February 26, 2005

The High School Experience; No Apologies

(the following is an excerpt from the book I'm currently writing)

It was great fun to finally be moving on to high school. For me it meant meeting tons of new kids, higher levels of learning, riding the New York Public Transit system, being able to wear something other than plaid uniforms with Oxford shoes, and mostly getting out from under the thumb of the nuns. Still there was something unsettling about going to a brand new school and learning the bus routes. The school I was about to attend was just one year old and was built to better accommodate our region of Staten Island. There were strict district lines drawn and as it turned out, my sister was able to remain in the old high school because she was already enrolled there, but I was to venture off to new territory.
The school was beautiful; freshly painted walls and desks and lockers all shiny new. I fared wonderfully as far as traveling to and from, meeting new friends and doing well in classes. The difference between going to a public school and a parochial school is like night and day. No longer was I protected from hoodlums or assured that by praying, I would always be safe from harm. This was the real world ~ and for the first few months, I liked what I saw of it.
Soon after the holidays that Freshman year, there seemed to be a growing number of angry students. I was never quite sure what they were so angry about, and in hindsight, neither were they. The Hispanic community was in an uproar because it seemed the district lines cut off large neighborhoods, almost seeming as if they weren't wanted there. I can't believe this was done with intent. In fact, there seemed to be quite a large faction of Hispanics in the school as it was. Perhaps this territory-control contributed to their rage, but as time has proven over and over again throughout history, what makes the parents angry is probably going to make their children angry as well ~ and soon there was great disharmony within the school. My own parents were uncomfortable with this situation and decided to draw me out of the school and place me into the "old" high school where my sister had never had such a problem.

Though I wasn't crazy about leaving my friends (some old, some new) behind, I was happier to be taking just one bus in the mornings instead of two, and I'll admit I felt a bit more secure attending the school my sister had always raved about. Curtis High School was built between 1902-04 and was styled after an old German medieval castle. It sat atop a steep hill on Staten Island's Northern Shore, overlooking the skyline of Manhattan across the bustling harbor. It was crowded by the time I attended in 1970, but at least it didn't seem to matter what color skin you were born into.

I made some wonderful friends at the school and it really felt like home to me. Occasionally I would see my sister roaming the halls between classes and this added to the coziness I felt there. My classes were so greatly varied… some held in large but crowded classrooms with high ceilings. Huge, old windows provided some beautiful scenery. Other classes were held in the large auditorium just because there were too many students to fit in a classroom. We had a swimming pool, and this was an integral part of Physical Education class. Everyone had to learn to swim. Or, everyone had to appear that they learned how to swim. That was the case for me.

The swimming pool was heated and lovely to splash around in, but I learned a new meaning for the word "cold" on days when this was my last class and it was 10 degrees outdoors. Walking down that steep hill with a soaking wet head in order to stand and wait for the bus in the unprotected harbor area was just no fun at all. I took no comfort at all in the fact that I wasn't alone.

All in all, I loved the school, had some carefully chosen and wonderful friends and the whole experience for me should have been exciting and enriching; it should some day in the faraway future evoke fond and sweet memories.

Shortly into my second year at Curtis, something dreadful happened to society. It was nearing the end of 1970 and there was a great racial unrest in many large cities. The new Civil Rights Act had been passed in 1964 and it was the dawn of a new awakening. As a young teen, I had no idea what all this meant, and I have a feeling if I had known, I wouldn't have cared much at that point in time.

What was quite apparent was that rioting was rampant in the inner cities and people were angry ~ angry to the point of wanting to hurt one another! There were stories on the news every single night about looting, fires and general hostilities. Vaguely, I recall my parents mentioning how glad they were that we lived on the Island and away from the madness.

My sister, then in her senior year, only went to school every other week. She was part of the program called Co-Education. This meant working a job in the city (assigned to you through the school) for one week and then attending classes on the alternate week. On the weeks when she worked, we didn't travel together on the bus and rarely saw one another at all until dinner time at home.

