experiences of school much. She recalls kids not wanting to play with her in grade school, and in high school the Black kids had their own social circle separate from white students. But she has shared three vivid memories: (1) She was one of two Black girls in accelerated courses in elementary school. (2) At age fifteen, a white boy spit on her and called her the n-word in the hallway. She swung her bag at him as a reflex. She was suspended; he was not. (3) During her high school’s first ever Black History Week, members of the Ku Klux Klan slashed parents’ tires and broke their car windows. It was the late 1970s.
By contrast, my father grew up in Selma, Alabama, which never really integrated, so he did not attend school with white people until high school in the 1980s. Back then, Selma was colloquially known as a train track town, segregated by the railroad. It was dangerous for African Americans to venture onto the wrong side of town or be out too late at night well after the Jim Crow era. My father sometimes recalls an incident when he was fifteen years old, walking down State Route 81, and when suddenly a group of white boys started to chase him. He hid under a car in a junkyard until they went away. This was how he related to white people for most of his schooling. He moved to Atlanta in 1985 looking for a better way of life.
That’s to say, integration was more than forty years old in some parts of the nation, but not in the Deep South. In DeKalb specifically, the slow move toward equity led to a program called Minority-to-Majority, or M-to-M. The court-ordered program started in 1972. Students from predominantly Black neighborhoods were bused to white areas so that those schools would comply with federal laws.
By the time I came along, the county was predominantly Black and middle class, but M-to-M continued. The program formally ended in 2000, but another one called Optional Transfer had essentially taken its place. Under this program, if a student’s homeschool was overcrowded, then they could apply for a transfer to an underpopulated school. My home school, Stone Mountain Middle, fit the criteria as an overcrowded school.
According to a 2001 article from the Dunwoody Crier newspaper:
The M-to-M program, which was implemented under court order in 1972 as a tool to further integrate the DeKalb School System, was ended during the 1999-2000 school year, although students already in attendance at a school could remain through the school’s highest grade. As part of the compromise worked out between the Southeastern Legal Foundation (the entity which threatened the lawsuit on the basis that the program was race-based), and the school board, students were supposed to transfer back to their home school after they completed the highest grade at their M-to-M school.
My parents saw middle school as the setup for high school and college. Middle school is when students were selected to take the SAT as a part of the Duke University Talent Identification program, and I was one of them. That’s how I wound up thirty minutes away from my friends with whom I learned the choreography from the Destiny’s Child “Say My Name” video—and at Peachtree Charter Middle School.
I distinctly remember going back-to-school shopping for a wardrobe that would be suitable for my new environment. As my mother and I stood in J. C. Penney and I was picking up FUBU and Baby Phat by the armful, she told me I needed to diversify my wardrobe. The school mascot was the Peachtree Patriots and while I was begging for a pair of gaudy Pastry brand sneakers, Mom was picking up red, white, and blue t-shirts and pants. This was the start of the separation between my friends from my predominantly Black community and me. As a teenager, wardrobe is a form of shorthand. Whether you wear Jordans or Skechers tells people who’s cool and who’s not, who is down and who isn’t.
However, the clothes that made me cool in my neighborhood made me look like a dangerous stereotype in my new environment. I didn’t understand it then, but dressing for school is its own form of codeswitching. As Devlin notes in A Girl Stands at the Door, Black girls were often seen as sexually promiscuous and unclean when they went to white schools. Though Devlin interviewed women old enough to be my grandmother, my mom knew what I didn’t, which is that cultural attitudes hadn’t changed that much.
So, I wore baseball t-shirts and Henleys. And, based on the butterfly clips in my hair, braces across my teeth, and no Jumpman on my shoes, I was not set up for life with the in-crowd. Nowhere was that reflected more than on the school bus.
Anyone who has ever been in middle school knows that the bus ride affects what happens in the classroom and the cafeteria. For me, that bus ride was long. Getting to Peachtree from Stone Mountain required two bus rides. School started at 9 a.m., but the bus in my neighborhood picked us up from the stop sign at 6:30 a.m. to take us to what was then Georgia Perimeter College Clarkston campus. From there, I had to find my bus number in a sea of other buses and hope I didn’t get on the wrong one. It was nerve wracking, but like most things in life, it’s easier with friends.
As I found my gal pals, we became the keepers of each other’s secrets, and we’d burn CDs for each other to make the time on the bus fly by. I made one of my closest friends to this day on those bus rides. After fifth-period science class, we’d climb on the bus and talk about the latest episodes of 106 & Park and Cita’s World on BET after a day full of our peers raving about The Osbournes.
When I got back to my neighborhood, I was completely disconnected from what the kids down the street had been doing all day. With all these new experiences, I started speaking to my friends from elementary school less. There was no huge fallout, we just weren’t part of each other’s lives anymore. At some point, it became easier to stay in the house rather than go outside and be out of the loop.
