White Girl in a Black World

Published 12:00 am Sunday, May 18, 2003

Samantha McCraw’s right leg is dancing a mile a minute. She’s hunched over a computer, nose inches from the screen, eyes riveted on the monitor’s mutli-colored geometric shapes. Every so often, she leans back, looks around and cracks her knuckles &045;&045; each finger pop audible in a room marked with little more than the tapping of keyboards.

The 17-year-old Selma High School (SHS) senior is in her late-morning drafting class, designing a &uot;belt tightener,&uot; her final project for the year. She’s sitting at the end of a row of nine computer stations, each, at the moment, occupied by other solemn-faced students.

The scene would be unremarkable, except for the obvious: McCraw’s white, her classmates black.

She’s one of four Caucasian and two Asian students in this school of 1,020.

McCraw knows little else. She’s been in classrooms with some of these black students since age 10, made friends along the way and stuck to the mantra that’s helped her gain respect and admiration …

To thine own self be true.

McCraw’s been succeeding in this challenging atmosphere her own way &045;&045; no imitation, no capitulation, no compromise.

She is who she, she’ll tell you. And most of her classmates like her that way.

Britney Smith, for instance, first met McCraw when the two shared a third-grade classroom. Smith, 18, who’s president of the 227-member SHS senior class, points to McCraw’s personality as her strongest attribute &045;&045; crucial to her relatively seamless SHS integration.

It’s the next morning …

McCraw’s sitting in an advanced math classroom the school’s air conditioning system is failing to reach. Three fans are doing little to circulate the air, though the 25 or so students in the room complain little.

McCraw enjoys this class. Her teacher, Ghytana Gibbs, 26, is half instructor, half performance artist. In the midst of teaching equations &045;&045; the likes of which some adults couldn’t fathom in their wildest dreams &045;&045; she keeps up a running duel with her students. She teases them, they tease back. Along the way, learning gets done.

Gibbs, who’s been teaching at SHS for four years, gets into her students’ heads, thus enabling her to touch their hearts.

McCraw, she says, wants to be respected for her intellect, and has little patience for unproductive classwork.

In Gibbs’ classroom, learning travels a two-way street. Students learn from her, she learns from them. In McCraw’s case, the point is even more poignant: Four years on the job, and McCraw is Gibbs’ first white student.

Her color’s negligible, though &045;&045; at least for the most part &045;&045; Gibbs says.

Likewise with McCraw and Gibbs &045;&045; though her teacher’s initial days in class were anxious ones.

The anxiety wore off quickly, though. The relationship between the fledgling black teacher and the experienced white student soon blossomed.

McCraw understands fussing, says longtime friend Raymond Bates, an 18-year-old SHS senior.

Fussing &045;&045; as in pulling no punches.

That notion, if there at all, remains unconscious, McCraw will tell you. She’s fighting, perhaps, for herself, not against others. Her upbringing helped fuel that compassionate philosophy.

The hate, though, has been known to run both ways &045;&045; whites hating blacks, blacks hating whites. Neither McCraw &045;&045; daughter or mom &045;&045; will have any of it.

According to McCraw’s yearbook class teacher Deborah Green, McCraw’s treated by her classmates like any other student &045;&045; about 80 percent of the time. Conflicts arise, she says, when subjects like civil rights are broached.

McCraw’s buddy, Britney Smith, hasn’t either, though she understands Green’s comment about sensitivity.

McCraw doesn’t take the bait, though, Smith says.

By most accounts, McCraw has performed the most delicate of balancing acts &045;&045; remaining herself while embracing another culture. Green observes the phenomenon with undisguised admiration.

It’s lunchtime &045;&045; Selma High School cafeteria style.

McCraw arrives late, so she’s stuck at the back of a long line of students in the dining hall &045;&045; 50 or so hunger-stricken black faces, one white. After about 10 minutes she makes it to the glass-encased food counter, grabs a tray and selects her courses, all the while gabbing away with a friend in front of her.

She pays for her food. Her friend goes one way, McCraw another.

McCraw sits at a table next to her friend Mary Hak, a Cambodian. The rest of her table’s troupe are black. Through the din of conversation and swell of bodies, McCraw’s obvious comfort and delight shine like a pearl in a bed of resplendent ebony. She gestures, teases, laughs. Her friends do the same.

Another day, another challenge.

Yearbook class.

McCraw’s sitting at a computer, flanked on either side by friends Jessica Thomas, 18, and Tiffany Brown, 17. They’re looking at the computer screen, laughing to fit the band. McCraw’s head’s thrown back in hilarity, Thomas draped over her shoulders in obvious stitches.

Meanwhile, their teacher &045;&045; the aforementioned Deborah Green &045;&045; rolls her eyes in besieged embarrassment. The class is custom-fit for good-natured camaraderie, and the students are complying. Every now and then, Green shouts at someone to do something, the student usually responding with feigned ignorance &045;&045; or an excuse.

McCraw, though, stays on task &045;&045; even with her mischievous friends by her side.

Tough love.

That’s probably the best way to describe Eli Welch’s approach to running Selma High School. The boyishly handsome principal’s been at the school’s helm for two years &045;&045; his school cheerleading abilities second to none.

So when he says he’s never seen racial problems at the school, you tend to believe him. In his own words, the concept is even harder to ignore:

His perceptions about McCraw seem to hold water, too &045;&045; though you know he’s not about to diss his own school.

Dignity.

The concept has been drummed into McCraw since she first stepped foot into a classroom. Her mother has insisted on it. She’s also insisted her only child get a good education. At Selma High School, Samantha’s found both, Brenda says.

Had she ever thought of putting her child in private school, as many other white parents have?

Samantha McCraw attended her senior prom on May 10. When asked how it was, she answered in typical clipped fashion: &uot;It was fine.&uot;

Ask her about her high school career, and she’s liable to answer the same. McCraw doesn’t say much more than she has to, but there’s a lot going on inside.

You can tell &045;&045; if you look hard enough.

McCraw graduates from Selma High School in about a week. In early 2004 she will join the United States Navy. She’ll enter the service with a high school experience few have shared. With the passage of time, she may look back on her years here with the perspective and insight only age can bring.

Until then, she’ll let her immediate memories bring a smile to her lips.