One of those mornings, I dressed and readied myself for school as usual, ran to the corner for the bus and made my way up the unfriendly hill to school. As I approached the crest of the hill, I saw a dozen or more police vehicles complete with flashing lights ~ all set around the various entranceways of the school lot.
Students were milling about outside the huge wrought-iron gates and whispering rumors about what was "going down." I spotted a friend of my sister's and asked what had happened. He told me he wasn't sure but had heard that the black students from another high school were going to amass at Curtis to try to recruit friends of theirs to rebel against the system. "Oh" I said casually. The system. What in the hell was the system? Being that this was a friend of my sister's, I dared not ask for fear I might sound stupid.

The police were keeping students at bay until they scoped out the school. Then we were let in… but watched carefully as we entered the building. This was almost "cool" to us. It was exciting… it broke up the otherwise mundane morning ritual.

That day, we heard many sirens outside and even had a fire drill to see how quickly we could all exit the building. Rumors were spreading like wildfire. A few isolated brawls broke out, but it surely was a bit out of the ordinary. Most of us couldn't wait to go home and tell our friends and families about the police presence. When I did so, my parents looked quietly concerned, then went about it their business. Nothing was said. Not in front of me anyway.

The following day the shit hit the fan. Approaching the top of the hill again, there were double - no, triple the number of policemen there than had been the day before. This time they were dressed in riot gear. We didn't carry backpacks or schoolbags back then, but I'm sure they would have checked them at the door if we had. No one was standing about talking outside. Everyone just looked a bit frightened and was anxious to get indoors.

It wasn't until later in the day when we learned from our teachers that there were threats made against the white population of the school. The story they gave was that these were "outside" threats and were not made by our own black community. The teachers weren't explicit about these threats except to say that we should travel in pairs or more through the halls and should leave the school at the end of the day the same way ~ in groups.

Several students were mildly attacked that day, all outdoors… but it couldn't be determined whether they were instigated attacks or atypical attacks. Allow me to clarify. "Instigated" would mean that someone hit on another's girlfriend/boyfriend or stole a hat or lunch, perhaps, and caused dissention. Atypical meant someone just walked up to another individual and decked them where they stood for no apparent reason.

The teachers assured us throughout the day that the best place to be was inside the building and there was nothing to fear in returning the following day. We believed this, and our parent's in turn, believed us. There was a brief story on television that night about unrest at several local high schools, including Curtis. Still we felt it was under control.

Getting inside the building the following day was like crossing some international border. We ~ the white population of the school ~ were escorted to the doors by riot squad. Yes, we were now the white population of the school. This distinction was made on the news each night for weeks but it was always in reference to some sort of race-riot incident. Funny, I didn't feel as though I was in the white population. I barely knew I was part of any population. I was a school student three days ago; now, I was a white school student. Just great.

Several more attacks took place during this day and they were clearly unprovoked. One girl had her face forced into a toilet bowl… she was nearly drowned in it and had to be hurried to the hospital where she fell into a coma. They had taken her eyeglasses and threw them out the window… then took a retainer clear out of her mouth and smashed it onto the floor. We didn't learn about this one until the next day. But I'm moving ahead too quickly. (Maybe that's because I secretly want to)

As mentioned earlier, my last class of the day was Physical Ed. I was running a bit behind schedule because of all the stops made in the hallway between classes that day. I raced down to the underground basement which housed our locker rooms. I got down into the dimly lit locker area and changed from my street clothes into my gym uniform. I tossed my books into the smelly locker (they ALL smelled) and ran toward the doorway leading up to the gymnasium.

There were five girls standing in the doorway. In my haste, I only half noticed they were eyeballing me as I approached. They were tall and black and very angry looking. The closer I got, the more acutely I could smell their hatred for me. I knew there were going to be words. I wish that had been the extent of it.