This became a pattern during those years. The more I adapted to my new environment, the more adrift I felt from the community in which I lived. This is what I call the start of the “How come you talk like a white girl?” years. The Goo Goo Dolls, Avril Lavigne, Green Day, and Fall Out Boy were added to my mixes alongside Brandy, Monica, Jagged Edge, and Ginuwine during this time. Even at my Black church, I was out of touch with the skating rink nights, parties, and trips to the mall my peers discussed.
There was also a divide within the divide. At Peachtree, most of the students of color were not in gifted courses, so there was tension between my peers and me. In accelerated classes, we were encouraged to take advantage of opportunities such as sitting for the PSAT, going to summer programs at local colleges, and participating in academic competitions. It was as if a select few of us had been chosen for excellence and everyone else was allowed to slip through the cracks. No matter how hard I tried, it seemed as if the day I’d hear the words “she think she better than us” was inevitable.
I have always been very clear and sure about my Blackness—remember those Kwanzaa coloring books?—but I didn’t know anything about codeswitching and colorism then, and I see now that both were at play. Like most Black people, I was taught you have to be twice as good to get half as far, so speaking “proper English” was a must so that white people couldn’t deny me opportunities on account of my own ignorance. It also didn’t hurt that I was lighter skinned and had long hair, which made me less threatening to some people. I didn’t see my privilege, because I still experienced racism and I didn’t know who to be to fit into both places.
This experience followed me into high school, where I got used to the idea of being separated from people who looked like me. I was one of a few Black girls in gifted classes, and I was never great at working overtime to prove that I was down, so I was left out. In his book Children of the Dream: Why School Integration Works, Rucker Johnson, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, analyzed data on more than four thousand Black baby boomers who were bused to predominantly white schools as children. He found that though many of these students achieved positive educational outcomes, they also experienced painful social ostracization. This isolation connects my mother and me. It wasn’t until college that I began to repair this schism within myself, to not assume that other Black people were always judging me.
From the outset, white parents resisted the M-to-M program, and its Optional Transfer spinoff, saying that they didn’t want these unruly Black kids messing up their kids’ school. Many Black parents also resented the programs, because equal investment in schools could’ve solved the overcrowding problem. The truth is that for all the protestations parents made, on a peer-to-peer level, I made more friends than enemies. I made one of my closest white friends to this day working on yearbook staff at Peachtree Middle. A 2019 article published in the University of Chicago’s Journal of Labor Economics found that white students who had contact with Black students in school were less likely to hold racist beliefs and were more likely to have Black friends and romantic partners throughout their lives.
That said, a few instances stand out, but they were the outliers.
Once, these white cheerleaders were prank calling people whose phone numbers they had gotten from the school directory. When they got around to my house, I saw a familiar name on the caller ID, but when I answered, the person on the other end hung up. I asked one of the girls about it at school the next day, and she said that they didn’t think we (the Black kids) would have caller ID.
Another time, I remember this Black girl in my science class, we’ll call her Megan, was thick as thieves with this white girl, who we’ll call Melanie. Megan had invited Melanie to her house for a sleepover, but Melanie’s parents said she couldn’t go because they were afraid that she would get shot. They didn’t even bother to meet Megan’s parents. Little did they know, Megan’s mom was white, her father was Black, they were college-educated, and the family lived near the affluent Smoke Rise neighborhood.
That awareness of the difference (real or perceived) between students’ socioeconomic realities showed up in the classroom. It is often said that there are two Atlantas—the one for those who have and the one for those who have not. Growing up, I knew that we weren’t rich, but we certainly weren’t poor, at least I didn’t think we were. My parents owned our home, we went on vacation every summer, and I never wanted for anything, so I thought it was all good. It wasn’t until I went to middle school that I realized that we were looked at as the poor Blacks on the bad side of town.
When I first arrived at Peachtree for seventh grade, I was in general level classes. The school started me out there, despite my mother’s protests, because they were concerned that smart in Stone Mountain wasn’t the same as smart in Dunwoody. Less than two months into the first semester, they switched all of my classes and moved me to the gifted program.
I learned pretty quickly the differences in your classroom education when you live in the right tax bracket. In Amy Stuart Wells’s 2009 book, Both Sides Now, she recounts interviews with adults who had been bused for desegregation decades earlier. She found overwhelmingly that access to the resources at those schools improved their educational and socioeconomic outcomes in the long run. Rockbridge Elementary School set me up for success, but I have to admit that our textbooks were raggedy, the playground equipment was old, and a projector was about the only technology in the classroom. Peachtree had Smartboards, Apple computer labs, and no overflow trailers. I took Latin in middle school, another non-negotiable from my parents, because it would help me score higher on the verbal section of the SAT. Latin wasn’t offered at Stone Mountain Middle at the time.
