Segregation on Cave Man Row
I sat on one side of the room by the windows, next to the pencil sharpener. The students in Cave Man Row sat on the other side of the room. There were at least eight of them, the lowest-performing students in my seventh grade class. Most of them were children of migrant parents who moved from place to place in search of work on farms across the Southwest. They did not have decent clothes to wear, and their hygiene was poor. Some days they came to school smelling of dirt, sweat and clothes that needed to be washed. Their hands were crusted with dirt. They often went to the nurse to get their hair checked for lice, and sometimes came back smelling of what seemed to me to be kerosene. Their heads were, at times, shaved to spare the scalp from the tenacious parasites that lived on their victim’s blood. These were the children who sat in Cave Man Row.
When it was time to line up, nobody wanted to line up next to the students of Cave Man Row. When it was lunchtime, nobody wanted to eat next to them. Nobody wanted to play with them on the playground. At school dances they were shunned like the plague. It was “Cave Man Row this,” and “Cave Man Row that,” and nobody ever scolded anybody for using the name. It was silently accepted by everyone, including the teacher, who made no attempt to correct the demeaning description, nor to reach out to the students with strategies that today would be in line with the philosophy of No Child Left Behind and of ESL education. This was the ‘60s. It was sink or swim. Become mainstream or flunk. It was the era of giving demerits for speaking Spanish, our native language. It was the time of denying the existence and merit of anyone who did not present a decent appearance, and did not perform at the standards set by district policy. It was a time when it was a shame to be poor, and brown, and humble, and speak a foreign language.
I was 11 years old. I sat by the pencil sharpener, but I looked many times at the children across the room. When they came up to sharpen their pencils, I left my worksheet with fill-in sentences asking for the correct predicate, verb and conjunction for them to see. It must have been like hieroglyphics for the children of Cave Man Row. I let them look at my answers, in the hope that at least they would get one or two answers right on their papers. I had no idea that I would grow up to advocate for them for the rest of my life.
On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education against segregation in schools, as the practice violated the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. I think back at the children of Cave Man Row, and wonder why true desegregation is taking so long. It has not been accomplished to this day, although many strides have been taken in that direction. We are still faced with students who cannot learn, who are dirty and poor, and who are plagued with parents who are drug addicts and incarcerated, and many others who are currently segregated because they are not fluent in English.
The pain of the children of Cave Man Row is this: They were considered less than human. They will be remembered as stupid and dirty and poor, no matter what they have become. But in my mind, they were the children who smiled at me, secretly, and sharpened their pencils, and sneaked looks at my answers. They thanked me with their eyes – and that was the best thanks of all.