SCHOOLED IN INDIANAPOLIS
Talking about Ourselves, Others and
the American Institution That Tries to Bring Us Together
by Josefa Beyer
“All sides tell stories about each other that are at their heart deeply mistaken and deeply destructive. But all sides are in deep ways rational, whatever may be appearances, and all sides are willing to shift to a new place, if they can see it and make their way there.”
― David Kennedy, Don’t Shoot
“For school, you must fit into a mold, dress a certain way, conform, or you’re out of luck.”
― Ella Goad, former Indianapolis public school student and parent
This book is meant to muddy the waters, or rather, to show that the waters have always been muddy even if some people can make them seem clear. Current education reformers have been very successful in promoting two clear, intertwined methods for school improvement: accountability and choice. The accountability piece says we’ll know which schools are good and which are bad by their standardized test scores. The choice piece says that if parents are allowed to choose any school (traditional public, charter, and even private schools that take vouchers), parents will choose the good schools and the bad ones will have to get better or close. Simple. Other books will strive to support or refute this logic. This one will sidestep reform talking points altogether.
Inspired by Studs Terkel and the commonsense yet magical way that oral history tells us who we are and where we’ve been, I decided to seek out other voices and other ways of thinking about school. I began an oral history about school in my adopted home, Indianapolis. As in scores of other American cities, Indianapolis’s inner-city schools today serve largely poor and mostly minority families. And, in ways familiar to many cities, Indianapolis has seen segregation, desegregation busing, urban flight and school closings, and then re-segregation, the rise of charter schools, and more school closings. It’s a good bet that our unofficial school pecking order is mirrored in other cities, too. Private and parochial schools are assumed to be the best here, followed by suburban or township schools, with inner-city schools presumed to be pretty dicey. When the first charter schools arrived in the inner city in the early 2000s, they were heralded to be a cut above the inner-city school district known as Indianapolis Public Schools. If you draw breath within twenty miles of IPS, you’ve earned the right to wring your hands about it or outright trash talk it. Conversations about IPS’s low test scores lead to whispers about poverty and unions, and then to low parent educational attainment—“Or is that these parents just don’t care?”—and finally to the rumored toughness of IPS kids. The classism and racism inherent in all of the above are almost never discussed.
Because there is so much talking about urban school families in Indianapolis and not much talking with them, I decided to interview only urban families, past and present, for this oral history. Narrators could trash talk IPS and even other families if they liked (which sometimes they did), but only if they had attended IPS themselves or raised children in IPS or a nearby charter. In an attempt to cover a wide range of experiences and to investigate how time and place impacted schools, I canvassed for narrators of disparate incomes, ages, ethnicities, neighborhoods, and educational and work experiences. Mine was peddler’s work and many people did not open their doors or answer my calls and e-mails. But hundreds did. At schools, education meetings, community and cultural centers, libraries, neighborhood events, and senior and youth groups, and through other lucky introductions, I met two hundred extraordinary ordinary people who consented to talk with me about school and themselves.
I began with fifty-year-old Cynnie Halsmer, the PTA president at my sons’ school, because I’d heard that her family has for generations attended IPS. She explained to me the importance of having diverse income groups go to school together, something that is missing especially in high school, when the district’s small percentage of middle class families tend to move on to private, township, or charter schools. She also sang this student campaign song.
“Larry Nelson, Larry Nelson, a boy of high ideals. He came to us, he came to us. Your heart away he steals. A fine young man he came to be. He made the third grade democracy. Larry Nelson, Larry Nelson. We thank you with our hearts.”
One spring evening, I strolled Washington Community High School’s cafeteria where families were invited to eat pizza before a choral concert. I went from table to table, trying to drum up interest in the history. After a few polite murmurs, my eyes landed on Kathi, Manual High Class of ‘76. After the smallest of pauses, she said, “I won’t sugar coat it. It was bad. It was real bad.” We met a week later and she began with memories of her first school in Pennsylvania, before her family moved to Indianapolis.
