It's our World, Too!
YOUNG PEOPLE WHO ARE MAKING A DIFFERENCE
TAKING A STAND
I FOR ONE AM GRATEFUL FOR THE COURAGE OF YOUTH.
NETO VILLAREAL AND ANDY PERCIFIELD
IN HIS SMALL IDAHO SCHOOL, FOOTBALL MEANT EVERYTHING TO ERNEST ("NETO") VILLAREAL, SIXTEEN, THE TEAM'S STAR RUNNING BACK. AND YET WHEN HE HEARD FANS SCREAMING RACIAL INSULTS AT HIM AND HIS HISPANIC-AMERICAN TEAMMATES, HE WONDERED HOW HE COULD KEEP PLAYING FOR FANS WHO FELT THAT WAY. THE INSULTS ALSO BOTHERED ANDY PERCIFIELD, A WHITE STUDENT LEADER. WHEN NETO AND ANDY TEAMED UP, EACH USING HIS OWN SPECIAL POWER, FANS BEGAN TO FEEL HEAT THEY HAD NEVER FELT BEFORE.
When-the whistle blew, ending football practice, Jesse Paz and Ernesto ("Neto") Villareal unsnapped their helmets and jogged off the field together in silence. Neto could sense that something was bothering Jesse. Maybe he was worried about losing his position as first string quarterback.
Just before they reached the locker room, Jesse stopped. "Aren't you getting tired of white fans yelling at us Hispanic players?" he asked Neto. "They yell we're no good whenever we mess up. Haven't you heard that at the games?"
"ANYONE WHO THINKS WHITES AND HISPANICS ARE DIFFERENT IS WRONG. I'M NOT DIFFERENT."
"I never really paid attention to it," Neto replied. Something about this made him uncomfortable.
Jesse kept on, his voice rising in anger. "We shouldn't stand for it. We should quit the team. We have twenty-one players on the team, and ten of us are Hispanic. Most of the best players are Hispanic. Without us, there wouldn't even be a team. If we quit, we could wake up this whole community."
This was the last thing in the world Neto wanted to hear. For him, football wasn't the problem. Football was the one thing that had made life possible with whites.
Before football, there had been fights with white students almost every day at recess. The whites had kicked them with boots as sharp as spurs. Neto and his Hispanic friends had wrapped little chains around their fists and punched the white kids back.
Until football, there hadn't even been a chance to get to know whites around Marsing, Idaho. Most of the Hispanic families had come to Idaho from Texas or Mexico to pick beets. They lived together in one part of town. White families lived in another. Many Hispanics spoke only Spanish, and most whites spoke only English. They went to different churches.
Every summer since he was seven, Neto had worked from dawn till dusk with his family in the beet fields, chopping up clusters of beets with a metal hoe. Every now and then a white worker would join the Hispanics in the beet fields, but they would usually give up after two or three days. Neto grew up thinking that if more whites knew what it was like to work that hard, they couldn't possibly think they were better than he was.
Now, as a 220-pound tenth-grader, Neto was the starting fullback and middle linebacker on the Marsing High School football team. He loved to lower his shoulder and blast through a thicket of arms and bodies. He was a star player on an exciting team. On Friday nights, hundreds of people from all around the valley piled into trucks, cars, and vans and headed to Marsing Field to watch the Huskies.
Now Jesse Paz was proposing to take away the thing Neto loved most, to turn him into just another big kid at school and maybe even ruin his chance for a college scholarship, all because a few jerks had said things that turned Jesse off. Neto didn't answer for a while. Finally he said, "I've never heard anyone say those things, Jesse," and walked away.
But Jesse's words stayed with Neto. What if it weretrue? Could he really perform before people who felt that way about him? Could he represent a school that would let it happen?
"The next game, I decided to see if I could hear what Jesse was hearing," Neto recalls. "In one play, we were running a pass pattern that ended up very near the Marsing cheering section. Our receiver, who was Hispanic, dove for the ball and missed it. Suddenly I could hear voices in our crowd saying, 'Get that stupid Mexican off of there! Put in a white player! G-D those f Mexicans!' I looked up. Most of the voices belonged to parents. One was a guy on the school board.
"All game long I kept listening. When a white player would drop a pass, they'd go, 'Nice try.' But they were always negative toward us. Our whole race. I guess I had been blocking it out. Jesse was right. We couldn't just ignore it anymore."
"IF YOU GUYS QUIT, WE'LL LOSE."
After the game, Neto found Jesse at his locker and said he was ready to act. They called a team meeting. All the players white and Hispanic were invited, but not coaches.
The players sat down together on the benches in the locker room. Jesse and Neto repeated the words they had heard and said it hurt too badly for them to play in the next game.
"Yeah, I've heard those things, too," said one player. "Sure it's terrible, but you can't quit! If you guys leave, it will destroy our team."
"Look," Neto said, "if we don't take a stand now, those fans will say those things forever. Even after we graduate, they'll keep putting Hispanic players down. We have a chance to stop it now."
Finally there was no more to say. The question came: "Who votes not to play the next game?" Every player raised his hand.
That night, Neto, Jesse, and another teammate walked into the coach's office and handed him their uniforms andpads. They explained why they were leaving and expected him to understand, but they were disappointed. "The coach said, 'Quitting will just make it worse,'" Neto remembers. "He said the fans would call us losers and quitters instead of respecting us. Nothing could convince him. After a while we just walked out." Now there was no turning back.
"IS THERE ANY WAY YOU CAN HELP?"
