(Continued from last Wednesday, September 18 . . . )
Cartoon courtesy of Fishducky.
Each weekday between January 18 and February 15, 1960, I entered a seventh-grade Omaha classroom. After the students and I said morning prayers and recited the pledge of allegiance, I’d try to teach. Many of them talked, shouted, sang, cursed, yelled across the room. Others, however, maybe as many as two-thirds of the fifty-five, leaned forward at their desks, attempting to hear my voice over the din.
At least once a week, a policeman visited me after school, asking questions about the students in my classroom, several of whom were members of the gang terrorizing that area of Omaha. Ron, the gang’s leader, gave me a hard time each day. I’d first met him as he banged a fellow classmate’s head against the playground ice.
“They can bruise every part of your body and not break a bone,” the policeman confided. “Every kid in this neighborhood’s frightened. No one’ll rat on ‘em. You gotta be careful, Sister. They’ll turn on ya. Right here in this classroom.”
I thanked him for his advice but I’d learned on the third day in that classroom that I had to face the students at all times. On that day—Wednesday January 20—I was facing the chalkboard, my right hand raised and to the side as I wrote some tidbit of knowledge. I heard a zing and then a thud.
A quivering knife embedded itself about an inch from my little finger. My hand started trembling.
The room was ominously silent as I turned and looked at that sea of faces. Some bore horror; others, triumph; still others, scorn.
Given that the knife had zinged right past my hand, I thought it must have come from a boy in the row behind me. But no one looked guilty. Everyone just seemed interested in what I’d do.
My hand still trembling, I pulled out the knife. Carried it with me to the door. Left the room. Crossed the hall to Sister Brendan’s room. Knocked.
When she came to the door, I handed her the knife and explained what had happened. “Have all the students empty their pockets and purses on their desks. Then confiscate any weapons,” she said. “I want you to stand by your classroom door each morning from now on. Have the students empty out their pockets and handbags before coming into the room. Give any weapons to me.”
I did this for the rest of the school year.
During those early weeks, I had one proof-positive experience of what the policeman had tried to explain to me. After school one day, James stayed to ask what he needed to study to get into college. Not knowing the Nebraska colleges, I offered to talk with the other nuns that evening and get some information for him.
The next day, I noticed that he moved gingerly in his desk as if in pain. When the other students filed out at the end of the day, I said, “James, you’re moving like you’re hurt. Has something happened?”
He stood silent as if not sure what to say. Slowly he drew up his T-shirt. Dark bruises covered his entire chest and back. Deep purple bruises on top of bruises. Despair filled his dark eyes.
“Who did this to you?”
“The guys. In the gang.”
“They thought I was snitching on them when I stayed after school. Yesterday. So they ganged up on me.”
“Will you tell this to the police?”
He shook his head vehemently. “That’d land me in the hospital. Ron won’t be so easy on me next time.”
And that was that. I was powerless to help him.
(. . . continued tomorrow, Thursday September 19.)
NOTE: I don’t want to hold you in suspense any longer as to how and why things changed in that Omaha classroom. So tomorrow—Thursday—I’ll tell that story.