In the dreary rays of dawn, Interlock’s camera-laden drone hovers above buses full of METCO students. They travel the same highways from Boston to affluent suburbs as over thirty thousand students have done since the METCO program began more than fifty years ago.
Code-Switching follows five African-American students, spanning two generations, who signed up for voluntary busing to attend better-resourced suburban schools. METCO, the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity, has been a wonderful experiment that has helped more inner city youth attend college while diversifying suburban schools.
For some students however, shuttling between Boston’s ethnic neighborhoods and predominantly white suburban schools has not been seamless, especially for the girls. Typically, girls do not experience the same athlete-hero status as many of their male peers. They may face the burdens of both ostracization back home and feelings of isolation in their adopted schools. This has led to anxiety and depression and in extreme cases even attempted suicide.
Social media can compound their troubles, again, especially for girls. Platforms like After School and Swilfie are double-edged swords in students’ social lives. Facilitating positive communication and connection, these anonymous apps also enable classmates to gossip about their own social status or that of other students on a continuous basis.
Pressures to “act white” or even “act more black” are common for participants, who struggle to bridge the gap between home life and school culture. In the process, they quickly learn to act and speak differently depending on the venue.
For some of our characters, this ‘code-switching’ brought social and professional mobility. But for others, the sometimes duplicitous nature of code-switching may be harder to handle.
|Fig.1 Johnny Peterson|
“Johnny Peterson” - A defier of stereotypes, Johnny is described as articulate and bright. To his classmates he represented the inner city, though his main concerns beyond academia were anime and Manga. He joined the basketball team but quit due to his social anxiety. While his Lexington schoolmates expected he could rap, he couldn’t carry a tune.
|Fig.2 Left to right: Olivette Jean-Rueand Lateisha Winter|
“Lateisha Winter” - Though Lateisha had her own share of angst and alienation, she went on to be Weston High’s senior class president. Serving as a black educator/role model that she did not have until attending Spelman College, she teaches in the Boston Public Schools. She’s pursuing a PhD in urban educational policy. Her intended thesis is an autoethnography focusing on long term consequences of racial experiences in developmental years.
|Fig 3 Left to right: Howard Wolk. Jonathan Schwartzand Jamal Williams|
As an early era METCO student, he considered himself a player and boasted that he could “sell anything to anyone.” No doubt, Jamal has pizzazz, but we wonder what lies underneath and if a lifetime of code-switching has left an imprint.
The METCO program seeks to alleviate educational inequities, and as a derivative function, to address social, economic and racial injustices in its partner schools. At its half-century mark, it’s a worthy exercise to reflect on the progress that METCO has made. The recollections and opinions contributed by the diverse characters in Code-Switching add their voices to this healthy discourse.
|Fig 4. Left to right: Erik Angra and Johann Grimm|
|Fig. 5 Left to right: Jonathan Goodnow and Joann Grimm|