There was no one to talk to when Neto went home that night. His father was no longer living at home, and his mother was away on a trip. Neto made a sandwich, sat down, and looked through the kitchen window at the autumn sky. It wasn't enough just to quit the team, he decided. They had to tell the community why they were quitting, so the fans would at least have a chance to change. But how?
Neto decided to ask Andy Percifield for help. Percifield was the student council president, a tall, red-haired senior who always read the morning announcements over the P.A. system. Neto didn't know him, but people who did said Percifield was smart and fair. Maybe he would know what to do.
Neto was waiting by Andy's locker the next morning. "He had tears in his eyes," Andy remembers. "He said that adult fans were swearing at the Mexican players and that it wasn't fair. He was really hurting. He said, 'Is there any way you can help?' I told him I'd try."
When Neto left, Andy walked into the principal's office and repeated Neto's story. He asked for the school's support in dealing with the crowd. "The principal told me he hadn't heard adults say those things," Andy recalls. "He said some of the parents would have to call him and complain before the school administration could get involved. He said Neto had probably heard it out of context anyway." Andy stormed out angrily.
Soon there was even worse news for Neto and Jesse. Most of the players who had voted not to play had suddenly changed their minds. Even the Hispanic players. They could barely look at Neto and Jesse as they explained that they loved football too much to give it up. In the end, only four players Jesse, Neto, Rigo Delgudillo, and Johnny Garcia were committed to staying off the field.
SOMETIMES TO BE SILENT IS TO LIE.
SPANISH PHILOSOPHER MIGUEL UNAMUNO
The more Neto thought about it, the more determined he became. "I knew we were right," he recalls. "I didn't care what anybody else thought. And I also knew the team couldn't afford to lose me. If the school really wanted me, the fans had to stop saying those things. Only then would I play. Not until."
"I COULDN'T BELIEVE I WAS REALLY DOING THIS."
That afternoon, an Hispanic teacher named Baldimar Elizondo, whom everyone called Baldy, suggested that Neto tell the school board about the racist remarks. It was important to say in public why they were quitting, Baldy said, so that the school couldn't ignore it or pretend the protest was about something else.
The board was meeting that night. Baldy offered to pick Neto up and take him. Neto hesitated. He knew he had the courage to blast through tacklers and the toughness to work all day in the beet fields, but this seemed harder. When Jesse Paz said he'd go, Neto finally agreed.
Baldy picked up Neto first, but when they got to Jesse's, Jesse was nowhere to be found. Now Neto had to choose: did he testify alone or forget it? "All right," Neto finally said, letting out a long breath. "We've gone this far. Let's finish it."
When they entered the board's meeting room, Neto was terrified. They were alone with the ten white men who were the members of the Marsing school board. "I couldn't believe I was really doing this," Neto recalls. "Then I heard Baldy say, 'Neto wants to talk with you about the football team.'
"So I just started. I told them I was quitting and why. I told them word-for-word what I had heard. Only one of them looked like he was really listening. When I was finished, they thanked me for coming, but they didn't say they would do anything about it. I went home thinking, Well, at least I tried. Now they can't say nobody told them."
Andy Percifield had been busy, too. There were only two days before the next game. He was determined that his school would do the right thing, no matter what the principal said. He had an idea: maybe the students themselves could write a letter against racism that could be read over the microphone in the press box to everyone at the game. It would have to be powerful enough to satisfy the protesting players and shame the racist fans.
Andy was inspired by Neto. Neto was willing to risk his football career, his main source of power and popularity at Marsing High, for something that was right. Andy considered his own power: as council president, he could get out of class more easily than any other student. He could use the office photocopy machine whenever he wanted, and nobody ever asked him what he was reproducing. He read the morning announcements every day, so he could speak to the whole student body. If Neto was willing to risk it all, so was he.
The next morning during study hall, Andy drafted a letter from the students, ran off a hundred copies, and then went to the office microphone to read the morning announcements. "There will be a student council meeting in the chemistry lab at ten," he said. "Attendance is required. Then there will be a meeting of all students in the same room at 10:30. Attendance is encouraged."
At 10:30, students from all grades packed themselves into the lab. Andy stood up and reported what was happening, then read his letter aloud and asked for suggestions to improve it. There were a few. Then he asked for, and got, the students' unanimous approval to have it read at halftime. Next, Andy took the letter to the striking players and asked if it was good enough for them. They studied it carefully. It read:
We, the student body of Marsing High School are appalled by the racist behavior of certain people in the audience. Not only does this set a bad example for some younger students, it also reflects very badly on our entire school and community.
Although we appreciate the support of our fans for our team, which is composed of students from many ethnic backgrounds, we do not need bigots here.
We are asking the authorities to eject from the premises anyone making such rude and racist remarks.
Marsing High School Student Body
The four players looked up and grinned. You get this letter read to the crowd, they said, and we'll play. Since the letter wouldn't get read till halftime, Andy said they would have to start the game and trust him. They looked at each other. "You got it," said Neto.
A HOMECOMING LECTURE
Andy had the students and the strikers behind him, but he still needed permission to read the letter. He took it to the principal, hoping for a change of heart. The principal read it, handed it back, and refused permission. They looked ateach other. "I kept asking him, 'Well, how are we going to solve this problem?'" Andy recalls. "He didn't have an answer."
Andy was down to his last card: the school superintendent, the most powerful official in the Marsing school district. If he said no, the students would have to act outside school channels. That would be tougher, but not impossible.
Baldy went with Andy to see the superintendent. The superintendent listened carefully to Andy's story and read the letter. "Then he looked up and said he was proud of us," Andy recalls. "He said he would be willing to read the letter himself if we wanted him to. I said no, we wanted to do it ourselves."
