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Transcript: 625: Essay B

Transcript

625: Essay B

Originally aired Sep 8, 2017

Note: This American Life is produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Prologue.

Ira Glass

Mariya is always a little embarrassed to admit how much she loved high school. But the truth is she really loved it. This is outside Houston. She had friends. Liked her classes and Friday night football and backyard pool parties. She was editor-in-chief of the school paper. Felt a lot of freedom.

And then this disquieting thing happened during her senior year, when everybody was applying to colleges. When you apply to a state school in Texas, Mariya explained to me, Texas has their own Common App.

Mariya Karimjee

And it's only for people applying to a public university in Texas. But there were four different essay prompts. And one of those was Essay B.

Ira Glass

Essay topic B, like A, B, C, D.

Mariya Karimjee

Do you want me to read it?

Ira Glass

Sure.

Mariya Karimjee

OK. "Many students expand their view of the world during their time in college. Such growth often results from encounters between students who have lived different cultural, economic, or academic experiences. With your future growth in mind, describe a potential classmate that you believe you could learn from, either within or outside a formal classroom environment.

Ira Glass

Wait, wait. So they're asking a potential classmate. In other words, make up a classmate who you have not met.

Mariya Karimjee

Yeah. Imagine a hypothetical person who is different from you in some way.

Ira Glass

Mariya never actually answered Essay Topic B because she wanted to go to college out of state and she applied early admission. But there were a few days in her English class during that year where the rest of the class that was applying to state schools wrote and worked on their college essays. Because Mariya didn't need to write any essays to get into Texas schools, the teacher asked her to help edit them. Mariya ran the school paper, so she had some skills.

Mariya Karimjee

So I was sitting in this class and I was reading all of these essays about a future hypothetical person that helps them grow. And they didn't actually write about a future hypothetical person. They all wrote about me.

Ira Glass

They all wrote about you?

Mariya Karimjee

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Wait. They were writing about you as if they hadn't met you and someday might meet someone like you?

Mariya Karimjee

Yeah, exactly.

Ira Glass

And then they explained all the important lessons they were going to learn from future imaginary you?

Mariya Karimjee

Yes. But before they did that, they had to describe me. And so I was reading these sentences about myself.

Ira Glass

Two key facts all of her classmates dwelled upon. Mariya is from Pakistan, and she's Muslim, at a high school that was mostly white and not Muslim.

Mariya Karimjee

In a lot of the classes, I was the only nonwhite person. And a lot of times, outside of school, I would go to parties or social gatherings and I would be the only nonwhite person there.

Ira Glass

So I'm picturing you have a stack of a couple dozen essays and you're going through them and everyone is talking about you?

Mariya Karimjee

I mean, there were some people who did not write about me. They did actually come up with a hypothetical future person and wrote about those people, offensively. There was one in particular in which the guy wrote about his roommate who had super, super greasy hair and smelled like sandalwood.

Ira Glass

What does that mean? What is that referring to?

Mariya Karimjee

Yeah. He was like some Indian kid who managed to find common ground. I think the common ground was like video games. I'm not kidding.

Ira Glass

Mariya brought to the studio a couple of the essays written about her by her high school friends, including one written by one of her best friends at the time, Jenna, who's still one of her best friends. Mariya was a bridesmaid at her wedding. All of Mariya's winter stuff is stored in Jenna's garage right now. Here's Jenna's Essay B.

Mariya Karimjee

OK. I'll just start.

"As-salamu alaykum. Hello. It's a customary Islamic greeting and so much fun to pronounce."

Ira Glass

That's the opener?

Mariya Karimjee

Yes.

Ira Glass

OK.

Mariya Karimjee

"Almost every evening when my cell phone rings, I'll see Mari's name on the caller ID, flip open the phone, and hastily cry, as-salamu alaykum." And this is a real person writing about me. I'm Mari. And I can guarantee that I don't think that anyone who is white has ever answered the phone and said "as-salamu alaykum" to me. And then she explains. "I'm not Muslim. For that matter, I'm also not Middle Eastern or South Asian. And I certainly can't speak the tongue of those regions."

Ira Glass

Jenna then describes how someday she's going to meet this fictional Mari at college on the first day of Intro to Psychology in the middle of a sea of kids who were wearing T-shirts.

Mariya Karimjee

"My eye caught the gorgeous, intricate beading of a handmade sari. At the time, I hadn't the faintest idea what a sari was. I was merely awestruck by someone who would willingly wear such a bold outfit."

Ira Glass

And did you wear a sari all the time?

Mariya Karimjee

No. I have worn a sari-- I'm almost 30, and I've worn a sari maybe twice in my life. And then she goes on. She says, "Her dark, daring South Asian eyes met mine, and she smiled."

Ira Glass

"Her dark, daring South Asian eyes"?

Mariya Karimjee

Yep. Yep. Followed by, "She was not the typical Indian woman I had seen in National Geographic."

Ira Glass

What does that mean?

Mariya Karimjee

I don't know. I'm wearing a sari.

Ira Glass

Was it weird that suddenly you realized that they're seeing you as their exotic friend?

Mariya Karimjee

Yeah, it was super weird. I didn't know that they saw me that way until I read about it in these essays.

Ira Glass

Because how did you see yourself?

Mariya Karimjee

I saw myself as having fully fit in into this super white high school.

Ira Glass

This, in fact, had been a determined, calculated, five-year campaign on Mariya's part, starting when she was 12 years old and her family moved from Pakistan. She carried around a little notebook, where she'd record important details, like at her friend's house, the family drank milk with dinner. Mariya wrote in the notebook, "Americans drink milk with dinner," then tried to get her parents to serve it. To get rid of her Pakistani accent, she embarked on a project that took hours every day after middle school. On the VCR in the family game room, she'd record her favorite TV show, Lizzie McGuire.

