Memories of 1979: The concerned racist…

I was a dancerette in high school. Do they still have those? They’re performers–all girls back in my day–who do routines at halftime with the marching band.

Left to right: Debra Propst, Me, and Alice McManus

I didn’t know such a thing existed before the Titusville High School T-ettes came to my middle school to perform and hand out applications to try out for the group. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven! This was my thing!

This was one of the two theaters in town. Two screens! 

Titusville, Florida, was a tiny little city back in the late 70s, mostly known for the fabulous view of NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building sitting across the Indian River Lagoon from US 1, where people gathered to watch the rockets launch. 

For the longest time Titusville High School was the only high school in town…for the white kids. And Gibson was for Black students. After THS was fully integrated in 1967, the Andrew J. Gibson High School building eventually became a community center. When I was with the marching band, the field on which the band practiced, located behind the high school–close enough to walk, but most of us drove over–was behind the old Gibson School.

One of the anchors at Miracle City Mall

I really enjoyed being a dancerette; it was one of the few things that brought me joy at that time in my life. But by my senior year, I was tired of it and ready to quit. I went through the first half of the year, with the football games, because that was the best part of the gig; but I quit in the last semester. Throughout my time with the T-ettes, my sixth period class was devoted to the group. We met in the band room and started our daily practice before school ended. 

Apparently, at some point, we were renamed the Highsteppers. I have no recollections of it.
 I imagine it was an attempt to be inclusive.

So, when I quit, I needed a half-semester sixth period class to replace practice. I went with an easy A–Music Appreciation.

It wasn’t that bad of a class. It was taught next door to the band room, in the chorus room, and by the chorus teacher. We listened to music and talked about music and learned a little bit about music. 

There were only about a dozen students and they were the typical type you’d expect in a throw-away class. You know who I mean–we hated school and were only there because we had to be, so why not take Home Ec and Music Appreciation?

We sat in padded chairs on what was something like a band stage, if I recall–raised platforms, each a few inches higher than the one in front of it. There was one guy in class, cute and funny, who used to sit beside me a lot and we’d talk and joke around whenever we could. Sometimes, he’d put his arm along the back of my chair, not on my shoulders, just the chair. 

Searstown Mall was the competing mall to Miracle City, and always the lesser of the two.

One day, we had a substitute teacher, an older woman who might remind you of Sally Field in Forrest Gump. She sat in front of us and talked with us for a while, not about music, I don’t think, just chatting. At some point, she asked to talk with me privately in the chorus director’s office. I was more curious than worried. I couldn’t imagine I’d done anything wrong.

The director’s office had a low wall and the rest was windows so that while he was in there, he could still see anyone in the main room. So the class could see me there, in the chair facing the desk behind which this substitute teacher sat. I thought it was presumptuous of her at the time. She’d closed the door behind us.

Titusville was a depressing place, probably still is.

I don’t recall the exact conversation, of course; this was forty years ago. But I do remember how I felt sitting there, listening to her. 

She was “concerned” about me, she said, and I asked, why? What was wrong?

“I don’t think you should let that boy put his arm around you,” she said. 

I can’t remember if I made it clear that his arm wasn’t touching me, it was just on the chair, but if I did, it didn’t matter. She was “worried” about me. Why? I kept asking. Why?

I knew exactly why, of course. And I remember feeling angry, not just at her intrusion into my business, or her racism, but especially that she wouldn’t come right out and say it. I knew why she didn’t think the guy should have his arm around me. And she knew why. But she wouldn’t admit it.

When I left the office and sat back down beside my friend, he asked me, “What was that all about?” I said, “Nothing.”

I never told him. But I think he knew.

I don’t remember that guy’s name. But I’m pretty sure he was the same one who saw me five years out of high school, in a convenience store, and said, first thing, “You got fat.”

Thanks, dude. Thanks a whole hell of a lot. 

Marching Band 1979
I’m the first T-ette there on the right side of the group.

Anyway, that substitute teacher is just the sort of person who, today, would claim to not be racist. She wasn’t racist, she was just concerned about my reputation…because of what other people would think. She wasn’t racist, she just thought that a black boy shouldn’t put his arm around a white girl. 

She would likely say, “Some of my friends are Black! See? I’m not racist.”

What a horrid, small-minded place it was back in 1979.
And I suppose you wouldn’t be surprised that I am no longer friends with most of those people I went to school with. 

And I just wish I’d have said something. I wish I’d have forced her to explain herself. Instead I just remember sitting there, playing dumb, saying, “But, why?”

I shouldn’t have let her get away with it. I think I must have considered it a moral failing and that’s why I’ve never forgotten it. 

Racism is stupid.


And so was Titusville back in the 70s.

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