Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Racism, High School, and the Murder of John Lennon

The first week of December 1980 was a turbulent time at Christiana High School. Forced desegregation of schools in New Castle County was still sinking in and the mostly white kids from the suburbs were not warming up to the minority kids form the city being bussed out to suburban schools like Christiana. Bussing was about in its 3rd year and there were often fights and incidents of racism. Being a white kid from the city it was different for me because I grew up with blacks and hispanics. My best friend up till then was Johnny Freeman who was an African-American kid that lived down the street and I also had various Hispanic friends at the Boy's Club. Later on at Delcastle, I became best friends with Jose "Joey" Adorno who lived on West 7th Street in Wilmington. A person's race never mattered to me as long as the person was a good person.

To give you an idea of the way things were. In my social studies class with Mrs. Murphy, we covered slavery and during discussion the kid who sat behind me raised his hand and said he agreed with it. He went on to say the black people are inferior and should be slaves. He told us that the south will rise again and make everything right again. I was horrified and dumbfounded. The class was mixed and I can't imagine how the black kids must have felt. If this big dummy behind me wasn't one of the biggest kids in the class, perhaps someone would have attacked him right there. Mrs. Murphy sent him out of class and we didn't see him for a few days. At some later date he left school for a long time and returned telling us something happened and he had a hole in his lung. I'm not sure what the truth was but I'm guessing he is probably still a racist today.

Throughout that week there were huge tensions and even on my bus some of the white kids would taunt the black kids. It was awful. The first week of December ended for us on Friday, December 5, 1980. On that Friday there was talk of a riot going all through the school. The police started arriving throughout the morning and by lunchtime there was 50 officers throughout the school. The day ended without a major incident.

That weekend we all received phone calls explaining that school would be closed on Monday and then the remainder of the week we would come in by grade, 9th on Tuesday, 10th, on Wednesday, etc... When I woke up Tuesday, December 9th, I learned from my mom that John Lennon was murdered the night before. By 9th grade I knew enough about John Lennon to know his message was peace, love, and everyone getting along. My 9th grade brain knew there was a sort of weirdness that my school was closed for and entire week because people could not get along and the one man who probably stood for peace and love more than any other was murdered while I slept the night before. I put it this way because language arts was my weak point and I don't think I fully understood the concept of irony.

The purpose of this single day of school was to provide us all with intensive sensitivity training complete with skits put on by many of our teachers. I remember the skits were acted out as real life and they all had something to do with racial issues and discrimination. I remember the culmination of one was one of my teachers, Miss. Pennington, getting into a verbal altercation with another teacher and calling her the "N Word." I think it really showed kids how they looked and it changed the way the students viewed racism.

Being a city kid who grew up at the Boy's Club probably gave me a much different perspective than the Newark kids who mostly attended Christiana High School. Nevertheless, the skits made an impact on me and for the most part my classmates. The remainder of the year was free of the cloud of racism as far as I could tell.

The remainder of that week I listed to a lot of John Lennon songs on the radio and watched spot after spot on the news trying to learn and understand more about the man, his music, and his message. The local all-talk station from Philadelphia, WWDB, dropped all of its talk programming and played nothing but John Lennon/Beatles music for 24 hours straight. The news was filled with people gathering to mourn the loss of John Lennon, and the students at Christiana High School gained a little more respect for humanity.

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