The Most Memorable Field Trip

This post comes from a weekly memoir writing prompt provided by The Red Dress Club:  Write a memoir post about a memorable school trip. Word limit is 600.

In May of my senior year in high school, 1966, I had to choose between going with my English class to see Shakespeare’s King Lear at the Shakespeare Theater in Stratford,  Connecticut, a distance of about fifteen miles, or going with my Problems in American Democracy class on a trip to Washington, D.C.  Never having been to Washington, it wasn’t a hard decision.

Unfortunately, the previous years’ seniors had made fools of themselves and embarrassed our school during an overnight field trip, so the school laid down the law:  No field trips could last more than twenty-four hours.  We left on a Greyhound bus at midnight for the six-hour drive and had to return by the next midnight.  I didn’t care; I was going to see the Capital, a new experience, and joy of joys, I was going to miss school for a whole day!

Though it was midnight when we departed, we were all wide awake with the excitement of the trip.  The bus was noisy with lively chatter and transistor radios.  We thought we were a typical high school group coming from our typical little Connecticut town of Fairfield.  Events of that trip would change our outlook forever.  For on that day, many of us came face to face with racial prejudice for the first time.

By five-thirty we were in Maryland, on the outskirts of Washington.  Our advisor decided it was a good stopping time for breakfast since nothing would be open yet in the Capital.  The bus driver pulled into the parking lot of a diner, and we all poured out of the bus, eager to stretch our legs. We were told the restrooms were located around back, so we headed there.  When we got to the back, we stopped and stared.  In ugly big black letters, a sign hung over two water fountains.  One said:  Whites only.  The other:  Colored.  The laughing and chattering ceased.  We had studied the Civil Rights Movement in class, had seen pictures on T.V., but it had never made such an impression on us until we stood looking at those two signs.

It was easy to say we weren’t prejudiced, living in a town like Fairfield, Connecticut.  There was no segregation in our schools, but if you were to look at my yearbook, you wouldn’t see one African-American face.  If you were a person of color back then, you couldn’t afford to live in Fairfield.  You might say it was a sort of de facto segregation.  I don’t know what the demographics were in 1966, but I looked them up for the 2000 Census and found that of the 57,340 residents of Fairfield, 54,630 of them were white and only 623 were black.  I’m sure it was tipped even more to the white side when I was in high school.  No, we weren’t at all  “typical” teens from a “typical” town.  We were sheltered, indeed, from the harsh realities of life for many people.

I wonder what we would have done if there had been a classmate among us who was black?  Would we have turned around and gotten back on the bus and refused to eat there?  Would we all have encouraged our minority friend to drink from the same water fountain as we did, in spite of the sign?  What would we have done?  We never had to decide what to do, but I like to think we would have done the right thing.

After breakfast, when we got back on the bus, we were a quieter group, sobered by what we had seen, and we were deep in our own thoughts of what it meant in our lives.  But I can tell you, when we finally got to our nation’s Capital, and stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the events in our nation’s history and the on-going struggle of our fellow citizens to have the freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution meant more to us than they did a few hours earlier when we first stepped on that bus.

About Coming East

I am a writer, wife, mother, and grandmother who thinks you're never too old until you're dead. My inspiration is Grandma Moses who became a successful artist in her late 70's. If I don't do something pretty soon, though, I'll have to find someone older for inspiration.
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27 Responses to The Most Memorable Field Trip

  1. Very startling to see that in the environs of our nation’s capital! It’s interesting the sobering effect it had and how it set the tone for the rest of the trip. Thank you for writing this. Your daughter’s comment is very eloquent.
    Thank you for reading “Uncle Jack” this morning. Yes, my small town had similar water fountains at the grocery store. Imagine how appalled my mother was when I gleefully pointed out “Look, Mommy, colored water.” What happened next is obvious. I learned a lot at age 8 what that really meant.

    • comingeast says:

      Loved your innocent comment about the colored water. I always think of the song from South Pacific, “You Have to Be Carefully Taught.” Do you remember that one? We have a lot in common for two women brought up in very different parts of the country. Thanks, Georgette.

  2. Erin says:

    Definitely a powerful lesson to learn. Even though different time frames we visited the capitol, we both took away a learning experience that a new meaning of the word Freedom!

  3. mypajamadays says:

    This just sent chills down my arms – i can’t even imagine what life was like with such blatant segregation. Thank you mom for raising us to see the hearts of men and not their skin color.

    • comingeast says:

      Your comment sent chills down my arms, Daughter. I never stopped to think about what we were teaching you. That’s just the way Daddy and I were. Glad you listened to our lives.

  4. winsomebella says:

    Thank you for sharing such an insightful memory and for starting an important dialogue.

  5. logyexpress says:

    Wow. What an incredible memory and effective retelling. This has left me kind of speechless.

  6. Pingback: End of the school year … « ~♥~ Faith's Updates ~♥~

  7. May says:

    It is stunning to me to think this kind of thing was happening in my life time. Because I don’t remember it first hand it is easy to consider it “history”. But your inclusion of numbers from the 2000 census really does drive home the point that despite our gains there is work to be done still.

    Very thought provoking.

    • comingeast says:

      Yes, so much work has to be done in so many areas, not just for racial equality, but for women, and for homosexuals. Thanks so much for reading and commenting.

  8. pattisj says:

    You all grew up a lot that day.

  9. Margie says:

    We are not without some racial tension in Canada, but do not have the history of segregation. I didn’t appreciate what real tension was until I moved to Texas in 1979. Our naive little white family stopped at a restaurant for dinner after a day of exploring Houston. It turned out to be in a predominantly black neighborhood. It became clear as the meal progressed that we were not welcome there. We made them uncomfortable in a place they had felt safe in, and we couldn’t blame them for those feelings.

    • comingeast says:

      We moved to San Antonio in 1980, but S.A. is so much different from Houston. We were actually the minority in S.A. because of its large Hispanic population, but we still found prejudice against that group of people from, of all places, the minister of the church we were checking out. Needless to say, we found another church! Thanks, Margie.

  10. What an incredible experience! More telling than all the class lessons. The impact of your statement is overwhelming. Thanks you! Found you on Judith’s shout out so just stopping in to say hi and Thanks!

  11. Galit Breen says:

    I have chills. This is such a powerful moment in time. Your learning, your realization- about the outside world and yourselves. I adore the harsh reality questions that you asked about the “what ifs.” When I read “The Help” I asked myself the same- and so hoped that I would have come out on the side of right. Extremely powerful post.

  12. I love it when an experience changes a group of young people. Experience does so much more than lectures…

    • comingeast says:

      You are so right! We’d seen the struggle for racial equality on TV, but it didn’t hit home like those signs. The reality just hit us right in the face.

  13. magicofmine says:

    A very good and important post. Thank you for sharing your thoughts about that experience.

  14. gaycarboys says:

    For some reason that really made me sad. BUt I guess that was a step up from the blacks being hunted in Australia. We should never forget….

    • comingeast says:

      It made me so angry. It was so far-removed from my idyllic little existence in Connecticut, it was easy to be blind to what was happening in other parts of the country, not so far away from where I was growing up. Thanks for your comment.

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