Mariya Karimjee

And then play back Hilary Duff speaking. And then I would repeat what she had said and record it.

Ira Glass

On the family computer, using Windows Media Player.

Mariya Karimjee

And then play them simultaneously, hear the differences, and then fix my accent. So I basically copied Hilary Duff's accent. So even now, I sound a lot like a 13-year-old Hilary Duff.

Now, as an adult, I'm able to look back at all those things that I did to be more American and say I wasn't really trying to be more American. I was trying to be more white. And then all of a sudden, I was confronted with these essays, and they were all like, and you're not!

Ira Glass

Yeah. That is a really sobering moment, huh?

Mariya Karimjee

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Yeah. Because you have this project you've been working on for years. You think you're killing it. You're doing such an amazing job. You feel so close to these people, like you're totally integrated. Then you learn, like--

Mariya Karimjee

Yeah. It was not fun. And it was not pleasant. And I was in this classroom setting, and my friends were willingly giving me their essays to read, and everyone around me was acting as though it was this giant compliment.

Ira Glass

Wait. Why was it a compliment?

Mariya Karimjee

Because they'd all written about me, like how great that I was immortalized in all of these college applications.

Ira Glass

I know. But it's like they're saying, oh, you're our cute little mascot.

Mariya Karimjee

Yeah. It's a little bit like that. Yeah. Like, my Pakistani friend Mariya. And if you had asked me to describe my best friends, it's not like I would've been like, yeah, my friend Katie, who's a white Southern Baptist from Texas. Those are not identifiers I would have used. I would have just said, my friend Katie.

Ira Glass

Mariya is the first to say her friends were just trying to give the answer that Essay Topic B seemed to be asking for. It is a really weird essay prompt. It's basically telling 17-year-olds to imagine a stereotype of somebody who's different from them and then explain how they would learn the right lessons from this stereotyped person. The kids were basically writing what they think some admissions office wants to hear.

And of everything in all these essays, there was one section of one essay that got to Mariya the most. It was in the Essay B that her best friend Jenna wrote. Jenna has a scene in her essay where she pictures someday studying for a psychology final with this supposedly fictional girl, Mari, that she imagines meeting at college and befriending.

Mariya Karimjee

This moment is not a hypothetical. It's not a fake moment. It's an actual thing that happened between us.

Ira Glass

OK. Let's hear.

Mariya Karimjee

So she describes herself. "I'm sitting cross-legged in my favorite gray sweats on my extra-long twin, scattered with a frightening number of psych notes. My faithful study buddy, Mari, leans against the bed, her knees pulled close to her chest, a mug of chai between her hands." I would not have been drinking chai.

Ira Glass

OK. What would you have been drinking?

Mariya Karimjee

Coffee. And it would have been like a basic white girl, like Frappuccino pumpkin spice drink, too.

Ira Glass

OK.

Mariya Karimjee

"I'm flipping through the pages of my textbook when I run across a striking quote from the social psych chapter."

Ira Glass

The essay goes on to quote from the textbook, which says that the DNA that all humans share is mostly alike. And then when people are different races or ethnicities, the difference is less than 0.2% of their DNA. Here's Mariya reading more of Jenna's essay.

Mariya Karimjee

"I read the stats aloud to Mari, then I excitedly spilled the thoughts running through my head. 'That makes so much sense. So much sense. You know, I've heard we all smile in the same language, but it goes so far beyond that, and I never realized it was possible until I met you, Mari. I had no idea I could connect with someone so completely opposite of me on such a deep level. We can read each other's looks. And no wonder. There's only a 0.2% difference between us.'"

And this like killed me, reading this. It kills me now because it's like, I didn't need science to tell us that we were the same, and she did. And she was supposed to be my best friend. And it wasn't until she read a quote in a social psych chapter that she realized that the genetic differences between us was so slim that it made sense that we could be friends.

Ira Glass

They didn't talk about it. Mariya didn't know how. She was in this situation where their teacher and everybody else acted like this was normal, what they were all writing in their essays, and it was hard for her at the time to put her finger on what her problem with it was.

Mariya Karimjee

I will just say that for 10 years or something like that, I carried this moment in writing along with me and I would reflect back upon it, about the fact that my best friend had to have science prove to her that we were similar enough to be able to be friends.

Ira Glass

Just this week, Mariya finally discussed all this with Jenna. She asked Jenna to go back and read her old high school Essay Topic B and then go into a studio to talk about it.

Mariya Karimjee

And Jenna felt really bad about it. Here she is.

Jenna

I got this out to read it and I was like, womp-womp, it's going to be just something that I wrote when I was 17. And then I was like, oh, I get it. I get why this hurt. Yeah. It was hard for me to read.

Mariya Karimjee

The parts that were especially hard for her to read were the fact that she made up that I wore saris, that she used my real name, the National Geographic bit. That was especially horrifying to her.

Ira Glass

And did you guys talk about the DNA statistic?

Mariya Karimjee

Yeah. I told her that it made me feel like she needed science to validate our friendship.

Jenna

I never intended that. I don't know why I used the word opposite so many times in this essay.

Mariya Karimjee

Maybe because the prompt asked you to.

Jenna

Yeah. Yeah, maybe so. I don't think about you-- like, I never, never have. Even when I wrote this, I didn't think of you as someone who was opposite.

Mariya Karimjee

Jenna said that in the essay, she was trying to say that the DNA science just confirmed something she already knew from our friendship.

