83. Homegrown Terror, 1989, (2)

If you didn’t read yesterday’s post, this will make no sense. Slide on down to post 82. We’ll wait.

The non-Anglo students at my school were Mexican or Mexican-American. I never knew which were native to the U.S., which were legal immigrants, and which were illegals. No one told me, no one told me to ask, and I didn’t need to know. I did try to teach equality and tolerance whenever the opportunity arose, like my alter ego Neil McCrae.

*****

Neil had not had a good day. He had obtained a video of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech to show to his students in connection with the holiday. His morning class had responded with very little enthusiasm when he tried to get them to discuss what it meant. There were no black children at Kiernan, and Neil had not been able to convince them that the civil rights Dr. King had fought for were for all of them. To these children the events of the fifties and sixties were another world, as foreign as ancient Athens. They were indifferent to it all.

His afternoon class was even worse. He had almost reached the point of giving up in disgust and trying some other tactic, when Bill Campbell came to the door of his classroom and motioned for Neil to join him outside. The look on Bill’s face alerted Neil that something serious had happened.

“I just got a phone call from Elaine Sanders. There has been a shooting at one of the elementary schools in Stockton. Apparently, there were a bunch of dead and wounded. Elaine wanted us to be on the alert.”

Bill’s words were just words. The reality of them did not hit Neil at once. He said, “On the alert for what?”

“I don’t know. Strangers on campus; anything like that.”

Since the American Navy had accidentally shot down an Iranian airliner the previous summer there had been talk of terrorist reprisals, and American schools were one of the targets being threatened. If that was the case, and the school which had already been struck was so close . . .

Neil found himself searching the playground with his eyes, and at the time it did not seem melodramatic. He said, “What do you want me to do?”

“Don’t say anything to your students, but be on the alert. Join Tom and me out front when the buses come to pick them up. It’s late enough in the afternoon that we probably won’t have any parents coming in to pick up their children because they heard it. If some parent comes in, get their child out of the classroom without a fuss. If we can manage it, I want to get these kids home with their parents before they hear about it.”

Bill went on to pass the word and Neil returned to his classroom. Bill’s words “a bunch of dead and wounded” rang in his head as he sat down and looked at his kids. Little Randi Nguyen with her boundless energy; Rabindranath who was calm and bright and utterly without a sense of humor; Lisa Cobb with her erratic behavior and terrible puns; even Jesse Herrera. Dead or wounded . . .; he had to shake his head to drive the vision away.

The bell for the last break of the day caught him by surprise and he jumped. Somebody laughed, then hid his laughter. The students all rushed for the door. Neil was on his feet in an instant and out the door to pace the playground in paranoid fear. All of the other teachers were out, exchanging worried glances and saying nothing.

When the buses came, a phalanx of teachers was there to protect their students from an enemy who never appeared.

This excerpt concludes tomorrow.

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