Olivia Gieger ’17, Editor in Chief
Paula Davis’s colorful pink and green clogs emerged from the maroon van with a “School Bus” sign perched on top of it. The small woman followed wearing a bright pink sweater, her color choice matching her vibrant personality. Together we walked into the Wellesley Free Library, and I sat down with her to talk about her experience being one of the six members of the first graduating class of METCO students at Wellesley High school, which graduated in 1968. This was our conversation:
What was that experience like, being among the first black students bused to a predominantly white town?
In 1966, and in the years that I remember, what stands out to me was that there was a lot of hatred, a lot of disconcernment between blacks and whites; there was a lot of rioting. During that year I remember there were a lot of assassinations going on in the world and locally — during the 1960’s. It seemed like everything was in chaos. Then we were interviewed for the METCO program. It seemed like that was such a good thing because it made me, and, I believe, my mom, from what I can remember her explaining to me, feel that this would make me a better person, and I would be able to see the world from a different perspective than if I had stayed just in my own community. That was one of the reasons why I volunteered to take part in the METCO program back in 1966.
I came in my junior year, so I only had two years. Honestly, they were quite difficult for me because they were my last two final years of high school. It took a real adjustment the first year, which was my junior year, to get affiliated with this massive school. Wellesley High School was so grand compared to the high school I had come from.
Could you describe your experience adjusting to the academics and social setting of Wellesley High school?
I was the only person of color in my classes. The majority of students did reach out; the program was just as new to Wellesley as it was to me. I was still young and everything was an open book. I found that I was not able to take advantage of all the opportunities due to the fact that there was a shortness of time. I mostly had to focus on my grades. I missed out on a lot of opportunities, and I was not as socially involved. Having a host family helped guide me through that. I did attend my junior and senior prom, but I would have liked to have taken advantage of more of the opportunities Wellesley had to offer.
Do you feel like socially you were welcomed?
Initially, I did not feel welcomed. Like I said, being the only person of color [in my classes], I had not anyone to relate to, and no one could relate to me; it was very difficult because we didn’t know how to mix. I remember my French teacher, my English teacher, maybe even my history teacher trying very well to be inclusive with me, but for me all alone it was very hard. They didn’t want to single me out, but of course I was [singled out]. That was the environment, and the way it was set up.
Were there other METCO students in your grade? Were you able to connect with them?
There were six of us that graduated that first graduating year, but we were all in different classes and all in different courses, so we never were together, other than maybe sometimes at lunch or during some free time we may have happened to have. Other than that, we went our separate ways; we never intermingled any more during the day.
Through it all, if I had to go through what I did go through, I would do it again, to open the doors to those who are still part of the program. To see how successful they have become [makes it worth it].
As a graduate of Wellesley High School, it does give me some benefits. In past years, getting jobs and everything, I think when [possible employers] saw ‘WHS’, it helped me. It did help me. Wellesley is an affluent town in itself, so a lot of people look at it as ‘Wow!’. I didn’t look at it as that, though. To me, it was just a program that I enrolled in and attended and was successful at. I do appreciate it; it did help open up doors for me, and I am grateful for that.
I’m just very very happy to know that METCO has forged on for this many years. I never, ever dreamed that it would be this number of years and it is still going on, that when I started it I would be like a pioneer to the program, and I am grateful that I had that opportunity, to be a part of that.
What resonates with you about that anniversary number, the fact that METCO has been going on for 50 years?
It makes me know that education for all is important, and Wellesley feels that. I feel that they know it, and they want it, and they’re trying to reach out to make it a reality. And they have! They have at the high school — elementary through the high school level. They have been determined to continue the program, and it makes me really feel very good about the town of Wellesley and the community of Wellesley, that they are willing to continue to forge on. It hasn’t been easy; it’s a program that has had its ups and downs, financially and economically. I’m glad that Wellesley has stuck through it. Like I said, Wellesley was one of the first towns to accept the program, and for that I am grateful to the community of Wellesley. I thank them, I really do.
How did being part of METCO impact your life beyond high school?
I went on to a two year college, which I got a scholarship for. It’s no longer here, the Aquinas Junior College. It’s long gone. I can thank that [scholarship] for giving me that opportunity, for making me able to go to that college. It was a business school, and as a result of that, I was able to obtain a relatively well paying job. I ended up with my professional career as a property manager, as a manager of a 540 mixed united development in the town of Roslindale. That helped me with those skills that I obtained by furthering my education in business. I am now retired, and I do driving [students] as a part time.
Did METCO shape how you view the world, in terms of education, race relations, class/ city-suburban relations?
I found that METCO has helped me and its students to have a better education for being able to graduate and go on to college and to graduate from college and get fairly decent paying jobs. I feel that if [students] had not come out to the bettering of this town, they would not be able to advance and get those opportunities as much. It’s the quality of education, and that’s very important, and that is not derived in the Boston public schools; the amenities [of the Wellesley Public Schools] are not there. There’s such a wide variety of opportunities to take advantage of here in suburbia that we don’t have back in urban parts. I think a lot of students, I know, are grateful, and otherwise would not be introduced to have these advantages because of the cost, for economic reasons. METCO has helped students to appreciate that.
Where do you think there is still room for improvement in METCO? How have you seen the program improve since your time as a student?
