Kamala Harris’ Early Years At School Through ‘The Other Girl on The Bus’
Carole Porter, a childhood friend of US VP Kamala Harris, talks about her memories of being bussed to school.
Carole Porter lived in a little yellow house, a few doors from Kamala Harris who lived in a duplex on Bancroft street in Berkeley – a neighbourhood instrumental in driving social change – teeming with Black working class families. Harris and Porter were part of a school integration program – they were ‘bussed’ to Thousand Oaks Elementary in Berkeley hills, an ‘affluent, white area’.
Being bussed to school meant being transported to schools in different neighbourhoods as a means to address racial segregation. The practice that was prevalent for years would shuttle students from rural areas to larger schools, where white students would be transported to minority schools and Black and Latino students to white-majority schools.
“We all sang, we loved music. The song Rocking’ Robin from the album Got to be There had come out. It was pop and easy to sing along,” reminisces Carole about her daily bus rides to school with her childhood friend, Kamala.
It was in 1970 that little Carole Porter met first-grader Kamala Harris in a school bus line, at the corner of Browning and Bancroft streets in the city of Berkeley.
“I lived around the corner from Kamala. I met her and her sister Maya every morning. We saw all our friends at the bus stop as we stood in line. We went home to the same neighbourhood, we had the same bus stop, so we coordinated to get the same seat on the bus,” says Carole, a journalist-turned-IT professional, nostalgic about the carefree, fun times.
For the next few years, six-year-old Carole and Kamala read, spoke, and sang during the forty minutes ride to and from Berkeley’s Thousand Oaks Elementary School.
Today, as a friend proud of Kamala Harris’ journey and rise to office of the Vice President of USA, Carole recalls, “She is an exceptional listener. Kamala was very fun, and happy when engaging with friends, but if the bus driver had to tell us something and the kids were talking, Kamala would make sure the kids would quieten down, so everyone could hear the driver.”
“She was a good student. She was there to learn. We were in different classes, but often we had speakers, events, music or singing, and that would be the time I would be in class with Kamala. She always sat in front of the circle. The recollection I have – I could see others and myself talking, but she remained very focused, serious, in spite of many activities going on.”Carole Porter, childhood friend of VP Kamala Harris
Formative Years At School
With a ‘French-German mother and a Black father’, Carole too, is multiracial like Kamala and Maya who are ‘Indian-Jamaican’.
She vividly remembers how Kamala Harris' mother, Shyamala Gopalan celebrated their heritage.
"Shyamala was open and engaging, with a broad social circle and interest in other cultures. They were very positive, celebrated their Indian culture and their Black identity,” she said, adding that little Kamala loved her Tamilian Taata-Paati (grandfather and grandmother) and made sure her friends waved goodbye to her grandmother from the window of the bus every time they visited.
Carole also remembers Kamala being very confident in her skin.
"Kamala was always very stylish. She was conscious about her style. I remember waiting while Shyamala (Gopalan) would be braiding her hair and Kamala would always be telling her mom how she wanted it.”Carole Porter, childhood friend of VP Kamala Harris
How Bussing and Day Care Shaped Harris' Politics
It was Harris’ childhood 'bussing' experience that redefined her life years later, becoming her introduction to the country, in a testy exchange with the then candidate Joe Biden who opposed bussing, during the 2019 democratic presidential nomination debate. “A little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate public schools, was bussed to school every day, and that little girl was me,” was Harris' rebuttal in support of bussing, which became a breakout moment for her campaign.
After the bus dropped them back in the afternoon, Kamala and Maya went to the Shelton family’s day care, a few doors away from their home, while their scientist mother Shyamala Gopalan was at work. Kamala Harris referred to Mrs Shelton as her ‘second mom’ and the Shelton home day care as her other home. It was Mrs Shelton’s bible that Harris lay her palm on when she was sworn in as VP, and earlier as Attorney General of California.
Little Carole would accompany the Harris sisters to the Shelton day care on some afternoons, “It was a hub for kids to gather. My mom was home but I would opt to go with Maya and Kamala. There were black people on the wall – authors, artists. The women working there were welcoming, like grandmothers. We would play fun games like cats in the cradle, yarn between your fingers, and read Judy Blume books!” remembers a nostalgic Carole, adding, "Kamala was a mentor to other kids. Kamala took Mrs Shelton’s foster kid Sandy under her wings and cared for her. She is very naturally drawn to kids.”
According to Carole, Kamala also took her duty as a big sister to little Maya seriously, “Because her mom worked at Berkeley (UCB) and she was single, Kamala took care of her little sis Maya very responsibly.” Shyamala Gopalan had separated from her husband Donald Harris when their daughters were young, “She did speak about her father, but not often. I know that they saw him sometimes. I never met their father,” says Carole. When Harris was 12 years, her family moved to Canada.
“I knew Kamala through fourth grade, after which they moved to Canada because Shyamala was unsettling things at Berkeley. She wasn’t ok with status quo of a dark skinned capable woman being overlooked for Caucasian men,” shares Carole.
In her memoir, The Truths We Hold, Kamala Harris writes that ‘all she knew was that she was going to school’ – a school that honoured her with a mural painted by Berkeley high school students in the campus building.
A Cherished Friendship
The friends met again in a few years after Shyamala Gopalan returned to California’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory for cancer research.
“We ran into each other at a football game. Kamala came back when she was 19 and I saw them sometimes in summer. She was at Howard (University) in DC and later at Hastings (Law School) in San Francisco. There were many touch points. We went to the same parties, met at the hairdresser’s, our parents knew people in common. One time we were chatting at a party where Kamala was carrying a beautiful black bag, which she told me her mom went to India and brought it for her," recalls Carole. She continues to live in East Bay’s Point Richmond, a few miles from Berkeley.
Along with sharing a long-lasting friendship, Carole has also been a committed supporter of Harris’ political career. A trailblazing career, which saw Harris become the first woman, the first Black and the first South Asian American vice president of USA, has its roots in the ‘hot bed of activism’ – the 1960s and 70s Berkeley, and family and friendships that helped shape her life.
“She always has a warm spirit about her. You could always tell she had a plan for herself. She knew where she was going. I see her kindness, empathy, her strength. Kamala has always been strong and confident. She was positioning herself to give back in a much broader way than others. She carries service leadership about her. She is walking into spaces where we haven’t been before, with a sense of I am here to make a difference. Her mother Shyamala shines through her, strongly,” says she, hoping her childhood friend takes the mantle of the US President some day.
(Savita Patel is a senior journalist and producer, who produced ‘Worldview India’, a weekly international affairs show, and produced ‘Across Seven Seas’, a diaspora show, both with World Report, aired on DD. She has also covered stories for Voice of America TV from California. She’s currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She tweets @SsavitaPatel.)
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