I WAS THE LAST one to arrive -- the last black, that is. The ballroom was decorated the way the gym used to be, with orange and black balloons. There had been 63 blacks, 600 whites in the class of '67, DuVal High School. As I looked around the room, I saw a sea of white faces and only five other blacks. It was 20 years later. This was my class reunion. In some ways, nothing had changed.
In other ways, I found out before the evening was over, everything had.
Before DuVal, I lived in a maroon and grey world. That was in 1964. I was attending Fairmont Heights High School, the best school in the world, and the summer of 1965 I was looking forward to 11th grade. I was going to wear ruby red lipstick like I had seen Deborah Giles do when she was a senior.
With the money I earned as a teacher's aide for Head Start, I was going to buy another pair of leather "Nineteens" (leather sling back shoes that cost a then astronomical $19). And my momma said I could get my first pair of Ballys, which cost $32.
I was in heaven, and surely I was finally grown. But I hardly had time to float into this new adulthood, when I found a notice in the mailbox that put my feet back on the ground and turned my world upside down.
As part of the Prince George's County busing plan that would integrate schools, I was being transfered to DuVal in Glenn Dale. I was scared and angry, scared that I would not be wanted; angry that someone else could change my life without one word from me. Goodbye hip cheerleaders: "Be calm, be cool and be collected." Goodbye library full of old Ebony magazines and books by black authors.
It was no consolation to me that every 11th grader in my neighborhood was being transfered, too. The newspapers reported that busing would mean there would then be at DuVal some 100 black students out of a school body of 2,700. 2,700! That was more than twice the student population at the Heights. I didn't want to go. But what excuse did I have for refusing? This wasn't Little Rock. No one was throwing rocks.
Before the bright yellow school buses pulled up to DuVal bearing children from communities like Glenarden, Carsondale and Fox Ridge, only a few blacks had chosen to attend the school and a lot of people seemed happy to keep it that way.
Of course, no one at DuVal had ever heard of "Nineteens" or Ballys. I thought I was going to die! More serious, though, was the total absence of black teachers, no black counselors, no black varsity cheerleaders, no black majorettes and only half of the custodial staff was black. It is hard to explain what it feels like to spend two years in a place where for weeks you might not see an adult who looks like you. You certainly sense your future is somewhere else.
At a time in life when a child needs security and reassurance, I felt unwanted and disposable. A few teachers seemed not to mind my being there, though, and they tried desperately to shake some life from me.
But from the day I stepped foot onto Duval Tigers territory, I changed from a lively, enthusiastic teenager who made average to above-average grades and hoped to become a cheerleader to a sulking, frightened, shy, young girl who either failed in her classes or barely passed.
I felt like a failure. I saw myself representing the entire black race. But I had lost the self-confidence that I exuded only months before. Whites questioned my intelligence; my intellectual growth stunted. I became bitter without understanding why at the time.
I spent years trying hard to forget but I wound up just thinking about it more. Then a notice came in the mail this spring announcing the "DuVal High School Class of 1967 20 Year Reunion."
My first reaction was to toss the announcement in the trash, but I didn't. I fingered its edges for weeks before I decided to answer "yes." A part of me has always felt some trick of history swiped away the fun of my high school days. I was not about to let it steal my 20th reunion as well. Also, I was enthralled with the thought of confronting the pain to see what I might learn. When I walked into the banquet hall in New Carrollton, the entire group was gathered for a class photo. Three black women, positioned in the center of the front row, waved to me, "Get over here!"
Later, the women, myself, the one black male who showed up, and his wife, all sat quietly at a table together, discussing days gone by. Meanwhile, about 300 of our white classmates ran around the room searching for familiar faces, screaming when they recognized old friends and posing for group snapshots. For a moment I felt robbed again and I felt the heat of bitterness resurfacing.
It looked like one of the old school dances, blacks in one group and whites in another. But somewhere in the middle of this summer night, things changed. I was dancing with a white classmate named John Prado, whom I could not place at all from school, when I looked around and realized that 20 years after suddenly being thrown together by integration, the black and white classmates of 1967 were dancing with each other.
That may seem like a small step, but dancing the "Pony" and "The Jerk" together was something that just didn't happen in the old days. In those days we were uneasy with each other. Fist fights broke out over misunderstandings. Police patroled the halls of the schools. Parents held heated meetings.
