White Girl: A Sto­ry of School Desegregation

  • Review
By – July 22, 2015

In reflect­ing on the years she spent as one of only a hand­ful of white stu­dents in a black pub­lic school in Rich­mond, Vir­ginia, Clara Sil­ver­stein states, I learned that being in the van­guard of social change can be a lone­ly, not hero­ic place for a child.” Silverstein’s expe­ri­ence with school inte­gra­tion is a far cry from the one that comes to mind when we think of the his­tor­i­cal accounts of school bus­ing. Her unique per­spec­tive, as the daugh­ter of a woman whose lib­er­al agen­da pro­pelled the child into a painful and, at best, con­flict­ed aca­d­e­m­ic expe­ri­ence, pro­vides great insight into what may be viewed as the oth­er bus­ing expe­ri­ence.” Sil­ver­stein expe­ri­ences the tri­als and tribu­la­tions typ­i­cal of ado­les­cents com­ing of age dur­ing the tur­bu­lence of the ear­ly 1970’s. For her, how­ev­er, the rites of pas­sage asso­ci­at­ed with that time are mag­ni­fied by hav­ing to expe­ri­ence them simul­ta­ne­ous­ly with being viewed as the ene­my” with­in the walls of her mid­dle school. Sil­ver­stein strug­gles with the duplic­i­ties she encoun­ters as a white Jew­ish girl in the heart of the South, while at the same time liv­ing on the cusp of the civ­il rights move­ment. Unaware of the con­se­quences of her actions, she wears a pin of the Con­fed­er­ate flag on her jack­et to school one day. Unaware of the con­se­quences of the admis­sions, she tells fel­low class­mates that she has a crush on one of the black boys in her class. From the moment she climbs the stairs on the all-black bus tak­ing her to her first day of school, to being spat upon by a fel­low sixth grad­er, Silverstein’s poignant por­tray­al of her fail­ure to find a safe haven in a hos­tile envi­ron­ment is mov­ing and com­pelling. Sil­ver­stein has writ­ten an inspi­ra­tional as well as some­what cau­tion­ary mem­oir. Her years of school­ing did not, as she tells us, teach her the ideals of accep­tance and val­ues of diver­si­ty. They did, how­ev­er, bring her to an under­stand­ing of the scourge of racism,” although not nec­es­sar­i­ly in the way we may think.

Paula Lubin is a human­i­ties teacher at the North Shore Hebrew Acad­e­my Mid­dle School. She has writ­ten for a vari­ety of pub­li­ca­tions, most recent­ly the New York Health­care Law Update.

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