I found a really interesting book at the library. It is called Busing Brewster and it is by Richard Michelson with pictures by R. G. Roth. It tells a story of how black children were bused into white communities to go to school during the early 1970s. The story is told from the point of view of a first grader, Brewster. He’s excited because his mom is excited. He knows that he gets a detention the first day but he doesn’t really mind because he gets to be in the library, surrounded by so many books. Telling the story from his point of view many of the details are muted. We see the white protestors, the rocks thrown at the bus, the racist comments, but it is muted by his character’s innocence. It is his older brother, Bryan, who voices dissatisfaction with the idea of a long bus ride and then being part of a minority, and it is his mother who voices the hope and excitement that the better school will open up possibilities for her children.
The book is a good one for talking about racism. There’s a white child who makes some racist comments but eventually ends up joking with Brewster’s older brother. As he leaves school for the day Brewster hears the child’s father making a similar racist remark and we see the way in which racist beliefs are passed down. It also could be the basis for discussion on language. The book uses the term “Negro” which is what would have been used in the 70s, but in the author’s note at the end, the terms African American or black are used.
The book has bits about history too, with the librarian talking to the boy about “some man named Kennedy” and how people didn’t use to want Irish in their schools or believe that an Irish Catholic could be president. But then, I wonder, is it fair to compare the two situations?
The book is a good one for talking about children about details in literature. When the mother describes Central as having “rooms for art and music and a roof that doesn’t leak” what does that imply about the neighbourhood school? What is “busting a gut”? Why doesn’t Bryan want to hug his mother?
The book has an author’s note explaining some of the historical background and offering this critique of the ‘forced busing’:
“While much opposition was racially motivated, many blacks and whites honestly preferred that their children attend local schools; parents were unwilling to see their children used as pawns in a social experiment, however worthy. Forced busing failed on many levels, but there is no denying that many black students were provided with opportunities they would not otherwise have had.”
I don’t know enough about the situation to appraise the accuracy of that statement. What jumps out to me is the idea of being pawns in a social experiment, because I wonder what makes something a social experiment. I think there are things being done all around us that could be considered social experiments but aren’t labeled so.
The part I like least about the book is one paragraph within the Author’s Note.
“In the end, of course, a good education almost always comes down to caring individuals: a loving family that fosters curiostity, and the many librarians and teachers who, like the fictional Miss O’Grady, believe that all children who want to do something important with tehir lives deserve and equal opportunity.”
What, I wonder, does that mean? Does it imply that the inequalities in education are because some groups lack loving families and caring teachers? I certainly hope that was not what the author intended, but the paragraph seems to negate the idea of systematic inequalities. While there are always some individual success stories, surely we cannot overlook that a leaking roof and a lack of music or art (to use examples from the book) does have implications for the children’s education?
I really liked the book. I think its neat and it has a lot of things going for it, but I also have this slight underlying sense of uneasiness about it. What does it mean to call a past event unsuccessful? How should we look at the past? I like the open vague non-judgingness of the book, but it also leaves me uncertain.