Under the front stairs of Charles H. Milby High School is a place that, almost 35 years after I graduated, still casts a spell on me. For no obvious structural reason, the bottom portion of a newel post from the second floor protrudes a foot down into the space above the intersection of two first-floor hallways. A tall youth could probably touch it if he jumped. For the first three years of the 1960s, I passed under this pivot point at least a dozen times a day.
Upstairs was my homeroom, with students whose last names ended in As and Bs and Cs. The hall below led to the back of the school with its playing fields and tennis courts. Out back was an 88-seat theater that the drama teacher and students had converted from what administrators called a temporary building, but which everybody else called a shack. The yearbook and the school newspaper were produced in another shack nearby. Behind a door down the hall from the newel post, a narrow stairway descended to an eye-burning swimming pool with a locker room that must have been deteriorating since World War II. Just under the newel post, the floor ramped down slightly onto one of Milby's first additions, probably built after the war, where speech classes were held. I learned to write there, spending hours after school in my sophomore year perfecting my opening debate speech.
I and my classmates were East End kids, products of the postwar baby boom, though no one pointed this out at the time. We lived in the rapidly filling blue-collar and middle-class neighborhoods around Park Place and Broadway and the Glenbrook golf course, and in the new subdivisions that grew up off Reveille Road near Houston's first shopping mall, Gulfgate. We also came from the older neighborhoods of Harrisburg and Magnolia Park and Manchester. Just north of
Milby on Broadway were the docks of the Houston Ship Channel, and when the wind blew from the east, it carried the smell of the refineries and chemical plants where many of our fathers worked, often for one company their entire lives, watching dials, turning valves, fixing things, making things. Our mothers, for the most part, didn't work, and with the exceptions of weekends and summers, neither did we.
When I graduated in 1963, I had known some of my classmates since I was five years old, had sung hymns in Methodist Sunday school with them, gone camping in Boy Scouts with them, played a thousand after-school pickup games with them; I had danced with and courted and resented and envied and loved them. Living in the East End was like living in a small Texas town. Some of our parents had gone to Milby too, even had the same teachers as we did, and several of our teachers were Milby alumni. We were like a family -- not always happy, of course, for inevitably we had our share of rivalries and hatreds. But we were intimates, bound together by place and time.
Milby was not racially integrated then. That wouldn't happen until the '70s. Blacks from our side of town went to Yates or Wheatley. With few exceptions, Hispanics seemed to stick to themselves. Or did we stick to ourselves? It had to have been daunting to be Hispanic and encounter the confident, blond- and brown-haired, blue-eyed tribe that dominated the school. Now that ethnicity has been reversed. The East End is Hispanic, and so is Milby.
During the last 35 years, Milby's physical plant has grown enormously. The student body has doubled. With 3,600 students, it is the largest high school in the Houston Independent School District and one of the two or three largest high schools in the state. Its sheer size inhibits the intimacy I experienced.
Many of the students are too busy working after school to participate in the extracurricular activities that were so essential to my education. The Future Farmers are no more. The band is tiny. The Coed Cadettes, a girls' marching team that was a mainstay of Milby almost from the year it opened, has dwindled to a handful of students. The Girls' Booster Club was disbanded in 1994 for lack of interest and has only recently been reconstituted as a coed pep squad.
But the basketball team that began winning after World War II keeps on winning -- for the last 25 years with African-American athletes. The debate team went to the state finals last year. And Milby still has dedicated teachers and administrators, some of them alumni, some who have been working there for ten, 20 or 30 years.
I went back to Milby for a couple of weeks recently, not just to see what had changed. That would be obvious. What I wanted to see was what had continued. An expression of William Faulkner's kept buzzing in the back of my mind: "The past is never dead. It's not even past." What is it that still shimmers when I walk beneath that newel post dropped so improbably from above? Perhaps it would reveal itself.
Milby High School still smells the same, of plaster dust and chalk and perhaps that stuff the janitors sprinkle on the floor and then sweep up with their push brooms. It has sustained seven additions in its 70-plus years, with every addition creating new eccentricities. The nasty swimming pool locker room has been upgraded. The old auditorium has been turned into an impressive, high-vaulted library with 30,000 titles and a raft of software. The second-floor gym has been divided into a reading room and computer lab, but in the narrow hallway you can still see the old maple basketball floor, and high on the brick walls hang steam radiators.