Jenna

It honestly did. Whether I express it well in the essay or not, it just clicked. I was like, yeah, of course. This is my experience. We're the same, and we can still relate in every way imaginable.

Mariya Karimjee

During the conversation, there was one moment where Jenna asked me something.

Jenna

Did you literally think that this is how I saw you?

Mariya Karimjee

After the essay, a little bit, yes. There was a brief, two-year period in which I did.

Jenna

That's not very brief.

Mariya Karimjee

But now I don't.

Ira Glass

A version of Essay Topic B is still on the website with the Texas Common App, but instead of asking you to imagine a person who you're going to meet in college someday who's going to change you in some way, it asks you about somebody who you've already met whose, quote, "experiences and/or beliefs differ from yours." The old Essay B went further than that, of course. It asked how somebody from a different culture or economic background would benefit a student's, quote, "future growth," which, Mariya points out, seems to assume something about the applicant.

Mariya Karimjee

Even when I was in high school and I was reading this prompt, I remember being very aware of the fact that that question was not meant for me. Every time I read it, I had to think like, who on Earth am I going to write about? Who is different from me? I just can't get around the idea that the question is only for white people.

It says, "With your future growth in mind, describe a potential classmate that you believe you could learn from." When it's saying, "Your future growth in mind," who is the "your" in that context? In my opinion, it's white people. Who else needs to learn and grow from people different from them? It's like the prompt is saying that college is for white people and everyone else is here for the benefit of white people.

Ira Glass

There are different ways to talk about why it's important to have a mix of people in a school together. Way back in the 1950s, when the Supreme Court decision mandated school desegregation, the language used was that this is the fair and democratic thing to do. It was just right for everybody to be treated the same. But in the years since then, another idea has come forward that you run into all the time in schools and in lots of other settings, that diversity is important because it's good for the majority. It's good for white people. It's not always said that way flat out. Often, it's kind of implicit, like in Essay Topic B.

Today on our program, we have a story of a program from back in the 1960s that ran all across the South. It was started for a bunch of reasons, but the primary one was this one-- to change the thinking of white people. Today on our show, we hear how that played out over decades in real life.

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One. How to Win Friends and Influence White People.

Ira Glass

Act 1, How to Win Friends and Influence White People.

OK. So 35 years before Mariya had that experience in her high school, some black kids were drafted into a project created by a small group called The Stouffer Foundation. They would be the children whose presence in the lives of white kids would impart valuable lessons to the white kids. And before they got to do that, they had to go through an admissions interview.

Doug

Testing, testing. One, two, three.

Ira Glass

Some of these were recorded. This is a 14-year-old named Doug. And the person that he's being interviewed by was kind of a random semi-celebrity back then, a British stage actress named Rosemary Harris. She's in film sometimes, too. You may have seen her decades later playing Aunt May in Spider-Man. Anyway, in this interview, Rosemary and Doug talk about his grades. He's mostly getting As and Bs, one C. They talk about his science fair project, what he thinks makes a good teacher.

Doug

Our French teacher, he's a good teacher, but he just can't keep a quiet class. Most of the class is quiet until they get in French.

Rosemary Harris

They don't like French.

Doug

Well, his classes are kind of boring.

Rosemary Harris

Are they? Do you like French?

Doug

Yes.

Rosemary Harris

How many years have you done French?

Doug

I think this will be my sixth.

Rosemary Harris

Oh, you've done a lot of French. Can you speak any? Say anything?

Doug

[SPEAKING FRENCH]

Rosemary Harris

Very good. Good accent and well pronounced. Better than mine, I think.

Ira Glass

The fact that this nice lady is complimenting a teenager on his terrible accent, that's just her personal style. That is not part of the educational program. Mosi Secret has been looking into this program, and he explains what it was all about.

Mosi Secret

This interview was part of an experiment started by a white heiress from the South named Anne Forsyth. She was the granddaughter of a tobacco magnate, RJ Reynolds, and she saw that integration was happening all around the country except at prep schools in the South, and she wanted to do something about it. The students in these schools grow up to be the leaders of the South, she told Ebony magazine. Teach them to be less bigoted and they'd carry that attitude into the institutions they'd run someday. A small investment in an individual change could have a big effect. Meanwhile, the black student she'd send into these boarding schools would get a top-notch education.

So her little foundation set out to find the best of the best black students, pluck them from their neighborhoods, convince previously all-white boarding schools to take them, and then send the students in as ambassadors.

Forsyth hired a man named John Ehle to lead the effort. John was a novelist from North Carolina who, in his 40s, turned his imagination to solving social problems with rich people's money. Rosemary Harris, the actress, was his wife. They went all over the South looking for applicants, interviewing them in their schools. John could be kind of gruff, even when he first sat down with someone. He talked to one boy who told John that his hobbies were chemistry and eating. "That's a hobby?" John asked.

Student 1

I love to eat.

John Ehle

What do you like to eat most?

Student 1

Well, I like to eat pizza.

John Ehle

What-- pizza. Oh, yeah, excuse me.

Student 1

French fries, cheeseburger, milk shakes.

John Ehle

Your taste in eating is no account at all, is it? Oh, my.

Mosi Secret

Another boy told John he was worried about the effects of studying too hard.

Student 2

But I believe I should study hard, but don't push myself to exhaustion till I get a nervous breakdown.

John Ehle

You don't look like you're going to have one, if I may say so.

[LAUGHTER]

You don't feel like you're going to have one soon, do you?

Student 2

Mm-mm.

John Ehle

I agree with you. Now these prep schools are harder than public schools.

Mosi Secret

All these kids you're hearing, they were all chosen. They went on to prep schools. And later in life, they became entrepreneurs and lawyers and engineers. But here, they were at a moment of great transition, about to become transplants who might or might not take.