By the time I completed my seventh-grade year at Peachtree, the county had fully phased out the Optional Transfer program. In 2003, this remix involved a lottery system in which students had to apply to keep going to the school outside of their neighborhood. This was partially due to demographic changes in Doraville, the city adjacent to Dunwoody.
There was an influx of new immigrants to the area from Central America and South America due to political unrest in several countries. This meant that previously underpopulated schools were reaching capacity and the already overcrowded schools were getting fuller. The lottery was a way for the county to half appease white parents who were concerned about changing demographics at their schools and to half assuage Black parents who saw their tax dollars being unequally distributed.
Adding to the uncertainty, my name was not chosen in the lottery for eighth grade. But I was allowed to continue at Peachtree because I had been a DeKalb County Board Scholar, a recognition given to students who made the principal’s list throughout the entirety of elementary school. It also didn’t hurt that my mother had friends on the school board. However, due to the lottery, many of the friends I made in seventh grade scattered to other schools in other neighborhoods.
Many tears were shed because of this lottery system. It was enough of a jolt for eleven-, twelve-, and thirteen-year-olds to leave all of our elementary school friends behind and endure a long bus ride to get to school. But to finally feel like you’re finding your place and then be told you’re no longer welcome—it’s more than a child can comprehend. The county also made changes to the transportation system, and instead of catching the bus from Georgia Perimeter College, I caught the bus from Stone Mountain Middle School to go to Peachtree.
Every now and again, I’d bump into someone I went to elementary school with and we’d say hello, but there wasn’t much else. This disconnect that I couldn’t articulate made me focus even more on my studies. If I couldn’t be popular, I would be smart.
I chose books and academics because that was the only choice I was allowed to make. I was a student who was tracked early on and set up for this college-bound life of achievement, and I walked it out all the way through graduate school. I have the student loans to prove it. Yet, surviving that level of scrutiny and perfectionism came at a cost. The idea that pronouncing a word incorrectly or wearing a certain outfit could rob me of opportunities is one that it took years to recover from. It is an ongoing effort.
After eighth grade, the DeKalb County School District made even more changes to the lottery program. This time, they told parents whose children had been selected through the lottery that their children could stay at their schools, but the county would no longer provide the same scale of transportation. When I started my freshman year at Dunwoody High School in fall 2003, I had to be dropped off about fifteen minutes from home at Stephenson High School in Lithonia to catch the school bus to Dunwoody.
By the end of my freshman year, my parents started building a house in Gwinnett County, the county northeast of Dekalb. There, I would be able to attend my neighborhood school and have access to the types of extracurricular activities and advanced placement courses that impressed college admission counselors. During the middle of fall semester my sophomore year, we left Stone Mountain for good.
I can say without hesitation that I had a rich and diverse education in DeKalb County. I am grateful that I attended schools where teachers cared and excellence was encouraged. Going to Rockbridge, Peachtree, and Dunwoody gave me a wider view of the world, and that view only expanded when I went to high school. And, of course, that experience of being around so many different people prepared me for the University of Georgia.
But what made the real difference in my education was the involvement of my parents. I wish they hadn’t had to fight so hard for me to have a fair shot, but they did. People who live in the same neighborhood and go to school with the same people their whole lives—I can’t even imagine what that’s like. To be so sure that you’ll have access to what you need where you are is the ultimate privilege.
Without any ego or pretense, I can say that I would have succeeded anywhere, because my parents valued the one thing that no one can take from you—knowledge. I am not saying that school is the end all be all of anything, but it is the beginning of a lot of things. In addition to my family, dedicated teachers throughout my entire educational experience made all the difference. If Ms. Battle and her meter stick hadn’t scared us into excellence, who knows where I’d be? It is because of those phonics drills and those Latin courses that I can pronounce and figure out the meaning of almost any word in the English language even if I’ve never seen it before.
I didn’t know when I picked up Dramatics Magazine in the Peachtree Charter Middle School library that I would have a cover story article published in it at the age of twenty-three, but if you ask my parents, they’ll tell you that they knew.
The politics of education change, but one thing remains the same—a parent who consistently encourages free thought and curiosity in a child is everything. Busing might be a thing of the past, but the urgency to invest in education is only increasing. The transition to virtual learning during the COVID-19 pandemic quickly highlighted that not all schools are created equal. Further, other countries’ relative successes with moving lessons to closed circuit television, holding classes outdoors, and sending families supplies demonstrated that this country still has a lot to learn about what it takes to educate a child—at all times and in times of crisis.
I did not succeed against the odds. My success is attributable to parents and teachers who moved the obstacles out of my way. My hope is that schools can become places of infinite possibilities, even for those children who don’t have a team of adults running offense for them.