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.

Out in the boys' gym I talked to Milby's legendary basketball coach, Boyce Honea, class of '59. The new boys' gym is festooned with gold and blue signs denoting 12 district championships in the last 19 years, and seven victories in the annual 32-team J.C. Tournament. Under Honea, Milby has produced nine high-school All-Americans, and in the last 23 years the Buffs have won 559 games while losing only 212. Honea's players have a good chance of winning state this year, and the college recruiters have been coming down to look at his seniors. He has been teaching at Milby since midterm of 1967, and has been head basketball coach for 24 years.

Honea's gray hair is closely cropped; he wears jeans, a red polo shirt and walking shoes. He seems to have a constant smile, and he smiles with his eyes, not just his mouth. He talks in a slow, patient East End drawl.

Honea said he's preparing a talk about coaching for a conference, where his theme would be "sticking with it." Coaches are too quick to jump from school to school, he said, as if coaching were the only thing. A coach should be a teacher first, and if he couldn't teach without coaching, he ought to find another line of work.

For years, Honea has been conducting summer basketball clinics. The result is that by the time some players come to Milby, he has been coaching them for ten years. Education, he seems to be saying, is about patience and persistence. And about not screaming at kids. He used to have a hot temper, but after a spiritual conversion many years ago, he has learned better.

"You can't get the respect of kids by screaming at them, especially in front of their peers." His strategy, he said, is basic, to get them to "visualize things," to project into the future the consequences of their actions now.

So he is concerned about what may happen to Milby three years from now, when the district plans to open the new Cesar Chavez High School two miles down Old Galveston Road. The $40 million school will draw most of its students from the traditional Milby neighborhoods. Milby will shrink and absorb some spillover students from Austin High. Honea is worried, he said, not just about what the new arrangement might do for his basketball program, but for Milby as a whole.

He is forming a committee to encourage the district to rethink its plans and consider having Chavez accommodate grades ten through 12 while turning the old Milby campus into a ninth-grade campus. Such campuses are being used in Clear Creek and Deer Park districts to stem the flood of ninth-grade dropouts. "What we're saying," said Honea, "is don't split our neighborhood, split our school."

Such a change might possibly involve transferring all the Milby traditions to a school named for the nation's most celebrated Hispanic labor leader. Could it possibly involve renaming the Chavez school for Milby, an Anglo businessman few people remember much about? It is a little chilling to think of the ethnic tensions that might come into play. Milby already has two alumni groups, one dominated by the older Anglo alumni, the other a Hispanic group.

When I was in Milby, my former debate partner Jose de la Isla reminded me, there were two proms. One was the main prom, attended by all who wished to attend. The other was a much smaller Hispanic prom, attended by entire families of the graduating seniors. It was a world I knew nothing about. In looking through my senior yearbook, I counted 200 familiar names and faces. Only four of them were Hispanic.

The one I remember most vividly was Aurora Martinez, who, in our sophomore year, before any of us had ever heard the word Chicano, wrote a speech about racial discrimination. The opening challenge to her usually Anglo audiences and contest judges was to imagine they had awakened one morning with a different color of skin -- not that of a Negro, but that of a dark brown Mexican. She then proceeded to explain how life would be different.

Some analogous question was lurking in back of my mind. Suppose I had awakened one morning in a bedroom in River Oaks, and my father had attended an Ivy League school, and was certain to send me to one also? The only certain thing, it seemed, was that anyone as articulate and intelligent and determined as Aurora Martinez was going to make it. The first person we needed to save was ourself.

And so we left. The Anglos, for the most part, scattered to the west or farther down the Gulf Freeway to Clear Lake and Friendswood. But some of my classmates, such as Gail Stevens and Boyce Honea, have stayed and persisted, as have Lee Martinez and Bernard Jackson.

Jackson, who graduated in 1967, is the head of the English department. He resisted coming back to Milby for a long time. "It was too much like Welcome Back, Kotter," he said.

But ten years ago he did come back, and he has never regretted it. In my yearbook survey of the ethnic makeup of my classes, I would not have realized that Jackson is Hispanic. His father was Anglo, but his mother was a Mexican immigrant. He grew up in the Harrisburg area and remembers getting swats for speaking Spanish in his elementary school playground. And here he is teaching English literature to seniors.

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

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