John and Rosemary don't tell the kids that this is an effort to change the minds of white students. The white students weren't told it, either. In fact, they wait until the end of these interviews to even bring up the fact that the candidates will be integrating white schools. They mention race, but they kind of back into it.

Rosemary Harris

You want to go away to school?

Doug

Yes.

Rosemary Harris

You wouldn't be homesick at school, would you?

Doug

I don't think so.

Rosemary Harris

Are you worried at all about going to a-- because these are all-- these prep schools in the South are really all white. Does that idea bother you at all?

Doug

No.

Rosemary Harris

What experience have you had with integration? This school isn't very integrated, is it?

Doug

No. In the sixth grade, I had a friend named Freedom, and he acts about as crazy as I do sometimes.

Rosemary Harris

Uh-huh. Was he white?

Doug

Yes.

Rosemary Harris

What was his name?

Doug

Freedom.

Rosemary Harris

Oh, that's rather a nice name.

So you really don't find any difference between a white boy and a black boy?

Doug

No.

Rosemary Harris

If he's got the right qualities. That's good.

Doug

Mm-mm.

John Ehle

Go ahead and talk to Karen a minute, will you?

Rosemary Harris

OK.

Mosi Secret

John Ehle wanted this integration effort to happen quietly. No fuss, no big moments for the news cameras. "Stay out of the damn papers," he said. The first Stouffer recipients entered schools in the fall of 1967, 13 years after Brown versus Board of Education. There were 20 black teenagers placed in seven private prep schools that year in small-town Virginia, in the mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina, on the affluent side of Atlanta, all schools that had historically only accepted white kids.

Rosemary Harris

Does it bother you, the thought of going to a predominantly white boarding school?

Student 3

No. I find that if you have a good sense of humor and you can get along with people well, it doesn't make any difference what race it is. If you can get along with people, get along with any type of people.

Rosemary Harris

Sure. And if anybody is kind of unpleasant, you feel you can rise above it?

Student 3

Yes.

Rosemary Harris

Good. Not that you're going to have any difficulty, but.

Mosi Secret

"Not that you're going to have any difficulty," Rosemary says, "but." Then her voice trails off.

So did this experiment work? Did it make white students less bigoted? And how'd it turn out for the black students?

In order to answer those questions, I focused in on one school that took part in the Stouffer experiment, Virginia Episcopal School in Lynchburg, Virginia. People call it VES. When the Supreme Court mandated the desegregation of public schools, lawmakers in Virginia actually closed public schools rather than integrate in Charlottesville, Norfolk, and elsewhere, displacing more than 10,000 students. And white families enrolled their children in private schools in droves. VES was one of those schools. It was a haven for white families fleeing integration. That's what two black Stouffer scholars were walking into when they arrived in 1967.

Bill Alexander was one of them. He was 14, from a middle-class family in segregated Nashville, the son of a prominent pastor, and a boy who John Ehle thought was perfect for Stouffer. After interviewing Bill, he wrote, "William Alexander, Jr. looks like a prep school student, dresses like one, and talks like one." In the fall of 1967, Bill flew to Lynchburg, walked outside the airport, and hailed a cab.

Bill Alexander

It was a black cab driver. And I tell the cab driver, take me to VES, Virginia Episcopal School on VES Road. The cab driver drives off and takes me to downtown Lynchburg to an African-American Baptist seminary.

Mosi Secret

Not VES.

Bill Alexander

He pulls up, and because I'd been up there, I knew where the school was. I said, well, sir, I said Virginia Episcopal School. He said, you're going there? He couldn't believe it. He couldn't process that.

Mosi Secret

Eventually, Bill made his way to VES, where he got a warm welcome.

Bill Alexander

They knew I was coming. They came down. They had some guys come get my bags and stuff. The leaders of the school came down. They said, welcome, Bill. Let me take you to your room.

Mosi Secret

Bill's new roommate, Marvin Barnard, arrived in Lynchburg by bus. He'd come by himself, 100 miles from the black side of Richmond. He had one suitcase. He was wearing a sports jacket, a little blue cap. He'd never seen a place like VES before.

Marvin Barnard

It had a bell tower. The bell tower, I thought, was beautiful. I never had a bell tower in the community where I came from. The lawn was rolling. The mountains in the background. It was so peaceful. And I felt like, OK, I can do this. Of course, I had no idea. I didn't really realize how big an issue this really was in terms of integrating the school. I wasn't thinking along that line at 13 and 14 years old. I was thinking that it's a big experiment. People want you to come. People in my community wanted me to go. I'm ready to go. Let's get it going.

Mosi Secret

Marvin was smiley, 5" 2', 100 pounds. During his interview with John Ehle, he told John, "I get along with everyone," which was true. He did.

Unfortunately, there aren't recordings of Bill and Marvin's interviews. In many ways, Marvin was Bill's opposite, warm-blooded to Bill's cool, short to Bill's tall. Marvin grew up in a three-room shack with an outside toilet, not a middle-class home like Bill. A teacher would come to call the duo of Marvin and Bill Fire and Ice.

Both Bill and Marvin had a vague sense, a 14-year-old sense, that integrating VES was a small way they could participate in the civil rights movement they saw happening all around them. 1967 was the year that riots broke out in more than 100 cities across the country. The Supreme Court decided Loving versus the State of Virginia, which ended laws against interracial marriage. John Ehle told Marvin that this was a chance to prove that black students could perform as well as any white students if the playing field were level.

