Among all Robby Gregg's other memories of his first year in a Montgomery County school, one memory stands out more clearly than the rest: he felt alone.
The time was 11 years ago and Gregg, now a senior at Magruder High School in Rockville, had just moved with his family from an allblack neighborhood in Washington out to Derwood, an all-white community in Montgomery County.
Speaking yesterday at a forum of black students in Rockville, Gregg said that, in part because of this feeling of isolation, he needed a special stimulus to excel in school and prove himself as good as his white peers. And it took his parents to provide the stimulus the school system failed to offer.
"Without their encouragement I would have been left alone to fend for myself," said Gregg, who has headed the student governments in elementary, junior and senior high schools. "They drove me to be better because there is no encouragement within the school framework for blacks to feel confident."
Gregg's assessment was shared by 21 other black county students who yesterday participated in a forum to discuss the special problems and needs of black students in country schools.
The forum was sponsored by the county's Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity of black professionals and the Association of Black Educators. It came nearly two months after a controversial school board decision to eliminate a requirement that all school employes take a course in black culture.
The students all agreed that county teachers and administrators need to know more about black history and psychology. But comments during the forum centered not on the black culture course itself but on such topics as perceived inconsistencies in school disciplinary policies and the loneliness of being black in overwhelmingly white classrooms.
"When there's a discussion of African history or slavery the teachers and other students look at me as if I were an authority or something," said Traci Williams, a sophomore at Whitman High School. "They turn around to look at you and watch for your reaction. There's nowhere to turn."
Several students said racial misunderstandings in the school system are more often subtle than overt. Monique Walker, a student at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, offered as an example a recent English class discussion on Huckleberry Finn.
"At the end of the discussion," she said, "the teacher looked at me and the one other black student in the class and started apologizing for Mark Twain and the fact that Twain called the slave character Nigger Jim.
"There was no need for that," she said, adding that the apology itself was 'prejudicial'." About 10 percent of the county's 100,000 students are black.
Floretta D. McKenzie, deputy superintendent of schools, was one of the approximately 150 people who attended yesterday's forum. Afterwards, McKenzie said "there is some truth" in the students' comments.
"It just proves that we aren't as responsive as we should be to minority children. The answer lies in sensitizing staff to the various problems they present.
Two members of the school board's conservative majority -- Carol Wallace and Eleanor Zappone -- were also in the audience.
"The one thing I've learned from listening to these kids is that their concerns are remarkably similar to those of white children," Wallace. "Active parental involvement is the common thread running through all of this. Without interested parents kids become lost."
The loudest applause during the two hour session came during a question and answer period when Gareth Fountain, a third grade county student, asked the high school students for advice.
"Don't let anyone think they're better than you. And always dream," came the answer.