Stories about life in Liddonfield housing project and its impact on the Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood of Upper Holmesburg. These true stories reveal how government policy affected the lives of real people, from the project residents to area homeowners during the 5 decades of Liddonfield’s existence. Stories and articles are written by a former resident of the project.

FIGHT THE STIGMA!

FIGHT THE STIGMA!
Rosemary Reeves, Blogger, standing on Philadelphia Skyline

Jul 11, 2011

The Liddonfielders: A Housing Project Diary - Part 12

by Rosemary Reeves


After I had run away and come back home, Mom said she would do anything to make me happy.  Once again, I asked her to divorce Dad.  "Anything but that," she replied.  It was useless.  I gave up on that request and thought carefully.  We were in the tiny bedroom I shared with my sister Eileen.  We were sitting side by side on my bed.  I stared at the cigarette holes in Eileen's blanket.  She smoked in her bed every night.  A couple of times she fell asleep while she was smoking.  I'd wake up to the smell of the burning blanket.  "Eileen, get up!  The bed is on fire!," I yelled.  She woke up and together we'd put it out.  Then we'd get into an argument.  "You're going to kill the both of us in our sleep if you don't quit smoking in bed!" I told her many times.

Mom was about to grant me one wish, if she was true to her word.  "Then I want to go to public school," I told her.

Mom's eyes grew wide with surprise and stunned disappointment.  She shook her head.  "Not public school, Rosie! Public school is a bad place.  There are bad kids there." 

I rolled my eyes.  "You're so old fashioned, Mom.  You think anybody who isn't Catholic is a bad influence.  My friend Dolores goes to Abraham Lincoln High and you like her.  You said she's a sweet and intelligent girl."  I crossed my arms.  "I want to go to Lincoln High and you have to let me.  Otherwise, you're going back on your word.  Then who's the bad influence, huh?"

"Your life will be ruined if you go to public school," she said, "You'll never get to college then.  You'll hate it.  You'll drop out."

I mocked her with her own words. "You're life will be ruined if you go to public school," I said with a high pitched voice and sweeping arm gestures, "You'll drop out.  You'll be a hopeless failure, a bag lady begging for quarters with a tin cup."

"Stop it," Mom said. 

I stood up.  "You promised you'd do anything. Are you going to be a liar now?  I swear Mom, I'll never trust you again!"

Mom placed her hand on my arm to steady me.  "Calm down!  You're right.  I did promise.  But why public school, of all things?"

"Dolores is the only person I know who isn't Catholic," I said, "and you insisted on meeting her before you would let a Protestant be my friend.  She was the only kid on this block who wanted to be my friend and you had to knock her because she was Protestant until you saw what a nice person she was, then you admitted you were wrong.  I've never met a Jewish person, or anybody who's different.  I want to be around all kinds of different people, Mom, because I'm different, don't you see?  Public school is for everyone.  You don't have to be the same as the next person."

