No March on Washington
by Rhonda Williams

Louise Wetherbee Phelps Award Winner-Lower Division

From the student: My piece started simply as a Writing Studio I class assignment based on conflict between the self and the community, or between communities. As I began to recollect conflicts, I could not help but look to personal experience. I had lived through an event which I felt at the time was history in the making. However, I was at my computer when I noticed a striking similarity between my story and the ones already kept in the archives of Black History. I was singing a song my ancestors had already sung. Praying a prayer already prayed for me.

From the teacher: Rhonda's essay (a well-wrought, interesting, and provocative drama) captures a moment of conflict between two communities. Her careful selection of words, images and details, her skillful use of digressions, reflections, and dialogue, and her intriguing development of events makes her paper one of the best written by any freshman writer.

It was my junior year of high school. Three-hundred-sixty-five days before I graduated—leaving behind those same tired faces, away from the monotonous routine of going from locker, to homeroom, to class, to class, to locker, to home. When did I go home anyway? After all the tutorials, extra-curricular activities, and sports, I don't remember spending very much time there. Well, you get the point, high school had really worn me out. Eighth grade is way too early to start high school. By the time you've reached the eleventh grade, you've already developed the impatience of a senior.

My junior year of high school started off rather peacefully. Everyone went about their own routines, hypnotized by the sound of the bell which programmed our daily lives. Lunch was even good (that is, good rated on lunchroom standards), meat actually looked like meat, and the old ladies that served us were actually nice (that is, we hadn't made them bitter yet). Homework for the night? Get Teacher/Student/Parent Contracts signed, and fill out insurance forms. Wow, what a heavy load. Friends stuck close to old time cliques, or to new ones which started over the summer, and summer love still lingered in the air.

We didn't know, however, that turbulence was surrounding us. Those who were lucky found out early; they had inside connections, such as PTO parents or fanatical community leaders. Others read articles in our local paper that suggested community unrest: "ANGRY PARENTS FIGHT BACK!" The people who knew nothing found out when they drove past orange ribbons that hung from trees, or when they were attacked by reporters at the end of the day. Dwight Morrow High School's fate was suddenly placed in the hands of its students, the judges, and neighboring communities. Everyone had a viewpoint, and all wanted their voice to be heard.

"Board Meeting Tonight, Members of the Board and the Englewood Community Discuss Regionalization", read fliers on the school's walls. "Please students, don't forget to tell your parents to come and support our students, our schools, and our community," the principal pleaded over the loud speaker at the end of the day.

For the first time in approximately ten years the issue of regionalization between Englewood's school system and neighboring Tenafly was rekindled. Was it finally time for the 97% minority Dwight Morrow High School, and the predominantly white Tenafly High, to join forces as one to learn, walk, and teach together? If so, students of many ages would be forced to bus to new schools with new faces—forced to learn about cultures outside of their own. Many would argue that meeting new people and sharing differences is enriching, that it broadens your horizons. But, what happens when differences are viewed through the eyes of racists? Who wants to sit on a bus, share the same bathrooms, texts, and teachers with people who believe that the word "nigger" means Black, and should be capitalized to represent a nationality? This was the fear of many Englewood parents, because the majority of Tenafly had a history of not liking or accepting African Americans. (If you're assuming that this story took place in the 1960s, I've painted a clear picture).

Tenafly parents were enraged with the idea of sending their kids to Englewood schools. I'm sure that they had many issues of concern--issues that come with being a parent. The most obvious issue, however, was race. "ENGLEWOOD STUDENTS CAN'T LEARN," was the outcome of most of Tenafly's private meetings. We were very rarely informed or invited to their meetings; however, we often left our meeting doors open for them. So you can imagine, what a kick-in-the-ass reading this type article must have been. "What do they mean we can't learn?" many of us asked. "Since when did Dwight Morrow become a school for the mentally disabled??" At times, statements like this, did nothing but empower us to do better. Sometimes, we'd get burnt out from having to always prove ourselves. A student can never learn the true meaning of the words teachers, and principals constantly utter, "Be on your best behavior, you're representing our school," until you've been through a situation like this one. A situation made up of pins and needles.

It was a confusing time for most of us. I remember sitting down one day, and conversing with a white girl from Tenafly I had met during the track season. "Guess what," she says after a moment's conversation, "A few weeks ago a freshman girl got caught with acid in her locker. I was shocked. I couldn't believe that stuff like that happened at those schools. I never recalled anyone from my school, since I've been there, getting involved in something that deep. Anyway, it was a confusing time, especially for the large number of intelligent, well behaved students. We often found ourselves not knowing when to stand tall, or bow our heads in shame. Many of us found ourselves voicing out at public meetings about the rewards of Dwight Morrow High School, but when asked during private hours what school we attended, we would lower our voices and simply reply "Englewood." We were afraid of the images they had or would conjure up. It was at both the moments of pride and the moments of shame that I realized that my days at Dwight Morrow were in counting. Suddenly the faces didn't seem so old and tired, and I began to enjoy the monotony of going to my locker. I even found myself associating with people I never associated with before. I could tell by the looks on everyones faces that I wasn't drifting in this boat alone.