On the morning of the homecoming game, while other students were constructing floats and preparing for a parade, Andy Percifield was in the office photocopying one thousand copies of the students' letter. After school, he passed them out to the students who would be working as parking lot attendants at the game and told them to make sure two copies of the students' letter were handed into every car that entered the lot.
At halftime, as homecoming floats circled the field, Allison Gibbons, a member of the student council, entered the press box, stood before the microphone, and asked for everyone's attention. The crowd grew silent as she began to read the letter.
"I was watching the crowd while Allison read it," Andy said. "When she finished, there was silence, and then almost everyone stood up and cheered. All the students stood up. And the football players were all clapping. It was a wonderful feeling to know that we had people behind us."
Since that letter was read, there have been no more racial slurs from the Marsing Husky fans, at least none loud enough for the players to hear. Neto and Andy know that they and Jesse and Rigo and Johnny didn't do away with racial prejudice in their town. Many white parents still won't let their sons and daughters date Hispanics, and the two groups still don't mix much outside school. But they alsoknow that they did what no one before them had done. "At least," says Neto, "we made it known that we wouldn't accept racism in our school or from our fans. We made a difference in the part of our lives that we really could control."
ONE DAY SARAH ROSEN'S SIXTH-GRADE TEACHER ANNOUNCED THAT THEIR SCHOOL WOULD BE REENACTING THE CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION OF 1787. BUT, HE SAID, ONLY BOYS COULD TAKE PART SINCE ONLY MEN HAD PARTICIPATED IN THE CONVENTION. SARAH WAS FURIOUS, BUT SHE SEEMED TO BETHE ONLY ONE WHO CARED ENOUGH TO DO ANYTHING ABOUT IT. HOW COULD ONE GIRL CHANGE THE WHOLE SCHOOL?
At first it sounded like a great idea to Sarah Rosen and her classmates in Mr. Starczewski's sixth grade class. Students at the Muessel School in South Bend, Indiana, would reenact the Constitutional Convention of 1787, where delegates from twelve of the thirteen new states drew up and signed the U.S. Constitution.
Mr. Star that's what everyone called their teacher explained that each of the fourth, fifth, and sixth grade classes would be a state. Students in each class would elect delegates, who would dress up in costumes of the time and pretend to be the original delegates to the convention. Mr. Star said that their class would be South Carolina, and that they would elect four delegates.
"ALL MEN ARE CREATED EQUAL"
THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE, 1776
Sarah looked around the room, measuring her chances to be elected. There were twenty-one students in her class, ten girls and eleven boys. She was well known and liked, but so were plenty of others. Well, maybe, she thought.
And then Mr. Star dropped the bomb. "Half the class isn't going to like this," he said. "But only boys can be delegates, and only boys will be allowed to vote for delegates."
Sarah felt tears beginning to build as she raised her hand. "Why can't girls be delegates?"
Mr. Star explained that the teachers wanted the event to be as close to history as possible. Since there had been no women delegates back then in Philadelphia, he said, there would be no girl delegates now at Muessel School.
Sarah hated discrimination of any kind. She didn't care what had happened two hundred years ago. To her, this was just plain discrimination against girls. Besides, nearly half the boys in the school, and in her class, were black or Asian or Hispanic. Two hundred years ago, they would have been left out, too. The black boys would have been slaves, without the right to vote, and Hispanics and Asians hadn't immigrated to the United States yet. But at Muessel, only girls were going to be left out. What did that say about how her teacher felt about the rights of women?
Sarah wanted to say a million things at once, but she knew she didn't speak well when she was angry. She waited for the bell to ring, then rushed past her friends to her locker and boarded the bus.
"I LONG TO HEAR THAT YOU HAVE DECLARED AN INDEPENDENCY AND BY THE WAY IN YOUR NEW CODE OF LAWS WHICH I SUPPOSE IT WILL BE NECESSARY FOR YOU TO MAKE I DESIRE YOU WOULD REMEMBER THE LADIES, AND BE MORE GENEROUS AND FAVOURABLE TO THEM THAN YOUR ANCESTORS. DO NOT PUT SUCH UNLIMITED POWER INTO THE HANDS OF THE HUSBANDS. REMEMBER ALL MEN WOULD BE TY- RANTS IF THEY COULD."
ABIGAIL ADAMS, IN A LETTER TO HER HUSBAND, JOHN, A DELEGATE TO THE CONTINENTAL CONGRESS, MARCH 31, 1776
"YOU HAVE TO DO WHAT YOU HAVE TO DO."
She was already crying by the time she got home. "Sarah, what's wrong?" her mother said. She wiped her tears on her sleeve and told the story. The telling itself seemed to clear her head. And an idea came: she would organize a counterdemonstration of the girls in her class. Let the boys walk around in costumes and pretend to be delegates if they wanted. The girls would take to the halls, chanting and singing in protest. They would represent the women the Constitution forgot back in 1787.
There wasn't much time to lose. It was Friday night, and the mock convention was scheduled for the next Wednesday. Sarah picked up the phone and called the classmates she thought she could count on the most, Jennifer Spinsky and the Wiand sisters, Betsy and Jennifer. They were angry, too. One idea led to another signs they could make, songs they could sing. They made up chants and slogans.
When Sarah hung up, her mother took the phone and called the principal, Dr. Calvin, to object as a parent to the all-male convention. Sarah listened carefully to her mother's end of the conversation. It sounded as though Dr. Calvin didn't even know about the boys-only rule.
