We all gathered in the gym to hear our speaker, CT Vivian, a man who walked with King during the Civil Rights Movement. Eighth grader Santino, sitting by me, nudged me with his elbow and pointed with his chin to the row in front of us. I looked puzzled. “Did you see what’s written on the jacket?” Santino muttered.
I looked closely at David’s jeans jacket, noticing then the swastikas, the anti-Semitic, racist language, and “white power.” Santino looked at me and motioned with his head behind me. I turned just in time to see Cochise and the twins slide from the top of the bleacher down to the next seat, and realized that they were positioning themselves to surround David when the assembly ended.
I bent down and said firmly “David, your jacket has attracted a lot of negative attention. When this assembly is over you and I will walk out of here together. You are to stick with me and when we get to the room, you will do what I say.”
David nodded. He had no choice.
David was in my block class. His style was a skinhead. But people pick their style and unless it interferes with the class community, Jefferson allows students their own style of clothing. I do understand that young people, particularly those who are shy and new, dress themselves in a way that gives the message “don’t mess with me . . . please?” There was no doubt that David was shy and quiet. So his skinhead style was no problem. We've had skin head students before who proudly said they were anti-racist skinheads. But the graffiti David brought into the school with his jacket was a huge problem. He was challenging the school culture, demeaning every person. It was interesting he chose to take this step on Hitler’s birthday. All around town that year, hate groups were sending equally ugly messages on this particular birthday. That day blood was poured on a park bench memorializing a Jewish businessman and a hate banner stretched across the Ferry Street Bridge. It may well be that David was sent in by adults in a hate group to challenge the school which proclaimed itself an RFZ, marched in the city parade as an RFZ, was led by an African American principal. According to law enforcement and a hate group watch organization, there was a very active hate group house right in our neighborhood within a mile from the school.
The rousing speech ended and we were excused to our classes. I hissed to David “Stick with me” and climbed quickly down the bleachers and walked quickly, straight for the room. As I passed my students, I said, "Circle." When I entered the room with David still beside me, I grabbed chairs to put in a circle and as the students came in, they began to sit down and help me move more chairs in. None of the students were puzzled. No one argued. They knew why we were here. Apparently, I was the only one who had been clueless about David’s jacket. “I’ve really got to start reading clothes,” I muttered to myself.
I noticed Cochise was still upset. “We will handle this. The adults will handle this. We will not ignore it. Cochise, you don’t need to get in a fight about this. He will be dealt with clearly and severely. There is something in place in this school. Allow it to work.”
He didn’t seem convinced.
I sat down, David beside me. “David, you’ve caused quite a stir here. Do you know why?”
“No,” he muttered.
“It’s your jacket full of hate messages. I’m going to ask everyone in this circle to tell you what your jacket says to them.”
And they did, one after another, “You hate me.” “You think I’m scum.” “You are trying to scare me” “You wish me and my kind were dead.” “It’s racist.” “Threatening.” And Adrienne said, “I don’t like it. Please take it off.”
“Well, David, now that you know what people interpret what is written on your jacket and how they feel about it, what are you going to do about it.”
David looked down and mumbled, “I guess I’ll give it to you.”
“That’s a good idea, David, “ I said. “I’ll get you a new one to replace it. You and I are going to the office because there is a harsh punishment for harassment. And after your suspension is served, you and I are going to meet after school, and we’ll do some Racism Free Zone workshops so you can be clear on what kind of place this is where you go to school, eight hours a day. It’s important to know where you are and act accordingly. We can’t tell you how to live outside this place, but we can tell you with authority that you have to leave hate outside the door.”
David took off his jacket and handed it to me.
It was not a good day for David. Despite what we did in our own block, despite the school’s immediate response, he was not safe. Suspension would begin the next day. Today, David had no escape and had to endure the rest of the day a pariah in the halls of his classmates. An outsider.
I was finishing up the day’s work at the end of school and one of my students ran in. “They beat up David!” I ran out but I was too late. Everyone had quickly dispersed, except David who stood trembling, his arms wrapped around himself, soaked with the rain. He looked so small. “I’m taking you home, David.” I drove him toward his neighborhood but he didn’t want me to drop him off in front of his house. I went right to the mall from there to get the poor boy a coat.
The next day, the person who beat David up was called to the office and suspended and all the onlookers of the fight received a warning and a firm talk. During the free period where Cochise was my sole student, he did not hesitate to tell me how offended he was at me. “You bought him a coat! That’s a reward!! That’s not a punishment. That’s f’d up!”
“Alright, Cochise. That’s going too far. Don’t use that language. Cochise, I know you don’t understand the coat thing, but I’m Japanese and that’s the way we are. I take a coat; I give a coat. David is being punished but he’s not going to go coatless.”
“It’s f’d up!” That’s it. Conversation over.
