Courant Commentary: Being Milo Sheff Was Worth It
Being Milo Sheff Was Worth It: 25 Years After Sheff v. O’Neill Desegregation Case, Lead Plaintiff Reflects On What He Helped Accomplish — And What He Learned Along The Way
by Milo Sheff
May 30, 2014
©The Hartford Courant
When I was 10 — just around the time I got over a bad stutter — my mother, Elizabeth Horton Sheff, asked if I wanted to join the Hartford school desegregation case. I was a fourth-grader at the Annie Fisher School and, after going to a few meetings to hear what it was about, I agreed. It wouldn’t be long before I was speaking at news conferences, thrilled to use my newfound, steady speaking voice.
I was the named plaintiff in the 1989 Sheff v. O’Neill case that has led to the spending of millions of dollars on magnet and charter schools and on other education reforms aimed at giving Hartford students the same opportunity as their suburban peers. Although it has helped thousands of students get a better education, 25 years later, too many students are still in underperforming schools.
When I said yes, I thought it was going to be over quickly. I’d say what’s wrong with the place, they’d fix it.
Little did I know that the case would drag on for another seven years before the Supreme Court ruled our way. In the meantime, I would gain public recognition that brought praise, criticism and attention that at times was impossible to escape.
My time at Quirk Middle School was hard. Teachers would ask me personal questions. Folks wanted to see Milo Sheff fall. I learned a lot of life’s lessons along the way. I had death threats.
People thought it was me trying to go to school with white folks. It was hard to explain what the case meant; that I wanted these schools to be just like the world is. There were kids who wanted to be friends with me when the TV cameras were around, which for a time was nearly every day. When that stopped, the people stopped. Some of my old friends had warned me that kids were using me, but I didn’t always listen.
When I got to Weaver High School, I had a real problem with some teachers and administrators — one told me not to think I was special and watched my every move. I had teachers give me A’s for nothing, like a student athlete gets an easier ride. Other teachers and students gave me a hard time. It’s a lot being Milo. Eventually, I needed to get out of Weaver and got my high school diploma from the Hartford Adult School.
After school, when I was looking for work, people interviewed me just to meet Milo Sheff and ask personal questions — they weren’t really interested in giving me a job. There was a time when I had to get away from being Milo Sheff.
Looking back, I didn’t understand the scope of the case. Nor what it could do to possibly better or worsen my timeline of life, brighten or darken it, if you will. Alive and doing well now at the age of 35, I can definitely say that the good outweighed the bad.
Do I still feel the same now as before and would I do it all over again, knowing what I know now? I can genuinely say no, no I don’t. I feel stronger about it now, more than ever. So yes, I would do it all over again.
I recognize the scope of what we’ve done. I understand what is at stake in this fight. I see us losing ground — not so much with regard to the case, but as a species. I see Instagram, Facebook and Twitter deteriorating our youth with a steady influx of stereotypical thought and diminishing our ability to communicate. We need the essence of Sheff v. O’Neill now, more than ever — the meaning, the schools, the teachers and parents who care, interactions with respect and courtesy between children and families of all races, tongues and ages. As a nation, we need this.
If I was able to go back in time, I would warn myself of the perils: the years and counting, the social ramifications — fake friends gained and real friends lost and opportunities not to squander. But fate is fate. I truly believe that there was no other choice but to say “yes” in the first place.
God knew I could handle “it,” my mother knew I could handle “it” and I kind of knew what “it” was. Sheff was and continues to be a perfect storm of timing and we continue to weather it.
Milo Sheff lives in Windsor. A collection of his poems, “The Cardboard Submarine,” will be published this summer and introduced at a party to benefit the Sheff Movement. You can follow Sheff on Twitter at @chefsheff.
Link to Article: http://www.courant.com/news/opinion/commentary/hc-op-sheff-milo-would-take-school-case-again-0601-20140530,0,7462946.story