I saw greater enrollment since I graduated from the METCO program. The improvement I feel I would like to see is for METCO to come under the umbrella or the auspices of all the communities that are involved. I would like for them all to come together. As I am becoming more involved now, I see that each town does their own separate thing with METCO, when I thought it was a pool, and everybody tried to involve themselves in each town and what they may have been trying to do, but it’s not that way, I am finding. That I would like to see; I would like to see all the towns [come together]. That bothers me a little bit to think that they’re saying METCO like it’s all one thing, but it’s separate; every town is a separate entity and not combining all the towns to do anything. With the fiftieth celebration, I would have thought all the towns would be involved, but they’re all isolated. I think we need to cut that and try to bring all the towns together to make one big, huge celebration. That’s what I’d like to see.
Once I graduated from Wellesley High School, I never came back, never. Because I just felt like I didn’t get enough, I didn’t feel like I had become involved enough to feel like there was anything that I could really do, but now, as many years have passed, I wish that I had come back, and I am now willing to do as much of what I can for the program and for the town of Wellesley. I feel that now I truly am a part of the Wellesley community, as a Wellesley High School METCO alumn.
How are you involved with METCO now?
I’m volunteering anywhere I can. I am on the Friends of Wellesley METCO and World of Wellesley (WOW).
With students at the high school, the middle school, the elementary schools, I’m willing to come back and become involved and contribute what I can in any way that I can.
What inspired you to return after so many years?
Another former alumni reached out to me and stated that Wellesley High School was looking for former METCO alumni, and it just pulled at my strings. I said, ‘let me just go and see.’ I came, and I was glad I’d came out and met with Kalise [Wornum] and Carla [Lumley], assistant to Kalise. I met with them, and they were so, so glad to meet me and make me feel so much a part of it, that I just had to become involved. They were excited because they said that they felt like I was the ‘trailblazer’, and I’d never had that concept before. With the many years [past], now that I’m thinking it through, I’m thinking ‘yeah, that is true; that is what it is.’ That excites them so much, so now they’ve got me excited so that I want to make for the best for them. That’s why I have become so involved and so engrossed, now that I want to do what I can, while I can.
Did you ever encounter racism? Were you ever afraid of being a part of such a new program that many people opposed?
I was never afraid of being a part of the program because I didn’t come alone. When I rode the bus from Boston to Wellesley, I had peers with me. It was when I had to attend my classes when I felt a little afraid because that was the time when I was alone. I never was actually attacked racially at all through my years at Wellesley High School. The only distraction I did have was on our first day of arrival at Wellesley High School. On the front door of Wellesley High School, some person wrote ‘GO HOME N*****S’. That was very offensive. They did try to power wash it, but it did not erase completely, so you could still see it. That was the only and lasting derogatory racial impression I had at Wellesley. During the two years I was there, I did not confront any other [issues] with anyone — at least for myself personally. But again, I was only there two years. But that was very offensive; they did their best to erase it, but they just could not get it off in time for our arrival.
The media was with us most of the time. They followed our buses from Boston. They were there especially on our first day, and before that they tried to interview a lot of students who had been accepted to a lot of the different METCO schools. I found that a little nerve wracking and disturbing; they’re there with their microphones and their cameras, and you don’t know what to say– I mean we were students!
The media was something I remember as part of a perspective I wish hadn’t been there at that time. But, history has to be recorded and busing was something they wanted to make history of.
In speaking to a few current METCO students, I feel that they still feel not totally included in the town; they don’t feel comfortable. I think the community still, after all these number of years, is still adjusting. There are a few who are still adjusting or cannot adjust or cannot accept METCO to its fullest, so a lot of them still are struggling with what I struggled with in trying to be accepted. Will they ever be [fully accepting]? I don’t know. But, I still tip my hat to Wellesley for stretching out its arms and saying ‘we are trying; we are going to keep forging on’. That’s all that we can do, I think is to try to say that we’re going to make it work positively in spite of all that [racism and intolerance].
We can’t live that way; to me that’s not reality. We’ve got to learn to live together and learn to accept one another for our differences, in spite of our differences. We’ve come a long way from 1966, when I started, to 2017. I think great progress has been made, but we still can do more.
Have you stayed in touch with your METCO classmates?
I’m the only one they can find! We can’t locate the rest; there is one! One that exists! The METCO directors have found members of the next class, but they are glad to have found one person of the first. Some of the [students I knew as] freshmen I do keep in touch with.
Also, not only did I graduate from the METCO program, but so did my granddaughter and so did my four sisters, so all five of us were in it at the same time [in different grades], and we all graduated from it.
Since your sisters started in the Wellesley Schools earlier than you did, do you find that they had different experiences than you did?
Yes, immensely so. They are still in contact with their peers. I feel so left out because of that factor.
My granddaughter has continuously been in contact with her host family. She attended Dartmouth and now is working in a lab in Cambridge. It’s been a generational program for me.
As our conversation about the program came to a close, Paula shared an acrostic poem she’d written about the program. I have included it here because I feel it encompasses each distinct benefit of the program.
M is for the Multitude of long lasting friendships
E is for the Extraordinary dedication and enduring efforts put forth by each urban and suburban family
T is for the Triumph to a 50 year anniversary celebration through this Equal Opportunity
C is for the Cornerstone set by each alumni
O is for the Open Doors to WHS for forging an end to inimical times of yesteryear