When you think of busing in Boston, chances are it’s not about public transit, but rather a dark episode in the city’s history that sparks images of violence, intolerance, and racial tension. And while most of the historical spotlight has been on the forced busing to desegregate the city’s schools and its legacy, there’s another Boston busing story that is lesser known. Now, Barton F. Graf agency founder Gerry Graf has teamed up with director Mike Mascoll on a film about METCO, a voluntary busing program launched in the 1960s, that takes inner-city Boston kids out to attend school in the suburbs.
On The Line was co-produced by Graf, who grew up in Lexington, MA, a primarily white suburb about 15 miles northwest of Boston. From a young age, Graf’s parents were a host family in the METCO program, and he grew up with schoolmates and close friends who made the round trip bus ride every day to the suburbs from inner-city neighborhoods like Dorchester and Roxbury.
Mike Mascoll grew up as one of those inner-city kids making the suburban trek in search of a better education and opportunity. After reading Susan Eaton’s book about METCO, The Other Boston Busing Story, Mascoll thought there was enough there for a documentary, but wanted to expand on Eaton’s book. “She only interviewed METCO students, so there was no perspective from the people and students from Lexington’s suburban community,” says Mascoll, who founded LEV Media Group. “So I was looking to get a balanced look at the entire experience.”
The film talks to current and former chairpersons and administrators, teachers, parents, and students on both sides of the METCO program, to paint a much different, and positive, picture than the one that occurred in South Boston. The reasons for that are plentiful, but primarily revolve around the fact that METCO was voluntary, and that its goal went beyond racial desegregation to also strive to improve the education for all involved.
Now, it’s far from a post-racial kumbaya situation, with city kids often finding challenges balancing and reconciling their suburban school life with their identities back home. But through revealing interviews, they talk about how the opportunity was well worth the sacrifices like 5 a.m. wake-ups, and an hours-long daily commute all through their school years. And true to Mascoll’s goal, we also hear about the positive impact the program had on Lexington and the suburban students.
Initially, Mascoll had called Graf to be one of the former Lexington students interviewed in the film. Graf says he never really thought of his school days as anything out of the ordinary. “I never gave my experience much thought until Mike called me up to ask, what a suburban kid like me really learned,” says Graf. “It got me thinking about really important things in our lives. The different facets of the story, the education aspect, the racial aspect, the way Mike set the film up with both the kids who were bussed and the kids from Lexington, I just thought it was going to make a really nice story.”
Pretty soon, Graf decided to get more involved, enlisting his agency’s new in-house production department Barton F. Productions 9000. “We started talking about doing the titles and end credits, just helping out here and there with some nuts and bolts,” says Graf. “This was an opportunity to see how our producers could help to make a documentary. It was a great way to give the department experience in something besides creating ads. Very simply, it was helping out a friend to make a film that was his dream, which was fantastic, helping someone tell a very important story. There are a lot of reasons why Mike’s film just fit perfectly in with us.”
For Mascoll, the broader goal of the film is to not only mark the 50th anniversary of METCO but help its new leadership move the program forward.
“It’s about getting more communities involved,” says Mascoll. “I think it was about 37 communities today, which is what it was in the 1970s. Even enrollment, it was 3,200 in 1977 and it’s 3,200 today. What does that tell you? The growth isn’t there. So my first goal was to support the program, and give it a bit more visibility as a model that could be used beyond Massachusetts across the country.”
Mascoll recently hosted a screening of the film and panel discussion at Harvard and aims to take the film to colleges and universities across the U.S.