As I neared the front office I could hear the argument. A student teacher was trying her best to coax a young seventh grader back into the building, warning him of all the consequences for leaving school. He kept on walking, angry, and as he crossed the parking lot off school grounds, he turned briefly then paused, the sun flashing on the white X on his black cap. In that moment, he revealed his desire to come back inside and that was enough for me.
I had heard of this young man, Cochise. It wasn't good news. The evaluation of my colleagues was that he was a "gangster." Hot tempered, Cochise got into a lot of fights over racial provocation from classmates. In this school, a multicultural international middle school, one which declared themselves a Racism Free Zone, it still was not a safe place for Cochise or anyone who disrespected him. When I saw him pause, the light flash off the X, I marched into the principal's office. Dr. Bob Bolden, youngest building principal, only African American principal at that time, who was placed at Jefferson Middle School, a very troubled school, highest number of free and reduced lunch, and the most diverse population in Eugene. Many of the faculty had left which made room for some of us who looked forward to teaching with young Dr. Bolden, and teach the dynamic Jefferson student population.
"Dr. Bolden," I said, "Cochise Moore just stalked out of the building, but I believe he wants to be in school. And I am willing to use my break to do some teaching with him. Even if he is a seventh grader and I'm with eighth grade team, I'm asking for that chance." And unlike any other principal I have ever known, Dr. Bolden said, "Yes. Let's try that."
Cochise reported to me the next morning and our first meeting began with another student of mine at the New Zone gallery art exhibit of the Columbus Quincentenary, 500 years of survival of indigenous people. We ended up at a Burger King, a school business partner to talk about things he was interested in. We also had some conversations about the school. He hated it. About the police. Clearly he was targeted and being harassed. I advised him not to flare up, but to write. Write up the incident and give to the Human Rights Center, to the NAACP because they can take the issue of harassment to the city and have effect. Cochise was not convinced. He said, “I’m just going to go to prison like my dad.” He loved his dad. And with his dad in prison and police targeting Cochise, cynicism filled him up.
I asked Cochise “What do you want to learn? We have this whole period, and we can fill it something which means something.” Cochise said he'd like to make a film.
"Great! About what?"
Cochise said he'd like to make a film about Malcolm X because these clowns he went to school with would wear the X without knowing who the X stood for.
We were on our way! Across the hall from my classroom was Eric Schiff, techno whiz with lots of style and vision. He had built a state of the art computer lab and video lab in the school and brought new respect to a school that had a negative reputation. More important in this case, Eric is very savvy about racism and what to do about it.
Second on the team was my husband who is a producer of his own video company and agreed to be Cochise's mentor. The third volunteer was my secret weapon, Abas Ansari, local businessman, Vietnam vet, recent transplant from Chicago, a member of the Fruit of Islam and part of the mosque of Black Muslims with Malcolm X. I almost rubbed my hands together in glee when I suggested him to Cochise, my face blank to hide my excitement. I had given Abas a head's up that I needed a man's influence in young Cochise's life, someone he could look up to and maybe be a little shy. Abas' daughter was one of my eighth graders, and she and Cochise took my morning class, and listened to Abas talk about his life.
Cochise had set up his camera to record the talk. And he and Nadirah sat for the whole class listening to the life lessons Abas had to share man to man. What do you do when you come up against a setback? Abas lectured that as a lieutenant in the army, when his buddy lay dead in the mud, he stepped over him and continued on. Sure he wanted to stop and grieve him, but in life, sometimes you have to control your feelings and just do what you had to. You just had to move on. What is a man? A man provides for his family, but more than that, for his community. A man is controlled.
Cochise was a seventh grader. Seventh graders are not the most patient of listeners. However, as Abas spoke on and on, his daughter listening patiently because that was her upbringing, Cochise did the same, a little fidget here and there, but sitting tall and still nonetheless. The only thing that gave away his discomfort was the heightened flush of his cheeks.
I complimented them both the next day on their respectfulness. Cochise admitted, “Yeh, I was scared of him!” and Nadirah nodded "hmmm Hmmmm, 'know what you mean" and we shared a laugh.
Cochise went around to the faculty and filmed responses about Malcolm X. He learned that here, in his school, several teachers not only knew about Malcolm, but some were inspired by him. The principal even knew his Muslim name, El Hajj Malik.
Cochise talked to some students. As he predicted, there was very little knowledge about who Malcolm X was and what he did.
I told him, that’s good news!! This film you’re making is very good for your generation because our generation did not do enough to pass knowledge on. I pulled out a Malcolm X calendar. “Look what I found, Cochise!” Cochise was searching for Malcolm X images on the internet. Cochise even found an image of the great leader in our new literature textbook. I had found and was allowed to order a wonderful set called African American Literature, Holt Rhinehart Winston. A teacher could teach every genre, every literary tool, and tell the story of American history through this text. English teachers should check it out. It is still being published.
Cochise learned to capture all these images on film, keeping his hands still with Nadirah's assistance. Then came the weeks of editing and voice overs and choosing the music. Cochise taught me about “Arrested Development,” and I went out a bought the tape that day.
I was very proud of Cochise. We could see the shift in how people viewed him as well as their relationship with him. He was no longer “a gangster” to teachers but touched their hearts. Teachers want to be part of transformation. Cochise was already noticed by his peers, handsome young man with style and a hint of danger, but with his new engagement in school, he became even more accessible and interesting. As for the young men who liked to relieve their boredom by using racial slurs and were entertained with the explosion, they tried to find another more subtle tack to distract him. Definitely the teachers were noticing their behavior and calling them on it. They also knew that there were new rules which stated there would be equal consequence for those who use "fighting words" and those who threw the first punch. Both would be suspended, not just the fighter. This small group of young men lurked around and tried to come up with secretive ways to poke racialized fun at Cochise. But Cochise was much too busy to get himself suspended for their entertainment.