The heaviest of the five girls grabbed my arm near the elbow and spun me around as I tried to get past them through the doorway. "I saw you lookin' at me white girl, you're gonna pay for that," she said as she pressed her fingers into my arm. She slapped me, open handed and with great force, across my face. I felt like I wanted to be sick. I knew the lines… I had heard them all before. I know she wasn't angry with me because I "looked at" her. She was just picking a fight; an atypical fight. I said nothing. I couldn't at first, but at one point I almost composed myself and wanted desperately to say MANY things. Still I refrained. I wasn't completely ignorant to this ugly business.

All five joined in hitting, punching and pulling at my long hair. I was being spun around in every direction and I lost my bearings for a moment when they loosened their grip. I wanted to kill this girl and I didn't even know why she hated me so. One of the smaller of the five kicked out at the back of my knees and I fell to the floor, kneeling before the whole group of them. Two were laughing and just having a grand time but weren't really contributing much to this physical side-show. The first one who had slapped me then grabbed me by a hefty hunk of hair and said to me "Say you're sorry, bitch."

Something inside my head hurt terribly and I so much wanted to complain out loud but I wouldn't say a word. She grabbed that hunk of my hair and flung my head sideways into the cement wall, again commanding me to say I was sorry. I wasn't sorry. I had nothing to be sorry for and for damned sure wasn't going to apologize to these animals.

They were relentless and pummeled me in the ribs, arms and legs until I was certain I would faint dead away. This next bit might seem awfully graphic, but it's an important part of my retelling the story just as it happened. They kicked my ass. No, I mean they literally kicked my ass. There is a true sense of this phrase; allow me to describe it ~ hard kicks to the ass, relentless, snapping kicks until there's just enough feeling left to offer burning pain. This hurt me terribly and all I could think about was how long it would take for me to die from this unusual kind of pain. For several months to follow, I had some degree of discomfort in that area. Sometimes, I still remember that exact pain… or maybe it caused some sort of permanent injury (however slight)… I don't know.

Suddenly they stopped and ran. A door was opened upstairs and I'm sure they assumed it was either a teacher or the police. I tried to whisk my hair out of my eyes but it was stuck to my face and encrusted with blood. My legs were weak and sore but I got up slowly and started for the stairway. Two very young looking black boys were standing on the landing and started to descend toward me. I swear they couldn't possibly have been more than 12 years old, if that. I thought they were coming to my aid. Silly, silly me.

When they got to where I was just starting to climb the stairs, they thought it was great fun to pull each of my feet out from beneath me as I took a step. I would falter and go to my face, then get up again and have them tug at my next foot; they repeated this again and again. Finally, they ran off too, though I don't know why … there was still a little more of me left!The entire ordeal from start to finish couldn't have taken more than ten or twelve minutes, yet it seemed as though everything happened in slow, slow motion.

When I got to the gymnasium, I walked in the doorway and fellow-students gasped. The teacher along with one friend of mine (ironically, a black friend), rushed toward me. They helped me to the nurse's office where I laid on a cot with ice packs on my head and face. My mother was called on the telephone and the principal came to the room. He asked me several questions and asked if I needed an ambulance. I didn't have any idea if I needed an ambulance. I did, however, need the safe arms of my mother.

After mom showed up and was led to the room with a police officer, the principal asked me if I knew my attackers. I did not know them, but had seen one of them a few times in one of my classes. I remembered her name but refused to identify her. Oh I wasn't being kind, I was scared to death that she would have every friend and relative waiting for me the next time I tried to come to school! Mom suggested that my records be transferred to another school immediately and that I do whatever I could to help them punish this girl. I gave as much information as I could about her and described the others as well as I could remember. Everyone seemed satisfied.

We were escorted to our car and mom drove me to the hospital where they examined me, cleaned me up and told us my injuries were relatively minor ~ mostly contusions and lacerations. I remember asking myself at that point, "How could minor injuries hurt so very much?"

It was later revealed to me that during the course of that day, several students were badly beaten with two requiring hospital stays. The girl in the coma made a complete recovery but I'm sure she was never quite the same after her trauma. One of the athletes was beaten to a pulp outside near the bleachers on the football field and if not for the keen eye of a student looking out the window at the time, might never have been found.