 When I finished out the year at St. Hubert’s, Mom let me enroll in the tenth grade at Abraham Lincoln High.   It was there that I was first exposed to people whose ideas were different from the middle-class norm.   Whereas parochial school had been almost militaristic in its regimen, public school proved to be a hot bed of bohemian activity.      On my first day, I felt as if I had wandered into a different world.  The students strolled leisurely around the grounds with carefree nonchalance.  They wore bell bottoms and t-shirts with psychedelic designs.  The boys had long hair and everyone kept saying “groovy.”   A boy and girl were French kissing in front of the entrance.  No one paid them any mind.  I walked past the amorous couple, who were oblivious to the intrusion.  Once inside, I visited the girls’ restroom.  A glassy-eyed brunette leaned against the bathroom wall, smoking pot.  “Want some?” she asked, as she held the marijuana out for me to take.
I was startled at the bold gesture, but she grinned at me with a look of contentment.   It was obvious by her demeanor that she did not mean any harm.  “No, thank you,” I told her.  I didn’t know what else to say.
“Catch you next time,” she remarked, as if she already knew me.  I went over to the sink to wash my hands.  Another student walked in.  “Want some?” the brunette asked the newcomer.  They passed the joint back and forth with no apparent concern for the risk of getting caught.  They acted as if it was normal and ordinary.   For me, it was a jarring but delightful experience to have found myself in a school that mirrored a hippie compound.
According to the schedule I was assigned, it was necessary to report to homeroom first, where they took attendance.  Feeling shy, I chose a seat in the last row at the back of the room.  It turned out that this was a favorite spot for slackers who were not at all interested in learning.  The girl sitting to the left of me fidgeted.  There were tattoos on her arms.  “I’m so bored,” she said, “What did you do over the summer?”
“Not much,” I replied.
“Last week I stole three pairs of jeans from a department store,” she told me, “You ever shoplift?”
A boy in a green jacket, blue jeans and boots walked in late, plopped himself down in the seat to my right and slouched in the chair.   After a few minutes, he nudged me and whispered, “You get high?”   I was beginning to think maybe I had made a mistake in going to public school.  It was all too much my first day.  Just then, to my dismay the homeroom teacher said we had to stay in the same seats from now on, so she could get more easily accustomed to our faces.  Fortunately, we only had to attend homeroom one hour daily.  
As for the rest of my classes, I had been placed into an academic curriculum with others of similar ability.   By contrast, these students were motivated to learn.  They paid attention while the teacher spoke.  They actually read their school books.  After awhile, I caught on to the fact that the student body was divided into two main groups – those who were headed for college and those destined for trade school.  Homeroom was where they threw us all together.  I remember feeling sorry for the trade school bunch because they were only teenagers and already their options were limited.   They might manage to scrape out a living from blue collar work someday, but I knew that many would end up poor like my father.   Because I was bright my teachers assumed I would go to college, but how could I when I planned to leave home as soon as I reached eighteen?  There was no way I could spend another four years living with my father after my eighteenth birthday.  I had to get a job and support myself.  I let the teachers take it for granted that I was college-bound, but I was not so sure.
I liked the academic classes.  At first, I chose to remain quiet and unassuming.  I kept waiting for someone to say something mean or try to bully me, but it never happened.  Eventually, I began to feel that I was in a safe environment.  My classmates were gentle and bookish people.  The teachers gave instruction without being dominating or stern.  They did not use their authority in negative ways.  At last, I could spend the major part of each day in a place where no one threatened me, physically or otherwise.  The anxiety that plagued me for as long as I could remember began to subside.  Finally, I knew what it was to relax. 
I had been at Lincoln High for a few weeks when I made an impression on my classmates.  I was in a class on English Literature.  The teacher, Ms. D., had us arrange our desks in a circle.  This meant I could not hide in the back.  “Today, we’re going to debate current issues,” she said.
Someone asked what debating current issues had to do with English Literature.  Ms. D. said that debating effectively was an important use of expression.   Literature was the essence of expression in the form of the printed word.  Expressing ourselves verbally could only enhance our knowledge and appreciation of the fine art of writing.  Controversy was at the heart of all great literature, she added.    
 Ms. D explained the rules of debate.  Each debate would involve two students only.  Everyone else was to keep quiet.  There was to be respect for one’s adversary.  Only one person would speak at a time and the opponent may not interrupt.  Everyone was to reserve his or her judgment until the debate was concluded.  We were to present our side based solely on facts.  Using rhetoric or displaying raw emotion would cause us to lose the debate.  In the end, a vote would be taken.  Whoever presented his or her argument most skillfully was the winner.  Our opponent would win by default if we violated any of the rules.
Ms. D looked at me.  “Your name is Rosemary, correct?”  I nodded and then she asked for my opinion regarding capital punishment. 
There was a long silence.  I was dumbfounded.  I looked around the room.  Everyone was waiting for an answer, so I blurted out the first thing that came to mind.  “I didn’t know I was allowed to have an opinion,” I said.
The class burst into laughter.  The teacher grinned, so I started laughing, too.  My classmates were looking at me as if I were the toast of the town.  My accidental joke had won them over.  “I know at your age, perhaps no one has asked for your opinion before,” Ms. D said good-naturedly, “but you’re all going to be adults soon.  There are all sorts of issues you are going to have to face when you go out into the world.  There are issues of racial equality, women's rights, war, the legalization of abortion, gun control, and those are just to name a few.  My job as your teacher is to prepare you for the world.  So, let’s debate.”
I expressed my opinion on capital punishment and did not do very well.  I lost the debate because all I knew was rhetoric.  My opponent won by default.  I knew that defeat had earned me a poor grade for this assignment.  That was not acceptable to me and I resolved to do better next time.   I learned the hard way to obey the rules of debate.  Rhetoric was useless to an enlightened mind.
When the bell rang, a girl in my class walked up to me.  She said she liked my joke and her name was Sarah.   “It’s strange I never saw you in any of my classes last year,” she added.  I explained that I had transferred from St. Hubert’s.  “Your family is Catholic?” she asked.
