Monday, February 25, 2008

History lesson

Gather around, kids. Time to tell a story about what life was like in the fall of 1969, when I was in what we called "junior high school."

I was sitting in my usual spot in home room one morning. For those who have been through the school system, did anything interesting ever happen in home room? Probably not. But this day turned out to be an exception.

As usual, we got up for the pledge of allegiance, which may or may not have been read over the loudspeaker. On this particular day, an African-American girl -- we'll call her Jill -- sitting to my right and in front of me stayed right in her seat.

Chaos, at least by junior high standards, followed.

Jill was quickly hustled off to the principal's office for a conversation. The rest of us sat there rather dumbfounded. Public schools tend to stress conformity, of course, and it was more true then than now. At this particular school at this particular time, jeans weren't even allowed.

As I recall, most of us either didn't see the gesture or wondered what the big deal was. From my vantage point, I remembered the "black power" protest of John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Protests were on the news almost every night back then, although it was unusual to see it in home room. But the grown-ups sure seemed rattled.

Jill was back in home room the next day. When it was time for the pledge, she stood up with the rest of us ... and instead of putting her hand over her heart and reciting, she simply stayed silent and looked down.

I moved the following summer, and never heard the second half of this story until 2003, when I was talking to a teacher at a high school reunion of my old school system. Jill was a year or two older but still on the defiant side upon reaching high school, apparently. She was talking with one of the music teachers when she became angry about something or other. Jill said, "Bleep you," more or less, and the teacher was so stunned she slapped the pupil in response. Jill shouted back, "You're in trouble now! My mother's on the school board, and she'll have your job for this!"

As you might expect, the teacher was called down to the principal's office over this one. He said, "Of all of the people to slap, why did you pick this one?" She replied, "I just reacted emotionally. I wasn't expecting to hear that." I'm sure Jill got a lecture too.

This stuff probably goes on all the time in today's schools. But for us geezers, it was pretty exciting.

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