Sydney L. Cousin remembers the early days of Columbia. He moved to Long Reach in 1973 when the village was brand new, drawn by developer James Rouse's vision of a racially and socioeconomically diverse community.
But a less ideal reality emerged when Cousin went to enroll his sixth-grade son in what was then Owen Brown Middle School. The family had lived in Baltimore before coming to Howard County, and school officials said his son should start off in the lowest-level classes because "he's coming from the city."
Cousin would have none of it. "My interpretation [of their reasoning] is that he was black," he said. Cousin eventually persuaded the school to put his son, who was scoring in the 99th percentile on standardized tests, in a higher-performing class.
That memory has stayed with Cousin, who Tuesday was named the county's first black school superintendent. He recounted the incident last week during an informal coffee with about 50 parents and educators, nearly half of whom were black.
"That was my introduction to Howard County public schools," he said. "I would say things have gotten a lot better here, but we still have issues."
The moment was a rare glimpse into the personal life of the generally taciturn administrator. Cousin, who does not often make a point of his race, has gained the respect of community and school staff members of all backgrounds. His ability to connect with people and listen to concerns have become hallmarks of his leadership style, said former longtime superintendent Michael E. Hickey, who hired Cousin in the mid-1980s.
"I think Howard County is very much ready for [a black superintendent] and has been for some time," Hickey said. "I wouldn't say that people don't notice his race, but it's not a big presence. . . . It's Sydney Cousin, and that's what they know."
Natalie Woodson, first vice president of the local NAACP, said that she thinks his appointment has broad appeal.
"While we are certainly honored and excited to have the first black superintendent in the community, that is not the criteria upon which this appointment was made. I think it was based on his qualifications," Woodson said.
Still, Cousin said that being black has influenced his thinking and perspective on life. He attended segregated schools growing up in inner-city Baltimore and did not have new textbooks until 11th grade, he said. When he returned to Baltimore as a world history teacher at Lombard Junior High School, he had a class of 55 students but only 50 desks, a problem solved only because there was never a day when every student showed up.
"I learned a lot of survival techniques," he said.
Now, Cousin takes office amid heightened racial tensions surrounding the county Board of Education's decision to exonerate two high-ranking black school officials, Chief Academic Officer Kimberly Statham and Assistant Superintendent Roger L. Plunkett, who were accused of using their positions to change the academic record of Statham's daughter.
The decision has ignited the Centennial High School community, where Statham's daughter had been a student. At a community meeting earlier this month, several white parents walked out during speeches by black parents supporting the board's decision. The local NAACP responded with a harsh advertisement in the Howard County Times that likened the situation to "the lynch mobs of former years."
Cousin has opted to stay largely above the fray and has been careful not to align himself with either side.
"People's perspectives are different because of their upbringing and . . . their view of the world," he said. "When white parents say they don't see racism, I accept it and believe that. When black parents say they see racism, I accept that and believe it, too.
"As a black person, you have to learn to live in two worlds."