The Unchanging Face of Milby

For more than 70 years, Milby High School has educated working class kids from the East End. In the early 1960s, I was one of them. I recently went back to Milby to see not what had changed, but what, if anything, remained.

When in uniform, Olga tucks her long hair in a bun. In civilian clothes, she wore an ankle-length maroon dress, with brown mules, and at her throat, two medallions, one an enamel Winnie the Pooh and the other of Our Lady of Guadalupe. If anyone is responsible for her success, she says, it is her mom, who left her with her grandmother in El Salvador, emigrated to Houston and saved her money cleaning houses for three years before sending for her. Olga could probably help out by working after school, but her mother won't let her.

Ruth Quinones wears her hair long, too, for she is a Pentecostal, and serious about her religion. An outstanding student in the vocational educational program in medical studies, she says she would have to think hard about going to medical school, but she is considering a career as a physician's assistant. Her dad is from Puerto Rico, and her mother is from Panama. They divorced when she was 12, and, feeling protective of her, they put her in a Christian academy for grades six through nine, years when children are most vulnerable.

She doesn't wear makeup. "I think makeup is a mask," she says. "It says I don't like the way God made me." She plans to keep herself pure for her husband, who she thinks will be a missionary. She knows that her religious seriousness sets her apart from other students. I want to know why, when it seems hard to miss the point that education is a key to success, so many kids are dropping out. "Maybe they don't know or they don't choose to know," says Quinones.

Like other outstanding students, she credits her drive to her parents. Although they are divorced, she is close to her father. She believes that daughters lean on their fathers and sons on their mothers, but divorces can be hard on girls. "I guess that's why we see so many teen pregnancies," she says. "The girls look to their boyfriends for that love they didn't get."

I wonder what I would have made of Ruth Quinones if I had met her in high school. She reminds me of one of my classmates, a high academic achiever with a straight-A average, utterly absorbed in her religious faith, which set her apart from teenagers who wanted to be part of the crowd. It seemed to some of us that she was a little too sure of her Baptist faith as the answer to all the problems in the world, and I and some of my friends made fun of her.

So much is made of ethnic differences these days that I wonder if too much isn't being made of them. I look at these kids, admittedly the leaders, and I see the same qualities that drove my generation: supportive parents, a vision of the future and determination sometimes fueled by anger.

For some of my crowd, success meant leaving Milby, getting as far away as possible from Houston. In our derisive moments we thought of ourselves not as the Milby Buffaloes, but the Milby channel rats, regarded with contempt by the kids from the other side of town whose parents were the lawyers and doctors and engineers and business leaders who ran the city.

There is a certain kind of energy to be derived from that sort of class-driven inferiority complex, an anger that can create a drive to either succeed or rebel. It seemed to us that Milby was always getting the short end of the stick. When the district decided to experiment with offering a class in philosophy, the teacher was assigned not to our school, but to Lamar, the school for River Oaks kids. After our innovative football coach, Gil Bartosh, took us to the state quarterfinals in 1962, he was transferred to one of the new high schools on the other side of town, and Milby sank back to losing.

But it was the suspension and resignation of my speech teacher, Neal Parker, in spring semester of my sophomore year, that hurt the most. That incident has entered the history books. According to David McComb's Houston, A History and Don Carleton's Red Scare: Right-Wing Hysteria, Fifties Fanaticism and Their Legacy in Texas, Parker was a political martyr.

Parker was a Milby graduate who became a national collegiate debate champion in the late '50s at UH. His goal was to create a winning speech program at Milby. He was determined to prove that East End kids could hold their own with the west-side kids from Bellaire and Lamar.

Parker was a Kennedy-style liberal, a Democratic precinct chairman. In a blue-collar neighborhood with plenty of union members, that shouldn't have been all that odd. But Parker was also a wit and occasionally a smart aleck. He was particularly critical of the witch-hunting mood of the country under Joe McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee. (Amazingly, Milby's drama club produced a professionally staged production of Arthur Miller's play The Crucible, a parable about anti-communism, in its little theater.)

Parker's speech and American history classes became the concern of a member of the Minute Women, a band of ultraconservatives who were going to root out improper thinking wherever they found it. The school board suspended him while the charges were investigated, and Parker subsequently resigned in April 1961.

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What a great read,Mike is very talented. I will enjoy sending this on.

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