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Mandatory Busing in Seattle: Memories of a Bumpy Ride
HistoryLink.org Essay 3915
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Jovelyn Agbalog (b. 1969) and Linnea Tate Rodriguez (b. 1969) were in grade school when the Seattle School Board implemented mandatory, cross-town busing in the interests of racial integration in 1978. The two met each other on the first day of school the next year, while waiting for the bus that would take them from their Mount Baker neighborhood, in Seattle's South End, to Broadview Elementary School, at the northern edge of the city. Jovelyn, a Filipina, was entering the fifth grade and had already been through one year of busing. Linnea, a Caucasian, was a fourth-grade rookie, freshly moved to Seattle from Lewiston, Idaho. They recall their experiences on the bus and in the classroom in this interview with HistoryLink staff historian (and Linnea's mother) Cassandra Tate.
(Jovelyn): "I was in the third grade when they introduced busing to us [in 1977]. They let all the kids know we'd be going to a new school next year and it would be kind of far away. The year before it started, they did a sort of exchange. All the kids from Broadview came down to John Muir [Elementary School, in the Mount Baker neighborhood] and vice versa. We gave them a tour of the school, and then we did some projects with the other students in the library. I remember making God's eyes. My third grade teacher was explaining why we were going to be bused. I don't remember how he explained it, but we just knew that there had to be some integration between the kids of color in the South End of Seattle and the white kids up north.
"He also explained why our new school was named Broadview -- because it had a 'broad view' of the Olympic Mountain range. The next day we had a field trip up there and I thought this is kind of a long way away, but it was fun on the bus. It was just really loud. We toured the school, toured the playground area, did a couple of projects, met some of the teachers. We were each paired with another student who showed us around. I met my teacher -- Mrs. Chow. I remember she wore Gloria Vanderbilt jeans and I thought that was rather cool. They were dark blue, and they had a little swan on the pocket.
"I don't know if my mom had any apprehensions about me going that far, but I was a little nervous. I remember thinking, "Will I remember where my bus stop is? Will I remember how to find my bus?" I was worried about whether or not I would get stuck up there and not be able to find my bus home, because it was an awfully long way home.
Kids of All Colors
"But it was fine. I made friends with a lot of different people, both from my neighborhood and from the Broadview neighborhood. Although I don't think I really learned all that much in the classroom. We were so young, it didn't really occur to us that we had any differences, other than that we were from different parts of the city. I don't recall looking at any of the white students and thinking anything different than what I thought of the black students.
"I really enjoyed that first year, even though it was so far away. I liked the adventure of being independent and getting on the bus by myself and going to school. I just remember all different kinds of kids, all colors of kids that first year.
When I first saw Linnea, the next year, I saw her standing at the bus stop and I thought: 'What is she doing here? Is she going to the right school?' She was white and all the rest of us were of color. I thought either she was in the wrong neighborhood or on the wrong bus."
(Linnea): "I was the little white kid with the lunch box."
(Jovelyn): "And the overcoat."
(Linnea): "My mom had me in a brown overcoat. I was looking like Max the Detective. Jovey took me aside. She didn't say anything about the overcoat -- she left that for later -- and she said 'We don't carry lunch boxes. We carry brown paper bags.' I went home that day in tears -- not because I was the only white kid or because of the busing but because I had the lunch box and that meant I was a baby.
"There were three non-black kids and maybe 30 black kids on the bus. But when we got into class [Jovelyn and Linnea were in an alternative 'options' class], there weren't that many black kids in there.
"I don't remember so much about the bus ride except that it was really long and I had to wake up before the sun was up to get on the bus when there was this perfectly good school sitting right there two blocks down the street. I didn't know why we couldn't just walk down to John Muir.
"One thing I do remember is being sick one day and being in the nurse's office. They had to call my mom to come and get me and I had to wait there a good two hours before she could get there, in her Kharmann Ghia, which was another embarrassment [laughing].
"And then there were a couple of times coming home when I really had to go to the bathroom. I didn't like using bathroom at school. There weren't any doors on the stalls and everybody knew what you were doing if you went in there. So then you had to get on the bus and if you got stuck in traffic -- luckily this was in the days before there was a LOT of traffic but it could still get pretty bad. And that was a LONG bus ride. It was about as far away as you could get from home and still be in Seattle."
A Headful of Spitballs
(Jovelyn): "And God Forbid you fall asleep on the bus, because if you fell asleep on the bus, you were going to have a whole headful of spitballs in your hair, or your hair would get cut. I woke up with catsup on my lips once. People would go through your stuff just to harass you."
(Linnea): "I got beaten up a couple of times. We were waiting at the bus stop. So it must have been going to school. Somebody ran off to go get a grownup. I was able to run away. I remember having my head slammed into the wall."
(Jovelyn): "I often think that I don't look at people with the prejudices that I think I would had I not been bused. I had so many different colors, shapes, sizes of friends. You just knew that if you were going to do things after school with certain friends, it would take a little more organization. But I never felt I was some poor underprivileged kid who was getting bused up to a richer neighborhood. At that age there's a lot of jockeying to figure out who you are. Mount Baker is pretty diverse itself. When I was at John Muir, I had white friends, black friends, Chinese friends. But going up to the North End schools, it just felt like a whole new scene. I remember once seeing a girl with a ski lift ticket on her coat and wondering what the heck that was.
"It was a fantastic experience but more so in my high school years than initially, when I didn't know what the heck we were doing. I appreciated it a lot more when I got into high school. [She attended Ingraham High School.] At that point in time, we had a lot of Cambodian students, Laotians, Vietnamese. At first we used to call them the boaters. I feel so bad about that now. But I remember learning a lot through my friends, learning about these different cultures."