VES was a vestige of a Jim Crow South on land that had once been a plantation. A decade or so before Bill and Marvin arrived, VES had decided to tear down the remaining slave cabin on campus. But they had a new headmaster, a guy from the north who had opened the door when The Stouffer Foundation came knocking.

Resistance came from parents and some of the board. "Why, why, why have you done this cruel thing to our beloved school?" one parent wrote. "A private boarding school like VES is an extension, a part of the family. We have no intention whatsoever of integrating those of another race into our family." Stouffer wasn't blind to the immense challenges Marvin and Bill would face. So as a way to prep them, all 20 Stouffer scholars did a summer program at Duke. They learned both academics and manners, how to read classic books, do advanced math, hold a tennis racket, swim. Here's Marvin.

Marvin Barnard

Socially, they really gave us a heads-up in terms of what dormitory life may be like, in a dormitory where there were, obviously, white students and they may pull pranks on you. And I wasn't used to-- like, what's a prank? A prank's, you know, you do your little things, and it sort of jokes around and they laugh about it. And I'm like, meh, OK. But my main thing is like, I've got to be a good student.

Mosi Secret

So it sounds like you're saying there was very little discussion of race there, despite what you were going off to do.

Marvin Barnard

Yeah. I don't recall that.

Mosi Secret

Instead, they were told if someone pranks you, don't assume that it's about race. They left it up to the kids to figure out.

Marvin Barnard

Sort of try to feel out whether things were primarily because you were a new student versus is certain things happening because you're a black student.

Mosi Secret

Freshmen at VES were known as newboys or rats. And once they were at VES, Marvin and Bill experienced some of the same mild hazing that happened to white freshmen. Seniors would tell them to get in the back of the line in the cafeteria. They'd make them do their laundry. They rolled with it, but it never escaped their minds that they were the only two black students on campus. They became a team, friends and roommates who were going to shine. Here's Marvin.

Marvin Barnard

I felt that, if I was a good student, to be the best student I could be, then there would be success. And Bill and I both knew, then-- I think everybody else-- we wanted to be good students in as many things as possible. Not just in the classroom, but in the dorms, on the field, whatever we could do.

Mosi Secret

Right out of the gate, Bill and Marvin did more than anyone thought they could ever do. After a month into the first semester, the school's headmaster, Austin Montgomery, wrote a letter to the Foundation with an update on the boy's progress. It started, "As I write, the two are playing touch with a dozen others out on the lovely front campus. I thought you might be interested that Friday, unbeknownst to me, the freshmen held class elections." Austin explained that the white kids had chosen Bill to be freshman class president, and that was after losing the black vote. Marvin had voted for someone else.

After the end of the first semester, when everyone gathered around the bulletin board in Jett Hall to look at their grades and see where they stood, Bill and Marvin were out ahead, tied for number one, more than 40 white boys in their class in line behind them.

Bill Alexander

I'm sure several were shocked. Yeah, there was a little competition going on.

Mosi Secret

Things continued like this into the next semester. Mostly great, but not entirely.

Marvin Barnard

There may have been different events where you may hear individuals use the n-word while you're walking down the hall and you turn around and nobody would say anything, and everybody looking like, well, who said that? Or you go into a study hall in the classroom where you normally sit-- most people have habits of where they sit and where they study or whatever-- and there's a little note that has the n-word on it. So those were minor, trivial types of things that I really didn't put a lot of stock in at all.

Mosi Secret

Marvin said he'd been told by the uncle who raised him not to worry about words. "As long as they don't get physical with you. Don't let them hit my son, now." Marvin says when these things would happen, he'd think to himself, is that the best you got?

Then a Thursday night, April 4, 1968, and Bill and Marvin were in their dorm room.

Marvin Barnard

And then the announcement came over the radio that Martin Luther King had been shot.

Reporter

He entered to the hospital emergency room with his face covered with a towel. The exact extent of his injuries not known at this time.

Marvin Barnard

And when it was announced over the radio, all of a sudden, I could hear nothing but laughter all throughout the dormitory halls. And it sort of resonated not only in our hallway, but it seemed like it was resonating through all the dorms.

Mosi Secret

At least, that's what it sounded like to Marvin.

Marvin Barnard

I mean, when I heard that, I just got so angry and hurt by it because it was so pervasive. I thought it was very disrespectful. Why are you laughing when he's announcing that someone has been killed? And it's like, why are you like joyous? You're celebrating.

Bill Alexander

One of the guys on the floor, he came, and he was laughing. Came by the room and was taunting.

Mosi Secret

This is Bill. He doesn't remember exactly what was said.

Bill Alexander

No, I don't remember, but I mean, ah, he's dead. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. It was probably that. He's dead. Good. I'm glad he was killed.

Marvin Barnard

They were happy. Them people were happy. They were glad he was shot.

And with all that laughter going on, I remember looking at Bill and it was like, I can't let this go. And I went out into the hallway and I demanded that anybody that thinks that this is funny, that you need to come out and face me now. If you think this is funny and you want to laugh, come out and face me now. And there was silence. Nothing happened.

Mosi Secret

The night of Martin Luther King's assassination, there was one person who stood up for Bill and Marvin, someone who stepped up in a way that, even now, when they look back on it, feels significant, their headmaster, Austin Montgomery. Austin died in 1995. But that night, he called all the students into the chapel. Again, here's Bill.

Bill Alexander

We've gone to bed. We're in our PJs. And then we get the call. "Everybody come to chapel." So all the guys are in chapel in their PJs. And Mr. Montgomery gave one of the best speeches I've ever seen in my life.

Marvin Barnard

In short, he was saying that the life of any man should not be one that there should be laughter or joy over, and this is not the VES way. And we are not going to have this here.

