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Culture Shock Five Years After M.L. King

Robert Odell has traveled and come in contact with various cultures, gaining invaluable life experiences along the way.

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Headed Straight for Culture Shock

One day after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I've Been to the Mountaintop” speech in Memphis, Tennessee, he was fatally wounded at the city's Lorraine Motel. Many Americans vented their shock, sadness, and outrage, by rioting and violence. More than 100 cities across the United States were affected by the tumult. Some public disturbances raged on for several days. In the weeks following the shooting in Memphis, hundreds of buildings were burned, thousands of arrests were made, and more than 40 people lost their lives. Five years after the furor, the city of Memphis was still engulfed in racial polarization and disenfranchisement. As a young military brat, I was headed straight for the culture shock of my life when we moved to Memphis shortly before my father retired from the Air Force.

A New Life

At the age of sixteen, in the middle of my junior year in high school, we moved into a new state, a new neighborhood, and a new life. My father had only about a year and a half to go before he retired from the military, so we decided to settle in our permanent home in Memphis. Right away, I started experiencing culture shocks.

Shock Number One

The first shocking thing that I discovered was that the neighborhood we moved into, called The Westwood Community, was not mixed racially. As a military family, we had been living in integrated neighborhoods all of my life. Now suddenly, we were in an environment that was at least 95% black. The real shocker was when I found out the neighborhood used to be all white. When blacks started moving in, whites stared moving out. I was amazed to find out that people actually lived that way! I pondered why people lived with one race on one side of town and another race on the another side of town. I had seen stuff like that on television, but I thought it was outdated.

The proof came when the white family that was staying next door to us moved out less than a month after we moved in. I just couldn’t believe it. I wondered if the whole nation was messed up like that. I witnessed "For Sale" signs popping up all over the place. The few white families that remained stayed just long enough to see their children graduate from nearby Westwood High School. The school began as an all white school. Some of the white students in the area had been attending school in the Westwood area from kindergarten on up and just wanted to stick it out until graduation. This brings me to culture shock number two.

Shock Number Two

I received another shock when I went to school and, to my amazement, it was 99% black. I had never seen so many black students in one place in my life. Living in a variety of places and attending several different schools, I would frequently wonder why I would often be the only black student in many of my classes. I found the answer to that question as soon as I entered my new school. It seemed that an overwhelming amount of the country's black population was living in Memphis and in our neighborhood!

I was a very quite student, but to my advantage, my white classmates used to interpret my being quiet as being cool. The black students (especially the girls) interpreted my quietness as being “stuck-up.” Perhaps it was good that I did keep my mouth shut for a while because I honestly could not understand some of the slang terms a lot of the students were using. It took weeks for me to catch on. However, after I learned how to “speak” to people (greeting folks with a “what’s happening or a “what’s going on,” even though I didn’t know them) I became less and less “stuck-up.”

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Shock Number Three

Another shock occurred when I discovered that, academically, my new school was behind the college prep school that I came from in Arizona. Classes that I had in the freshman block, in Arizona, seemed to be on the same level as some of the eleventh grade classes I was to take at the new school. As a result of arriving with a good grade point average, it didn’t take long to acquire a reputation, at Westwood, for being smart. I can’t say that I was smart, but I was in the top ten of my graduating class from that school the next year (barely making number ten).

Shock Number Four

The band was also a shocker. I came to Memphis during the second half of my Junior year in high school. I left Arizona playing third trumpet. When I got to Memphis, I found that the majority of the band members, in my new school, were just short of being beginners. To my amazement, I ended up playing first trumpet. After the seniors left, I ended up being first trumpet, first chair. For that reason, I was considered to be the best trumpet player in the band, and also the trumpet section leader. I couldn’t help but think that I wasn’t really all that great of a horn player. I knew that there were guys in Arizona who could play rings around me. I recall, as a freshman in Arizona, being awe struck at the skills the older musicians had. The awe that I had for the older band members, when I was in the ninth grade, was the same awe that the band members had for me at my new school in Memphis. I felt good but also somewhat undeserving.

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Excellent Opportunity

The next year, when I was about to be in the twelfth grade, the Memphis political leaders decided that the schools in Memphis should be more integrated. Busing, and the controversy surrounding it, had reared its hideous head in Memphis. The teenagers, on our street, were to be bused to Hillcrest High School, which was a predominately white school. Hillcrest was one of the better schools in Memphis. They had a football team that was constantly “All-State” and the band was one of the best in the state. As a matter of fact, the Hillcrest High School jazz band was about to go on a European tour. I felt that those guys were professional, practically world famous no doubt. It seemed that I had an excellent opportunity to be a part of something great. It would be almost like being at the college prep school in Arizona again.

Academically, Hillcrest seemed to be somewhat more advanced than Westwood High. Any other time I would have had no choice but to be bused and go to another new school. However, I had an “ace in the hole” this time around. Since I was going to be a senior, I had the option of choosing to go to whatever school I wanted to attend. The ball was in my court, so to speak. My brother and sister had also spent some time at Westwood. That was the first time that all three of us were able to go to the same school at the same time. Through the years, I would always end up in a different school form my two younger siblings. Most of the time, the schools that we attended separated the Junior High from the High School. When we first moved to the city, some of the Memphis schools incorporated both Junior High and High Schools. As a result, for the first time, all three of us were simultaneously attending the same school and could continue to do so if I made the choice to attend Hillcrest High.

Big Decision

I thought about it, and I must say that Hillcrest seemed to have a lot more to offer than Westwood did. If I went to Hillcrest, I would more than likely end up playing third trumpet again. The superior horn players would be a challenge to me and I would dramatically improve my skills as a result. I would be able to hone my improvisational techniques in a fantastic environment. But for some strange reason, I felt that the band at Westwood needed me. I felt that I could really help the band out by being first trumpet, first chair.

Underneath it all, I was really tired of changing schools. I really did not want to start all over again in a new school, in my last year. I had made a few new friends at Westwood and I was adapting to the culture quite well. So I made a decision that would affect my musical career forever. I decided to stay at Westwood High School. Perhaps it was vanity, or perhaps I wanted to be a big fish in a little pond, rather than a little fish in a big pond. Regardless of the reason, I had begun to settle down, and I had successfully made it through one of the greatest culture shocks that I had ever received.

© 2019 Robert Odell Jr

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