I don’t look back on my years in high school a lot. I was unpopular, just about ostracized—for my weight, for my awkwardness, for my total geekiness. My politics in that left-leaning school were instead right-leaning. I never participated in the numerous demonstrations the students would wage for one cause or against another. Of course, my terrible lack of self-confidence only made things worse.
Back in the seventies we had forced bussing, and the racial divide was deep and hostile. The issues were as black and white as the color of our skin. If you walked into the cafeteria at lunchtime, you would have seen tables of white and tables of black.
That all changed for me my junior year in high school. I took Chemistry that year, hoping to do well enough to get into nursing school. Chemistry was a tough subject for me, but we had a simply wonderful teacher named H. Clair Rankin. As you can imagine, all of us tried to figure out what the “H” stood for. We figured that if he was going by Clair, the “H” name had to be God-awful. Anyway, our speculations were all in good fun because I don’t believe there was a single student who thought Mr. Rankin was anything but wonderful.
There was a black girl in the class who sat next to me, new to our school that year. Her name, she told me with some pride, was Constance LaMay Rice—but I could call her Connie. She was fun and so incredibly intelligent—and somehow, she hadn’t gotten the memo that I was supposed to be shunned. I guess neither of us got the memo that white people and black people weren’t supposed to become friends. For the first time since elementary school, I had a best friend who understood me and thought I was fun and intelligent.
Connie’s mom was a science teacher and her dad was an Air Force Colonel. Her brother, Phillip and she were close in age and in temperament. I learned a lot about them that year, because they completely accepted me into their family. Connie and I ate lunch together every day, joined occasionally by Phillip, but otherwise sitting at a mostly empty table. We talked about our lives and our beliefs and our ambitions—mine to become a nurse, Connie’s to lead a politically active life, to right wrongs. Because of her father’s work, her family moved frequently, and I listened in awe as she told me about all the places where she’d lived growing up.
Connie was popular, and through her I got to know some of the other kids in our advanced placement courses. Somehow, the Connie “seal of approval” made me okay in others’ eyes. Gradually, they started joining us for lunch, the only table with black kids and white kids co-mingled and talking excitedly to one another.
Connie’s family moved again right after the school year ended, down to Texas. It broke my heart to watch her leave, to know it was unlikely she would be back to Ohio. We wrote to one another frequently, though, and celebrated when I got into Vanderbilt School of Nursing, and she got into Harvard.
I saw her only once after we started college. She came through Cleveland over Christmas break and stopped by my house where we gathered some friends and told one another all our freshman adventures.
Her ideas were so big, and so foreign from mine. It was as if she was ignited by the learning and new experiences. It was my own sense of personal “smallness” that made me believe we had taken radically different paths and that I didn’t have a place in her big, big life. The letters gradually slowed down and then eventually stopped. I never tried to look her up to reconnect.
That was the lack in me. Today, the day before we celebrate the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr., I googled Connie on a whim. Even if she had only shared her life with me briefly, she had a tremendous and important impact on me. Yes, she opened my eyes to racism and equity, to issues with which I hadn’t previously grappled. She allowed me to understand that people are just people, and it is their hearts and minds and experiences that are important. She also saw and appreciated me, and that was an incredible gift.
Connie has lived a big, vital life, working on causes that mattered to her back in high school. She graduated from NYU law school and has worked to protect the legal, social and economic rights of the poor and marginalized. There are articles written about her work, and she was quoted as saying that her aim has been “to help the poor end their own poverty.” She has won numerous national awards and was named as one of the ten most influential attorneys in California.
She has had an amazing life, and I doubt she would remember how she changed the life of one overweight white girl junior year of high school. Or, perhaps she would. After all, her gift is her ability to see people, to learn their hearts and minds and experiences, and to simply accept and welcome who they are.