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A moment of innocence

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By BILL MAXWELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2001


Pity the children.

In 1999, we had Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. Now, we have Santana High School in Santee, Calif. Teenagers are regularly shooting, killing and wounding schoolmates and school personnel.

Yes, I pity the children of today.

I do not understand their schools and their problems. I certainly will not pretend to know how to fix whatever is wrong.

Does anyone know what is wrong?

Friends and colleagues often remind me that violence has always plagued American schools. Perhaps so. But we never had guns, knives, bomb threats and talking back to teachers at my school in Crescent City during my stay there.

No, this column is not an I-told-you-so diatribe, nor is it a back-in-my-day-life-was-better sermon. It is a simple, wistful series of remembrances of a time of relative innocence, when my schoolmates and I understood the boundaries between children and adults, when a punch in the nose was as far as the meanest boy would go to hurt another boy, when the most violent things girls did were to pull out one another's hair, rip off one another's clothes and scream a lot.

Crescent City, east of the Ocala National Forest, is in southern Putnam County, less than 40 miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean, between DeLand and Palatka on U.S. 17. We blacks had our own school, and whites had theirs.

I lived with my grandparents, and I knew the names of the more than 200 other black teenagers in our agricultural area. Somehow -- through church, our parents' jobs, swimming and fishing at Lake Stella, the racially segregated balcony at the picture show, hanging out at the park, shopping downtown -- all of our lives were connected, sometimes intimately.

School, first through 12th grade, was our home away from home. Mr. Harry Burney Jr., our principal, and his wife, Iona, the third-grade teacher, were in charge. When I say in charge, I do not mean merely being responsible for day-to-day operations. I mean that we children followed the Burneys' every order -- not out of fear but out of respect. To us, this dynamic duo, along with our teachers, was omniscient and omnipotent. For sure, Mrs. Burney, her reddish hair bobbing up and down outside our classroom windows, was omnipresent.

Our parents and the Burneys, along with the other adults at our school, conspired against us. If one of us did something bad at school, at least one parent knew about it before the child went home that afternoon.

I recall when I, like a fool, threw a pencil across the room at Pete White. It missed him and the sharp lead stuck Preston Scott in the back. It hung there in his skin like an Indian's arrow in a doomed frontiersman's hide. Our homeroom teacher, Constance Howard, removed the pencil, treated Preston's wound with Mercurochrome and dragged me, who outweighed her by at least 80 pounds, to the principal's office.

Mr. Burney telephoned my grandmother, who was a maid in the home of a white family. I was not permitted back into my homeroom that day and had to assist the janitors. Whenever my buddies passed and saw me sweeping or mopping, they laughed at me. The humiliation was a good object lesson. Throwing that pencil was the most violent act I ever committed in school.

Pete White, my best friend, stayed in trouble. He would steal someone's lunch a couple of times a month, and Mr. Burney would make him wash pots in the cafeteria. Mr. Burney never knew that the cafeteria staff let Pete eat all the leftovers he wanted. Pete would brag about this little racket of his, and we never told on him.

Jimbo, Joe Bush, Morris Carey and I often would sneak into the woods during recess and smoke Parliament cigarettes. For the rest of the day, we avoided close contact with any teachers, especially our football coach, Bernard Irving. If he had smelled tobacco on us, he would have kicked us off the team even though we were essential, star players.

During those days in Crescent City in the early 1960s, teenagers did not smoke around grown-ups. And, believe it or not, teachers did not smoke around us even in the privacy of their homes.

It truly was a respect thing.

When we discovered that Miss Howard smoked, we whispered and snickered for the rest of the time we were there. How could our Miss Howard smoke?

The absolute worst thing that ever happened at Middleton High involved a boy who was caught masturbating in the bathroom. Word of the incident swept across our tiny campus like wildfire. The shamefaced boy stayed home from school for three days.

After his return, however, the oddest thing happened: Many girls who would not give him the time of day before the deed now were attracted to him. Even we boys -- seeing that the girls had been turned on -- found ourselves giving him grudging respect.

I have described some of the "fast times" at Middleton High.

We were not to be pitied back in those days. School was our happy home away from home. It was safe. We never thought of getting hurt there.

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