That second-floor gym was there in March 1926, when 13 teachers and 212 students walked from the old Harrisburg High School a few blocks south to a new building at 1601 Broadway and the corner of Old Galveston Road. Built for $180,000, Charles H. Milby High School featured a Romanesque facade, with three arched portals for an entryway topped by an ornamental balustrade. The new high school had been named for a prominent Harrisburg businessman who had died the year before. Milby had been an important advocate for the creation of the Houston Ship Channel. His imposing, galleried brick house on Broadway overlooked the docks only a few blocks north of the new school. Too expensive to restore and maintain, the Milby house, where four generations had lived, was torn down in 1959. Today the lot is overgrown with weeds and Chinese tallow trees.
So far, that has not been the high school's fate. If anything, the school district has invested in Milby, adding more classrooms and shops, building a new gym and auditorium, buying up property behind the school and moving the football field and track to accommodate the new classrooms. The expansion was needed to accommodate the growing Hispanic population in the East End.
When I was at Milby, Hispanics accounted for around 10 percent of the school population. Now the school is 85 percent Hispanic, 7 percent African-American, 4 percent Anglo and 3 percent Asian. Hispanics are already the dominant ethnic group in HISD, and within the next few years the district will have a majority of Hispanic students. How district administrators and board members -- who are primarily Anglos and African-Americans -- deal with Milby will to some extent indicate the future of the district.
The district's worst blunder concerning Milby came in 1988, when then-superintendent Joan Raymond appointed the first outsider as principal of the school, which has had only five principals. Milby's founding principal, W.I. Stevenson, didn't retire until 1960. He was succeeded by an amiable, low-key speech teacher named Roscoe Bayless, who had served Stevenson for many years as an assistant principal. When Bayless retired in 1971, he was succeeded by Claude Brinkley, a well-liked coach at Milby who had been Bayless's assistant principal. These men had run the school pretty much like benign parents, letting the teachers go where their inclinations led them.
Raymond, whose high-handed ways led to her departure as superintendent after only three years, forced Brinkley into early retirement and gave his job to Michael McClellan, an administrator who had followed Raymond to Houston from Yonkers, New York. McClellan spoke Spanish and was married to a Hispanic, but he had no roots in the community. He abolished the vocational classes in refrigeration, electrical trades and home economics, deeming them condescending to his Hispanic clientele. From then on, McClellan declared, Milby would be a "colegio preparatoria." McClellan believed in improving student self-esteem through slogans and blocked the dignified arches of the front entryway with a huge sign proclaiming "Through these doors walk the best students in HISD."
To make sure that the teachers knew who was boss, he moved them around from classrooms they had used for years. He demoted department heads and recruited his own, expecting them to report to him what teachers were saying. Some department heads resigned their appointments in disgust, and for the first time in years, Milby began having teacher turnover problems. Raymond's successor, Frank Petruzielo, pushed McClellan out in 1992 and replaced him with Richard Vasquez, a former assistant principal at Milby. Once again, Milby was being run by one of its own.
Vasquez is an easygoing former coach who grew up in the East End and starred as a basketball player at Milby's archrival, Austin High. After playing ball at San Jacinto Junior College and the University of Florida, he coached at Bellaire for ten years, not very successfully, he points out. Tired of the long hours and the obsessiveness required for coaching, Vasquez turned to administration. His philosophy as a principal, he says, is to find teachers who care about kids and provide them the support to teach. Just managing 3,600 students, let alone educating them, is a daunting task, but the hallways are clean and quiet and the hordes of students seem to make their transitions from class to class smoothly and effectively.
One day I sat with assistant principal Milton Morgan at the back of the cafeteria, watching him handle lunchroom duty. A former football coach, Morgan has spent the last ten years at Milby. He has a booming voice and a no-nonsense manner and he seemed in constant motion, talking, waving, warning one boy to tuck in his shirttail, telling a girl to clean off the table as she left, asking the kids standing around a table and getting loud to break it up and move on.
We were sitting at the lunch duty desk when a tearful girl walked up with her mother and Richard Martinez, a military retiree who spends nearly every day at the school enforcing discipline as a parent volunteer. Martinez had singled the girl out because her skirt was too short, and she protested the "unfairness" of the way the school's dress code is enforced. Some things never change. When I was in school, the dean of girls kept a sweater in her office to cover low-cut blouses. And sandals were forbidden, toes being sexy. (In retrospect, it seems that adults didn't want us to miss out on anything.)