The next day was Saturday and I was supposed to take Cochise to the University of Oregon to show his Malcolm X film to a group. He had been invited to address a college seminar. I was in turmoil. What do I do? His disrespect should not be rewarded, but this was such a cool opportunity for him and he needed it. I phoned my friend Bahati in Arizona and as usual, her advice was on spot. “How do you want Cochise to see himself?” she asked. “Do I want him to see himself as a young filmmaker? Or a screw up."
" You’re right. I’ll pick him up.” And I did. He got the honor he earned and deserved. He stayed simmering mad for a while longer, and I began to understand why the coat thing bothered him, but life is not that cut and dry when we are all raised in such different ways.
Later in the spring one of the Magnet Arts Elementary teachers who shared the building came to me with a problem. Apparently, a little boy was drawing swastikas on people, on desks and no one could get him to stop. She said even Dr. Bolden couldn’t reach him. She thought perhaps eighth graders might have more effect. I said we’d try.
At Jefferson, I learned that if I grab the first so many people -- without controlling the situation by picking and choosing -- each time it would be what I called the beautiful Jefferson mix. This way, people who may not necessarily have caught the teacher’s attention as a speaker will have their chance to shine. One of the students I grabbed happened to be happened to be David. A little question popped in my mind but I shoved it away. I chose not to question my method and just went with it. So I picked the first eight eighth graders in the halls and asked them to help. “You guys have rock star status for elementary kids and someone needs our help,” I said.
We formed our circle, and little fourth grader Chris was accompanied in by his teacher and left with us. We all introduced ourselves. Although I don’t remember every person who was in the circle that day, I do remember Adrienne, Rodrigo, and David. I asked if Chris knew why he was here. He said he didn’t. So I explained. With my explanation, the eighth graders were hearing the story for the first time. I asked them to tell Chris their reaction and each did with such articulate, insightful language. Then we came to David. He was quiet for a long while. We were quiet too but by the tension, you could tell all of us couldn’t help thinking about the April 20 coat incident.
“I just want to say,” David began, “I just want to say that hate doesn’t work. Hate doesn’t make you happy. My family has hate. I was raised with it. My grandpa taught my father and he taught me. We have a big confederate flag hanging over the fireplace. It doesn’t work. I’m telling you that because I know. You’ll never be happy if you have hate.”
I asked Chris now that he had heard all these eighth graders, what did he think he should do.
His head was down, and he mumbled, “Say sorry.”
“To the whole school.”
I complimented him, “Chris that’s really brave and that is very intelligent. You did hurt everyone, not just the people you wrote on or the teachers you ignored. So I think that you’re right in what you want to do. But that is going to take a lot of courage. Would you like to take an eighth grader with you?” Chris nodded, his head still down. “Who would you like to take; you can take anyone you want.”
“David.” he said.
We all got up from the circle. I noticed Rodrigo go over to David and give him a hug saying, “Hey man, I just want you to know that you and me, today, we’re brothers.” David hugged him back and wore a shy smile. The others gathered around him to pat him on the back and compliment him. Then he and Chris went off to take care of business in the Magnet Arts hall.
I witnessed Grace that day, Redemption. I don’t know how it transformed or if it transformed David because life was very very hard on him. But I do know it did change his relationship with his classmates that spring before they all graduated to go to high school and he did guide one young soul onto a happier path.
I think of David often. I wonder where he is, how he is.
And say a little prayer that he is happy.
I’m going to share a little anecdote about Adrienne, who was very vocal in my class. Smart, strong, proud European American woman. One day she came up to me in the hall before school started, students milling everywhere. “Hey, Ms. Kawai Joo, could you tell me where the federal building is?”
“How cool,” I thought to myself. Adrienne is so interested in so many things. “You know where the Public Market is?” I asked as she nodded. “It’s near there, but on Seventh and High instead of Fifth.”
“Thanks!” she flashed me a smile and walked on.
First period was my prep. A teacher ran in and yelled, “The kids are running out of the school!” Because I had no class that period, I hurried to the office. “What happened!”
The secretary was watching through the window as a huge crowd of our students ran across Westmoreland Park. “Oh, they said something about demonstrating at the Federal Building for more school funding -- and their parents support it. “
I slapped my forehead, “I thought she was interested in civics but I didn’t know it was civil disobedience. I gave them the directions! I did not even think to say, ‘Federal Building? Why do you want to know something like that?’ "
Dr. Bolden sent Mr. Roosevelt White to the federal building to watch over the students and their parents. Parents were called and informed that there would be consequences. I definitely know the consequence was not suspension. The students were on the evening news, so articulately stating their opinions. Young leaders willing to make sacrifices, take their punishment, stand tall and speak because it needed to be done and their public officials weren’t doing it. I guess, when I think about it, I am honored to have the reputation of being an exceptionally naïve teacher and to have bumbled into their design, recognized the genius, and joined them to create their idea of a society.
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