“It seemed like I was always fighting. I don’t know why. Maybe you know why, I don’t know, but maybe because we were the poorer. And the ones that had things was the one picking on us. So they thought, ‘Oh, well, we can do them,’ pick on the ones that ain’t got nothing. You’d be like, I don’t care. ‘Well, you know what we got to do.’ That’s how it was. ‘You know what’s happening. Friday.’ Friday was fight day. You could get bullied the whole week in school, but you’d wait ‘til Friday and then you’d let it out.”
I met Jack Hensley at Washington, too, in the Alumni Room where the octogenarian is growing the school’s memorabilia collection. I interviewed him with Joe Bridgewater, a former classmate who made their conversation a competition for who had the toughest boyhood. Raised on a very small farm on the outskirts of Indianapolis, Hensley described elementary school as a haven.
“For me, school was better than staying home. With seven kids at home in a small house, it got a little rowdy at times. I don’t mean knock-down or drag-outs, but it was too much noise. At school, I could just sit by a window and I could relax more, just looking out the window. It took me a while to get accustomed that you can’t do that. You got to pay attention to what’s going on. But I’d look at the clouds and I’d see when a storm was coming in.”
I met Reginald Jones, Attucks ’58, one evening at the downtown branch of the public library. A reform-minded think tank called The Mind Trust was outlining its proposals to decentralize IPS and to dissolve its elected school board. During the question-and-answer period, Jones took the microphone and suggested that African American students needed more teachers of color. Later, Jones agreed to record his school history with me at the charter school where he volunteers. He told me about the Jim Crow South, segregated Indianapolis, and the undiagnosed dyslexia that made school a torture for him. And he took me further back.
“My mother had two girls and a boy, then waited sixteen years and had two boys and a girl. I’m the oldest of the second set, an incubator baby. I was pronounced dead on arrival, set on the window sill. When the midwife saw I was breathing, I was rushed to the hospital. I was so small, my older sisters would carry me around on a pillow. Pneumonia, diphtheria, whooping cough, speech impediment, asthma--all of those things I had early on. I wasn’t supposed to live to be six, but as you can see, I’m still here.”
As two years passed, enchantingly diverse voices told me what they learned at school, what they learned at home, what they did for work, and how they loved science or history or basketball or art or music or woodworking or spelling bees. Four generations shared their experiences with segregation and busing, prejudice and favoritism, poverty and wealth, bullies and mentors, compliance and resistance, and even testing and school choice. They remembered playtime and laughter and friendship and spiritual awakenings. At times, nostalgia cloaked memories in a rosy haze, but more often memories unfolded with dear specificity, telling me exactly where African Americans could and could not go, how fast the middle class moved, whose homes were bulldozed for the highway, which freight trains could make you late for school, and where you might drink Cokes all day while you cut class. They recalled how the community filled the football stands and then how that stopped. They recorded fashions and social upheaval and economic booms and busts and a generation gap that runs in a never-ending loop. They taught me who got to be gifted and who was called special and why corporal punishment was a good thing and also why it was bad. Many bemoaned the lack of discipline in schools today. Children need to be taught to respect, they said. What about the children, others asked. Shouldn’t they be respected, too?
Then a woman in her early twenties, working to earn her diploma after dropping out of high school, described the discipline she knew best: In-School Suspension.
“You in a room with other classmates that’s been in trouble or got kicked out of their class for a period. You in there doing work. You can’t talk. Most people--some of us--go to sleep in there. It just give the teacher a break. It don’t give us a break, because at the end of the day, we’re still going to be us. We’re going to be right back in class tomorrow.”
A fifteen year old, attending a charter school with the motto “College or Die,” talked about discipline, too.