The girl's mother defended her daughter to Morgan, saying she had never been in trouble before and that she was a good girl. She then turned to Martinez, and demanded he speak Spanish to her. There followed an intense exchange in Spanish between the two of them while the daughter sniffled and Morgan watched. At the end, Martinez apologized.
The student had a point. As I scanned the crowded lunchroom, it was easy to pick out other skirts that were shorter than two inches above the knee. Because class pictures were being taken, all the cheerleaders were wearing their uniforms that day, and their skirts broke at mid-thigh. There were girls displaying cleavage, girls with blue jeans that seemed painted on, and girls wearing form-clinging blouses that left little to the imagination. By comparison, the girl in trouble seemed positively demure.
So one thing had stayed the same. Schools are still driven by process as much as results. Every boy must tuck in his shirttail. When I was at Milby, it was a matter of neatness, of showing respect, of acting grown-up. Now, shirttails worn outside have become a symbol of gangs, and a potential hiding place for weapons. None of the students or teachers I talked to said they had ever seen a weapon at school, and they say they feel safe there, though a boy was shot in the cafeteria in 1991.
Such incidents give Milby a reputation for toughness, probably much of it undeserved. Students tend to regard the concern over their clothes with weary disdain, as a form of harassment from adults they must put up with. Vasquez believes it is only a matter of time before Milby solves the constant hassle by requiring school uniforms.
Two or 3 percent of the students cause most of Milby's problems, Morgan said, echoing a theme I would hear from other administrators and teachers. And the kids who are most at risk are in the freshman class. There were no freshmen at Milby when I went to school. Ninth graders were assigned to junior high schools, which created problems when tough, bitter teenagers, aged 14, 15 and even 16, mingled with small, vulnerable 12-year-olds.
Now the ninth graders have been moved to the senior high schools, where they present Milby's biggest learning and discipline problems. Many of these students come to high school two grade levels behind in reading and math. They are the ones, for the most part, who are wearing baggy jeans and letting their shirttails out, and some, if they are not in gangs, are aping the behavior of gangs. Their graffiti had to be blasted off the back of the school building before classes started this fall. These are the kids who are about to drop out.
One of the worst misrepresentations in Texas school statistics is the way dropout rates are reported. They are calculated by comparing the number of dropouts against the entire school population, resulting in rates of anywhere from 3 to 6 percent, numbers that seem so low as to be innocuous.
The completion rate is much easier to understand, and can readily be discerned in a school, a school district or the state by simply comparing the number of freshmen to the number of seniors. Invariably, freshmen significantly outnumber seniors. Sure, it's not scientific; some children drop out but complete GEDs, others will move elsewhere and finish their high-school work.
But these are the numbers that Milby teachers live with. For the past several years, the school has had 1,300 to 1,400 freshmen, but it graduates only about 500 to 600 seniors, not many more than when I was in school with about 1,900 students. One teacher who kept the students in his homeroom class over four years says he started with 38 freshmen and finished with only 12 seniors.
Using my high-school yearbook photos, I counted 710 sophomores in 1961; three years later, 528 seniors had their photos taken. Judging who was Hispanic by their last names, I found 101 Hispanic students in my sophomore class, but by senior year, 35 of them were gone. Of the 609 Anglos, 66 disappeared. So about 90 percent of the Anglos completed school at Milby back then, compared to 65 percent of the Hispanics.
If anyone was alarmed about this disparity at the time, I don't recall hearing about it. But then many of us were goal-driven students, with absolutely no thoughts of dropping out of high school. And many of us were going to be the first children in our families to complete college.
By the time we got to high school, the rougher kids seem to have dropped away. In the files on Milby at the Texas Room of the Houston Public Library, I found a 1962 newspaper story about four Milby boys who bought beer at a Telephone Road convenience store and instead of going to the football game, got drunk, threw eggs at a woman and broke her glasses, then peeled rubber in front of a cop car on the La Porte freeway, and were chased at speeds of 75 mph before crashing into a tree in the front yard of a nearby neighborhood. Their names were not printed in the story and I haven't the foggiest idea of who they were. They probably missed a good football game, because we won district that year.