Her mother handed the phone to Sarah. Dr. Calvin said she agreed the rule was wrong. She would gather the teachers before school on Monday morning and give them a choice: either they had to let girls in or, to be accurate to the period, they also had to keep out boys who weren't white. It would be up to each teacher. "Come see me second period on Monday," Dr. Calvin said.
"AS TO YOUR EXTRA- ORDINARY CODE OF LAWS, I CANNOT BUT LAUGH."
JOHN ADAMS, IN HIS REPLY TO ABIGAIL'S LETTER
When Sarah got to school on Monday, she went right to Mr. Star. She wanted to know which way he had decided. He seemed amused. Nothing had changed at all, he said.
"But didn't Dr. Calvin tell you?" Sarah asked.
His voice hardened. No changes, and that was final.
When the bell for second hour rang, Sarah went into the principal's office. Dr. Calvin closed the door. "Well?" she said. Sarah reported her conversation with Mr. Star.
Dr. Calvin frowned. Sarah looked at her, trying to decide whether to tell her that she was organizing a protest. It was an important decision. If Dr. Calvin approved, they could use the halls without fear of punishment, no matter what the teachers said. And it would be easier to talk her classmates into it if Sarah could assure them they wouldn't get in trouble with the principal.
But if Dr. Calvin didn't approve, she would be watching for them and she would tell the teachers. There would be no way to surprise them then. And kids would be scared.
Sarah decided to risk it. Dr. Calvin was a woman, and she was black. Probably she had known discrimination in her own life. Even if she said no, Sarah was determined to protest anyway. There were only three days left to organize. She might as well find out what she was up against now.
"Dr. Calvin," Sarah said tentatively, "if Mr. Star isn't going to change his mind, some of us are planning to demonstrate in the halls during the convention."
Sarah thought there might have been a faint smile onthe principal's lips. Dr. Calvin shrugged. "Well," she said, "then I guess you have to do what you have to do."
Sarah climbed the ladder to the wooden loft in the back of the classroom and surveyed her classmates. The loft had been built by a group of parents to give the children a quiet place away from their work tables to read and study. Out of Mr. Star's sight, the protesting girls met in the loft each day to make posters.
Of the fifteen girls in the classroom, eight had told Sarah they were solidly behind the protest. A ninth had said she wanted to play in the school band at the convention. That left six. They would probably do whatever Ashley did.
Ashley was a pretty and popular girl who was well aware of her social power. She had groaned like all the other girls when Mr. Star had announced his decision, but she hadn't done anything since. Sarah decided she needed to know where Ashley stood before she went after anyone else.
From the loft, Sarah saw Ashley walk to the drinking fountain in the back of the classroom. Sarah climbed down and asked Ashley if she was planning to demonstrate. No, Ashley said, it was wrong to spoil a day of celebration by doing something disruptive. Sarah tried to keep her temper in check. She couldn't afford to anger Ashley. "I know what you mean," she said thoughtfully. "But how can you celebrate when we're being discriminated against?" A "don't push me" look flickered across Ashley's face. She said she'd think about it and walked away.
Soon Sarah saw Andy Bauer coming toward her. What did he want? The boys had elected Andy as a delegate that morning. Maybe he wanted to gloat.
He was grinning. "I quit," he said triumphantly. "I've already written a resignation letter to Mr. Star. I told him I didn't want to be a delegate because it wasn't fair to the girls. Mr. Star just said, 'If that's what you want to do.' Now the other boys say they won't take my place as a delegate."
Sarah was thrilled. This would energize everyone. Now Mr. Star was in a real jam. Where would he get delegates if the boys wouldn't serve and the girls couldn't?
But when a second boy tried to resign, Mr. Star went to a different class and borrowed a boy delegate. And he announced that after Andy, he would allow no other delegates to quit. There was a "that's final" sound to his voice. The other boy delegates quickly returned to studying their South Carolinian characters.
Though she didn't admit it to anyone, even Sarah was a little scared. This was only the second week of school, and Sarah didn't really know Mr. Star. He controlled everything from their grades to how much recess they could have. If he formed an early impression of her as a troublemaker, he could make the rest of the year miserable. Word was already around the school that all the teachers except Mrs. Mills and Mr. Star were letting girls take part. Mrs. Mills was keeping out girls and boys of color. That made Mr. Star the only teacher with an anti-girl policy. Sarah wasn't about to back down, and now it was clear Mr. Star wouldn't either. She hoped she wasn't headed for big trouble.
MARCHING FOR EQUAL RIGHTS
Sarah woke on the day of the march excited and nervous. She lay in bed, looking around her room at posters of Martin Luther King, Mohandas Gandhi, and Marilyn Monroe. Her outfit for the day, a green-and-pink blouse and a pink skirt, was hanging neatly on her door. She thought the combination made her look strong and pretty at the same time.
She wondered how many people would protest. Ashley still hadn't said for sure, and neither had Ashley's friends. One thing that might make a difference was that one of the protesters' parents had called a reporter from the local paper. The reporter and a photographer were supposed to show up outside Mr. Star's class at 9:45. Maybe when the undecided girls saw the chance to get in the paper, they would join. Sarah hoped so. She would prefer that every marcherbe dedicated to women's rights, but she'd let people join for whatever reasons they wanted to.
At 9:45, the delegates left the classroom with Mr. Star. The other students were supposed to wait in the classroom. Instead, the protesting girls and four boys led by Andy Bauer went out into the hall with their signs and posters.
