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EILEEN MCNAMARA

Ugly scrawl hits home

WELLESLEY -- What does it mean that the teenager who scrawled a threat on a bathroom wall to burn down Wellesley High School so "there will be no blacks in our schools" is black himself?

Why would a student, bused from Dorchester for 11 years to schools in this western suburb, choose to vent his frustration or rage or pain by assuming the persona of a white racist?

When is a troubled kid just a troubled kid?

Questions prompted by the announcement last week that police would seek charges against the high school junior say more about the unsettling state of both adolescence and race relations than do any of our speculative answers. Did tensions in the overwhelmingly white school account for the racial nature of his threat? Did he push that button to wound a town trying to overcome a reputation for racial insensitivity? Or did an impulsive teenager act heedlessly, with no thought to the implications of his words?

"Who knows what he was thinking," said Andrew Kelton, a history teacher who was once a Metco student here. "I want to be sympathetic if this is a cry for help, but I cannot ignore the pain this is causing other students."

Metco students describe feelings of embarrassment, betrayal, and fear that the voluntary program that buses Boston children to suburban schools will be unfairly tarnished. It is hard enough to "walk that divide between two worlds," Kelton said, without feeling that every black student must answer for the actions of one. Why don't they all get credit for the two Metco students who won full scholarships to Bowdoin this year? Or for the ongoing dialogue on race among students, teachers, and administrators that black students initiated last year?

It is a challenge for Metco students to navigate an unfamiliar world; it is more difficult still when that world is as affluent and achievement-oriented as Wellesley. I'm not the only college graduate in town who is intimidated by the quality of many students' cars and the curriculum they are expected to master.

Whatever motivated the high school graffiti artist, his threat is only the latest incident to highlight divisions between black and white in Greater Boston. His actions followed a mix-up earlier this fall in which a Wellesley teacher sent a kindergartner onto the Metco bus to Boston on the mistaken assumption that the 5-year-old black boy did not live in town. It followed the more recent comparison by two white talk-show hosts of an escaped gorilla to a Metco student waiting for a bus to Lexington.

Police say the high school student had neither the intent nor the means to make good on his violent promise. In that respect, his threat was no different from that of two Weston High School seniors who painted a vow to shoot up their school on the building last May. But behavior that was dismissed in Weston as a prank -- the pair were sentenced to probation and community service -- is provoking more serious self-examination in Wellesley."Race is the American dilemma," said School Superintendent Matt King. "If we haven't figured it out, why do we expect that the kids have?"

In classes and group meetings this week, everything is on the table, including the token nature of the Metco program. The school graduated six Metco students last spring, in a class of more than 200 seniors. "As long as we have this imbalance in the numbers, we are going to face these issues," King said.

In "The Other Boston Busing Story," published in 2001, Susan Eaton of Harvard's Civil Rights Project interviewed 65 adult Metco graduates. Many pointed out how little the program requires of whites. It is the black students who must accommodate themselves to the white suburbs, not the other way around.

But accommodation is not the same as assimilation, Kelton said. "It is harder than their classmates know. The positive thing is we're talking. Whenever we have a serious conversation about race, that can only be good."

Eileen McNamara is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at mcnamara@globe.com.

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