So it was curiosity and not fond memories that brought us five black graduates to the reunion. "When I think about high school, it seems a blank," said Patricia Little Gomez.
"It's not that they mistreated us, it's just that they didn't treat us at all," is the way my fellow black classmate Jovita Slaughter Yeldell remembered it on the night of our reunion. "It was the worst time of my life," she said, and all of us now grown classmates shook our heads in agreement.
"I know we must have had fun, but I don't remember any," said Brenda Harris.
"I lacked the opportunity to participate in a lot of activities because of the location of the school from my house," said Renado Hair, the one black male to attend the reunion. "I wanted to join the cross country team and go out for wrestling and basketball. There was no transporation and there was no encouragement for me.
"Classes were difficult. . .because I felt withdrawn about being a minority," said Hair. "My desire to excel or achieve just wasn't there as much as it had been when I was at Fairmont Heights."
I had waited 20 years to hear someone else say that.
But when I spoke to my white classmates about my recollections, most were surprised.
"I never realized you all had problems at school," said Kerry Tracey-Prediger.
It hit me that she wasn't being naive. In those days she was a teenager concerned that classmates kept calling her blonde hair red. And like the rest of us, she was trying to understand why people over 30 were so stupid.
When I told another white classmate, Catherine Mahaney Duncan, about what it was like being left out of activities, she said in a hush-your-mouth voice, "I never got invited to parties either, and I don't know anybody here either. I just remember faces."
She had, in fact, come over to say she remembered mine. Of course, her experience could not be the same as that of the black graduates. Although we had to contend with dating and growing up, we also had to contend with learning in an environment that seemed alien and even hostile to us.
But Cathy's and Kerry's comments made me question, as I had so many times over the years, the influence our teachers, counselors and other administrators had over us. I had come to the conclusion that it was the adults who had set the tone at that school, and I also felt they had failed us, all of us who were younger.
I wanted to know why my math teacher never once called on me after I got up the nerve to raise my hand. I wanted my old counselor to know that when I "acted out" in school, as he called it, it was my fear coming out. I wanted to know how much blame to pin on them and how much to attribute to what history has done to us all. Being the first is difficult for everyone.
But I know I must have had some white friends because under photos on pages of my yearbook are scrawled notes from some, and under other photos are comments like "sweet" and "ace" written in my own handwritting. Still, whenever I look at that book I truly remember only three of the white girls in my class. One of them was Cecelia Ann Cook, still blonde, still tanned, but now with curly hair. I remembered sitting behind her in class, but she said reunion night, "No, you sat beside me." I could finally admit to her -- without shame -- that because of her I had gone home and tried to iron my hair on several occasions, something black teenagers just did not do.
In between conversations, I got up to ask the deejay to turn up the music because I heard people complaining. He complied. I also asked the managers of the catering service to get us more bartenders because the line to get drinks was trying everyone's patience. While I was doing that I thought: Patrice, honey, you never would have taken this kind of control in 1967. You wouldn't have asked anybody to do anything.
"You were awfully quiet," Cecelia Ann Cook said to me at one point during the night. I felt like saying, "Me?" But it was true, of course. I was probably too afraid, too upset with being unwanted to get my mouth to form anything other than "hello" in those days.
The reality was that we had all changed. Twenty years after being terrified of sitting in classrooms filled with whites, five black DuValians walked into a room full of whites and were confident, scared of nothing and no one and out to have a darn good time, if possible. We may have remembered high school dances where we spent half the night waiting for a familiar song and the other half trying to understand the beat, but on this night we grabbed any partner we could get and said, "Wanna dance?"
Even Renaldo, the only black male present, danced first with his wife, then he and a white couple switched partners. Meanwhile, white guys asked us black women to dance. So there we were, amidst the helium-filled orange and black balloons, swaying and popping our fingers to songs like "Crying in The Chapel, and "I'm A Believer" and loving every minute.
Darn it, we had a lot to celebrate. We had come to love ourselves regardless of rejection. Just because we didn't enjoy our past back then didn't mean we couldn't enjoy it now.
Patrice Gaines-Carter is a Washington Post reporter.