Bill Alexander

He said, we're better than this. And he wasn't going to tolerate that foolishness.

Mosi Secret

That night had a profound effect on Bill and Marvin. Here's Marvin.

Marvin Barnard

It did carve-- it carved something deep inside of me because these are some of the same people that we had, quote, unquote, "been friendly with" and everything else, and why would they do that? Is there something that I don't know? Was I being just deceived or deluded in how I was thinking? That's where the whole aspect, in terms of the young, smiley face, great experiment, everybody's buying into it, that took a different shade that evening.

Mosi Secret

Marvin's roommate, Bill, was angry, too. But true to form, Ice kept it to himself. And he had this additional reaction to it. He found the incident clarifying.

Bill Alexander

How can I say this at my age? I did not have an expectation that I'm coming to VES and that it's going to be a post-racial experience. I think we could make things different, and hopefully for the better, sure, but I'm not going to take that weight on. Oh, my God, you don't like me. Or you expressed your bias against African-Americans because you laughed when Dr. King was assassinated. OK, well, I know who you are. OK. We're good.

Mosi Secret

That summer, Marvin returned home, back to his old life, back to the shotgun house he grew up in in Fulton, a neighborhood in Richmond, Virginia. Some people called it Fulton Bottom because it was at the bottom of a hill on the banks of the James River. White people seldom came down the hill. One night, Marvin was in his house where he lived with his uncle. His aunt had died a few years before. Marvin was laying on the couch, watching his uncle, the man who had raised him, the man he called dad, smoke a cigarette on the front porch.

Marvin Barnard

And I could see his body, his silhouette outside the window. A little breeze coming on a warm July night. The screen door opens, and he comes in. He's walking real slow. And he just sort of flops down. And as he flops down, I had to sort of pull my legs up real quick, otherwise he would've sat on my legs.

And I'm thinking, Dad wouldn't just sit on my legs like that. What's wrong? And then he says, you know, you're doing very well. He says, I'm proud of you. You're a good young man. And I said, well, thanks, Dad. So he says to me, I want you to go and sleep in the big bed.

Mosi Secret

Marvin usually slept on the cot in the middle room. It was the man of the house who slept in the big bed.

Marvin Barnard

So I go into the bedroom where the big bed, his bed, is, and I get ready to turn off the light. And as I get ready to turn off the light, I just hear this harsh sound. A gasp. And so I go back into the room and I see him, and I know he's gone. And then I just closed his eyes.

Mosi Secret

Marvin was now all alone, no close family to turn to, grieving. Then he got a letter from Headmaster Austin Montgomery, offering his sympathy and urging Marvin to return to school in the fall. "I hope you know, Marvin, what deep respect and affection and what high hopes I have for you. I think you took hold of what could have been a difficult situation this past year and handled it manfully in the very best sense of that word. You did yourself great credit. I hope that you had a happy year, and one that you think was profitable. Probably you did at least as much for VES as it did for you. Let me say that, whether it matters to you or not, the school needs you, and you at your very best, working and playing hard and speaking up with humor and wisdom for what you think is right and important."

The fall of 1968, Marvin returned for his sophomore year. Bill, too. But Headmaster Austin Montgomery was gone. The details aren't totally clear, but it seems like there was pressure on him to leave. Austin was a Northerner with a bristly temperament, and he'd pushed the school to integrate. His replacement was a Southerner, an institutional guy who played by the rules.

But before Austin left, he made sure the Stouffer experiment continued with two new black students joining Marvin and Bill that fall, two boys they looked after and checked in on. And the experiment started to shape who Marvin was. He became a little more fire. He grew more militant.

Marvin Barnard

I grew a bigger Afro, which also gave me some height.

Mosi Secret

Partly in response to white students who decorated their rooms with the Confederate flag, Marvin started wearing dashikis, and--

Marvin Barnard

My facial expressions were different, like I'm looking at you right now. And I was looking like I could hurt you if you step on me. OK. It's like, yeah, you're my bud and everything like that, but you don't tread on me, OK? You don't disrespect me.

Mosi Secret

Meanwhile, they doubled down on proving they were the best. They were defiant.

Marvin Barnard

It definitely made me want to work even harder. And I wanted to make a statement by making a bigger gap between our being number one and number two and whoever was three and four. I didn't want it to be perceived that it was something that was an aberration. It was very close. And that's how we could really fight. We could really fight by being better students.

Mosi Secret

It worked. Bill and Marvin were popular, good athletes, exceptional students, guys everyone at VES looked up to. Bill lettered early, showed up his sophomore year with his varsity jacket. They were football champions one year, dorm leaders another year, friends with the white guys. Bill and Marvin held the number one and number two academic rankings all four years they were at VES, the pinnacle of Anne Forsyth's hopes. They chipped away at white supremacy by being supreme.

I got to feel the real impact of all of this about a year ago when I went to VES for the school's 100-year reunion. Walking around campus with Bill and Marvin was like being with celebrities. Every few paces, a former classmate would stop them and offer kind words, give them a slap on the back.

Ves Alum

Good to see you, Marvin! I thought I recognized you.

Mosi Secret

In the main building on campus, there's a display that commemorates Marvin and Bill. There's photos of them from their freshman and senior years, like a before and after.

Marvin Barnard

I want you to pay attention to 1967. See how we come in? Look at the bright eyes, and we're all happy.

Ves Alum

Bill with some schoolboy glasses on and a suit. Short, trimmed hair. You with a plaid jacket.

Marvin Barnard

That's right. We were just happy to be here.

Mosi Secret

The reunion was the first time that most of the Stouffer students had been together again since Bill and Marvin's senior year. By the time they were seniors, there were seven black students at VES. They took to calling themselves The Magnificent Seven. That weekend, those who were there were honored and got a standing ovation.

