The Secrecy Of Discrimination
It is February 28, 2005, the first day of classes for New York City public schools after the President’s Day vacation. It is also Course Selection Day at Brooklyn’s Edward R. Murrow High School and 16-year-old African American junior Nicole Harrison is angry after looking at the list of available classes at her SCS in Room 210C as the school did not put a black history one as she had proposed to the English Department last cycle. She goes to their office, Room 225 after SCS.
When Mrs. Judith List the department’s assistant principal sees her by her room door, she asks, “May I help you?” She enters, then says, “I was wondering if you can begin a black history course as an elective next cycle.” She says, “Please sit,” pointing to the chair in front of her desk.
Nicole does and Mrs. List asks, “What made you interested in starting such a class here?”
“Because February was Black History Month, I spent the break researching many African Americans who have done a great deal for this country, but are hardly known by anyone. I do not think this is fair. I know there are many students in this school who want to learn more about this topic, but for some reason, they will not say anything. A few of my friends suggested we add this kind of course in December, but the school did not listen and I’m upset with that,” Nicole replies.
“Before the recess, we had posters all across the school promoting Black History Month,” Mrs. List tells Nicole, who responds, “But that was not enough. Many people paid no attention to them. We got to show them that blacks are an important part of global history like whites and the only way to do that is to establish a course about it. I know it’s a great idea as it will make people more interested in this. Mrs. List will you please take my suggestion?” She looks quite desperate.
“I will think about it, come here tomorrow morning and I will let you know my decision,” she says. “Thanks, bye,” Nicole says. “Bye,” Mrs. List says back before Nicole leaves the office.
At her Flatbush home that afternoon, Nicole’s mother Irene cleans the lamps in the living room when Nicole enters and says, “Hey mom.” Irene asks, “Hi, how was school today Nicole?”
“It was the usual, but I did something very significant,” she says, then Irene asks, “Really and what’s that?” “Well over the last month I’ve learned that blacks have done a lot for the world in the past, but no one knows a thing about them. I find this very wrong, so I asked Mrs. List, the English Department’s assistant principal, to start a black history course at the school next cycle.”
Irene asks, “How did she respond to that?” Nicole says, “She said she’d think about it and to see her tomorrow morning.” “I think it is a good idea for everyone to learn about the history of black people in this world, so did you tell any of your friends about your suggestion?” Irene asks.
“No not yet, but I did ask George and Lana to come here after school so we can discuss it together. They should be arriving soon.” Nicole says. A knock is then made on the front door and Irene goes to open it. Behind it are Nicole’s two best friends Lana Turner (a beautiful, Caucasian tall brunette) and George Yi (a small nerdy-looking Chinese kid), who are both 15-year-old tenth graders. They greet Irene and Nicole, who greet them back, then run to Nicole as Irene closes the door and goes around with her feather duster clearing the top of the sofas and frames on the wall.
“We came as fast as we could, so what did you want to see us for Nicole?” George asks.
“I was wondering if you two could help me create a black history course at Murrow,” she says. Lana says, “I thought there was one already, there were posters at school this month talking about notable black figures. I looked at some and they were fascinating.” “That was only because February is Black History Month. I thank you for taking some time to read them, but nobody else really cared about them, even though African Americans have played a big part of history, which annoys me. If you don’t believe me, look at this,” Nicole says before going to a nearby drawer to take out a thick, but tiny book. She gives it to Lana, who opens and skims through it with George for a few minutes. They look surprised by what is inside. Irene dusts the piano, tables, and chairs.
“Wow I never knew there were this many historical black figures,” George says and Lana follows with, “Neither did I and Nicole, you are saying schools do not have classes about them?”
“Yeah that is why really I need your help in creating one at Murrow,” Nicole says, “If we work together, nothing will stop us from making my dreams a reality, so are you guys in or not?”
“A black history class would be a great benefit to the school being that I am certain many people want to study this subject even if they will not say it. Count me in Nicole, what about you George?” Lana asks. He says, “Okay, I’m in. Let’s work on something that will help our school.”
“Great thank you so much,” Nicole happily says, “Meet me tomorrow just before A Band in Room 225. Mrs. List, the English AP, will tell us her decision on my idea.” “Okay,” Lana says before she gives the book back to Nicole. “Nice seeing you Mrs. Harrison,” George says to Irene, who says, “Same here, have a nice day.” Lana and George say, “Bye,” to her and Nicole, who do the same, and leave. “Got some homework to do,” Nicole says before going upstairs to her room.
The three friends enter Mrs. List’s office the next day and, after greeting her, Nicole asks, “What do you think of my proposal?” She says, “I think a black history course will be a nice idea for the school.” Nicole and her friends cheer, but Mrs. List interrupts with, “But while I’d love to add it to our curriculum, course selection for next cycle is already done. I am not sure if there is a time slot for it, plus the department will not add a new class randomly without student feedback.”
