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Sticking to her beliefs

A suspension and nasty looks in the hallway don't get Krista Abram down. The teenager still wants the Confederate flag banned from school.

By CANDACE RONDEAUX
Published February 10, 2004

photo
[Times photo: Kathleen Flynn]
Krista Abram, who moved to Tarpon Springs from Pittsburgh last summer, says she was shocked to see so many students sporting Confederate emblems at Tarpon Springs High School.

TARPON SPRINGS - It started with the stickers. A bunch of kids at school had them. They put them on their notebooks, on their backpacks, on their cars.

Some of the stickers just showed the Confederate flag. Others had messages. One showed the flag and said, "If I had known this I would have picked my own cotton!" Another had the stars and bars and said,"I have a dream, too!"

Then there were the T-shirts. Some of the kids wore shirts with Confederate flags emblazoned on their backs. The kids who wore them actually called themselves "rednecks," said they were into Southern pride. It's a white thing, they said, you don't understand.

Krista Abram didn't understand. She noticed the flags a few days after she started going to Tarpon Springs High School in August. Her first week there, Abram spotted a girl in her class wearing one of the T-shirts and sporting a Confederate flag sticker on her folder.

"I was speechless," Abram said.

The whole thing seemed weird to her. Abram was the new kid in town then, a 16-year-old junior, fresh from Pittsburgh, with dark, curly hair, cafe au lait skin and freckles. She had a Yankee accent and an attitude to match.

Every time she saw that girl's T-shirt, she had to stop and think. Why would teachers let a student wear a Confederate flag to school? They would never let a kid walk around on campus with a big Nazi swastika on their jacket, she thought.

Abram knows her history. Southern pride and Yankee firepower produced a whole lot of strange fruit, not the least of which was a war that cost thousands of lives. Black lives, white lives - American lives just the same. Long after the Civil War was over, the Confederate flag was still flying in some states. It flew on flagpoles in Southern towns where Jim Crow justice kept its foot on the necks of people just like her for years.

What kind of heritage is that? Freedom of expression is good, but it has its limits, she thought. You can't wear a T-shirt with a big old pot leaf on your back to school. You can't slap a sticker with the f-word on your notebook. So how can you fly a flag that stands for a racially divided South? Something's got to change, she said.

Unauthorized material

No one who knows Abram was surprised when she decided to circulate a petition at school calling for a ban on displays of the Confederate flag on campus. Her school friends call her "Mighty Mouth," because she always has something to say and it's usually loud enough for everyone to hear.

She wants to be a writer or maybe a lawyer, because lawyers get paid to argue and talk.

"I love arguing, because I'm good at it," Abram said with a sweetly sardonic smile.

She has memorized most of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech and repeats it to herself all the time. She took a debate class at school. Prochoice, prolife, prowar, antiwar; it didn't matter which side she was on, she was always ready to make her point.

She's so good at making a point that she had no problem persuading nearly 100 students to sign her petition. When she and her brother Shawn passed copies out at lunch, the kids with the flags got upset. But plenty of others said they were behind her 100 percent.

"I was proud of her," said Abram's best friend, Tiffany Barota, 15. "Nobody else has the courage to do it."

Abram's courage earned her a 10-day suspension for distributing "unauthorized material" on campus. An assistant principal pulled her off the bus after the last bell and told her she could not come back to school. It's a sensitive issue, he told her, leave it alone.

Abram didn't let him see her cry. She waited until she was back on the bus and the assistant principal was out of sight. Then she let go.

"She cried the whole way home," said Shawn, who was not suspended. "She wouldn't even talk to me. She just had her hands over her face the whole time."

School administrators said then that the punishment was justified but later reduced Abram's suspension to three days. Pinellas County School Board member Mary Brown said she will ask the board tonight to ban Confederate flags from all schools in the county.

Tarpon Springs High School principal Dennis Duda said Abram should have gotten his approval before circulating the petition. He said it wasn't about the flag. Before the petition, Duda had even approved a student survey about the flag that Abram had typed up in October.

The new girl

Back in October, Abram was still suffering from culture shock.

She'd been to Florida a couple of times before. Her grandparents live in Palm Harbor. She loved it then. It was all about the beach and sightseeing, regular tourist stuff.

But when she moved to Tarpon Springs last fall, things seemed different. Nothing in Florida seemed to be like it was up North.

She and her brother are among a handful of students of color who attend Tarpon Springs High School, where about 6 percent are African-American, according to Pinellas County School Board statistics. Going to a school like that can make you feel really isolated sometimes, Abram said.

Besides, none of her classmates in Pittsburgh came to school wearing Confederate flags on their backs. When she moved to Tarpon Springs, Abram heard her classmates talk about racial tension on campus. It could have just been hype. But it didn't make her feel any better about going to school there. It made her feel like she stuck out.

But she just wanted to fit in. She's no gangsta wanna-be. She's not a geek. She's definitely not a goody-goody. She's just a girl who wants to make a difference.

"I just think it's important to speak my mind," she said.

Abram's mother says that's the way she raised her kids to be.

Paula Lopez, 37, is Italian-American, raised in Pittsburgh. The Catholic church Lopez attended taught her to get along. Like a lot of industrial Northern towns, Pittsburgh is a place where the assembly line has historically blurred the color line. Lopez stopped seeing color a long time ago.

A medical assistant who moved to Florida about eight months ago, she has worked with all kinds of folks - white, black, Asian. So when Lopez met Abram's father, a home health care aide who lives in Pittsburgh, she didn't see a black man. She just saw someone she liked.

She's white, and Abram's father is black. It's as simple as that.

Or, at least sometimes it is. It's never easy for anyone to be between two worlds. When Abram and her brothers, Shawn, 14, and Anthony, 9, fill out school forms, they sometimes check both the "Black" box and the "White" box on the line for race. Their classmates sometimes ask questions. Why do you look that way? Why don't you talk black? Why don't you act white?

Once, back in the third or fourth grade, one of Abram's classmates called her an "oreo." It sounds sweet at first, until you think about it. When someone calls you an "oreo," it means you're a fake. It means you're black on the outside, white on the inside. Stuff like that used to bug her a lot. But her mom taught her to ignore all that and speak up for herself.

"I would tell my kids," Lopez said, "If people mess with you, you just tell them, "God made me the way I'm supposed to be. I'm black and I'm white. That's who I am. If you don't like it move on and stay away from me.' "

Back to school

Lopez is not a rich woman. She's a single mom raising three kids in a two-bedroom apartment on one income. She didn't have a lawyer to call, so she called the media.

The next day, Abram's face was all over the place. She was in the newspaper. She was on TV.

Local politicians called and sent Abram encouraging notes, telling her to keep her chin up. Her family was behind her all the way.

"I think she's awesome for standing up for what she believes in," her brother said.

But not everyone does.

Some kids at school told her she was wrong. A woman wrote her a letter and told her to move back up North. One girl even said Abram deserved to die for taking a stand against the Confederate flag.

"The rednecks said they were going to beat her up," said Abram's friend Amber Donoho, 16. "They walk down the hall and just give her evil looks."

She didn't know things would snowball like this, but she's glad they did. Now she wants the School Board to consider banning the Confederate flag.

"I'm not going to lie down," said Abram, now 17. "I'm not going to sacrifice my beliefs just because someone tells me to keep quiet."

Candace Rondeaux can be reached at 727 771-4307 or rondeaux@sptimes.com

[Last modified February 9, 2004, 14:33:09]


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