Photo by Austin Pacheco on Unsplash

In the summer of 1967, I found out I was going to be bussed to a prominently Black junior high school in Richmond, California. I was a 12-year-old, White, middle-class kid who really didn’t understand what that meant, except that I would be separated from most of my grade school friends. Kenny Coates was my only buddy who was going to be bussed with me.  

I don’t recall being nervous or scared. I’d moved around a lot already and I figured I’d just adapt and adjust as I had when I changed schools in the past. 

Adams Junior High was less than three miles from my house, just a short bus ride or easy walk for a kid. The school seemed huge to me with three stories and classrooms everywhere. Junior high meant different classes and teachers for each subject: English, math, history, science, music, and physical education. 

I was overwhelmed. After a quick orientation, I was given my class schedule. I found my locker and checked the combination. It opened! I was excited about having my own locker to store my belongings. I wouldn’t have to carry all the heavy books from class to class. 

I’ve never been a social butterfly, but making friends was especially difficult at Adams. I did join two afterschool activities: The stamp collecting club and the chess club. It seemed most of the kids all knew each other from their previous schools. I recall Adams being about 75% Black, while my grade school had been about 90% White. 

Kenny and I ate our lunches from home everyday, sitting together on a bench. There was a small snack shack open daily during lunch hours. As a caddy at a local country club on the weekends, I earned about $4 plus tips for 18 holes so I could spend my own money on snacks. Most often I purchased my favorites, Hostess Ho-Ho’s and Ding Dongs, which were fifteen cents each.

After every physical education class, we all had to take showers together. I had never taken a shower in a group setting before. It was very intimidating to be naked in front of my peers. My sexual development into puberty lagged behind the other guys. This made me extremely uncomfortable and self-conscious, especially standing out amongst the Black bodies. 

I remember three events clearly from my two years at Adams. 

The first was when I returned from a two-week Christmas break and rode my new purple Sting-Ray bicycle to school. Some random kid asked if he could ride it. Since I didn’t know him, I said no. He immediately pushed me down, knocking my new bike over and breaking the headlight. I didn’t cry, but I was shocked. I was a naive and innocent kid. I had never been in a fistfight, and had only seen little skirmishes where no one was hurt. Pushing and hitting classmates was bewildering to me and frankly, it frightened me. Why would kids do that to each other? I didn’t understand it. I just wanted to be friends with everybody. 

The second was Thursday, April 4, 1968, when the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. It was announced over the loudspeaker in every class and we were sent directly home. I’d heard Dr. King’s name before but I didn’t really know who he was or what he did. The Black kids started getting rowdy. Things were thrown and desks overturned. I forget which class I was in, but Kenny and I decided we needed to get out of there fast. We climbed through an open window, jumped onto the grass, and rushed home. 

The last thing I remember is developing a crush on two girls at Adams: Sara and Debbie. The summer between 7th and 8th grade, Sara moved to Seattle. I went to Europe with my parents. While I was there, Debbie and I wrote a dozen or so letters to each other. I wish I had saved some of those puppy-love notes. After my return, we were both embarrassed by what we had written to each other. We flirted, but 13-year-olds didn’t date back then. In 8th grade, we only had English class together and we slowly went our own ways. I think about her sometimes and I wonder if she thinks about me. 

After those two years, I was transferred back to a more integrated school with all of my childhood friends, including Kenny. The familiar faces were a welcome sight. I wasn’t traumatized at Adams Junior High, or adversely affected in any way. I just remember feeling left out and lonely. I chalk it up as a learning experience. 

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

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Lawrence May

Lawrence May is a PJP contributing writer incarcerated in California. He has traveled to nearly 40 countries outside the U.S. and has written more than 50 stories, as well as his autobiography.