“Oh, but can we start a petition? I’m sure if we have enough signatures from students, the department will consider my course.” Nicole asks. Mrs. List says, “You can and I will be the first to sign it and give it to the chair when you are done, but I can’t help you in gathering signatures.”
“No problem. Thanks for supporting my class,” Nicole tells her. “You are welcome, have a nice day,” she replies. Nicole and her friends say, “Bye,” to her, and leave the room. They walk together in the halls until they reach an intersection, then say, “Bye,” to one another and separate.
Over the next week, Nicole, Lana, and George walk around the school hanging flyers and asking students and staffs to sign the petition to establish Nicole’s course. At first, things go well as they get many signatures from supporters that think it will be great to study black history year-round. On March 8 Nicole is at her locker by the 310 Suite during her OPTA when she sees Lana and George talking nearby. Curious, she goes up to them, asking, “What are you doing?” George answers, “Just talking.” Nicole asks, “About what?” and Lana tells her, “We do not want to say.”
“All right, but aren’t you guys supposed to be helping me with my petition?” Nicole asks.
George says, “We are,” before showing Nicole his memo pad, which is almost filled with signatures. Holding a large sack of papers, Lana says, “I hung up a lot of flyers today. Just look,” then points to the 340 Suite down the hall, where the walls are filled with flyers about their class.
“Well thanks a lot guys. I know we can get this course in,” Nicole says prior to looking at her watch. “This band is about to end. I must get to…,” she says before seeing that her locker has a note on it that she did not put. Confused, she goes to it, reads it and says, “Oh god!” in surprise.
It says, “If you want black history, go back to Africa!” and when Nicole closes her locker door, the N word has been spray painted on it. This completely shocks Nicole, Lana, and George.
Nicole’s father, Roger is pacing around the dining room that evening, being angry at what happened at Murrow. When Irene comes down the stairs, he asks her, “So how is Nicole doing?”
“Not that great, she told me to leave her alone and would not stop crying,” Irene answers.
“I cannot believe someone could do something like this to our daughter in school,” Roger says and Irene replies, “Nicole can handle this herself.” Roger tells her, “I know, but I feel totally useless since she got hurt at a place we thought was safe and there is nothing we can do about it.” “I am afraid on how this will affect her for the rest of her life. White kids always picked on me at school. I had hoped Nicole would not be caught in the same thing, but was so wrong,” Irene says.
Roger replies, “This is life. Racism still exists and people hate others for their skin color.”
“It just brings back bad memories of my childhood,” Irene says and cries. Roger comforts her. The next afternoon, they are in the living room with Roger’s mom Fiona when Nicole comes home from school showing tears with her head down clearly upset with what her petition caused.
“Nicole, what happened?” Roger asks and she answers, “Everything is a huge mess dad.” Irene asks, “What do you mean? Did someone hurt you again?” and Nicole tells her, “No, but the whole school is falling apart. The black students are not speaking with the white ones and people are making fun of each other for their ethnicities, fighting and taking sides. It is totally my fault.”
“What?” Roger asks and Nicole answers, “None of this would have happened if I had not started that petition. All I wanted to do was make things better, but I just made them a lot worse.”
“That is not right. None of this is your fault. Your petition was a good idea,” Irene says to Nicole and she tells her, “Thanks for trying to cheer me up, but it is not helping much. I just wish all of this would go away,” as she clutches to Roger, who hugs her and asks, “What has Lana and George said about this?” “I have no idea, I did not hear from them at all today,” Nicole tells him.
Just then, a knock is heard on the front door. Irene opens it and Lana enters sobbing hard. “Are you okay?” Nicole asks as Roger lets go of her. She says, “No all the white kids are picking on me since they know you’re my best friend.” Lana sits on the couch. Nicole sits next to her and pats her shoulder, saying, “It is all right.” Fiona asks, “Irene and Roger, can you two excuse us? I want to speak to Nicole and Lana alone.” They ask, “Are you sure?” and Fiona says, “Yes I am.”
After they leave the room, Fiona asks, “Nicole, can I tell you and Lana something terrible that happened to me years ago?” and she says, “Of course.” Fiona goes to a nearby drawer, takes out a small paper ticket, goes back to the couch, and sits with the girls, who watch with curiosity.
Fiona asks, “Do you know what this is?” and Lana replies, “It looks like an old bus pass.”