The reporter and photographer were waiting for them as they assembled in a two-by-two line. Every girl in the class except one was there, including Ashley, who was holding a big sign. "Women Demand Equality!" it said. "Women Are People!" said another. Sarah grabbed her own sign and placed it squarely in front of her. It read: "We the People." "People" was crossed out and "White Men" put in its place. "Okay," she said. "Let's go!" They began to move forward, singing "We Shall Overcome."
Voices ringing, they tromped down the stairs to where the kids in the lower grades had their classrooms. Some teachers let their children cluster in the doorways to cheer the marchers. But one teacher snapped, "Be quiet!" and slammed the classroom door.
Sarah felt powerful inside; she was acting on her beliefs. In the beginning, Mr. Star had told them, "Half the class isn't going to like this," but he didn't seem to expect that they would actually do something about it.
When the delegates returned to the classrooms, so did the marchers. Word came from the office that three other reporters were waiting to interview Sarah.
Later, when she had time to think, Sarah asked herself what had they accomplished. She didn't believe the protest had changed Mr. Star. He seemed just as set in his ways. He told the reporters that he had left girls out on purpose to cause controversy and teach them a lesson about the fight for the right of women to vote. She didn't believe him for a minute.
"OUR LESSON ON THE CONSTITUTION TAUGHT ME SOMETHING. IT TAUGHT ME FIRSTHAND THAT IF YOU WANT SOMETHING CHANGED, YOU HAVE TO DO IT."
But maybe she and the other students had changed. They had taken a stand for something they believed in. They had shown that they wouldn't accept being discriminated against. A lot of younger kids had seen them and were asking the protesters questions about why they had done it. Surely it would be harder for their school to plan something unfair again.
Most important of all to Sarah, they had probably raised consciousness about women's rights in their school. By her action, she had said that she was as good as anyone else and deserved a chance to share in whatever the school had to offer. As Dr. Calvin had put it, she did what she had to do.
ONE DAY WHEN SHE WAS TWELVE, NORVELL SMITH FOUND HERSELF SURROUNDED BY GANG MEMBERS WHO PRESSURED HER TO JOIN THEIR GANG. To SAY YES MEANT EXCITEMENT AND MONEY. IT ALSO MEANT A LIFE OF CRIME AND POSSIBLY AN EARLY DEATH. BUT TO SAY NO SEEMED EVEN MORE DANGEROUS.
As the jangling sound of the last bell echoed through the halls of John Hope School, Norvell Smith clutched her books and fought through the crowd toward her locker. She stuffed some papers inside, grabbed her jacket, and ran for the door. But when she burst outside, she could see her bus disappearing.
Already it was getting dark. Norvell knew her mother would worry, and with good reason. Her school, in the South Side of Chicago, was part of a virtual war zone. Gang members and drug pushers struggled to control the streets around it.
One side of the boulevard in front of Hope School belonged to the Folks. They wore blue and black. The other side belonged to the Brothers. They wore red and black, with their baseball cap bills pushed to the left. Every year since first grade, at least one kid in her grade school had been shot in gang crossfire.
Norvell didn't like walking home alone, but there was no alternative. She decided to try a shortcut through Sherman Park. She didn't know the park well, but there was still a little daylight.
She was about halfway through the park when she saw five high-school girls watching her. They were all wearing blue and black. She began to pray that they wouldn't mess with her.
She kept her head down as she walked rapidly toward the bridge that connected Sherman Park with her neighborhood. One of the girls moved forward to block her way. The others followed. The leader was tall, hard-faced, and razor thin. She placed a long, tapered red fingernail on Norvell's chest.
"What's up?" she said.
"We've been watchin' you."
"Me? Why?" Norvell's throat was dry. She struggled to keep her voice steady.
"You want to be down with us?" the leader said.
"No," Norvell said, "I don't." She could hardly believe the words had come out of her mouth. Was she crazy?
The leader seemed surprised. "Why not?" she said.
Norvell hesitated. Then the flat truth came out. "Because I don't want to disappoint my mama."
They began to chuckle. The leader stooped down and put her face in Norvell's.
"F your mama," she said. "She don't have nothin' to do with this."
Norvell felt a surge of anger.
"My mama has everything to do with this," she said firmly, looking straight back. "She raised seven kids without a problem. I'm not going to be the first."
No one spoke. There was only a trace of pale light in the sky to the west. The leader pointed to her jacket.
"You see these colors?" she said proudly. "When you're in the Folks, all the little kids will look up to you. You'll have friends. If you ever get in trouble, we'll stick up for you."
Yeah, Norvell was thinking, but what if I don't want trouble?
Norvell decided to make her move. She would try to make it to the bridge. If she could get across, she might be able to lose them in her neighborhood. She thought about her first steps, looked straight at the leader, and spoke inthe biggest voice she could find. "No," she said. "It's my decision. I don't want to be in your gang."
She began to walk forward. No one stopped her. She quickened her steps as the dark form of the bridge came into view. She didn't look back, but she heard only her own footsteps on the path. When she got to the bridge, she began to sprint. She didn't stop until she was through her front door and into her room. She fell belly down on her bed, gasping.
Her mother rushed in through the open bedroom door. "She said, 'What's wrong with you? What's wrong with you?'" Norvell recalls. "I said, 'Mom, please, just let me alone for a while.' When she left, I got up and looked in the mirror. I said, 'You really said those things, didn't you? Girl, I can't believes you.'"
Two years later, when Norvell was in eighth grade, her teacher announced that a police organization was sponsoring a speech contest. Every student at John Hope School would have to write a speech about guns, drugs, gangs, or interpersonal violence. The winner would get to read his or her speech to the entire school and receive a plaque.