Crowd

[INAUDIBLE]

[APPLAUSE]

Mosi Secret

But something else happened that weekend at the reunion, something that reveals a different side of this social experiment. Some of the guys in The Magnificent Seven were hoping they could take a photograph of all seven of them together, and they kept asking me about one person, a guy who was missing, Johnny Halloway. Johnny was one of the two black students who came to VES the year after Bill and Marvin.

Terry Sherrill

Is Johnny-- did you get up with Johnny? You didn't get up with Johnny Halloway, did you?

Mosi Secret

That's Terry Sherrill, one of The Magnificent Seven, asking me about Johnny.

Mosi Secret

I spoke with Johnny.

Terry Sherrill

You did speak to him?

Mosi Secret

Yeah.

Terry Sherrill

Did he say he was coming?

Mosi Secret

Johnny is not coming.

I'd gotten in touch with Johnny while reporting this story. I told Terry that Johnny was now a pastor at a church in Durham, North Carolina.

Terry Sherrill

Do you know the name of the church? Because we're thinking about trying to go up there maybe Sunday and surprise him at his church.

Mosi Secret

Wow.

Terry Sherrill

If we could get the details of his church, we will go.

Mosi Secret

Maybe you can hear in my voice, I didn't think Johnny would like that surprise because Johnny, he was not Bill and Marvin. He did not celebrate VES the way they did.

Ira Glass

Coming up, what exactly happened to Johnny? That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, Essay B. What happens when you create a project whose main goal is to integrate schools for the benefit of the white students there? How does that work out for everybody? If you're just tuning in, we're in the middle of a story by reporter Mosi Secret. He also did a version of this story this week for The New York Times Magazine. That's at nytimes.com/integration.

Right before the break, Mosi was explaining that a guy named Johnny Halloway decided not to return to VES for their reunion for reasons of his own. Mosi picks up the story from there.

Mosi Secret

A month before, I'd gotten on the phone with Johnny, and pretty quickly, he told me this.

Johnny Halloway

I took a lot of beatings. I don't know if anyone else has spoken about that.

Mosi Secret

No, they hadn't. Johnny told me he was beaten several times, always by the same guys, and he was certain it was racially motivated. He said he never told the other black students about it. He said there was no point. So I went to visit Johnny at his church to talk more about this.

Johnny's church is called Cup of Salvation. It's a storefront church in Durham, North Carolina off a state highway in a complex with a bingo hall, daycare center, and a beauty salon. At first, Johnny didn't want to go into details about what happened. But eventually, he told me what those beatings were like.

Johnny Halloway

If you could imagine yourself being in bed, asleep, and somebody throwing your sheet over your head and you're suddenly being pummeled by a bunch of guys. That's pretty intense. At 14 years old, feeling that you have no sanctuary at all, feeling that you're really not safe from getting beat up, and that you're doing it not just for yourself, but for a movement that's larger than yourself, taking that kind of beating, and it hurts when you get hit.

Then you don't sleep the rest of the night because you don't know if they're coming back. You're crying. You're angry. You're hurt.

The next day, when you go out to breakfast, you're looking around, trying to see if you can identify everybody that did it because of how maybe they're looking at you. You wonder if everybody else knows, and if they're laughing behind your back. It's humiliating, but it also it made me angry. It made me hostile in some ways.

Mosi Secret

After his freshman year, things got better for Johnny. The upperclassmen who beat him graduated. He settled in, sang in the glee club, made new friends. He learned that he could perform as well or better than white people. The beatings, that was just one part of his experience at VES.

Johnny Halloway

I was pretty aware that I was going to be an ambassador, a pioneer, a lab rat. So I was pretty aware that what I was being asked to do was bigger than me. But I didn't really want to be a racial ambassador. I just wanted to be a kid growing up, going to school.

Mosi Secret

I explained to him that one of the goals of the program was to teach white kids about black people-- to benefit the white guys, like the bullies who came into his room at night. The fact that he was beat up is part of that experiment, The Foundation never knew about that.

Johnny Halloway

I don't recall anybody from The Stouffer Foundation talking to me at all after I was admitted into VES. And I could be wrong about that, but I don't recall ever having a conversation with anyone to follow up and see how was I doing, how was it working out or whatever. So I did feel, at that point, like I had been thrown into this thing and then, if it works, it works. If it doesn't, it doesn't.

But I didn't feel used. I didn't blame them. I felt like they had given me an opportunity and I appreciated the opportunity.

Mosi Secret

Johnny reluctantly told me two names of people who had beaten him. One of the guys is dead. I tried the other multiple times, but he didn't respond. I talked to Johnny's roommate from the time, and he confirmed that this happened. He said it happened to him, too. He told me there was one guy who was so racist, so hostile towards him, that he had fantasies of pushing the kid off the dorm roof.

Anne Forsyth and The Stouffer Foundation eventually ran out of money in 1976. In the '70s, there were just a few more black students. Eventually, more black students started going to VES in the '80s. Not through any formal effort-- more people just started applying. And today, a little less than 9% of the student population is black. There are other students of color, as well. Two of the Stouffer scholars have been on the board at VES. Bill has a scholarship for black students in his name. So one of the goals of Stouffer-- integrating these schools-- that's happened in 20 schools. Another-- providing opportunity for black students-- that's the clearest victory in this effort.

Marvin and Bill are both doctors now. Bill went to Harvard. Marvin decided to go to the best historically black college in the country, Howard University. He was tired of representing all black people. Among the other 140 Stouffer scholars, there are doctors, lawyers, a political operative, a judge, teachers, corporate leaders. But what about the goal that made Anne Forsyth want to do this in the first place-- the idea that this would change the hearts and minds of white students? Someone did try to measure this.

