Looking at a picture of me on stage at the Lyceum Theatre, honoring a couple of girls who had written a remarkable play, I couldn’t help but reflect on my fifty year love affair with San Diego and its children – going back regarding the city to when I first laid eyes on the place, after flying here with my University of Arizona Wildcat basketball team back in the 50’s. The raw beauty I observed on the ride from the Grant Hotel through Balboa Park on what was then 395 (now 163) absolutely mesmerized me. So it was easy for me, after earning a couple of degrees, to leave the burning deserts of the Old Pueblo and head to a town where there existed cool ocean breezes.
I arrived in a rusty 49 ford with my mother at my side because she was afraid I would fall asleep on the drive. My wife and kids had preceded us by a couple of days.
Saturday night segued into Sunday morning, August 26, 1962 as I drove. Shortly after we arrived I played some round ball with some guys at Mountain View Park and before I knew it San Diego’s Finest came by and had me up against a wall with my arms and legs spread wide. “Looking for a burglar” was their lie. And all I could think of, in my state of disbelief, to give myself a bit of comic relief, was “Dude, sure must have been one tall dark and handsome sweaty ass thief.”
But, hey, being from Tucson, Arizona, what else was new? The day after this “Being Black and a Burglar While Playing Basketball” incident I reported to my first teaching job at Perry Elementary in Bayview Naval Housing. It was in that 3 R’s world that my love for the city’s children grew. Not right away, though. I mean I came to them feeling a little shaky, a little jumpy, like most people who are “probationary” and new and not real sure of what to do. But I instinctively knew enough to treat those kids in Room B5 like they were the most special people alive, and they treated me likewise in return.
The initial hitch was that as a 24 year old I wasn’t long removed from my own childhood and hadn’t yet realized how valuable my being raised with exposure to art and music and sports and books and travel and interesting and colorful folks and all kinds of political and religious and secular and common sense ideas would be to me – and when I got off my “Me teacher, you student” high horse filled with a bunch of “shall nots” that made absolutely no sense and called on these life experiences to form lessons that were relevant to both myself and my charges’ lives, I discovered I had found the magic to teaching: the human touch.
The more I shared who I was and what I was about the closer we became. I found they like to be wowed! “Mr. McCray,” you had to sit in the back of the bus? Wow!” – “You scored 46 points in a game? Wow!” – “You met Satchel Paige and Martin Luther King? Wow!”
Then came the “Wow!” bag of tricks: hitting a softball over the bungalows; executing reverse 360 slam dunks when we were out for P.E.; writing funny ditties; busting mambo moves… It’s all about finding a groove.
And such a life goes by in a flash, it seems, in scenes. I remember students and I opening our hearts to each other and writing prose and poetry and creating dances to make sense of what we were going through when we lost John and Medgar and Malcolm and Martin and Bobby; when so many of the dads were in Vietnam and so many teenagers and young adults were hitch hiking to Canada.
I’ll never forget confronting my colleagues about the hypocrisy of talking about “integrating” our schools while millions of our retirement fund dollars were going to businesses operating in South Africa where “apartheid” was a way of life – while they stared at me as though I was Freddie Krueger. I can still feel the frustration of trying to get a school superintendent to understand how undercover drug busts on our campuses undermined our ability to build trust with students and the equally annoying feeling of having to say “Hell no!” to Prop 187 which was designed to flesh out “illegals” in our schools, as being a deputy for “la migra” was not in my job description. Not to mention that my Latino students were dear amigos of mine.
There’s never a lack of things to do for children in this city. The militarization of them in their schools has occupied many a minute of my time over the years – through Project YANO (Youth and Non-Military Opportunities) – as the school system has no apparent problem with Uncle Sam rounding up our youth to wage his ill-conceived wars, caught up, like our society, in general, with jiving them regarding the military with talk about patriotism and heroism and the possibility of earning money for college – with no mention of killing and dying. YANO gives them the info they need to “go for what they know” as we used to say.
Nothing has added more to my feelings of love for San Diego and its children than being involved over the years as an actor and board member with the Playwrights Project which conducts the annual California Playwrighting Contest for writers under the age of 19, and produces the winning plays with professional actors and directors and set designers and stage hands and managers at the Lyceum Theatre. The artistic ideas that live in the minds of young people like those with whom I’m posing in the picture accompanying this writing never ceases to amaze me.
And as I approach my 51st year in San Diego it will be with the belief that my work has no end based on the notion that since I have encouraged children to live a decent life and actively work to change their world for the better, they, when they run into me at Vons, should still see me as a model citizen who’s forever working on issues of peace and justice in the community.
So, not wanting to behave in any other way, I’ll keep plugging away at turning this battered old world around and keep on loving this other city by the bay and its children more and more everyday.
Latest posts by Ernie McCray (see all)
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