Norvell thought about it. She'd love to tell the world about those girls in Sherman Park. About how hard it had been to say no. But only a fool would write a speech against gangs. Too many of the kids in her school were in them. She wasn't that dumb.
Some of her friends made big money in gangs. Adults who sold crack paid young gang members to help them fight for control of the streets. Unfortunately, one of the hottest corners was right in front of Norvell's house. Every night when Norvell got off the bus at Seventy-ninth and Pelina, she walked past the drug dealers. People in cars would cruise up to them and roll down the windows an inch or two, their motors still idling. After a few words the driver would push some cash out to the dealer. The dealerwould pull crack vials out of a shopping bag under his jacket, pass them through the window, and the car would pull away.
Sometimes the older dealers even paid the kids on her block to sell drugs for them, so the adults wouldn't get arrested and sent to jail. Norvell knew kids who walked around with hundreds of dollars in cash stuffed in the pockets of their jackets and jeans.
Norvell was never tempted to use drugs, but she prayed every night for the strength to keep from selling them. She knew how badly her family needed money. Her mother barely made enough as a cook in a downtown restaurant to pay for her cab fare home each night. Sometimes, when Norvell and her brother watched TV programs about kids in the suburbs with nice houses in safe neighborhoods without gangs, she was jealous. Those kids probably didn't even know what a gunshot sounded like. They wouldn't know a crack vial if they saw one. Sometimes when she watched those shows, she couldn't help herself from wondering, "Why me? Why do I have to live here?"
Norvell opened her English notebook and started to write a speech about something that seemed relatively safe: saying no to drugs.
But for some reason the picture of those girls in the park kept coming back to her. And there was another picture, too. It was the face of her friend Charles Brown, Grasshopper, as she called him.
One afternoon just the week before, Charles and his cousin, a member of the Folks, had walked out of school and crossed the Boulevard. Soon they'd been joined by two boys in baseball caps, wearing black and red, who had begun to taunt Charles's cousin. There was shouting and a shot. The bullet struck a brick building, bounced off, and went straight into Charles's spine. Grasshopper was dead in an instant. When Norvell found out, it felt like the bullet had hit her, too. Grasshopper had been one boy in eighthgrade she could really talk to. Now he was dead.
Norvell crumpled up the beginning of her "just say no to drugs" speech. Why not say what really needed to be said? Why not say how stupid gangs were. How unfair. What did she really have to lose when she lived in a place where you could be killed by a stray bullet just crossing the street? She was going to make her life count for something. Shaking her head to clear it, Norvell tore off a fresh sheet of paper and began to write.
"GO UP THERE AND DO WHAT YOU HAVE TO DO."
The school auditorium was filled on the afternoon Norvell was to speak. First her teacher had told her she had been chosen one of the final twenty, then one of the top three, and then the winner. Now she would stand on stage and give her speech to all 330 students in her school.
As she listened to a teacher introduce her, all Norvell could think about were the dozens of gang members seated in the audience. She was about to tell them they had all made stupid decisions. She wondered if she would make it out of the auditorium alive.
"I was terrified," Norvell recalls. "I whispered to Mrs. Cooney, my teacher, before I spoke, 'Please drive me home if this doesn't work out.' She said, 'Don't worry, I will. Just go up there and do what you have to do.'"
When she heard her name, Norvell stepped to the microphone and looked out at her schoolmates. All she could see were colors: blue and black, red and black. The gang members were slouched in their seats, smirking, looking up at her. For a moment, she didn't know if she could do it. And then, just as she had somehow found her strong voice in Sherman Park, she heard it again, saying, "I'm here today to talk about gangs."
She spoke slowly and steadily, pausing from time to time to let people think about her words. "I'm sick and tired," she said, "of these people coming into our neighborhoods and putting ideas into our little brothers' and sisters' minds that gangs are cool." Whenever she paused there wastotal silence. She couldn't believe it they were actually listening.
By the time she reached the end, her fear was gone. She finished by telling them the truth as plainly as she knew how: "I say the only thing that you can get out of being in a gang is a hole in your head or six feet under take your choice."
With that, she picked up her speech and started to sit down. They were all standing to applaud her even the gang members! People rushed forward to congratulate her. Mrs. Cooney, eyes shining, asked Norvell if she wanted a ride home. "No," Norvell said, looking around and smiling in disbelief. "I think I'll take the bus."
"YOU CAN'T TELL ME WHAT TO DO!"
Norvell entered her speech in a citywide competition and won again. A Chicago newspaper wrote a story about her. Soon she felt that her classmates seemed to resent the attention she was getting. She found terrible things written about her on the rest room walls. One day there was an unsigned note in her locker saying, "You better shut up." A rumor circulated at school that someone was out to beat her up. For weeks, security guards at her school walked her out to her bus at night.
But there was a bright side, too. Teachers from around the city began to call her to see if she could talk to their young students. The police department offered other chances to speak.
She decided to try speaking to a classroom of fifth-graders. Right away she discovered how hard it was to reach some kids. "I was telling them I used to think, 'Well, maybe I should join a gang because that way I would never get beat up,'" Norvell recalls. "I said that I found out that when the going gets tough, sometimes gang members desert you."
Suddenly a boy stood up, eyes blazing, and pointed straight at her. "You can't tell me what to do," he said defiantly. "This is my life."
Norvell was startled. This boy was furious. And he wasright. It was his life. The children looked at Norvell, wondering how she would answer him. She struggled to find the words she wanted. "You're right," she said finally. "If you want to die in a gang, it's your choice."
