Waving good-bye to my parents on the Penn Station train platform, fighting back tears from growing pains, I sensed that something momentous was about to happen to me. On the long train ride from New York to Indiana, I thought about how I had never ventured so far away from home by myself. For a New York metropolitan-area teenager, I was provincial, sheltered, and naïve. I hadn’t dated much and was never permitted to go to “The City” with my friends. Instead, I occupied myself with academics, music, and sports.
I was about to graduate from high school in spring of 1967, but I hadn’t yet decided which college to attend. Should I go with hundreds of other Long Islanders to the State University of New York at Buffalo and take advantage of low tuition for in-state residents, or to Valparaiso, a more expensive, religiously affiliated college, which my high school classmates had never heard of, couldn’t pronounce, and ridiculed me for even considering? But Valpo, as it’s called, was offering small classes and a close intellectual and social community. Trying hard to recruit me, they had raised their incentive stipend and invited me to the college’s spring weekend.
When I got off the train at Valpo, I was surprised to see that my weekend hostess was an actual hippie. We hung out with her friends, sitting cross-legged on the floor of her tiny living room, smoking and drinking, talking about the war and civil rights, and listening to Jefferson Airplane. I felt so grown-up, so sophisticated. One of her friends, a tall, handsome black guy, astounded me by asking if I’d go with him the next night to the spring weekend concert to hear Simon and Garfunkel, whom I adored. I was thrilled to be going on a date with a college guy, especially a black college guy. I could not wait to tell my music teacher, Mr. Booker T. Gibson, the only black person at our junior-senior high school. My Long Island town at the time was all white; so was my high school, except for Mr. Gibson. Because Long Island was so segregated, he could not even live in or even near the school and had to commute an hour from a town where blacks were permitted to live.
Everyone loved Mr. Gibson; not only did he teach us about all forms of music, but when he played excerpts from the great Italian operas, he also told us the plots—or at least, as he called them, the teenage versions. He informed us more about sex, relationship entanglements, and love—the tragic kind—than the sex education units of our joke of a health course. He made us feel enlightened, grown up, and cool. On the piano, he could play thousands of songs, and until his recent death at 85, he played in Long Island piano-bars.
After a thrilling date hearing Simon and Garfunkel play songs from The Graduate, meeting my smart, funny fellow student recruits, and talking to friendly professors of the classes I’d be taking, I was totally sold on Valpo.
When I returned, I visited Mr. Gibson in his classroom after school, still high from my trip. “I have something important to tell you,” I announced; “You know what happened when I visited that college in Indiana last weekend? A black college student asked me out on a date, and I went with him to hear Simon and Garfunkel!”
“That’s terrific,” Mr. Gibson replied, “You’re lucky that he was so open-minded and unprejudiced.”
I didn’t know how to respond. Was he joking? My date was the lucky one? That’s certainly not what I expected him to say. Changing the subject, I told him how I had decided to attend that college as a music major specializing in piano, just like him.
Reflecting on our conversation, I realized that I had actually expected Mr. Gibson to praise me— for being magnanimous enough to date a black man. I had been ignorant enough to believe that a black man should want to date a white woman and that the choice of inter-racial dating was only mine, not his, too. And I was completely oblivious to Mr. Gibson as my audience and most importantly, as a human being. How could I have failed to see that spring weekend had occurred in the middle of a movement fighting the very segregation Mr. Gibson lived with daily? I hope he forgave me for my unconscious racism that at least I have become more aware of since high school.