I remember one of them showed up with his hair banded in startled little tufts all over his head sitting in the computer lab across the hall. For once, I did not have to say a word. Schiff walked over to him, his eyes flashing a bit dangerously, and a smile saying, “Hey, man, what’s up with the hair?”
“Nothing? (uncomfortable silence) Then take it down.” and the student sheepishly complied.
The day of the film premiere arrived. Jefferson had received a tv in each classroom due to a partnership with the controversial Channel One -- free tv monitors for classrooms and designed to get coca cola ads to our captive youth audience during school hours. There was quite a furor in Eugene, Oregon, against Jefferson becoming a Channel One school. But those are the circumstances created by inequitable funding. These tv monitors were handy to play more important things -- our student produced news programs and student films. On this day the student film was “Malcolm X” produced, directed, filmed by Cochise Moore.
I still remember that day. Cochise and Nadirah were in my room, nervously waiting for Channel One to be over. Nadirah got the giggles, and Cochise, uncharacteristically joined in a little. Schiff and I came out of our classrooms with broad smiles and anticipation. "Only a couple of minutes," he said. Waiting. Then came the moment, Malcolm’s face filled the screen and Arrested Development's song for Malcolm X began.
The film continued -- who is Malcolm X -- interviews interspersed with images, Abas’ strong words of what is a man, goofy interviews with students mugging for the camera, Malcolm's own words, and finally ending, Malcolm surrounded with the blue of the Egyptian sky. There was silence, then up and down the hallways of Jefferson, the very hallways where Cochise’s anger would explode when shoved and called racial slurs, said low enough no teacher on duty could hear, there began a smattering of applause, and that applause grew until it filled the halls. "Cochise! Can you hear it? They're applauding!" His smile said it all. Of course, I teared up like an auntie. Schiff came across the hall beaming offering his handshake. There they stood, man to man. Job well done.
That spring, Cochise joined the students and teachers who followed Spike Lee’s advice to the youth of this nation, "Skip school and come to watch my movie and learn true history." Spike Lee was right. Of course, it was not such a courageous choice for us because the matinee began right after school. We made it quite an event, standing in line for the first showing with other Eugeneans excited to see what Lee had done. For Jefferson students and staff, it was an honor to view it with Cochise in the context of his film and his journey.
This is not the end of the story just the beginning. As for the Racism Free Zone, and the teachers and students who made it work, the mission was just beginning and has not finished.
There’s another chapter to this story but I won’t make you wait to find out about the adult Cochise, a young man in his late twenties. Cochise Moore is a graduate with a double major from the University of Washington. He is employed by the UW psychology department to work on retention of students of color and he teaches at an African American men’s academy. Currently, he is making a video on a leadership project with African American youth expressing themselves in poetry and music. Check it out on YouTube: seattlehiphopsummit.org and check out the organization's website by looking and clicking on it at the blottom of the blog, the Favorite Link portion. He and Fumiko are married and living in Seattle. Cochise also takes care of his elderly father.
I met one of my heroes, Yuri Kochiyama, at Tule Lake Pilgrimage about six years ago. She is best known as the person who ran toward the downed Malcom X as bullets continued to hail around him when he was assassinated and she sat, cradling his head. Yuri Kochiyama is an organizer and committed soldier for justice in her own right. She and her husband became members of the mosque organized by Malcolm X or El Hajj Malik when they lived in Harlem.
At Tule Lake Pilgrimage, Yuri Kochiyama and I were to facilitate one of the many intergenerational circles where attendees listened to the stories of former internees, and as a former internee of Jerome, AK, Yuri was key. Of course, I was "ga-ga" to meet Yuri Kochiyama and did not even try to hide it. I told her she and Malcolm X were two of my heroes. She grasped my hands and said, “Oh, you know of Malcolm! I don’t talk to too many people about him because they don’t . . .”
I understood. I told her that I teach about him and that, Malcolm reached down even years after his death and saved one of my students’ lives. "I love Malcolm X and I hope you can meet Cochise someday, " I told her.
She wanted to know more about Cochise, and all through the story she held onto my hands. She understood. Just the other day, a friend of mine had gone home to CA and visited with the Kochiyama family. Yuri, much to my surprise, sent a greeting through him back to me saying hello to the woman in Oregon who loves Malcolm X. What an honor to be remembered AND to be remembered that way.
The manner in which the media presents it, Malcolm X is the opposite of King but nothing can be farther from the truth. Life cannot always be defined by opposites. There is no battle between King and Malcolm X. They had one battle, the battle for justice, for their people, and for all people. Their debate is a media-construct, an urban legend which tells more about the legendmakers than the two great men themselves. Dr. King and El Hajj Malik or Malcolm X are the two great thinkers of that time and their combined influence will outlive the misconception. Cochise Moore and young men and women like him -- proud, focused, and involved in justice and community -- are descendents of the thought and example of these two Great Titans of the 20th Century.
Check out Yuri Kochiyama’s new book Passing it On, a Memoir. UCLA Asian Studies Press. And I read Alex Haley’s Malcolm X every decade and each decade, it changes for me. I also recommend the book The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley.
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