After her speech, she asked the boy if they could talk. He walked away, cursing her. Later, his teacher told Norvell the boy had two brothers in gangs. They were his heroes.
Norvell felt like a failure. She got home, sank into a chair, and told her mother she was ready to quit speaking. "I remember my momma said, 'Girl, don't worry about it. That was your first time. You'll do better.'"
The next time, she tried something different. "I started talking to the boys about their mothers," she says. "That's the one thing that'll make 'em stop and think. They'll be thinking, 'My mother loves me. And if I messed up, she would kill me.' It taught me something about speaking: you can say the same thing several ways, depending on who you're talking to."
"HERE, I CAN COUNT."
Now Norvell is sixteen and is busily recruiting a team of young people to speak out against gangs. She is looking for kids ranging from grade-schoolers to high-schoolers to speak to kids their own age. She plans to ask companies to sponsor her speakers and dreams of speaking in other cities.
Not long ago, Norvell happened to meet one of the gang members who had tried to recruit her in Sherman Park. Now she is a young single mother, living at home with no job and no plans. Norvell started to tell her about a night school program at her high school, but the girl looked away. After an awkward silence, Norvell started to walk on. The girl called her name. "Norvell," she said. "I'm glad that you didn't say yes to us that day. I know about you. You're doing good. Keep going."
The threats still come Norvell's way. "Each time before I speak, I pray that Jesus will protect me. So far, I'm still here." Scary as it is, speaking to the children of Chicago's violent South Side has helped her answer her old question. "Maybe the reason I'm growing up here," she says, "and not out in the suburbs, is that here I have a chance to make a difference. Here, I can count."
ONE DAY WHEN HE WAS THIRTEEN, JOHN DEMARCO SAW A NEIGHBOR PAINTING RACIST SLOGANS ON A HOUSE TO SCARE A BLACK FAMILY FROM MOVING INTO HIS PHILADELPHIA NEIGHBORHOOD. SOON A COP CAME AROUND ASKING WHO DID IT. JOHN THOUGHT ABOUT WHETHER TO TELL. NOT TO SAY WOULD BE WRONG. BUT TO TELL MIGHT ANGER HIS NEIGHBORS AND PLACE HIS FAMILY IN DANGER. WHAT SHOULD HE DO?
John DeMarco stepped out onto the porch of his mother's small red-brick house on the North Side of Philadelphia, raised his hand above his eyes, and squinted into the glare of a hot July day. Was that shouting he heard? Maybe there was a fight. John looked down Sellers Street to see what was happening. A group of neighbors were clustered around a house across the street and down the block. They were laughing and yelling and pumping their fists in the air. Curious, John walked across the street, stood on his tiptoes, and looked over the backs of two laughing neighbors. Richard Keller, whose sister lived on the block, was spraying something on the front of the building with a can of bright blue paint. John leaned forward to read the words: "We Don't Want No Niggers. KKK." The others were cheering Richard on. "That's right! That'll show them!"
John went back home and watched from his steps. It looked like something from a film he had seen at school about Martin Luther King. But this was Sellers Street, not Mississippi. How could this be happening here, on his block?
Then he remembered that earlier, he had seen a tall, nicely dressed black woman and four children step out of a car driven by a real estate agent in front of that same house.It had been for sale for a long time. If they bought the house, they would be the first black people on the block. Apparently, this bright blue message was meant to scare them away.
Someone threw a beer bottle, and more and more people came rushing to the scene, as if the house were a magnet. A neighbor ran out of his house with a white sheet nailed to a stick. They placed it on the ground and sprayed "KKK" on it and started waving it around like a flag, cheering.
John couldn't believe what he was seeing. He wondered how anyone could feel that way. How could you hate someone you didn't even know? Most of his schoolmates were black. Most he liked; some he didn't. But he chose his friends according to whether they were funny or friendly or whether they liked the same things he did, not what they looked like. John went back inside and closed the door, the noise in the street still loud behind him. He had seen enough.
"I'M PROUD OF YOU."
When the doorbell rang the next afternoon, John was in the living room. He stood still, listening, as his mother opened the door. It was a cop. He was asking if Mrs. DeMarco knew who wrote the message in blue spray paint on the house across the street. Of course she knew, John was thinking. By now everybody knew. That was all the neighbors had been talking about.
But his mom hadn't actually seen it happen. He had. John stepped to his mother's side. "I saw it," he interrupted. "It was Richard Keller." The officer looked up, surprised. He had been walking up and down the block all morning, and this stocky blond kid was the first to give a name. The cop scribbled Keller's name in his pad and asked John to describe everything he had seen. Then he thanked John, snapped his pad shut, and walked down the street. When she closed the door behind the cop, Peg DeMarco turned to her son and smiled. "I'm proud of you," she said.
A few days later the cop was back again. This time to ask John to go to court and testify against Keller. Why not? he thought. It was the right thing to do.
But John didn't know that he was the only person on his block to name Keller. He found out one afternoon a few days before the court hearing when he was carrying groceries home from the store and a piece of paper nailed to a telephone pole caught his eye. There, looking back at him, was his own face. It was a newspaper photograph. And on it, someone had scrawled the word rat.
His heart raced as he stared at the photo. What was his picture doing in the paper? Were people after him?
He quickened his steps toward home. A voice called from across the street, "Hey, DeMarco, why'd you rat on Kathy's brother?" John said nothing and kept on walking, his body stiff with tension.
When he got home, John ran inside to look for the paper. Sure enough, there was the story about the kid who had agreed to testify against the racist spray painter on Sellers Street. The story said he was the only neighbor who had identified thirty-four-year-old Richard Keller.
