In the face of injustice, I turned my head the other way
My graduating class at Davison High School had voted that I should give the graduation address at our commencement ceremony, which took place 50 years ago this weekend. The senior class had also voted me “Class Comic.” That should’ve been all the warning the school administration needed — that the senior class wanted the class clown to give the official graduation speech. They should’ve known this would not end well.
In the weeks leading up to the end of the school year, those of us with the “good grades” were inducted into the National Honor Society, which meant we would receive flashy golden cords so we could parade around on graduation night and show everybody how really smart we were (when in fact, all it meant was that we were good test takers).
I found out that one of the “A” students was not going to be given his honor cords. You see, Gene was confined to a wheelchair because he had cerebral palsy. Back in those enlightened days, society decided there was no way to teach students with disabilities inside schools, so they had to be homeschooled. And, as it was explained to me, his “A’s” were not the same as ours, we who had attended “real” classes, so he would not be given the esteemed golden cords to wear.
Upon learning this, I refused to accept my honor cords. A dozen or so other students joined me in the boycott. Yet the administration still refused to give Gene his cords.
So, when the Big Night came, there I was, cordless, standing in line in my cap and gown, waiting to walk out onto the football field for the big moment. All of a sudden, the Assistant Principal appeared and started walking down the line, pulling down the top of each of the boys’ gowns to inspect and make sure each of us was wearing the required tie under the gown.
(Note: For those of you who read my Substack last Sunday — yes, this is the same Assistant Principal who two months earlier had beaten me with a sawed-off cricket bat for not having my shirt tucked in which, in turn, made me run for the school board. A week earlier, I won.)
So here he was again, in our last minutes of being high school students (and with me in my first five days on the school board), hoping to cause harm and pain one last time. And sure enough, he grabbed this boy, Timmy, standing two students in front of me and yelled at him, “WHERE IS YOUR TIE?!”
“It’s right here,” Timmy replied, pulling out his tie so the Assistant Principal could see it.
“THAT IS NOT A TIE!!”
It was indeed a tie, a two-string “bolo” tie, a tie poor white people, usually from the South, often wore.
“This is my tie,” Timmy said, his voice shaking. “My dad wears the same tie!”
And with that insubordination, the Assistant Principal grabbed Timmy by the collar and yanked him out of the line.
“YOU’RE NOT GRADUATING! GET OUT OF HERE! NOW!!”
And so, after twelve long years of doing his schoolwork, of doing everything he was told to do, including wearing the tie he always wore, he was now instantly expelled just moments before receiving his diploma — because this Assistant Principal didn’t like his tie.
I watched Timmy start to tear up and slowly walk away from all of us standing there in shock. But that’s not the worst part of this story. The worst part is that I stood there and said nothing. I witnessed this act of cruelty and did nothing to stop it. Did I mention that five days earlier the town elected me to the school board, meaning I was this sadist’s boss? I could have shouted “NO! ENOUGH! TIMMY, GET BACK IN LINE! AND YOU, YOU BASTARD, YOU ARE NOT TO LAY A HAND ON HIM OR I SWEAR I WILL CLEAN YOUR CLOCK!”
I said none of that. I remained silent, and to this day the shame I still feel for standing there and doing nothing is so intense that I’ve sat here now for over a day trying to write this weekly letter to you and realizing I would have to admit my inaction, my culpability, and say very publicly that of all the regrets I have in my life, this one, this few seconds of turning my head the other way, hurts me the most.
And so we were marched out onto the football field for the commencement event, our parents and grandparents in the stands, all happy and proud and unaware of what we had just witnessed.
After a prayer and a pledge that many of us did not recite, I was called to the stage to give the graduation speech on behalf of the student body. Earlier that evening, I had to show someone in charge my speech in order to have it approved. Which it was, because I kept it straight and bland, so there were no objections.
Facing the audience, I began it the way all commencement speeches begin, thanking the school and the teachers for our education. I continued with the usual gibberish about how we were “the future and…”
I looked up and there was Gene, separated from the class, sitting alone in his wheelchair, on a small patch of grass by himself, his body contorted in a constant state of motion, a big smile on his face, without the honor cords he had earned.
