On her first day of high school, Nazaleem Smith met a girl her age who proclaimed that they’d be friends for life.
Fifty years later, they’re more than that: They’re sisters.
Smith was one of 50 students to arrive that day in 1966. They were among first to be bused from Boston to surrounding communities as part of the brand new Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity. As it celebrates its 50th anniversary, though, it’s more commonly known as METCO.
“We were not underprivileged children, we were not poor children,” said Smith. “This had to do with our academics and providing an education for both groups of kids; kids from Boston and kids from Wellesley.”
Smith found a second family with Deb Wells, her parents and siblings and a second home at their house in Wellesley.
“The first day I met Deb, she walked into Mr. Murphy’s class and said, ‘This is going to be my friend for life,’” Smith said. “If anything that was my other home.”
Mrs. Wells was there for her whenever she needed a ride to events at school or back home to Boston late at night. Parents on both sides collaborated so that their kids could make the most of their high school experience.
The acceptance was as immediate and much more broad than just her host family, Smith recalled. Coming to Wellesley was about little more than getting a good education and, of course, building those lasting relationships.
The only thing that struck her—a young, African American woman from a middle class, urban upbringing whose father was in the Navy—was that she believed everyone in Wellesley was rich.
“I grew up with Jewish kids and Italian kids and white kids and black kids,” she said. “I was never…locked into an all-black situation. I wasn’t freaked out like that. The only thing that freaked me out was, Wellesley: Rich.”
“It had nothing to do with color,” Smith said. “Color wasn’t something that was discussed at the dinner table.”
People looked out for her, she said. Whether it was her host family or a new crop of young teachers that came to Wellesley High School the same year she did.
“They really kind of, because of the times and because of who they were as people,” she said of those teachers, “they kind of watched over us to make sure our academics were [taken care of].”
For Claudia Smith-Reid, one of Smith’s classmates, coming to a new school in a new town was an adventure and an opportunity.
“I didn’t think of it as being overwhelming. It was an adventure,” Smith-Reid said. “It was a time where people were throwing rocks at buses of young brown and black children going through the city and even during that time I really drove my parents crazy because I was of the ilk of going places I shouldn’t be. So I never saw the journey to Wellesley as being any different.”
Smith-Reid was the first non-white cheerleader in Wellesley’s history. Living in Boston meant she was used to sleeping through the noise inherent in city life. Late games and cheer practices meant she’d stay overnight in Wellesley, where it was too quiet for her to sleep.
She too praised the teachers at WHS for watching out for her—a girl and now a woman who values education as much as anything—and helping her realize her potential.
“It was a place where I could dream,” she said, “and there was just, you know, a supportive community around that allowed us to do that.”
It’s in part because of her time in Wellesley that she was able to accomplish what she has: she went on to Syracuse University and now works as a leader for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. Her co-workers have shown astonishment, she said, at her ability to communicate with anyone from all walks of life.
Her time in Wellesley made it possible.
Smith-Reid and Smith were able to bring pieces of their culture with them to Wellesley; a soul food dinner was unprecedented, and Smith admitted she probably never would have gone skiing or participated in pep rally bonfires if not for her time at WHS.
The multicultural club, the fashion club, and potluck dinners both in Boston and in Wellesley were born out of the METCO program.
It wasn’t always perfect, though. The day Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot comes to mind for Smith. Someone dropped the “N” word behind her after the announcement of his death was made in class. Those supportive teachers were there for them, though.
“They responded to our needs as being black students away from home and not knowing what was going to happen that particular night,” she said. They led seminars and did what they could to educate everyone
That experience aside, though, both women recall a wholly positive experience that’s stayed with them for 50 years.
Smith-Reid graduated from Syracuse and has since earned multiple masters degrees while Smith went on to Wellesley College and eventually ended up back at WHS as a teacher, where she stayed through the early 1990s.
And just last weekend she took a trip to New Hampshire to spend time with her sister.