Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Last Encampment

The large group room was silent as the principal approached the podium. The teachers closed their lap tops and sat up straight folding their hands in front of them as if in prayer. Rumors had been spreading that the higher-ups were not at all happy with the school's state test results.  Corrective action was needed beyond the personal, self-flagellation of reflection.

“Tomorrow we will take the entire senior class camping in preparation for their internment with the army,” the high school principal announced to his staff. Heads began to nod in the affirmative. It was due time the students got what they deserved most of the teachers thought.  After years of being corrected themselves by political and religious zealots, many of the teachers felt the tide had turned in their favor. 

"I apologize for making this such short notice but we only have a few days left in our school year to have an effect on our state rating," the principal said making the best use of time and surprise as an educational artifact.  "I believe this alternative will add points overall to our state scores and usher us into a probationary period before corrective action is required." More surprises ahead the teachers thought; more end of the day emergency meetings.

One teacher, a leftover from the Vietnam War Era who had been a  resister stood up and said, “You have no right to take these students camping without a twenty-four hour parental notification.” He was a very litigious fellow and had once been an officer in the now defunct union. He did not question the internment, however, for that would have brought into question his reborn Americanism. For don't you know that lest thou be repatriated again thou shalt never inherit any entitlements from the kingdom. He remembered you can keep your doctor as well as you can keep your school long before they began bussing students as a form redistribution of wealth.

“We shall see,” the principal said, “who shall stand against me. For if thou art against my decision, thou art against thine nation.” The teachers were well aware of the retribution that could be taken out against them if they did not cooperate. There were many names on long lists that had long been forgotten. Many who had disagreed with policy in the past had been relocated to schools in the inner city. Some had even been reassigned to the northern tier of the state to toil away their final years in places like Frackville and Nuangola. The principal was a fierce and jealous man and a decorated war veteran who welcomed army and marine recruiters into the building. "We are on the same team," the principal had repeatedly said. "We are a family."

The next day was the Senior Prom. It was an ideal time to move the students.  None of the students wanted to make a mistake and embarrass themselves on their special day. To do so, they would need to obey. Dressed in black tuxedos and colorful prom dresses, the boys and girls followed the orders of the principal’s secretary as she spoke over the loudspeaker. The students moved like cattle into the busses that would take them to the isolated army base in the mountains of central Pennsylvania. Ten students were chosen as prom kings and queens.  These students were permitted to drive their own cars to the encampment.  The principal had wanted more kings and queens but he had found only ten worthy amongst the entire class.

Upon arrival at the encampment, one of the chosen named Russell, who was a radical and wore long hair, discovered that he had forgotten his prom shoes.  He wished he had worn his hiking boots when he imagined how muddy the camp might be if it rained.

“We shall wait for you, Russell,” the principal said. “We cannot begin until you join us.”

The white students were all sitting together at the top of the hill while the black students were sitting at the bottom on the concrete steps that led into the camp. This social segregation was not devised.  Even at lunchtime during the school year, the races sat separately and preferred to do so.  No one asked why. Those who eat together, serve together; and those who serve together, die together.  It appeared the same arrangement would occur while camping.

Russell walked down into the crowd of Blacks. He was looking for a pair of shoes.  He had hoped to get a pair from the social worker who had received donated shoes from the community for kids who couldn’t afford them.  He found a pair next to the social worker’s table.  They were grayish purple and nobody seemed to want them.  They fit very well, although they were of very soft leather, but he broke a string trying to tie them.  He had to lace them strangely for them to fit tightly and stay on his feet.

As he was lacing them, a group of Black students known as the Coalition sat down around him and addressed the gathering. Russell wondered if the other white students sitting and standing on the hill thought that he was part of the Black Coalition. Later on he would explain to them that he was just looking for a pair of shoes.

The female leader of the Black Coalition, a stocky, heavyset girl who was not averse to including whites in the Coalition's activities, spoke as to the great opportunity that awaited everyone through the doors in the encampment.  She reminded everyone of the last encampment at Gettysburg and how it felt to bring both the North and the South together to reenact their folly one last time. She even showed a Power Point presentation of old bearded, armless and legless white men, veterans of the Civil War, dressed in black and off-white. That was because the original photos were in black and white, a technological construct her peers had no notion of unless they had taken photography class. When she had finished, she told Russell that she liked his shoes and asked him to do her a favor. Russell was afraid to say no because he had a feeling the Black girl knew who the purplish gray shoes were meant for.

“Would you drive my jeep down the road to 216 West Killcorn Avenue and deliver a load of firewood,” she asked. “Just park the jeep there and walk back, would you?”

"Who is it for?" Russell asked.

"It's for my parents who live in the old headmaster's shack who used to be the boss in the quarry," she said.

Russell did as she asked feeling that walking an extra mile for an African American female was his contribution to racial harmony. Added to that by all accounts, she was his secret heart as rumors would have it.  Two Black students who wanted to make sure he found the right jeep followed him close behind making Russell a little nervous as all white boys are in the presence of dominant black males. He was worried that they might notice his shoes and take them from him and to suppose himself cool and jive enough, he would certainly hand them over. Russell delivered the firewood and walked back the long hill that once had been a dump truck passage out of the abandoned granite quarry.  This is the price you pay for social worker shoes, he thought. (1)

A group of students were playing soccer at the top of the hill when Russell returned. Russell watched them.  For a moment, he forgot that he was one of the prom kings.  He forgot that the principal and the dignitaries were waiting for him to lead the class procession into the encampment.

When the game finished, Russell walked around the chain-linked backstop to join the chosen kings and queens. The wind was picking up blowing dust from the Diamond-Tex grassless infield. When the principal and dignitaries had finished giving their short speeches, the senior class, led by the ten kings and queens, walked down the concrete steps and into the encampment. Some spoke quietly if they spoke at all. All excitement, celebrity, and pride had been drained from their voices.   By now, it was raining and everybody felt homesick for the first time.  The leader of the Black Coalition along with Russell went first followed by the rest of the Black students Soul Train line dancing through the heavy iron camp gates swinging the water out of their dreadlocks and weaves in large droplets so Zen-like and round that they could have been mistaken for Kabuki dancers.

1. If you walk in the shoes of a social worker...or in the shoes of anybody who "works for the betterment of society," what should you expect in return? As far as I know, the only practitioner-philosopher who has ever written on this subject honestly is the educator Paulo Freire While working in Guinea-Bissau, empowering the oppressed with literacy, Freire encountered a weird phenomena. He found that the first class of people who the newly empowered  practice their newfound empowerment upon are the very people who empowered them. I also encountered this phenomena with the children of migrant workers and even adults. Once I gave them voice, the power of speaking, reading, and writing, they seemed  embarrassed to ever have been associated with those who had empowered them. In fact, some in their later years after attending college, became the staunchest critics of "liberal programs" denying those programs to the newcomers who came after them.  They held the perception that they had done it on their own.

1 comment:

  1. This is just powerful. Your (written) words are still echoing in my head. I'm speechless, though. Thanks.

    Greetings from London.