I stopped reading my speech. A long, pregnant pause ensued that must’ve felt like an eternity to the school board members sitting behind me. I turned and caught the eye of the Assistant Principal. I calmly folded up my speech and put it in my pocket.
And then I proceeded to speak, no longer on auto pilot, just me and my conscience.
I told the crowd how the school resembled too much the assembly line our fathers and mothers worked on at General Motors. Mind-numbing repetition and senseless rote behavior that was required by those in charge. Little room for freedom of expression or thought. Never question authority! We are to be the new cogs in the wheels of commerce and greed, I said. Is that truly why we are here on Earth? OBEY! WORK! SILENCE!
I continued. “We were told we were in school to learn the ‘Three Rs: Reading, ‘Riting and ‘Rithmetic.’ What kind of education did we get when two of those three words don’t even begin with ‘R’!
“Here’s what we were really taught: the Three C’s: Consistency, Complacency and Conformity.”
I thanked the many teachers who had refused to program us like robots but instead encouraged us to think, create, and make our voices heard.
And then I looked down from the stage and saw Gene again. And I told the crowd how he was denied admission to the honor society and that’s why a number of us weren’t wearing our honor cords. I said this is an example of the cruelty that existed in our schools and it had to stop. So many students shamed, punished, meant to feel inferior, not as “smart” as the rest of us — so keep your heads down, get yourself to the factory and start building us those Buicks, one lug nut at a time, 12 lug nuts a minute, 672 an hour, 5,376 a day. 20 minutes for lunch. Show up tomorrow on time at 6AM and do the same all over again for the next 45 years.
I closed by saying I was going to spend the next four years on the Board of Education trying to change this. The Democracy only survives when its citizens are taught to be critical thinkers. And none of us must feel good about denying a student what is rightfully his or hers because they are in a wheelchair.
“So, Gene, on behalf of the school district, please accept my sincerest apologies — oh, and I have something here.” I pulled my 8th grade honor cords out of my pocket, hopped down from the stage, walked up to him and said, “These are for you.”
I put the honor cords around him. He was elated and thanked me profusely. My classmates stood and cheered him.
The next day I got a call from Timmy’s parents. They were very upset. They sat through the entire ceremony waiting for their son’s name to be called, waiting for him to walk across the stage to be handed his high school diploma — which of course never happened. They looked all over and couldn’t find him. Finally, they gave up and went to the parking lot to get inside their car and continue their search. They opened the car door, and there he was, in the backseat, crumpled in a fetal position, still crying. He told them what happened.
On the phone with me they were furious. They understood the class bigotry of the Assistant Principal’s action with the tie, though the idea of using the word “class” had been beaten out of them and “their kind” long ago, so they simply said it was wrong to call their Texan tie “not a tie.”
“I know,” I said. “I’m so sorry this happened. I will make sure Timmy gets his diploma and that something like this never happens again.”
I did not tell them I was a witness to what took place and that I had remained silent.
After I hung up the phone, I sat down at our kitchen table, 18 years old, trying to process it all. And then I quietly made two promises to myself:
1. Do my best to convince the school board to remove the Assistant Principal from his position; and
2. Never, ever remain silent again, no matter the situation, no matter the cost.
The Assistant Principal was removed. That was the easy part. As for never remaining silent again, I did not know at the time that this promise would result in the Flint Police raiding my newspaper office, or me being fired later at another publication for supporting the union workers, or being booed off the stage at the Oscars for calling out the president of the United States for invading Iraq, or a guy trying to blow up my house after that speech.
My high school Commencement Night 50 years ago this weekend resulted in me graduating in more ways than just receiving a diploma. I hope it made me a better, braver person. And looking back, the coolest thing about that night was that three hours after our graduation, Nixon’s burglars were caught and arrested inside the Watergate building. There is no connection between the two events, just karma. A moment for the universe to correct itself, in more ways than one.
P. S. Happy Juneteenth! Thanks to all of those who made this new holiday possible.
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