Sorting by

Skip to main content

School at the Hills turnoff

By August 21, 2015 3 Comments

An extra day in Topeka, Kansas hadn’t been on our agenda. The car wasn’t repaired yet, three days later.  It had been, from the get-go, that kind of vacation. We had no choice but to stay, so we holed up at a motel (thank goodness for Priceline) not far from the Honda garage and dug in, even though we wanted so badly to be chugging along north, back home. Wasn’t going to happen.

We could have done worse. The temps had topped a century since we’d come to Kansas, and we could have been in the little old vacation house we’d rented, a Grandma’s house if you’ve ever seen one, where the only air conditioning was in the bedrooms. There we’d sat with our Oklahoma kids, four of us sitting around a bed in a two-bedroom frame place on Main in a town that once was. Having fun yet?

At least Topeka had things to do, things to see. The C of C website had a ton of can’t-miss attractions, including the State Capitol and the Kansas Museum of History. There were other possibilities, including, oddly enough, a museum commemorating Brown vs. Board of Education. Imagine that, I told myself, an entire museum commemorating a court decision to end racial segregation–never thought of that. Didn’t even know the Board of  Education was Topeka’s, way back when.

But I was looking for another Brown, John Brown the famous abolitionist/madman. Part of the reason we were in Kansas was to know more about the famous bleeding eastern edge of the state did in the 1850s, so we got in our rental car–a truck, a big Marlboro Man Chevy–and paid a visit to the capital and State Historical Society’s new museum just outside of town. Great choices, both of them.

That was two weeks ago now.


Yesterday, Alan Page, 22-year veteran of the Minnesota Supreme Court and, not incidentally, a star defensive end for the Vikings and an all-Pro Hall of Famer, told an interviewer on Minnesota Public Radio that for him football had been pretty much of a means to an end. He’d always wanted to be a lawyer, he said, but when an uncle and an older brother played football and did well, he took it up himself and managed a startlingly good career.

Why a lawyer? the interviewer asked.

He always wanted to be one, he said. Maybe he watched too much Perry Mason, he joked. But then he said something that stopped me in my tracks right there on the highway. He said he remembers Brown vs. Board of Education because even though he was only a kid, he knew that ruling had changed him and changed life itself. He was nine years old in 1954, but he can still remember reading newspaper articles and somehow understanding that the decision was going to have a profound effect on the country in which he lived. “Somewhere deep inside me,” he says in that interview, “that decision had a deep impact.”

I’m almost his age, and at 67, my feet can’t take too many museums; in complaining they outperform the Isrealites. Still, I love museums. I really do. But right there in Topeka, Kansas, it never dawned on me to go to the National Historical Site museum celebrating the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. It never dawned on me to go find the place because, unlike Alan Page, Brown vs. Board didn’t really matter to me when I was a boy in a lily-white town, up north, where I grew up.

So anyway I’m riding along yesterday, late morning, listening to the radio on my way back from a keynote speech I’d just given to a big room full of teachers who are facing schoolrooms this morning, first week of a brand new fall term. That’s when Alan Page comes on the radio tells me that he’d watched too much Perry Mason as a kid and held the opinion that lawyers didn’t do a whole lot but get rich and drive big cars–that’s how it was he thought lawyering was something he wanted to be.

Then came Brown vs. Board of Education. That did it, he said, because he knew, even though he was only nine years old, that for him the whole world had changed.

Racism isn’t just hate. Sometimes it’s just neglect. “Hmmmm–a museum for Brown vs. Board. Isn’t that interesting?” I told myself.  “There any coffee left in that pot?”

Black lives matter.

Twenty minutes before, I’d been telling teachers how incredibly important their jobs really are in the scheme of things, but I forgot to tell them that one of the tasks they simply have to fulfill to succeed, one of the most important for all of us to fill, even teachers, is to learn.

Call it a Hwy 75 epiphany, somewhere around the Hills turnoff. Suddenly, In a moment, Brown vs. Board made so much difference.



James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.


  • Sara Tolsma says:

    Thank you for this reminder of white privilege. We need a reminder all too often.

  • Rich says:

    My wife, born in November of 1955 and I, born in March of 1953, grew up on the Dutch south side of Chicago. We were in Topeka a few years ago for a church meeting at the Ramada Convention Center. We skipped out of the meeting and walked to the museum one cold morning. (“You walked?” people asked us. Did they ask because of the weather or neighborhood or for someother reason?) We couldn’t help thinking about our world in Dutch Chicago in the 1950’s and the world of Brown v. Board of Education. Our grandsons were attending school that day in Omaha at Martin Luther King Jr. Magnet School in what is typically called “north” Omaha. Today, my oldest grandson attends North High School and my younger one will attend there next year. For those two guys, this is nothing out of the ordinary. The tears I had in my eyes In Topeka suggested a different reaction on my part.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Thanks so much for this.

Leave a Reply