“Correct Lana. You see Nicole, I lived in Baton Rouge, Louisiana back in the early 1950s with your grandfather and segregation was a common thing there. Blacks and whites had to go to different schools, work, play, and live in different parts of the city, and were not allowed to share things such as drinking fountains even if they were equal. I back then worked at a store in a black area, but for me to get there, I had to switch buses at a white neighborhood and that is why I have this pass,” Fiona tells them. Nicole asks, “Did something occur at that transfer station grandma?”
“White people could get into the bus and pay the fare up front, blacks but had to get on at the front, pay the fare, and then get out and board at the rear,” Fiona says and Lana says, “I heard about that and find it very wrong.” Fiona says, “It is, but one incident there made me very upset.”
“What was it?” Nicole asks and Fiona replies, “One time, I boarded the bus at the front to pay the fare, but when I got off to step on at the back like I was ordered to by the white driver, he closed the doors, started the engines, and took off with my fare, leaving me all alone at the stop.”
Nicole asks, “What did you do afterwards grandma?” and she answers, “I went home and cried all the way there. Two days later, the Rosa Parks incident happened and you should know it resulted in a big bus boycott that lasted for over a year. Being part of it, I never rode on a city bus until the Supreme Court declared that segregation on public transportation was unconstitutional.”
Fiona goes on with, “When I finally had the courage to resume riding buses, I went to the same transfer stop and when the bus arrived, the same driver who had left me in the streets a year prior was behind the wheel. As I boarded and tried to pay the fare, he stopped me and said, “This ride is on me. In fact, why don’t you take this?” and gave this pass to me, letting me ride that line for free for the rest of my life. He then said, “It is my way to say how sorry I am for what I did to you last year.” I thanked him as two white girls offered me a seat at the front of the bus.” “That’s really nice of them Mrs. Harrison,” Lana says and Fiona replies, “Yes Lana. Nicole, I understand you are facing a tough problem, but you must stand up for what you believe in regardless of what other people say or you can never reach your goal. This bus pass is proof that just one person can make a huge difference. Go to school tomorrow, continue the petition and fight the haters there!”
“Thanks grandma,” Nicole says before she and Lana stand up to hug Fiona. She suddenly realizes something and asks, “Wait, Lana, have you seen George today?” “Um, no, I thought you did,” she replies. Nicole says, “I have not either. It’s very unusual for him to not go to school. He has had a perfect attendance since 4th grade, did you try calling him?” Lana tells her, “I called his cell like seven times today, but he never answered.” Nicole asks, “Do you know where he lives?” and Lana says, “Yes.” Nicole says, “We must go there, something is wrong.” Lana says, “Okay.”
“Who is George?” Fiona asks and Nicole responds, “A good friend of ours who helped us with this petition.” “He must be upset at this also. Go talk to him,” Fiona says and Nicole replies, “Will do, bye.” “Bye, be safe,” Irene says back as Nicole and Lana put on their jackets and leave.
As they ride a Fort Hamilton-bound B8 bus, Lana asks, “Do you honestly believe George did not come to school today since he was angry at yesterday’s incident Nicole?” She answers, “I guess, but I think is a second reason for that and it involves you.” “And what is that?” Lana asks.
“He loves you,” Nicole says. Lana asks, “What did you say?” and Nicole repeats herself.
She then says, “And I know you love him as well.” Lana says, “No I do not. He is an ugly geek.” Nicole bops her forehead. She holds onto it in pain and Nicole says, “You do. I know why you are scared to say it. You think you are not compatible with him. He’s a defenseless and small Asian boy while you are a tall, very pretty white girl. You are afraid people will make fun of you because if you were his girlfriend, you would have to protect him instead of him protecting you.”
Lana says, “Fine, I admit I have feelings for him, but what does that have to do with your petition?” Nicole responds, “If you show George that you want to be with him, he will feel better and help us with it again.” “Okay, I’ll try that,” Lana says. The girls get off at McDonald Avenue under the F train’s line and walk a few homes west until they reach George’s. They knock on the front door and George’s mother Ming opens it. “Hello, Lana and Nicole, how are you?” she asks.
“We are good Ms. Yi, but is George home?” Nicole asks and she says, “He is, but has not left his room since returning from school yesterday and refuses to tell me what is bothering him.”
“We know what it is,” Lana says and Ming replies, “Then come in please and help him in any way you can.” Lana and Nicole enter and remove their shoes and coats. Ming takes the latter and puts them on the living room sofa before going to her kitchen to cook as the girls go upstairs.
They reach George’s bedroom door, which is locked. “Are you in there, George?” Nicole asks while knocking. No one answers, so Lana bangs on the door and shouts, “Please come out!”
There is still no reply, so on a count of three, Lana and Nicole break open the door to find George lying sideways on his bed. “George why did you not come to school today?” Nicole asks. He stays quiet. Lana calls his name twice, but he does not reply, so she angrily turns him face-up.