“Have you seen the movie Divergent? I’m a divergent. That sort of person will speak up for himself if he’s feeling like he’s not treated right….I wouldn’t say I’m a rebel. I’m more of a realist, in telling you about how I feel. At Tindley, you can’t do that. You always have to follow the exact rules or you will get suspended. I follow the rules but at some time, you can’t stay out of trouble.”
Let me muddy the waters further with a memory of Kindergarten. It is from Brenda Radford, Attucks ’68, one of the scores of people I interviewed that did not make it into this book and yet has much to say.
“We had a playhouse in the room and we could go in there and play. They had dolls and kitchen stuff. That’s the only thing I remember. (laughs) It was just so nice and just the thought of being there and being in that little house . . .”
When I tell education scholars about this book, many are interested. It sounds like school, the whole complicated affair. But some aren’t so sure. What’s your thesis? It is difficult for me to settle on one golden thesis, because so much change is recorded here, so much history repeated, and so much unfairness and pain and kindness and inspiration remembered. So much difference in experience is captured by doctor, lawyer, carpenter, writer, bus driver, grill cook, ex-army, ex-offender, and quite a few teachers who were raised in IPS. Current and past students aged fifteen to ninety-four, black and white and brown, privileged and poor, academic and athletic stars, late bloomers, and dropouts, all give thanks here, assign blame here, and tell it like it is, and was--at least, for them. Truly, difference is the point.
No matter how stringently we standardize school, students and parents keep walking in those doors with their own hopes and dreams, resources and burdens, talents and struggles, comrades and foes, dialect and dance. Will the pot melt or will it boil? Yes. Some will feel the warmth, while others feel the burn. Some will be served, others less so, or very much less so. Many of the storytellers in this book fondly remember a strong sense of community at school and in the neighborhood. But even these love-filled memories illustrate that communities are defined both by who is welcomed in and who is left out. They show us, too, just how adept schools have been at sorting and tracking people into categories/reputations, like black and white, rich and poor, smart and dumb, caring and tough. We learn that today’s school choice is in many ways an extension of this long-established sorting system. Families who have the time, savvy, and transportation now track themselves from school to school to school in search of a better academic fit or “better” company. But few students, past or present, will get school to change for them.
If it is not abundantly clear by now, let me announce that this book and I do not subscribe to labels like good and bad, smart and dumb, or caring and tough. And I am not anti-school. Rather, I believe that public schools have the daunting task of educating diverse individuals as deeply and broadly as possible. They cannot achieve these goals by having favorites or by pre-judging students and families. And they can’t do it without recognizing difference, bridging difference, and serving differences.
To that end, I hope you enjoy the differences ahead. I hope you find relief here, as I have, in the sound of differences that can’t fit into education reform talking points but remain glorious, disturbing, and true. I hope you take heart that our differences don’t have to divide us. The school battle for resources and affection is fierce and continuous, and prejudice is all around, but so is compassion and curiosity. I hope that if you listen to others as thoroughly as you can, difference will look less strange and more interesting and maybe even enlightening. I hope you learn that each of us looks strange to somebody and that we all have a lot to learn. Finally, I hope you remember what we all (not just the reformers) forget spectacularly, that every child and teen who enters school is having a life, not just preparing for one.
At ninety-four, Katie L. Johnson Wilson lives at home. A year from now she will be in a nursing facility, but this day Wilson takes me by the hand through her kitchen to a large dining area filled with several small tables, set up as if for a card party. The adjacent sunken living room features a sectional sofa decked with a perfectly maintained row of pillows. Wilson grew up on the West Side, the segregated neighborhood where the city’s first public housing would be finished in 1938, the same year she went to college. Wilson has degrees in music and education and had a long career as a teacher and principal. She was married and widowed twice.