It was a more innocent age. Now when you go to an HISD football game, two guards scan you with a metal detector before you can enter the stadium. After a Milby game against Pasadena a few weeks ago, one of the Milby cheerleaders, Jorge Cisneros, got into a scuffle with some classmates who had heard a rumor he was talking trash about one of them. Cisneros is a trim, athletic kid who walks with a little bit of a swagger. I took an instant liking to him when I saw him at the pep rally earlier that day, with his face painted blue and gold. Where did that come from? I wanted to know.
"Do you know wrestling?" he asked. He had based his facial paint on that of a contemporary wrestler named Sting. I looked blank. Wrestling is very popular in Mexico, and Jorge, who is originally from Monterrey, must have felt he had asked one of those cultural questions that couldn't be understood by an outsider.
Later I realized that I did know wrestling. Hadn't Mike Conti, the old city auditorium announcer, lived right across the street from me? And it wasn't unusual to see the late Paul Boesch, the king of Houston wrestling in the '50s and '60s, walking his German shepherds near his house off Broadway. I knew wrestling, all right, but it was a different generation. I wondered if Jorge knew that one of the most famous of early television wrestlers was a 1938 Milby graduate, T.G. Waggoner, better known in the '50s as "Gorgeous George."
Jorge is a wrestler too. He says when the kid started picking on him after the game, he took him down with a wrestling move, only to get pummeled by the guy's three sidekicks. Jorge took a couple of stitches in his head and had a scab from a ring that caught the corner of his mouth, but says it was all a misunderstanding, and it was all straightened out.
Jorge Cisneros has better things to do than worry about smalltime arguments. He's bent on getting accepted to Annapolis. He spent his first three years at Milby in Junior ROTC, only to lose the top post of battalion commander to a girl. He knew tumbling, so he went to cheerleading camp and decided to give it a go for his senior year. He wants to be a yell leader at Annapolis. He's also in other clubs: National Honor Society, yearbook, English Honor Society. Jorge knows how to build a resume and how to set goals.
Cisneros's female counterpart is Nina Soliz, the student body president, and, as school mascot, one of the 27 varsity cheerleaders. While other clubs have diminished at Milby, cheerleading has not. It has become a sport of its own, with competitions sponsored by two national cheerleading companies. When I was at Milby, cheerleaders were screened by a teacher committee but elected by the student body, and they were popularity contests. We never picked any real duds as cheerleaders by this method (in fact our squads regularly won competitions), but we probably excluded some pretty good kids from getting up in front of us and showing off. Cheerleaders are still screened, but only by the teacher/sponsor, Christian Sanders, one of the few male cheerleading coaches in the area.
Nina Soliz is the youngest of four children and hopes to go to the University of Houston and study mechanical engineering. Her mom, who is part Apache Indian, had little education and grew up working in the cotton fields in Arizona, and she is always pushing Nina. Her attitude, says Nina, is "always think you're the best, and don't let the negative talk bring you down." Soliz is a bit on the chunky side, she admits, and felt discriminated against when she didn't make cheerleading the first time she tried out. "But," she says, "when I want something I'll work for it till I get it."
When she saw that the girl wearing the Milby Buffalo costume didn't seem to be doing much at the games, she decided to try out for the position. She says she paid an Astros mascot $200 for two hours to teach her the tricks of the trade. Now she has won competitions for her work and is eligible for a scholarship at UH as a mascot. When I talked to her in the cheerleading room, she was painting a nicely done poster with a freehand sketch of her opponent's mascot, a mustang. "Nobody could draw," she said, referring to the other cheerleaders, who seem to be mostly a slender bunch, very attentive to their makeup, "so I got mad and taught myself."
I interviewed other student leaders at Milby. Olga Serpas is the girl who beat out Jorge Cisneros for the job of battalion commander of JROTC. She says that when she came to Milby from Deady Junior High, she was "just a little hoodlum," but when she saw an upperclassman in his uniform with a chest full of decorations, she decided to become like him. "Only I would have more," she says.
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.
Such a resignation probably wouldn't attract any attention from the news media today, but then it made all the three daily papers. Many of us felt that Parker was the victim of the very witch-hunt he had ridiculed. The students in the speech classes were upset. It seemed to us as though the teacher we needed most, the one who made school both the most fun and the most intellectually engaging experience, had been taken from us in spite. He died of lung cancer a dozen years or so ago, nursed in his final illness by a Milby graduate.
