My sixth grade teacher had a bristly mustache, acne scarred skin and a bulbous red nose one might find on an alcoholic. He sported mobster-like sunglasses, a leather jacket and a swagger. More often than not he sat on (rather than at) his desk in a corner of our rectangular classroom. The rest of us clustered in groups of four or six, facing each other. One day, just before noon, kids were getting antsy to go to the cafeteria. Some had taken out their lunch money and placed a handful of coins or a dollar bill on top their desks. It was the late 1970s; a school meal was cheap.
“You shouldn’t leave money out,” the teacher scolded. “A METCO student could walk in and take it.”
METCO was a program that bussed black students from Boston neighborhoods into the (mostly white) suburban public schools. I raised my hand.
“You shouldn’t say that,” I said. “It means you think blacks are poor and will steal. Other people could take it, too.” Who hasn’t been tempted by loose change?
Time stopped. A hush fell over the room.
“Miss Fried.” His squinty eyes bore into me as he beckoned with his forefinger. “Come with me.”
Heart pounding, I followed him out of the room and into the corridor. He unlocked the door to a narrow supply closet and told me to go in. I did. The door clicked behind us.
“Don’t you EVER tell anyone what I said.” Spittle bubbled at the corners of his mouth. Veins, like skinny purple maggots, wriggled on the end of his nose. “I could be fired.”
A lump formed in my throat and I squeezed back tears. I nodded, relieved he hadn’t laid a hand on me. We returned to the classroom. He strutted; I quivered.
Looking back, I marvel that I had spoken up at all. I wish I could say that, from then on, I trusted my perceptions and was unafraid to call things as I saw them. Sadly, I absorbed messages to not rock the boat, that it was “safer” to not “get involved”, that it’s hard to make a difference, so why bother? Might as well keep one’s head down and avoid getting yelled at, or worse.
These days, the sheer number and prevalence of social ills in the world can feel overwhelming. Often I can’t bear to read the news. Skimming the headlines can sometimes tip me into despair. But the recent spate of senseless gun deaths cut through my stupor. I decided that I needed to do something, even if small, both to speak out against a growing scourge and to reclaim my younger self.
Using spent cartridges I found hiking, I created a series of mosaics, “From Bullets to Blossoms”. The labor intensive process of transforming bullet casings into beauty was itself a deeply satisfying antidote to the anxiety producing events. I’m auctioning them to raise money for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. I will be absolutely thrilled if all the mosaics have as many bidders as admirers! But that’s not the only, or even the main, reason I’m writing this post. If I don’t share what’s on my mind, I once again start to feel like I’m twelve years old, locked in a closet with a bully.