Katie L. Johnson Wilson: Attucks 1938
School 4 was wonderful. Everybody was friendly. Right now…the smoking…the drinking. Oh, I won’t talk about now. Back then, you were very friendly. Everybody was close. You knew every house in the neighborhood. All my memories of School 4 are pleasant. It was a beautiful brick building. Parents really told children what to do and how to do it and they did it. We went to Mount Zion Baptist Church. We didn’t know anything but the right way. The family, everybody on Douglas Street and the whole neighborhood, everybody was friendly. We just did the correct thing. Remember God. The problems of today, I don’t recognize them.
You must remember, in those days schools were segregated. They didn’t allow Negro children to go to Shortridge and Tech High School. We had no high school to go to for years. My parents came from Kentucky and they didn’t have high schools down there. After the eighth grade, you were through. The United States was segregated. Then, some very wonderful lawyers and other people in Indianapolis worked day and night and struggled until the school board got the money together and built Crispus Attucks High School.* Children who had been out of school for years came back to Attucks and that was the beginning of education. They were eighteen and nineteen years old coming back to high school. They hadn’t been able to go before. They were delighted. When you have not been able to do anything, and then all at once you get to do everything--we were glad when daylight came, so we could go every morning. We had the best teachers, because they had stayed long enough to get not only bachelor’s and master’s degrees but PhDs. We had the best teachers in the state, better than the white ones. We loved Crispus Attucks.
Indiana was very segregated and I don’t know what for. Why? They did not allow the Crispus Attucks basketball teams to play with white teams. We had to go to Louisville, Kentucky, and different colored cities to play basketball. When they finally let us play in Indianapolis, we won everything. When I first got to Indiana University, I couldn’t stay in the dormitories. They were segregated. You could take any classes, but you couldn’t sleep in their dormitories. A colored man, Mr.Dorogan, built some houses for us. The theaters and other places were segregated until the president of IU stopped all that. He said, “If the blacks can’t come to the movies, the restaurants or whatever have you, neither can the other IU students come.” So, Bloomington opened up.
I came back to Indianapolis to teach at School 4. I attended a black school and I taught at a black school. Segregation only stopped when I had been teaching maybe ten, fifteen years.** There’s a school right here in my neighborhood on the corner of Capitol and 40th Street. The black children who lived here couldn’t go to that school. I don’t understand human beings. It shows you how unreasonable people are. Later, I taught at a white school and then I was assistant principal at a white school. I wasn’t good enough to go there, but I taught there. Does that make sense? Poor human beings, not an ounce of sense. There’s one God.
I really have had a marvelous life. I loved my students. I didn’t have any children of my own. It’s sad, too, ‘cause now I’m alone. All my family’s died. It’s sad. I tell all the boys and girls, get married and have children. It’s very lonely without children. Do you have some? Have some more. I know they’re expensive and it’s a lot of trouble, but it’s worth it.
* Although Crispus Attucks High School became an educational haven for African Americans in Indianapolis, it was created, most certainly, to keep African Americans out of Indy high schools they attended at the time. The school board motion, in 1922, to build Attucks was backed by the Chamber of Commerce, the Federation of Civic Clubs and the White Supremacy League—without regard to African American (and Quaker) community objections.
** Wilson may be recalling the 1949 state law which outlawed school segregation--without ending the practice.
Charles Bonsett, almost ninety-two, holds typewritten notes in front of him. He has included the names of several elementary school teachers, one principal and two school janitors. Of the greater world, he has noted, “Tornado, 1927; Lindbergh’s Solo Flight, Chicago, 1934.” He was a mid-termer at School No. 62 on the East Side, which meant he started first grade and every new grade thereafter in January. He attended Tech for four and a half years, taking two paths, vocational and academic, simultaneously. That, he says, has made all the difference. “There was a sign post in the auditorium. They had frequent meetings there, so you could read it often. It said: ‘Common sense is the least common of all the sense.’ At the time, I didn’t think anything about it, but it soaked in.”