I went to the meeting that night. My parents did too. Our auditorium was filled to its capacity. I made my way through the cameras and reporters and took a seat in the back. Surrounding me were fellow members of my community, opposite me were strangers covered in orange and white (Tenafly's colors), from the shoes on their feet to the paint on their faces. Most of them held signs which read "ENGLEWOOD STUDENT'S CAN'T LEARN," "WE WILL ONLY ACCEPT THE BEST," "ENGLEWOOD'S BOARD MEMBERS ARE MONKEYS," and things of that nature. (If you're waiting for me to tell you about the civil rights speech Martin Luther King Junior gave at Dwight Morrow High School that night, I waited just as patiently too.? The animosity in the room was as thick as the fog outside. I remember observing a scene where one of the African American members of my community sat peacefully in his chair, and a Caucasian woman from Tenafly stood over him, hanging her sign directly above his head. The peaceful Englewood member asked the Tenafly member to kindly remove the sign from over his head. After asking more than twice, it was obvious that the Tenafly member was purposely being rude. Like dynamite ready to explode, the man slowly rose out of his chair and turned around. He snatched the sign out of her hand, ripped it to pieces, and proceeded to do a dance of some sort on top of them, and left. The Englewood crowd began to cheer and roar. I don't believe that he handled the matter in the most mature way, but she received the treatment she asked for. The lady stood there, stupidly, and in silence.

"Englewood students are ignorant, incompetent fools and I will not have my child go to school with them!" a loud mouth Tenafly lady hollered. Englewood made many remarks too, but none of that sort. They were intelligent, well thought out responses, and it was obvious who the ignorant ones were. As I scanned the orange faces in the room, I noticed that there were no Tenafly students to be found. I recalled the girl who sat Indian-style with me on the lawn at the track meet, and innocently told me the story of the freshman from her school that was caught with acid. Why wasn't she there? A stern black woman stood from her chair. Her dreadlocks hung down her back, and swayed with the rhythm of her words, and the motion of her head. She pointed distinctively toward the Tenafly crowd. "I can't make the judge's decision for him, but I'm sure he would understand that I can not send my child to a school where she is going to be oppressed every day of her life. I don't know what kind of an example you think you're setting for your kids, Tenafly, but I will not stand here and let you persecute these innocent kids because of your ignorance. Englewood kids are intelligent, kind, and can compete with your kids any day."

A sense of pride came me over me. The Englewood crowd clapped and rose to their feet. A shrill voice called out, "Sit down lady!"

"Yeah, and shut up!" another one chimed in. (If you've already pictured members of the Ku Klux Clan racing down the aisles of my auditorium on their horses, fire in hand, then I need not give you anymore depiction, and you probably know just how I felt.)

The whole ordeal is over now, and I probably can't give you any statistics about Englewood's or Tenafly's school system—budget cuts, test scores, things of that sort. I left the meeting that night with those images and sounds of hate running through my head, and felt the blow from them in my heart. I stood outside and waited for my parents to pull the car around. It was very difficult to see the color of the cars. Everyone was squinting their eyes and pushing, trying to see if it was their car that pulled up beside them. Though anger besieged our hearts, I noticed that everyone stood side by side in front of "Martin Luther King Hall Auditorium," and I thought, "Wouldn't it be nice, if God placed a sheet of fog over the eyes of people who took for granted the beauty and importance of color."

Many weeks, and thousands of dollars later, the courts ruled against regionalization of Englewood's school system. Everything we did, now seems futile. Englewood and Tenafly wasted so much money on legal fees fighting for the separation and integration of our school systems, and it seems as though it would've been more beneficial financially, socially, and most important mentally, to have spent the thousands of dollars on the students already enrolled in their schools. All we have to show for the time and money spent are two quiet communities, separated by a dim fire waiting to be rekindled.

I left the meeting that night; I didn't get to hear Martin Luther King Junior's civil rights speech. He had been dead for almost thirty years, but I knew in my heart that where he was, he was preaching. I also didn't get to sit next to any brave heroes like Rosa Parks, but my mind still sees the images of those orange faces, and my ears still ring of racial slurs. I didn't march down the streets that night either—chanting no Old Negro Spirituals, or even raise my voice in protest, but I sure could feel my kinfolk calling.


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