Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

She Works Inner-City Wonders through Nonviolence

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

She Works Inner-City Wonders through Nonviolence

Article excerpt

After five weeks in the classroom, no one was hearing me. I stopped talking and started listening. The kids had plenty to say. They wanted to know where I came from, what I wanted from them. One asked why I didn't live in East St. Louis. "You said nonviolence was about changing places with the other side. You're on the other side."

I shoved my essays on Gandhi and King into my briefcase and searched for what could resurrect nonviolence from the graveyard of theory. I turned to film, clips from "Eyes on the Prize," the documentary on civil rights. I froze the tape on the protester who caused the fireman to drop his hose. He looked tense but not beaten. I released the button. The pressurized water sent him to the ground every time he stood. He fell, crawled forward, fell again. He kept his eyes on the man with the hose. Against orders and threats, the fireman dropped the hose. It was over.

"This man had no gun. He used a different force to fight." I was excited.

"You can't let people run over you like that," Latoya interrupted. "Maybe you could fight like that back in the old days. Not now. That dude lost face. Where I live, they'd whip your sorry ass and throw it in the river." I waited through the silence.

"If they had started fighting back, it would have been a bloodbath. As it was, they won. Without these people, we wouldn't be in this room together today," I said. They stared at me. Anthony, far in the back, had his eyes on another prize -- the black Cadillac with dark windows moving slowly down Summit Avenue. I had to find another way.

A week later, in the dead of night, Anthony took me down to the railroad and showed me how he and his friends stole guns and ammunition from moving military trains. We almost got caught. We stole no guns.

Anthony did not convert to nonviolence. No one did. Changes took place. After the night in East St. Louis, Anthony attended class more often. He brought a pen. He asked for a book on Nelson Mandela. He stopped spending all his energy disrupting class. He had been testing me to see how fake I was, how real nonviolence might be. Weeks after the course was over, he wrote a one-sentence evaluation, "Actions are not always louder than words."

The Marianist Brothers founded the Vincent Gray Alternative High School in 1980. A dedicated staff of brothers, nuns and laypeople serve over 60 kids a year, ages 16 to 24, mostly black, dropouts or toss-outs from the public schools, all survivors of the cultural and economic violence that rages in East St. Louis, described by the chairman of the Illinois Board of Education as "simply the worst possible place in the country imaginable to have a child brought up."

Colman McCarthy, director of the Center for Teaching Peace and a syndicated columnist at The Washington Post, stumbled across the school on a Midwest lecture tour. I joined him that day and found Vincent Gray an enclave of learning and caring.

Last September, I headed across the Mississippi to teach peace in East St. Louis.

An All-American city in the |60s, East St. Louis has since been in steady decline. It has the highest per capita homicide rate in the country. Its most prosperous business that is legal is a chain of funeral homes run by Carl Officer, the former mayor. It is the last place to expect nonviolence to take hold.

Still, the classroom expanded. After school I went with the kids to job interviews, took them to editorial staff meetings at newspapers, attended drug rehab meetings with a woman who, after a long struggle, graduated and got accepted into college. …

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