Visiting the Past with New Eyes
Updated: Feb 20, 2021
It can be hard to look at the past. This last year has caused many to reflect, look deeper and even choose to see through new lenses. I asked my mama, who has taken the opportunity to do just that, to share part of her story. It is brave, it is scary, but I know there are many that can relate and that it will bear good fruit. I have learned from her willingness to keep growing and seeking. Please read with kindness, and with an open heart. So without further ado:
"New Birth, New Vision" by Dawn Overman
It was a simple invitation given by my daughter. An invitation to open a door to my past, to return to an old place with a new perspective. Would I be willing to consider a period of my life in a new light, in light of any possible injustice, pain, missed opportunities or misunderstandings?
Immediately I was transported back to Austin Texas, circa 1973. I was attending a brand new school in Northwest Austin , L C Anderson High School. I grew up in white middle/upper class Austin and at that time, I was aware that this new school was a wealthy, mainly white school. I was aware, nominally, that black students were bussed in every day. I was aware of racial tension and fear and two separate worlds.
And that is just about all I understood…then.
Very early on in my freshman year, I had a run in with girls of a different color in the bathroom. Some black girls had stuffed some clothes of a white girl down the toilet. Someone taunted me with a lit cigarette. I remember feeling very scared , very confused and very mistrusting. I believe that was when I chose to erect a wall because I was afraid and didn’t know what to do with my fear. I kept my distance , divided my campus world into ‘them’ and ‘us’ and continued that way until graduation. I did not realize I was carrying that distrust, fear and perspective with me into my adulthood. I did not pursue friendships of any different culture or color. While I did not feel any blatant racism, I did feel mistrust. I didn’t realize that my distrust was actually a form of racism. Even writing that is difficult.
Over the years, I gradually began to open myself up more to other cultures, trying to broaden my world. I intentionally chose the “projects” where underprivileged black children lived to weekly minister my freshman year in college. It was easy for me to trust the “littles”, but not the “bigs”. And so that pattern continued for me.
Fast forward to four decades later. 2019. My daughter and son in love sat me down in their living room and told me that they were inviting a beautiful young black friend of theirs to live with them as part of their family. It was through this new relationship and shift that God invited me to understand and embrace something new. He was beginning to teach me to expand my thinking.
“God, what are You doing? Where do I need to broaden my thinking? What do You call family? What are You asking me to look at?
So the year 2020 became a year of seeking out those answers. Therefore when my daughter asked me recently to return to the place where all the distrust had begun, it was with hesitancy, but also with humility, and a heart to want to heal, that I returned to that place. Upon the invitation, I decided to consider things from a new angle. Perspective shift. I decided to look at things NOW. I began my research with my school.
Every time I typed in LC Anderson on the internet, a different L.C. Anderson would pop up. It was an “older” L.C. Anderson High School, built on the east side of Austin, which had been a thriving school for almost 80 years. It had changed locations over the years, but had remained the school at the heart of this community, a strong school attended by parents, grandparents and great grandparents alike. Unbeknownst to me until now, this old school was closed in 1971 because of integration, districting, money and a host of other reasons I am sure I will never understand. All of the facts behind the decisions made are probably lost to history. However, I began to understand so much more about what was actually happening those days in the early seventies at my school and in my heart.
Evidently, the Austin ISD had considered the integration issue and decided that the most efficient way to deal with it was to close the current school, change its location and bus black students to the new predominantly white school. One way bussing. ( By the way, no white students were bussed to black schools.) Every day those students left home and were told to learn in a place that was not home.
I had viewed those busses of students as angry, militant, untrustworthy. In reality, they were students just like me, upset that they had to leave their own neighborhood every day to attend school. They were HURT because the school of their parents and grandparents before them, the heart of their community and the place they had intended to graduate from with family pride, had closed. It reopened in a different place, in a different community, on the other side of town, under the same name. It was as if it was hijacked. As I was sitting in an assembly my freshman year, voting on a new mascot and new colors, the black students probably felt they were voting to REPLACE their mascot , their colors, in effect, the foundation of the school they knew. Exit the Black and Gold Yellowjackets. Enter the Blue and Gold Trojans. My guess is those students felt they were being told to erase what they knew.
Of course walls were erected. Wisely, the school board found a bridge builder by the name of Charles Akins. An excellent black educator , Mr. Akins was asked to be our first principal. He had a gentle and strong spirit and believed in compassionate but firm discipline. I remember meeting him and feeling so honored just to meet the man! I just sensed Principal Akins was a man of great importance although I didn’t fully know why at the time. I just knew that he purposely treated us all like mature young adults (which we weren’t) instead of the immature boys and girls we were. His high standards made us want to become better students, but also better people. I know NOW that he was the catalyst that joined two different worlds. He intentionally diversified the faculty, asking black, white and Latino educators to join him in this cause. Every day, he would meet the busses as all the students unloaded, diffusing tension and calming nerves. He patrolled the halls with kindness, alongside the ministers and counselors invited to join him to help keep strife at bay. When fights did arise, and they did, this team was there to calm things back down. He gradually led the band , cheerleaders, football team and other groups on campus to become unified. This is a testament to how well he accomplished his goal as a bridge builder. Amazingly to me, I DON’T REMEMBER ANY OF THIS, except his reassuring presence, calm voice, and his constant words of affirmation over all of us: “Ladies and gentlemen.”
I am thankful today. I am different today. I have been given the gift of more bridgebuilders in my life. I accepted the invitation to be willing to revisit. I allowed an integral part of my history to be seen through a new set of eyes. It does not change what happened, nor would I want it to. I am who I am today because of the things God has allowed into my life. God taught me to intentionally seek out and make diverse friendships.
I allowed my heart and eyes to open and prayed to trust those I had been unable to trust. Through those friendships I’ve experienced understanding, compassion, insight, laughter, joy, and beauty. Although I may have missed out earlier in life, I’m thankful God has given me the opportunity for new friends now. New growth now. New mercies now.
I am a teacher today; that means I am also a student today. And I desire to learn more. To grow more. I believe God wants to birth a new perspective in this 61 year old woman. Not to change completely who I am, but to allow me to see more through His eyes, to change MY eyes. My whole life as a follower of Christ I have asked for the gift of Kingdom Eyes. I believe this opportunity to take off a pair of broken glasses to replace them with new ones is His gift.
**If you would like to walk through this exercise in revisiting places of pain and racial division, please check out www.prayonmlksa.com as a helpful resource