Tracey Meares spent four years at Springfield High School excelling academically, making friends, playing clarinet in the marching band, being a cheerleader, running track and racking up awards.
Meares said she thought she made a mark on the school.
It ended up making a mark on her.
more: For Meares, anticipation replaces trepidation in trip back to Springfield
Meares, a celebrated Yale Law School professor and one of the country’s foremost authorities on urban policing, walked the SHS halls Thursday for the first time in nearly 40 years.
Meares was back in Springfield to be honored with the school’s Distinguished Alumni Award and be inducted into the SHS Hall of Fame.
It was only a year ago that Meares, 56, received the valedictorian medal denied her almost four decades earlier after a public screening of the documentary “No Title for Tracey” in Springfield, shining a national spotlight on the story.
The documentary by Maria Ansley, a photographer at SIU School of Medicine, is now being reworked and set for public release.
“It was really hard for me and hurtful and confusing and for a really long time I really sent this place and didn’t really want to come back here,” Meares said at a morning assembly of about 250 students and family members, including her parents, Robert and Carolyn Blackwell of Springfield. “I have to admit, it’s a little odd to be here. But I’ve had a great morning and walked into rooms I learned in.”
Meares told The State Journal-Register recently that she hadn’t stepped inside the school since her sophomore year of college after returning to visit her English teacher.
That was just two years after Meares was passed over as class valedictorian, instead earning “Top Student” honors with a white classmate despite having a higher grade-point average. Meares is Black.
After the screening of the documentary last year, District 186 Superintendent Jennifer Gill, who was a freshman at SHS when Meares was a senior in 1984, presented Meares her valedictorian medal. That was after Gill personally combined through old student records to verify Meares’ ranking.
Meares joked that the school “astonishingly looked and smelled the same” from when he remembered it. She spent part of Thursday’s tour with her former chemistry teacher, Sherman Kroll, who also attended the induction.
“In high school, I considered myself to be a math and science kid,” Meares said, recalling that his favorite class was unified chemistry and physics. “To this day, I still remember how to calculate molar mass.”
After graduating from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Meares went to law school “on a lark.” She noted she once clerked for US Court of Appeals Judge Harlington Wood Jr., also a member of the SHS Hall of Fame.
Meares became the first Black woman to be granted tenure at Yale College of Law and at the University of Chicago Law School, where she served from 1995 to 2007.
Meares’ work has focused on the relationship between the police and the public. In 2014, President Barack Obama named her as a member of his Task Force on 21st Century Policing.
Juniors and seniors who attended the assembly had a chance to ask Meares questions, including one about how he has overcome being denied the valedictorian title.
“I’m not sure I have (overcome it),” Meares admitted. “I’m not sure I ever will, actually. It matters that it was finally acknowledged (by the district). But it’s not something you can forget.
“It might have been even why I became and did many of the things I did. When the news came out, my friends at Yale said, ‘What? You never told us that.’ I said, ‘I don’t talk about it.'”
Meares’ sister, Dr. Nicole Florence, an internal medicine specialist who also attended the induction, said Thursday the past year has been a process for Meares.
“It’s not been that kind of instantaneous, ‘OK, I’m here and I’m good (with things),'” Florence said. “We have to appreciate and value this past year of her processing her feelings and her history.
“As we were walking through the school, I think what was interesting for me was that I don’t think the healing process can occur (for any of us) without being in that physical space. I think that was integral today, if all of us are going to heal and move forward.
“This was much more than a Distinguished Alumni Award. This was a day of healing a trauma for a 17-year-old girl.”
“All the feelings I have as I stand in this room are the feelings I had when I was 17,” Meares added. “It was really fun to connect to that little girl that I left behind and I really appreciate the opportunity to embrace her rather than feeling like I always have to stand in front of her and protect her.”
Contact Steven Spearie: 217-622-1788, [email protected], twitter.com/@StevenSpearie.
This article originally appeared on State Journal-Register: Noted law professor Tracey Meares was inducted into the SHS Hall of Fame