Suddenly this was no longer a simple question of right and wrong. Now his own safety was on the line. Maybe his life. Keller's sister and mother lived on the block, and many of his friends. Should he testify?
John prided himself on being tough. He was a promising middleweight boxer. His trainer at Reddish Gym had told him that he had the talent to be a champion. But now he was scared.
One night not long before the trial, John found his mother in the kitchen, finishing up the dishes. She was the strongest person he knew. Nothing seemed to get her down, not the nosy neighbors, not the trouble he gave her sometimes, not their lack of money.
John sat down at the table. She waited for the words to come. "Ma," he said finally, "what if they kill us?" There was not a trace of worry in her expression as she turned tolook at him. "John," she said, "If we die, we die. It's in the hands of God. But I know this. It's better to die for something you believe in than to die for nothing."
"RICH DID IT."
On a windy day in early November, John DeMarco, wearing the navy blue suit he usually wore to Mass, climbed into the back seat of a police car and rode off with his mother toward downtown Philadelphia. When they arrived at City Hall, they were joined by Amzie Denson, the black woman who had wanted to buy the house across the street, and her daughters. Mrs. Denson shook John's hand and thanked him for his courage. She said they had seen the spray paint and decided not to buy the house. Now they were settled in a different neighborhood. They walked in silence up the marble steps and into the building.
John had never been in court before. Lawyers in business suits mingled with cops in the halls outside the courtroom doors. He noticed that some people were wearing handcuffs. He sat with his mother on a bench outside the courtroom door until the case was called, trying to remember what Mimi Rose, the assistant DA had told him: "Stick to your story, keep it simple, take your time, and don't look at Keller until you have to point him out." He was scared.
The judge banged her gavel for the hearing to begin and Ms. Rose called John to the witness stand. He raised his right hand, swore to tell the truth, and looked out at the people in the courtroom. He knew most of them. On one side, he saw his mother and the Densons. On the other were Richard Keller's friends and relatives. He could see Keller, too, but tried not to look at him.
Ms. Rose got right to the point. "Please point to the man who wrote the 'KKK' on the wall," she said. John pointed to Keller, now looking directly into his eyes. He said simply, "Rich did it."
When Ms. Rose was finished, it was Keller's attorney's turn. John braced for the worst, but it was over in a moment. She asked only that John identify the spray painter again.Once again, he pointed to Keller. With that, John stepped down from the bench and sat beside his mother. She pressed his hand. Others testified, and then the attorneys gave their closing arguments. "Your honor, my client is needed in the home," said Keller's attorney. "Your client should have thought about that when he was writing those obscenities," replied the judge sharply. And then she gave her verdict: guilty of racial intimidation. One year in jail and a $2,500 fine. Bond was set at $100,000.
It was the toughest possible sentence. A cop snapped handcuffs on Keller and led him out of the courtroom. Keller's family seemed in shock. John tried not to think about their pain as he stepped out into the cold air and reporters and photographers surrounded him on the courthouse steps. They were eager to introduce readers to Philadelphia's newest hero, the boy who had taken a stand and sent a racist to jail. John began to feel more than a little nervous. This might not play too well back on the block.
"THAT'S FOR YOU, JOHN DEMARCO."
The next day, John DeMarco's picture was on the front page of Philadelphia's newspapers. Later that week, news teams from local TV stations set up their cameras by his mother's rosebushes. John's neighbors watched from behind curtains and blinds. Every article, every TV show, every scrap of attention seemed to make some of them hate him more. To them, John DeMarco was no hero. He was a big-mouthed kid who had broken a code of silence. He was getting famous by making them look like scum.
In the next few days, Richard Keller and John DeMarco seemed to trade places. Keller was set free until his case could be appealed (he never did serve time in jail but was ordered to provide community service instead), and Sellers Street became a terrifying sort of prison for John and his family.
After the reporters disappeared, most of John's neighbors turned against him. Bottles were smashed against the DeMarcos' house in the night. Garbage was strewn all over their porch. The phone rang with death threats, and there were hate letters in the mail.
John learned for himself how it feels to be discriminated against. When he walked down the street, most people turned away. Some swore at him. Others spat. Some called him "Rat." At the grocery store, his neighbors would say, "What are you buying, DeMarco, cheese?"
As the threats mounted, police accompanied John to school. School was upsetting in different ways. There the principal was always praising him which just made things worse. Some black kids he didn't even know treated him as if he had done them a personal favor, while schoolmates from his own neighborhood ignored or taunted him. He felt exhausted and sad. He didn't want to be a hero or a rat. He just wanted to be left alone.
It took two years for things to calm down. During that time, John went to live with his aunt. When he finally returned home, most neighbors seemed glad to see him. There had been some changes in the neighborhood whilehe was gone. Now the DeMarcos had several black and Hispanic neighbors. "I know those people couldn't have moved in if John hadn't done what he did," said Peg DeMarco.
John recently graduated from high school. Sometimes he still thinks about the six words, "I saw it" and "Rich did it," that took away his freedom and happiness a few years ago. But he knows the words gave him something, too. They let him know something about himself that many people never learn in a whole lifetime. He knows that when he was tested, he had the courage to do what was right.
He doesn't think of himself as a hero. "What happened to me was tough, sure," he says. "But what happened to the Denson family was even tougher. They couldn't even move into the house they wanted. All of this changed me. If someone told a racial joke in front of me before, I used to just pretend I didn't hear it, but now I'll step in. And I'll tell you one other thing: if the same thing happened outside my house again today, I'd do it all over again."
Copyright © 1993 by Phillip Hoose