Speakers share dark, important memories at Modesto High’s Day of Respect

Strong stories at Modesto High event

Speakers share accounts of discrimination at 20th annual Modesto High School Day of Respect.
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Speakers share accounts of discrimination at 20th annual Modesto High School Day of Respect.

In his hometown of Yuma, Arizona, early in his fourth-grade year, the first year he was in a desegregated school, Tommie Lee Ware slapped his teacher across the face.

The woman had called the little boy the n-word, and Tommie had been raised with the understanding that if anyone called him that, the person deserved to be socked.

Well, the teacher at Pecan Grove School slapped him back, and Tommie ran from the school and into the affluent neighborhood around it, hiding until he was found later that day.

It’s an experience 72-year-old Tommie Lee Muhammad (in 1996, he changed his surname from Ware, which he calls his family’s ancestral slave name) shared with students at Modesto High on Thursday for the school’s annual Day of Respect.

Day of Respect, now in its 20th year at Modesto High, brought more than 40 speakers into classrooms. Coordinator Andrea Pegarella, a teacher at the school, said the speakers share their stories, often of discrimination but also often encouraging volunteerism and activism. They’re stories that encourage acceptance, understanding, the embracing of diversity and finding common ground.

Day of Respect “matches up with a lot of the literature and history they’re learning, so they get an experience of living history” through hearing speakers like war veterans and Japanese internment camp survivors, Pegarella said. Regular visitors also include Muslim imams, Christian clergy and members of the Sikh faith.

Stockton resident Muhammad, former director of Modesto’s King-Kennedy Memorial Center, was the first of three speakers in English teacher Kerry Castellani’s first-period class.

He talked of growing up in Yuma, right at the U.S.-Mexico border in a multicultural community that included many American Indians and Mexican-Americans. Because of the cultural differences between his family and those of his friends, “there was a lot to learn and to remember and to know when you’d go into people’s homes.”

The Mexican-Americans went to the “white” schools, he said, while the blacks and American Indians went to their own separate schools. It was a traumatic experience for him to move into desegregated Pecan Grove in fourth grade, where he experienced racism not just from teachers but, because such attitudes are passed down, from students as well.

Racism has plagued him most of his life, in different places and in different forms, Muhammad told the students. His family moved to California in 1956, the year after his horrible fourth-grade experience. Muhammad, wearing a scarf that read “Black lives matter,” said racism in Arizona was more “in your face,” while it was delivered more subtly in California, and often with a smile.

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Bill Bayha speaks to students in English teacher Kerry Castellani’s first-period class at Modesto High School. Thursday, March 7, 2019, was the annual Day of Respect at the downtown Modesto, Calif. campus. Deke Farrow

The class’s two other speakers also shared stories of discrimination, though not racial.

Bill Bayha and Vern Masse both served in the military during the Vietnam War — Bay 1968-70, Masse 1968-69.

Masse was stationed in Vietnam’s central highlands about 40 miles from the Cambodian border, he said. His job was to program computers. It sounds like a safe, non-combat job, he told the students, except nobody told that to the Viet Cong, who frequently targeted the base with rockets. Every night, he said, he went to sleep wondering if he would wake up.

Bayha served on the USS Hornet and told of the crew being diverted from regular operations to take part in the the recovery mission of the Apollo 11 when it splashed down on July 24, 1969. That mission lasted about three months, he said, during which time he got to know astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin. He and Aldrin became friends, Bayha said, and still see each other at Hornet reunions.

What really made the two men Day of Respect speakers, though, were the accounts they shared of their return to the States after serving their nation in the unpopular war.

“When we came home, we didn’t get welcomes,” Masse said. From the public, “It wasn’t, ‘Gee, I’m glad you made it home safe,’ (it was) ‘Why were you stupid enough to go in the first place?’ or ‘How many babies did you kill?’”

Personally, the attitude he got from people was “What’s the big deal?” And when people found Masse was getting college money from the GI Bill, they often made cracks like, “What did you do to deserve that?” — treating it like he was taking welfare money, he said.

Bayha, too, said his return was “a very bad time.” Nobody wanted to talk to the Vietnam vets, didn’t respect them at all, called them murderers and baby killers, he said. “I didn’t even want to admit I was in the service.” He went to work under the agricultural commissioner in San Joaquin County, Bayha said. For a long part of his career, “there was a stigma, so when I worked with the public, I never said anything about it.”

Deke has been an editor and reporter with The Modesto Bee since 1995. He currently does breaking-news, education and human-interest reporting. A Beyer High grad, he studied geology and journalism at UC Davis and CSU Sacramento.