I ended up going to a third high school in a two-year span of time. This one was clear across the Island and it was so over-crowded that we had classes in what appeared to be old broom closets. I hated every moment of sitting in a classroom. Worth mentioning is that this was a predominantly white school.

The issues in this school were heavy drug traffic and whose family had more money. I was never an athlete so I didn't click with that crowd. I wasn't quite a bookworm, so I wasn't fully accepted by the nerds. I had no time or desire for drugs which left me out of the seventy percent of the student population mixed up in that mess. I was truly a misfit. I never quite fit in anywhere anymore. I missed my old friends and all I could think about, almost obsess over, was to be finished with the entire school system once and for all and to live in an adult world for a change. And so, I quit high school just before the end of my second year. I promised my mother I would work full time and take my work very seriously. I did just that. I have ever since.

It was just one day in my life, but I learned so very much in such a short time. I learned to hate every single black person in the world, but that only lasted about two weeks. I hated that they were fighting for rights when these animals took all of mine away with their fists for ten full minutes. I learned that I was a "white student." I learned that it didn't matter that I grew up in a home where people were people and it made no difference what color they happened to be. I learned that ALL people are NOT equal, and it had nothing to do with colors. I learned that it wasn't my fault and I learned that it probably would have hurt me more to have caved in and apologized for some twisted imaginary crime I had committed in these girls' sick minds. I also learned that being white isn't always a picnic either.

Yes, I went to high school. I didn't have the proms or the parties and didn't make the Dean's List or Honor Roll. I did what I could and took what I shouldn't have had to take… and for all of this, I make no apologies.


Blogger John said...

Very nice work! High school was a good time... Looking back that is.

In those days, I thought school sucked.

But if I had the opertunity to do it again, sure... why not? But this time, I'd make a few changes. hehe...

11:41 AM  
Blogger Swifty said...

You already know how highly I rate your writing ability. But let's not forget the historical importance of this piece, and indeed, any other 'chapters' of your life. As a Brit, this gave me a unique insight into that particular period in American history. I was with you all the way with your confusion, anger, and pain. Wow! Double fucking wow!

2:58 AM  
Blogger Wally said...

I truly admire your courage, and sympathize as well, towards your terrible ordeal in that locker room. I remember while living in St. Louis. Mo., there were some major riots happening all around us back in 1965. I seemed to find that most of the hatred stemmed from peer pressure. If you were white, you should hate all blacks. If you were black, you should hate all whites, and so on. Anyway, I'm glad that those years are behind us. (Not to say that hatred doesn't still exist in today's world). However, those memories are well worth taking note of as a reminder of how fast that hatred can spread. I am really into your story, and I can't wait to read more. One of the things that I love about your stories (besides your wonderful writing skills) is that they bring me back to so many times, experiences, and different points of my life. Well, yeah; I exceed you in years, but you know what I mean, right? ;-) Have a wonderful day!

1:02 PM  
Blogger brooksba said...

Hi Carol,

Wow. You have a fantastically written story here, I'm sorry you had to go through the experience to get it. I was not alive during the time of the CRA of 1964 and I find stories about the time fascinating.

Thank you for sharing this story. It's important to tell.


2:18 PM  
Blogger Green-Eyed Lady(GEL) said...

Hi Carol,
You write with courage. I'm sick to my stomach as I read the atrocities you sufferred resulting in the subsequent loss of traditioinal educational opportunity for you.

Ironically, I saw "The Larimie Project" last night and will see it again tonight b/c that's the play my daughters are involved in. (google it if you don't remember reading of Matthew Shepherd's vicious death- a hate crime that rocked the town of Laramie and the nation.)

So far, I have not blogged much personal "stuff" because I write of it in private but maybe that will change. I want to but something often holds me back. My hat is off to you for the ease with which words about yourself flow.

I'm proud to read a taste of your forthcoming book.

3:53 AM  
Blogger Joe Tornatore said...

i finally had time to read this. Now I am beginning to understand.

10:07 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home