(Linnea): "I had lots of different kinds of friends, but I think that was more just a function of living in the neighborhood where I did. If I had lived in the North End and been bused down to the South End, that might have been different, but I was the white kid living in the black neighborhood being bused up to the white school! It didn't make a lot of sense to me. I never had a real understanding of what was the point of being on the bus."
(Jovelyn): "I always remember you knowing more about the whole thing than I did. You were always more educated about all the political aspects. I thought it was odd that you transferred to South Shore [Middle School]. I thought, how'd you go do that? I thought you couldn't buck the system."
(Linnea): "I didn't do it. My mom did it. [In the early 1980s, South Shore Middle School was considered an innovative 'open concept' school.] The white families could figure out how to get their kids out of the system."
Burden on the South End
(Jovelyn): "Mostly it was South End students who were bused north. A lot of the North End students decided they didn't want to come down to the South End. Their parents were more educated on the average and they could figure out the system more than some of the minorities. My mom had no idea. She just said 'You're on this thing and that's the way it goes.'
"I think the major problem in the busing program was the two hours that it took going there and coming home. You couldn't be involved in after school sports or you'd be coming home at this really late hour. Your involvement in after school activities was compromised. You couldn't be a crossing guard. There were some activities you couldn't be a part of.
"What was good about it? I felt I had friends from all over the place, from lots of different backgrounds, particularly in high school. But I don't feel like the education became any more ethnocentric. I don't feel like they changed the curriculum much. If you're going to have busing happen then you should also have classes that reflect the cultures that are being mixed into your school, and I don't think they really did that."
(Linnea): "It didn't seem to me that the curriculum was the focus. It was just the mixing, and there weren't any changes after that. We had this bus ride. We ended up at the school. The teachers taught the same curriculum they had been teaching before.
"I don't think busing was a good idea. When you look at the pros and the cons, I would have much rather had parental involvement in the classroom on a day to day basis. It was hard to arrange play dates -- I couldn't just go to someone's house after school. There was more arranging that had to happen. I remember saying to my mom, 'I want to go to so and so's house,' and she'd say, 'Well, where do they live?' If they were a neighborhood kid, no problem, but if they lived in my school neighborhood, then it was harder to be friends with them. And that just sort of takes away the whole purpose. If the purpose is to have people form friendships with people of different backgrounds, you can't really do that unless you're living in the same neighborhood."
(Jovelyn): "For all that went into organizing this huge transportation system for all of these kids -- well, I think I would have benefited more by staying in a neighborhood school. And maybe that's because the Mount Baker neighborhood was pretty well integrated already."
(Linnea): "We were coming from an integrated background. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense from our point of view to bus us in order to promote integration."
(Jovelyn): "Being parents today, I would not put my kid on a bus and have him go that far away. I want to know I can be involved in his school and be there within a reasonable amount of time if he's sick. I want to know that I can get to him within a half hour. I want to know that the families that are involved in my child's life live around me and that there's a system of accountability with other people's kids and my kids."
(Linnea): "And the bus ride: we would be wired when we got to school -- really hyper -- and then wiped out by the time we got home."
(Jovelyn): "I remember one time the driver had to pull over because there was so much yelling and screaming, people swinging on the bars, going nuts. And God forbid you miss the bus. You'd have to know how to get home on Metro. Or call home and have someone come and get you."
(Linnea): "I took a cab home once, when I was sick. They gave you that option. I remember thinking that was kind of cool -- 'Hey, I'm gonna be sick tomorrow too.'"
A Question of Resources
(Jovelyn): "When you start busing, you're spreading your resources too thin. You have too many more things to worry about in addition to the curriculum. The main focus of the school should be are these children getting the education they need to be getting with the funds we have available? I did take away a great experience from busing but I don't think it was the right thing to do."
(Linnea): "The school district needs to be concerned with making sure that each of its schools is of the same caliber throughout the district. So when you're living in a South End neighborhood and sending your kids to South End schools, it's the same as going to a North End school. They don't need to worry about forcing anybody to be friends with anybody else. That will happen on its own. What they need to worry about having the school itself have well-paid teachers, having a safe building, having enough books, and promoting mutual respect for all students.
"You can't fix the city's problems if you're the school district. All you can do is make each school as attractive to people as possible.
"The reason I do not think busing was a complete waste of time was because my very best friend in the whole world is sitting right here. We probably would have gotten to know each other in any case because we were in the same neighborhood and would have ended up in the same school, but we got to be really good friends by spending all that time on the bus together."
(Jovelyn): "I remember exactly how we became friends. You said, 'Hey, you want to be my best friend?' and I said Sure.'"
(Linnea): "It must have been after the lunch box incident [Laughing.]
"Kids are amazingly resilient. They will do what you tell them to do and not think too much about it. But as a grownup, would I rather have had my mom come and get me when I was sick or would I rather take a cab home? The cab was pretty fun, but I would have rather had my mom. I couldn't be a crossing guard because I was bused. I couldn't have a play date right after school because I was bused. Actually being on the bus itself, from a kid's perspective, that wasn't so bad. But I'm not doing that to my own kids."
(Jovelyn): "I think friendships are probably the most lasting legacy of busing for me, too. Ironically enough, the closest friends I made were all from the South End and I wouldn't have met them had they not been on the same busing track. Those ties are irreplaceable. But looking back and being a parent now, I would not allow my kid to be bused that far away. You're not giving them the opportunity to be productive, because they're tired. If they are involved in student activities, they're home at 7 or 8 at night, so they're not as involved with the rest of the family. It was a good enough experience for me but not good enough that I would allow my kid to go through it."
Interview by Cassandra Tate with Jovelyn Agbalog and Linnea Tate Rodriguez, Seattle, Washington, July 20, 2002.
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