It may have been the close proximity of this weekend’s reunion, or it may have been the amount of windshield time driving solo back from Bonham. Whichever was the case, an article in the morning’s newspaper turned my thoughts toward high school. In particular I was reminded of a senior year practice that I am not sure is still followed. The last four decades have brought so many technological and cultural changes, it’s quite possible the exchange of graduating photos with classmates may have been replaced by My Space and YouTube. But it was popular when I was a high school senior.
The article that piqued my interest was the first installment in a planned series of articles celebrating the first 25 years of USA Today. Titled, “Live and let live,” the newspaper uses the results of a current poll conducted by USA Today and the Gallup organization. They compared the results with similar polls taken earlier by Gallup and other news sources. According to the newspaper, the comparison of the results support what many Americans see in their daily lives; since 1983 people have become more tolerant on a variety of issues. One major change has been a growing tolerance of our neighbors and their ideas and lifestyles. On each of the five questions asked in the poll the percentage of approval (more tolerance) increased. The questions respondents were asked included, do you approve or disapprove of men and women living together without being married? Do you approve or disapprove of marriage between blacks and whites? Should women be allowed to hold combat jobs in the U.S. armed forces? Should homosexuality be considered an acceptable lifestyle? And should gay couples be legally permitted to adopt children?
Some of the increasing tolerance they point out is the result of legislation. In 1990 and again in 1997, Congress broadened the Education of All Handicapped Children Act. The legislation made it easier for children with learning disabilities to receive special education or be mainstreamed into schools. Similarly, the Equal Access Act, which was ruled constitutional in 1990, allows the formation of religious clubs in schools that allow non-curriculum clubs at the secondary level. Bible clubs and Christian clubs now number in the hundreds, if not thousands. They have joined Hispanic clubs, gay clubs and clubs for African Americans on high school campuses.
According to the newspaper, the increased tolerance is the result of more exposure to people who are different than we are. Nearly everyone these days knows an unmarried couple living together — there are 9.8 million Americans who live with an unmarried person of the opposite sex. When we work or go to school or go to church with people with different living styles, different religions, and different races and backgrounds, it helps us to learn that we need not fear or disparage those people. The exposure to children with special needs has helped reduce the number of other students that make fun of them.
It was a common practice for graduating seniors to personalize the back of the photos they gave to classmates with a handwritten message. For the most part the messages were innocuous, “We’ve had a great time, pleasure knowing you and good luck in the future,” etc. The message written on the back of one of the photographs I received from a classmate really surprised me. During our three years in high school, we had only one class together, but we became friends during the semester. We exchanged greetings and talked occasionally over the remaining two years, but it was mostly casual and limited to a superficial level. I will admit to not having been particularly astute at recognizing the nuances of interest exhibited by the opposite gender. So I was not prepared for the message I read on the back of her photo — she regretted that she did not get to know me like she would have liked to, but since the circumstances were not favorable, she would always value our friendship as it was.
There was a powerful social dynamic at play in the era in which Carolyn and I went through school. It was that dynamic she was referencing when she wrote the circumstances were not favorable. In 1962, interracial dating was unheard of, it was so nonexistent it was barely thought about, let alone discussed. According to the USA poll, 79 percent of Americans today approve of marriage between blacks and whites. Drawing from a longer perspective of 45 years, I agree with USA Today: we have become a remarkably more tolerant nation.
Robert Brincefield is publisher of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Sunday. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.