"It was a time not that long ago, but one which you younger people probably can't even imagine."
The professor speaking to us was from the University of Utah, but had grown up in these parts. In fact, I'd taught two of his younger brothers. He was writing a book about the time of segregation in South Texas. My students were rapt with attention as he spoke of the days in which students in our very district attended two separate and unequal schools, one for Hispanics and one for Anglos. When the Supreme Court decreed racial integration, this school district and others got around it in other ways. Yes, children would all go to the same school, but the school board saw to it that segregation was still practiced.
He told of how students with Spanish surnames were forced to attend first grade for three consecutive years, and were also automatically labeled "retarded" if Spanish was their first language. This meant that eight and nine year old children were still in first grade, no matter how intelligent they were or how fluent they were in Spanish or English.
In 1957, a little girl named Linda was forced into the remedial, three year first grade program, even though she spoke no language other than English, and was by all accounts a very bright girl. Her parents and others with children in the school filed suit against the school district.
The speaker continued. "My mother was one of the original plaintiffs. She and 5 other eight and nine year old girls had to testify in court. Their teachers sat in the front row and the girls had to face them each time they took the stand. The judge was very gruff with them and tried to intimidate them. People who were there that day say the girls spoke clearly and answered each question with dignity despite the stare-down tactics of the teachers and the rudeness of the judge.
"In the end, they ruled that the discriminatory system must be done away with and the school had to offer equal education for all students. My mom was eventually elected the first Mexican American Homecoming Queen of her high school when she was a senior. She was 21 when she graduated."
One of my students raised her hand. "What does your mom think about the way things turned out?" she asked.
"Well, she passed away from cancer. She had a successful career as a chemist and worked very hard with my dad at raising my brothers and me." He choked up and cleared his throat. After a moment, he continued. "She never spoke about this with us. I found all this out by reading court records and talking with other family members after she died. She still felt shame about how they were treated and didn't want to bring it up anymore. It hurts my heart to think about her, a little eight year old girl, having to get up on that stand and face those adults who were so mean to her. To my last breath, though, I will always be so very, tremendously proud of her."
Another student raised his hand. "What about the other families involved in the lawsuit?"
The professor looked around the room. "How many in here have the last name of Trevino, Gonzalez, Rivera, Aleman, or Hernandez?"
A number of students raised their hands. "When you go home, ask your parents and grandparents about this and see if you are related to anyone involved. Chances are, since this is such a small community, you are. You have brave people like that to thank that you are able to get the wonderful education you get now.
"We have a responsibility to honor those who came before us and broke down barriers. One of the ways we honor them is to do the absolute best we can with opportunities they never even dreamed of having.
"My great grandfather and grandfather plowed these very fields," he said as he pointed out the windows at the farmland around us. "They had to use mules and a hand plow while working for other people. Every time I drive here, I stop at these fields and look at the dirt, and the furrows that still grow cotton and think of them. If it wouldn't have been for their sacrifice, I wouldn't be where I am now, having traveled all over the world, having worked for the CIA, having a law degree and being a professor. Never forget to pay tribute to those who make things possible for you through their sacrifices."
The students gave him a standing ovation and were full of questions for me after we got back to our room. I was pleased it was making an impact on them.
Later that afternoon, my fitness class was running a large loop down the country roads and through the freshly plowed fields. I bring up the rear on these runs to be sure no one is left behind. As I rounded a corner, I saw four girls kneeling near the edge of a field.
I was concerned someone was hurt and sprinted to get to them. "Girls, what happened?"
They looked up at me. Each had a small handful of dirt. One of them raised her head and said, "Our ancestors worked these fields, too. We'd never really thought about it before today, about how much work they had to do and how hard it was. So we're remembering them right now, and being thankful for what they did so that we could have a better life."
Sometimes paying it forward means also paying it backwards, too.