“How come you are not saying anything?!” Lana asks and George finally says, “I just did not feel like going. The entire place is falling apart, so what’s the point?” Lana responds, “Nicole and I need your help to create her black history class.” He says, “Her class led to more harm than good. Why do you two still want to work on it?” Nicole says, “We had a long talk hours ago with my grandmother at my home and she inspired us to keep fighting for what is right no matter what others say.” “I am not leaving this place. You ladies are on your own if you want to continue this horrible idea,” George says. Nicole is about to lunge at him, but Lana stops her, then says, “Wait. Nicole, can you please go outside? I would like to speak with George alone.” “Sure,” she replies.
Nicole leaves and closes the door. She stands outside trying to listen to what is happening inside, but hears just garbled dialogue. A few minutes later, the door opens and George and Lana come out with the former crying softly and tightly holding onto the latter, who says, “George has decided to help us again.” Nicole says, “Thanks guys. Be at my house tomorrow after school. We have a lot of work to do.” George says, “Okay,” before kissing the girls goodbye and going to his room as the girls go downstairs, get dressed, say farewell to Ming, who does the same, and leave.
At the school cafeteria before A Band on March 14, George, Lana, and Nicole are putting up posters and boards about historic black figures that they have worked on for the last four days. Mrs. List and Principal Anthony Lodico soon arrive and are surprised to see what they are doing.
“This is terrific Nicole. You have done an amazing job.” Mrs. List says. She says, “Thank you.” George sees Mr. Lodico looking upset and asks, “Is something wrong?” He says, “Yes kid, these posters can’t be here. We have major racial tensions at the school and they will only further fan the fire.” “What?” Lana asks. He says, “As principal I order them to be taken down quickly.”
Nicole and her friends complain until the 8:10 bell rings. Students enter the cafeteria with the white and black ones looking at each other menacingly before they see the posters. They read them closely and are shocked by the information in them. “Are all these people real?” a black kid asks and Nicole says, “Yes.” “I did not know there were so many black inventors,” one white girl says and an Arab boy says, “Me either.” While the students read the posters looking pleased Mrs. List says, “Mr. Lodico, it seems that the posters are helping to bring our students together.” “You are right,” he replies, “Nicole, if you know the right textbook for your black history course, I will be happy to create it.” Nicole takes the same book she showed Lana and George at her home two weeks earlier out of her bag, gives it to Mr. Lodico, and says, “We can use this one as it has great information about black people in world history. I know it is the best book for this kind of class.”
As Mr. Lodico skims through the book, a small Haitian boy comes up to Nicole and asks, “Are you Nicole Harrison?” “Yes, why?” she says. He says, “My name is Douglas Jean Franklin. I’m the one who put that Africa note on your locker last week.” Everyone gasps in total disbelief.
George angrily yells, “It was you?!” and lunges at Douglas, but Lana grabs and holds him back saying, “Calm down George, let Nicole handle this.” Nicole tensely asks Douglas, “Why do you hate African Americans?” He answers, “They killed my family. We were on a small boat six years ago getting shipped to America from Haiti with many others by an African captain. He said he would take us to shore, but ordered us to step off two miles off the Florida coast one night and shot whoever did not listen. Everyone had to swim to shore. I made it, but my family did not. I’m lucky another family adopted me and treated me well.” The students groan and look sad or angry.
“That is still not an excuse to be racist,” a Hispanic girl tells Douglas. “She is right. Look, I am sorry for what happened to you and your family, but there are a lot of crazy people out there and not all of them are Africans. I hope what occurred here taught you a big lesson.” Nicole says.
“You are right, and I am sorry for what I did to you. Will you forgive me?” Douglas asks.
“Of course, why don’t you come with me and I will tell you more on black history?” asks Nicole. “Yes,” Douglas says before she puts an arm around him and they walk to the main doors.
The students applaud and continue to read the posters. Lana is about to follow Nicole and Douglas, but George stops her and asks, “Are we not forgetting something?” She says, “Oh right. Um let’s go somewhere less crowded.” He says, “Sure,” as they leave the cafeteria via a different doorway holding hands. Glad they are a relationship, Nicole smiles before leaving with Douglas.
Nicole’s class is established at the end of March, and added to the Cycle 4 course options. On that cycle’s first day (April 11), Nicole comes home after school to her anxious family. “How did the black history class go?” Irene asks. She replies, “It was great. Almost 100 students signed up. I am sure it will be a success,” then says to Fiona, “Grandma, you were right. One person can make a huge difference.” “That’s my girl,” she replies and they hug while Irene and Roger cheer.
Copyright © 2009 Winson Thai