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.