Charles Bonsett: Tech 1939
Here I am, right here. (Bonsett holds up his eighth grade graduation picture.) This is my brother. He was eighteen months older, but he had a sickness as an infant, so we went through school together. Now, this boy came from a very poor family and he needed a job, so he asked for a letter of recommendation. The principal refused. His response was to set fire to the school. Instead of going to high school with the rest of us, he went to the Boys School at Plainfield. This one became a dentist. This one became a doctor and this one became a doctor. This was considered the genius of the class. Can you imagine anybody this size doing oil paints that were really first class? This was Depression era, but his parents had the money to give him everything he needed. This one was the tragedy in the family. He was given a bicycle on his sixteenth birthday and he got killed by a car. That’s about the extent of it.
In my parents’ time, they thought you were an adult at sixteen and ready to go to work. My mother had no difficulty getting a job in an office. From the Knightstown Orphan Home, she learned shorthand and typing and was quite talented. Now, my dad was different. He was orphaned too, but he was reared on a farm in Clark County. Prior to World War II, Clark County was still back in the nineteenth century. When we would go down there, they didn’t have electricity or telephones. The transportation was horse and buggy. My father was one of the oldest of fifteen or sixteen children. He had a relative that owned a motion picture theater, so he learned how to be a projectionist. My earliest recollection is of being on one parent’s lap or the other’s while they were reading to us. I tell you, it was really a pleasant sensation. My dad was very influential as far as what I did. He was interested in electricity and the latest technology. As they made advances in radio, he would either take the old one down to the country for his people or give them to me. He encouraged me to learn about these things, play with them, yes, but take them apart and put them back together. Get the diagrams. Learn what they mean. Boy, he was really something. An individual’s best and most important teachers are his parents.
The grade school teacher with the most long-term influence on me was my sixth grade teacher, Hazel Alcorn. Mrs. Alcorn’s room was up in the second floor and this was where you realize you were advancing along the way. By that time, two school teachers named Ott lived across the street from us. They were sisters and they took a pretty great interest in me and my brother. We were interested in insect collecting, butterflies and moths, and they tried to encourage us to do things like that and also stamp collecting. They were really remarkable people. Mrs. Alcorn recognized theses interests we had. When I finished assignments early, she would let me go out in the hall alone to where the encyclopedia was stacked in a big cabinet. Usually nobody was there. I was allowed to just sit and read. The last time I saw Mrs. Alcorn was the year after high school when I was working in a bakery. She said, “You mean you’re not in college?” She didn’t quite comprehend, I guess, what it was like not to go. She was expecting me to get into college and sail right through. This was in the middle of the Depression. I said, no, I didn’t have enough money yet to go. She turned around and walked away from me and said, “What a disgusting situation.” That hurt.
Mrs. Orr was the one teacher I did not get along with too well. She was a disciplinarian and later became a principal. But I knew her in junior high school. There was Mrs. Orr, Miss Smith, Miss Gunder, Mr. Davis and Miss Thompson. Here you could learn to do something practical. With boys, it was woodworking. With girls, it was cooking. Once a week, they offered clubs where the boys could learn cooking and the girls, woodworking. As we neared graduation time, we were advised to determine which trade we would like to learn. Neither of my parents had a high school education, but my mother’s brother had been taught printing at the orphan home and he advised my brother and me to take printing. Mrs. Orr had to approve or disapprove our selections. She said my brother was excellent. He would do. I would not. She signed me up for the two-hour rather than the four-hour vocational course. She wasn’t certain that I had the qualifications to be a printer.
We had two schools in town for trades, Manual High School and Tech High school. I went to Tech and boy, to me, there was nothing like it. Trade school is not a popular thing anymore. I think it should be, because as I look back on it, my high school education has been of more value to me than some of my postgraduate work. The printing didn’t amount to anything. It was simple and the only course there that I ever made an A+ in. I wanted to get back to Mrs. Orr and let her know that. (laughs) An older boy that lived across the street from me gave me some advice that meant a lot to me. He said, “Whatever you do, sign up for mechanical drawing.” I did and that led me to machine drafting and forge foundry, pattern making and sheet metal work. We learned things. We learned how things are put together, the why. If you had to explain something, they said–and they stressed this--keep it simple, keep it honest and keep it comprehensible. Boy, I tell you, that really has paid off. At home, I was still working with the radios my dad gave me. I got my first TV set back when the only thing that they could transmit was “Felix the Cat.” I would take these things apart and put them back together. I joined the radio club at Tech, too. We’d make our sets at home and then talk with each other around the city, which was illegal. But everything was learning, how this and that works, what this was for and so on and so forth.