The current speech teacher, Robert Myers, is not likely to have the same problem. Last year Myers was named Milby's best teacher. He is a spirited young black man with a background in radio broadcasting, and he has some of the jaunty irreverence that kids should relate to if they can keep up with him. His speech class records the morning announcements, along with music, quotations and a thought for the day. Some of the teachers call it a bit too much like Good Morning, Vietnam. I visited his class and saw him draw out kids by building on his knowledge of radio and advertising. At 35, he can still whip them one-on-one on the basketball court, and goad them into speaking up in class. He is a blur of energy, dividing the class into groups, one to write a slogan for Milby radio, another to design a logo, a third to practice the morning announcements, another to work the recording equipment.
As he reads the morning announcements, he flips from the humorous to the earnest without dropping a beat. It's the anniversary of the death of Jimi Hendrix, and so he requests "a couple of seconds for Jimi ... okay, that's enough." His thought for the day (Myers is also the weekend pastor of a small church) is "Love works in ways that are wondrous and strange, and there is nothing in the world love cannot change." And he means it.
Myers hands an announcement for a student to read aloud, but the boy doesn't want to do it. "Be a man," Myers says, "suck it up." The boy looks spooked, embarrassed. "That's why you've got my class!" Myers talks to them about inflection, tells them that to read on the air, they've got to make it sound alive. "I want personality. Remember," he says, "you're not disc jockeys. You're called air personalities." The boy reads.
They listen to the morning broadcast of the announcements they had recorded earlier. "Hector!" says Myers, turning to another student, "that's Hector. You sound good, man. Give me a little love, guy," he says bumping fists with Hector. "Give me a little love."
He improvises a speech about an auto-truck accident on the Ship Channel bridge that almost killed him two days before. He was shaken up badly. "Then they tape me," he concludes, "physically taped this brother to a wooden board. I was crying. I'm a brother, but I was crying."
Then he gives them a quiz on the key points he has made in the speech, because he reminds them the most important thing in debate is listening. It's "PBT." P is for Pay attention. B is for Block out distractions. T is for Think about what was said. They may need this sometime when a cop stops them for driving under the influence of melanin. "I'm not going to be easier on you than the world," he says. "When you get stopped, I want you to be able to debate with that cop in a calm and rational manner."
It is easy to see what Myers was doing; he was teaching out of the pure force of his personality and his love of the children. Milby has always had a stock of such teachers -- teachers who pushed students to get out front, to practice, practice, practice, and to perform.
It took me almost no effort to find such teachers. There was Gail Williams Stevens, a social science and economics teacher who has taught at Milby for 20 years, and for eight years before that at the feeder junior high, Deady.
Gail graduated from Milby with me. We talked a while in her classroom, very likely the one where I went to homeroom. She opened her gradebook and showed me the entries she has made concerning her seniors. It seemed that at least two-thirds of them were working 25 to 30 hours a week. They had no time for extracurricular activities. But when prom night arrives, they may come to her for instruction on the proper use of silverware and other matters of etiquette. She won't be an economics teacher then. She'll be their mom.
There is Lee Martinez, the young baseball coach, who says he's seen a drop in school spirit and extracurricular participation since he graduated from Milby in 1989.
"What kills me is the low participation here," Martinez says. "It kills me. I want it back."
Back to 1989.
Martinez blames the low turnout in part on "no pass, no play," a rule he says he wouldn't necessarily change. But there are kids who won't even go out for clubs and other activities because they expect they'll be failing something. And because the school is more security-conscious than ever, the clubs must meet in the cafeteria instead of classrooms. No student is supposed to be in the halls after 3:45 without a teacher. The burden of rules seems far heavier today than in my time.
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.
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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.
There are those who argue that Hispanic kids need an education that reflects more of their Hispanic culture. Milby probably needs more teachers who are fluent in Spanish. And I don't know if it's going to be any easier teaching One Hundred Years of Solitude than Macbeth. But I do know that a student can get an education at Milby if he or she wants it.
Something is still alive and vibrant in this rambling old campus, whose growth is marked and measured in its architecture. Milby has changed, it is going to change more, and I want it to change. There is something shimmering and shining there, but it's not under the newel post. It's in the eyes of those teachers who have persisted through all the changes, devoted to students for decades.
The opening of the school song goes "Milby, Fair Milby, your sun shall ever rise ..." Some of the students might not get it yet, but they will. Some things, like the way a teacher insists on the best from a student, last forever. That's the past that is never past.