As of last Wednesday, after 33 years and six governors, Connecticut is moving toward the true meaning of equity and justice in education. I was moved at the monumental courage of Elizabeth Horton Sheff who filed the lawsuit to bring to the forefront that Hartford school students were still not on the same level playing field as white students in the suburbs.
I was one of the first students of Project Concern — an experiment based on a Harvard University study in 1965 — for Hartford residents to go to white suburban schools. I started at Burr School in Wethersfield, and then was in the fourth grade in the same school my little sister was going to, Noah Wallace Elementary School in Farmington, in 1973.
This bright-eyed and voracious reader with an open heart to learning loved the light colors of the school rooms and gymnasium. There was a tether ball in the playground for recess. I joined the field hockey team. I learned how to sing choral music with my first concert at the old Congregational church built in the 1600s. I had sleep-overs with friends who were smart just like me and open to learn more about who I was and where I came from.
I was an easy listener, an avid talker and natural teacher. I went on trips to Boston to learn about the Revolutionary War; and enjoyed my field trip to Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts.
I knew I was Black in a sea of white school children; but I was an embracing child wearing my Afro with a natural inclination to understand other people. I was not taught racism; and I knew that white kids were not smarter than me. I also knew that there was a difference in not only educational opportunities, but in economics as many of my friends’ parents were lawyers, doctors or businesspersons. The houses they lived in sometimes made me envy not living out in Farmington.
There were real advantages to having the types of jobs and resources that were not readily available to me or my family. My life was radically changed by the busing experience. I saw and experienced through my educational pursuits in Farmington, an opportunity to make a difference in the world. I was and am a change agent. I learned that being a part of Project Concern.
I graduated from Farmington High School in 1982. The prior year, school funding for buses was stopped so I had to take two city buses from Blue Hills Avenue to Farmington to go to school. The days that were cold and streets filled with snow were not fun; I don’t know how many times my sister and I and other Project Concern students were told by a police officer at the police station at the bottom of the hill of Farmington High, “go back home, the school is closed due to the snow.”
The education I received in Farmington prepared me for college. I have wonderful memories of serving on the school paper, “The Voice” as the managing editor and roving reporter. The only thing missing were classes on Black history. My pastor, Rev. Earl W. Lawson, a Boston Civil Rights Activist and friend of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. supported me by coming to my 11th grade sociology class to talk about Black history.
As I said, I was a natural teacher. I wanted to always inform my friends and my teachers that the students who sacrificed much time to travel to a white school had history, meaning and purpose; that our being present in that educational system broadened the minds of the white students about the larger world; that intelligence is not gained through the osmosis of a white skin; that the world is larger and better when we see our lives intertwined with people different than us.
Now Sheff v. O’Neill, after a longer experiment to bring equity in education and academic excellence to Hartford students, has been won, I am elated that the state of Connecticut did not stop growing as a citizenry. I am still troubled that it took 33 years to come to victory and to an agreement that is backed up with the appropriations to build newer avenues to provide equal opportunity education; but it doesn’t take away my cheer and joy that truth and justice does win in the end.
I am excited about the longer outcomes of schooling with Hartford children and what they will become and the lives that may be saved from the very real school-to-prison pipeline because all children in Hartford and across our state will find out who God has made them to be and will have the means, tools and support from educators to learn, to grow and become greater because a “mind is such a terrible thing to waste.”
Cheering for the success of our children’s future, together.
Verinda M. Birdsong lives in New Britain.