In 1973, John Ehle commissioned a survey of students' attitudes about race in the prep schools they integrated, but it wasn't scientifically done. And a few students wrote letters asking things like, why the questionnaire on black students when there are only three in the whole school?

We conducted our own unscientific survey and called around to a bunch of white VES alums. Most didn't want to engage the question at all. They didn't want to talk about race head-on. We heard a lot of polite dodges about how color didn't mean anything or we didn't see them as black. We saw them as classmates. Or I don't remember it being an issue.

But I was able to find one guy who seemed changed and who was game to talk about it. John Harman, class of '72, the same class as Johnny Halloway, the guy who didn't show up at reunion. John Harman came to VES from Tazewell, Virginia, a town of about 4,000. Growing up, the legacy of Jim Crow was all around him. His family used to go to the theater on Main Street, where blacks had to sit in the balcony. His father was a lawyer who used the town's Confederate soldier statue as a landmark.

John Harman

And he'd say, when you get on Main Street in Tazewell, find a Confederate soldier, and he's looking across the street, right in my office window. There was a pretty good, old Southern, Confederate flag, pickup truck culture back there. The word [BLEEP] was just used without even thinking. It was just no animosity, necessarily, but just a notion of they're them, and we's us, and we're probably inherently different. And it's a small town. You just didn't interact with them.

Mosi Secret

Do you think that you were racist when you got to VES?

John Harman

Probably. Probably. Not in an overt, hostile way, but I'm sure I had attitudes that would be fairly described as racist, sure.

Mosi Secret

Was Jerrauld your first black friend?

John Harman

Oh, sure. Sure, absolutely.

Mosi Secret

Jerrauld was another Stouffer scholar. John says that he and Jerrauld really got to know each other junior year. They were on the yearbook staff together, John working as a photographer, and Jerrauld as an editor. And they used to joke around about how different they were. John was a white country boy who was seldom without his .22 rifle, and Jerrauld was a black kid from Norfolk, the big city, in John's eyes.

John went on to work as an engineer for the railroad. He had a lot of black coworkers, and he says, outside of VES, it was his first daily close contact with black people. And his experience at VES prepped him for that. He says he understood they were the same as him. He didn't interact much with his black coworkers socially, but he says he became less racist over time.

John Harman

There was no epiphany, where you smack your forehead and go, wow! It's more like watching it get dark at night. You can't really watch it happen as it happens, but it just ends up being dark. I guess that's the way learning is. You don't really realize it's happening until all of the sudden you realize, huh, there's a change in me.

Mosi Secret

It's a really lovely thought, I just kind of wish he'd used a sunrise metaphor instead.

At the reunion, John heard that Jerrauld and the other black students were put into his school partly for his benefit, to change his thinking. I told him how a couple got beat up. They faced racial slurs. Was it fair to put that on them?

John Harman

I'm sorry it happened. I never realized the racial crap that they put up with. I think it's a fair question, what you're asking, but I don't see a way around it. There is no way you're going to take young, southern, white males of privilege and educate them in diverse ways without exposing them to black students. And you're going to be asking a lot of the blacks what you're going to put in that situation.

Mosi Secret

He said he thought about Jerrauld for years when they weren't in touch. He'd see things on the news, especially things going on in the country, like Charlottesville, and think about Jerrauld and wonder what he thought. He wanted to hear his opinion.

I ran that by Jerrauld. It was a surprise to him. I believe John when he tells me his experience with Jerrauld changed him. By the time he had two high school-aged daughters, he could point to what that change meant.

John Harman

I can recall coming in after work or something, and maybe it'd be 8 o'clock at night and there'd be a half a dozen kids up here with pizzas from Little Caesar's, and there might be two black guys in there. My attitude when I was growing up would have been, what are they doing here? As opposed to, instead, now, it's just like, hey, look who's here. It's just a bunch of kids here. I knew them and I liked them, and I was glad to have them in the house. And without VES, I probably wouldn't have that attitude. And I actually was aware of that, looking at it and sort of thinking, damn, John, you've come a ways since you were a young man.

Mosi Secret

When Anne Forsyth started this experiment in the '60s, her vision was way grander than this. She was picturing future titans of industry, governors and senators whose prejudice would be melted away. And she launched this idealistic project not really knowing what she was doing, but taking her best shot. I think she never would have pictured this as one of the results-- a middle-aged white man stumbling onto a pizza party and thinking everything was all right, and in a sense, looking back over years that he wasn't all right before. It's so modest, but it's something.

Ira Glass

Mosi Secret. He's an Eric and Wendy Schmidt fellow at New America. He's working on a book about the Stouffer experiment. At our website this week, you can see pictures of Bill and Marvin as freshmen and seniors and read part of their applications. That's thisamericanlife.org.

[MUSIC - "MAYBE IT'LL RUB OFF" BY TOWER OF POWER]

Our program was produced today by Susan Burton. Our staff includes Elise Bergerson, Ben Calhoun, Zoe Chace, Dana Chivvis, Sean Cole, Neil Drumming, Stephanie Foo, Chana Joffe-Walt, Mariya Karimjee, Jonathan Menjivar, BA Parker, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, Lily Sullivan, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, and Diane Wu. Our senior producer is Brian Reed.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Research help from Michelle Harris. Music help from Damien Graef.

This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, he went to a concert years ago and it really influenced his style of singing in the shower.

Mariya Karimjee

So even now, I sound a lot like a 13-year-old Hilary Duff.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

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