“I’m not Chinese. I’m Vietnamese.”
As a peer corrected me, so began my ongoing quest for cultural competence. It was 1986, and I was a kindergartner at Irwin Avenue Open Elementary School. I came from a predominantly black neighborhood, went to a predominantly black church, and had gone to a preschool that was diverse from a black/white perspective. In time, I would learn not only about Chinese and Vietnamese, but Laotian, Cambodian, Hmong and many other cultures.
Irwin Avenue was a unique place. Irwin didn’t stop at desegregation. Irwin believed in integration. We not only acknowledged our differences; we embraced them as part of a united quest to understand and respect each other.
We took class tours through nearby Biddleville, learning our city’s history. Shared peer learning was encouraged, and we sought to bring out the best in each other. This maximized our individual learning and critical thinking skills. At Irwin, simply reciting words from a book was not learning. We sought to translate information into real-world application.
Irwin set a great tone for my transition to Piedmont Open Middle School, which was also dedicated to individualized learning and success for all. Whether you lived in Piedmont Courts, Hampshire Hills, Elizabeth, Earle Village, or Plaza Midwood, maximizing your and your neighbors’ potential was expected. When the “achievement gap” came up my geometry teacher, David Butler, would nonchalantly say, “What gap?” His kids routinely scored at the top of the state. Butler High School is named after him.
In Martha O’Neil’s drama class, we created skits related to social issues for our peer groups – gossip, abusive relationships and divorce. This multicultural group of kids was invited to perform and talk around the state. We won a state competition, and were invited to the national Future Problem Solvers of America competition, held mainly for high school students.
We were just glad to go. But this group of unassuming ninth graders with a commitment to community awareness and addressing social issues won first place. The judges said they were impressed with our critical thinking skills and ability to confront tough issues honestly.
West Charlotte High
When I finished Piedmont Middle, I was presented with a challenging decision. I was invited to apply to a prominent private school in Charlotte. I took a tour and the admissions test. But I did not want to be one of 15 black students at a K-12 school. Instead, I chose West Charlotte High School.
West Charlotte had an amazing level of diversity. It blended families from the Northwest Corridor with those from Hampshire Hills, Elizabeth, Hidden Valley, Eastover and other communities. It was nationally known as a great example of successful integration in a pioneering school system. It captured multiple state championships ranging from football to debate, and the longest streak of Morehead Scholars in the city. West Charlotte seemed to have it all.
West Charlotte destroyed the myth that middle-class white kids would be held back by attending diverse schools. Graduates enrolled at almost all of the Ivies, as well as top public and private schools across the nation. Lion Pride was universal.
West Charlotte was not perfect. There were plenty of cultural competency missteps. I remember being one of two black youth invited to a dance at Charlotte Country Club, where I was mistakenly assumed to be “the help.” Our principal held a black male assembly that focused on 1) being successful; and 2) how to interact with the police. But as West Charlotte students, we were committed to working with each other to address these issues.
Sadly, soon after I graduated, a judge ended the CMS desegregation plan. Several of my peers and I had gone to the courthouse to protest, because we knew what the result of overturning the case would be. Many schools, including West Charlotte, resegregated.
As I have grown into adulthood and continued the work for social justice, I thank Irwin, Piedmont, and West Charlotte for embracing diversity. They allowed me to grow into a man with decent competence in navigating our ever-growing, multicultural city.
My CMS experiences allow me to enjoy haircuts and banter at Tom’s Barber Shop on Beatties Ford and LaSalle while simultaneously challenging my church, Covenant Presbyterian in Dilworth, on how we approach a series on race relations. It is the kind of education I want for my son.
As I flashback to my Piedmont drama class’s victory in the Future Problem Solvers of America competition, I realize that Charlotte’s future problem is now present. Its name is segregation. I’m ready to work towards solving it.
Perry co-chairs OneMeck, a group that advocates for diversity in CMS.