It took me four and a half years to get through Tech, because I was getting all these requirements for the vocational certificate plus the college prep requirements. I worked for a year packing buns at the bakery until I had enough money saved up to go to Butler. I had one full year in at Butler before I was drafted. In the armory on the south side of town, the soldier that weighed me said, “We’re not taking your size yet.” (laughs) I only weighed 105 pounds. But when we got all through that day, there were a couple hundred men my age, all naked, separated into two groups. I was in the group told to raise their right hands. I thought, uh oh. I’m in the army.
In basic training, they drum in to you that you are nothing, absolutely nothing. You’re to respect all the people around you, especially anyone with a stripe or a bar. I was selected for the medical corps. I didn’t have any interest in it and told them so. (laughs) I was assigned to a field hospital in the Mohave Desert as a bedpan commando. The desert was blooming and I tell you, it was the most beautiful sight I’d ever seen. While we were waiting for orders to ship out, I got acquainted with one of the doctors and asked him if I could get reassigned. I was worried because of something that happened when I was 10 years old. My brother and I used to go to the Saturday matinee to see the cowboy and Tarzan movies. One Saturday, there was an automobile accident that happened right next to us. It was a bloody mess, a lot of screaming and moaning. It made me sick to my stomach. How could I be in medicine? The medical corps doctor told me that the only way to get out of the medical corps was to get into the air corps. I got myself a weekend pass back to civilization, took the test and passed it. I studied math and physics at Milliken University and passed the pre-flight training and then the flight training--but I flunked the psychological test. They had given me this scenario: “You are flying over enemy territory and have just shot down the enemy pilot. You look out and see that he’s safe, has a parachute and is going to land on his own soil. What do you do?” My answer was, “Nothing.” “No, you kill him!” I said, “I couldn’t do that. That would be murder.” I didn’t have the proper attitude.
After a few months as an oxygen technician servicing B-16s, B-17s and B-26s in Florida, I finally got the type of job I wanted, something to do with communication. I was a switchboard operator in Nadzab, where Amelia Earhart took off. Our radio transmitter station went out, because one of the tubes was defective and they didn’t have a replacement. It was a simple job from my point of view, because of my high school education. Various tubes had different numbers of prongs on the bottom and they didn’t have a tube with the right number of prongs. I altered the tube so it would do the job and boy, I got my only promotion. The down side was I was setting up communications before invasions. I was in the Philippines when they invaded Lingayen. As the infantry passed on through, there were two of us that had to stay behind. There were dead bodies all over the place, even where we stopped to eat our rations. One was a Japanese soldier that had a big hole in his head and I could see his brain stem. I found that this sort of thing didn’t make me sick anymore like it did when I was a kid. And I got curious. How did those little threads coming out of his head control a person’s behavior? I wrote home for books on neurology and physiology and the brain. Those brain diagrams and nervous system diagrams looked just like radio circuits. In my mind, I was back at Tech High School. When I got discharged, I finished at Butler and went on to IU to study medicine.
Where you go to school is circumstantial, based on where you live. If I had started high school a year later, I would have gone to Howe. But it was not built yet, so I went to Tech High School. The more I look at what I was able to do, the more valuable that is.
Charles Bonsett became a neurologist in private practice and in the research of muscular dystrophy. Into his nineties, he worked as a court consultant on disability cases.
© 2015 All rights reserved by Josefa Beyer.