It Was Worth. Every. Single. Minute. And then some.
My Manual experience held two magical qualities that I later came to discover were not to be found in most of my college and adult friends' high school experiences. The first magical quality was that everyone wanted to be there. They had written compelling essays and submitted detailed transcripts to ensure it was so. We wanted to be there to get smart, do well, and be successful both there and beyond. It wasn't spoken. It was in the air. In my insecure moments, the full-of-expectation air was sometimes hard to gulp, but - man - once airborne, greatness is viral.
The second was that it was wildly diverse. In. Every. Way. I do not know if this is true, but it felt to me that the minority populations combined came close to equalling the white population. Since it drew from the entire Jefferson County district (which is a very, very large place) and since neighborhood and proximity-to-building had nothing to do with how the demographics shook out, it was like the United Nations. Blacks, Indians, Asians, and on and on. Non-racially speaking, Manual also celebrated as one of its magnet programs The Youth Performing Arts School (YPAS), which drew in whimsical ballet-dancers, piano prodigies, theater nuts, and aspiring painters - so there was an artsy crowd, too, along with all the other typical-high-school subgroups: goth, gay, skater, computer geeks, pot-head, preps, jocks... held together by the common thread of wanting to get smart. This slice of heaven was where I called home for four beautiful years.
In addition to classes, I ran Cross Country and Track and Field all four of those years. And although my Cross Country Team was composed of only gangly, cooky runners who were white, my Track and Field experiences yielded lots of black friends. Two of my four years running distance for the Track team were under the leadership of a black coach. At some point Coach somehow got his hand on public transportation vouchers and transfers, allowing those who used it to get home free. Because my parents loved that I chose Manual but did NOT love what it was doing to their gas budget and personal time, I rode the public bus home most days (before my driver's license and beater car replaced it). I remember being the only white runner who stood in line when those were getting handed out. Again, part of my story.
While at Manual, I built social skills that made me feel confident talking to any single soul I wanted to talk to. I lifted weights and small talked on strength training days right next to Line-Backer-Looking shot-put throwers (did I mention I'm little?). High School was when I learned all sorts of super-un-important-but-interesting-to-me facts about black people's skin (it CAN get sunburnt) and hair (it is generally NOT washed every day) and was exposed to public display of gay affection and what people act like when they're high and that guys in ballet leotards in Calculus class can be totally fly. On longer bus trips to and fro track meets at different schools, I remember all of us athletes, exhausted from an afternoon exerting ourselves in humid-heat, found time to give shout-outs and high-fives to EACH member of the team, from the mostly-white 1 mile and 2 mile runners to the mostly-black 100 meter and 200 meter runners. And when it came time to pick a senior prom theme song, the Student Council Steering Committee, of which I held office, had bold conversations about how to make selections. In the end, it was voted on by the entire class, but the Steering Committee was responsible for the choices. I remember that it was very on the minds of leadership how not to pick songs that lent themselves too strongly to one population of students or another. We had LOTS of populations, so song-choice deliberation was tedious.
We could roll with differences at Manual High School. And race was just one of them.
I tell this story (of my general high school experience), because it frames my obsession with diversity ever since. It was like crack-cocaine. The growth I experienced from 1993-1997 had a lot to do with Magical Quality Number One. But I give Magical Quality Number Two the same, if not more, credit for the shaping of my launch-into-the-world status on graduation day. Truth be told, it was the hybrid of the two that formed Magical Quality Number Three: young people of every walk of life accepting each other and concurrently working toward the common high standard of greatness for themselves.