“Yes,” I replied.  To my surprise, I learned she was Jewish.  I had never met a Jewish person before.  This was exciting to me.  I kept looking at her, trying to see what was so different about being Jewish.  I knew about the holocaust and that there was a history of discrimination against Jews in this country and around the world.  I could not understand why.  There was nothing in particular that struck me about her appearance or the way she acted. 
I was so excited to have met a Jewish girl that I told my mother.  “I used to have a Jewish boyfriend, you know,” Mom said.
Mom never mentioned it before. “You did?”
“Oh, yes,” she replied, “He used to wear the Star of David on a chain around his neck.  I was real keen on him, too.  We were thinking about getting engaged.  My parents would not have let me marry him if they knew he wasn’t Christian, so when I took him to meet my mother and father, I told him to hide his Star of David under the collar of his shirt.  He didn’t want to do it, but I finally persuaded him.”
“What happened then?” I asked, “Did your parents find out?”
“No,” she said, “It all went well that day.  But he never forgave me, and we broke up.”
 I was moved by the sad story.  “You shouldn’t have made him hide his Star of David,” I told her.
“I know,” she replied, “It’s always been a regret of mine.  But you must understand that was in the 1930s.  Back then, it was taboo for people of different faiths to date, let alone marry.”
I did not experience any prejudice at Lincoln High toward students from poor families.    Before I transferred from St. Hubert’s, I thought there would be.  Just in case, I had saved up my allowance over the summer and bought some two dollar outfits off the rack from a discount store, so I wouldn’t be picked on for wearing used clothing.  It turned out that money didn’t seem to matter much in public high school.  It was hard to tell the haves from the have-nots, anyway.     Everyone wore jeans, even the upper-middle-class students.  That was a time when being hip meant being down to earth and natural, and at Lincoln High, everyone wanted to be hip.  There was little competition at the school in terms of fancy clothes and material things. 
For a while, I was reluctant to go to homeroom.  I only showed up because I had to.  Each morning, to my horror, the girl on the left rambled on about her shoplifting escapades and the boy on the right described his drug-induced adventures.   At first, I found them intimidating, though I tried to give the impression that I was not at all phased by their candor.   Over time, I came to enjoy hearing the exciting stories they told.  They were like raw and edgy characters in a novel.  As for me, I hid my past by feigning naivety, mingling with those who had questionable reputations while keeping my own spotless.  No one knew about the things I had done and as far as I was concerned, they didn’t need to.
Though I was occasionally offered drugs, no one pressured me or became offended when I refused them.  Lincoln had a do-as-you-like atmosphere.  This applied to just about anything and so I was free to choose any lifestyle within a multitude of student subcultures.  Each was interesting in its own way and I used all of them to my advantage.  I moved easily among the college-bound, the trade school group and the flunkies.  I was liked by all.  I never told my parents about the drugs because they would have pulled me out of that school, and Lincoln High was heaven to me.
I had been disappointed at first that my friend Dolores wasn’t in any of my classes.  There were so many students that we arrived in shifts and Dolores had a different shift.  I gave up looking for her in the hallways.  School became the main focal point of my social life, now that I had one.  It would have been fun to share it with her, but I was not lonely at all.  I spent less and less time with her in the neighborhood.  Our friendship waned as I grew up at a faster pace.  Besides, she would have steered me away from some of the students I found most interesting - the naughty ones.  I was drawn to their rebellious nature.  I watched them in action so I could learn what could be gotten away with and how.  All of this information I stored in my brain for future use, as I was still in survival mode.  I thought of the world as a tough place where the weak must outwit the strong, through whatever devious means necessary.  I did not take drugs even though they were everywhere, because I needed my wits about me at all times. 
My naughty cohorts were entertaining and useful only to a point.  While they were gifted at skirting authority, when it came to intellect they were often short-changed and whenever I longed for an intelligent conversation, I had to go elsewhere. 
Above all, I favored the company of a certain group of students in my English Literature class.  We enjoyed each other’s company so much that we formed our own study group.  I was proud to be a part of this mixed group of boys and girls and to be accepted as one of their own.  We were different religions and social classes.  Anyone who wanted to could join us, for ours was an open door policy.    
While we liked to think of ourselves as hip and espoused the liberal notions of equality and diversity, we were conservative in our outward behavior, being studious, well-mannered and respectful to the teachers.  We viewed change as positive, but we were not the sort to be the movers and shakers behind it.  Our contribution to the fading 1973 counterculture was our ability and willingness to broaden our minds.   Soon, our commitment to putting our Utopian ideals into action would be tested.
Mr. A. taught American History.  He was a balding, middle-aged man with a monotone voice.  He was good-natured and easy-going, but at times, it was difficult for him to breathe life into what is often a dull subject.  Whenever our eyes would droop he would remind us that we were a part of history in the making and that our actions in these changing times would be judged by future generations.  Nothing illustrated that better than the day a transfer student was introduced to us.
Mr. A. was clarifying a passage from a history book when there was a knock on the door.  He opened it and escorted someone in.  “We have a new student, class,” Mr. A. announced, “This is Kenneth.”  Everyone in the room looked at each other.  We were surprised.  Kenneth was black.  He smiled bravely before a room full of white faces staring back at him.  Everyone else had jeans on, but Kenneth was wearing a shirt and tie.  “Let’s wish him a good morning,” said Mr. A.
“Good morning!” said the class in unison.   Mr. A. instructed Kenneth to sit down in the empty chair next to me.  Mr. A’s monotone voice could not compete with this interesting turn of events.  Kenneth had tickled everyone’s curiosity and I wondered if he was aware that the others kept stealing glances at him.  I looked at him, too, though I tried to be discreet about it. 
The bell rang, signaling lunch hour.  My friends and I walked through the hallways to the cafeteria.  We stood in line for our chow and then began talking about the black student in our class.  A few minutes passed and we saw him in the cafeteria, carrying a tray.  He sat down at an empty table.  “Look, there’s Kenneth,” Sarah remarked, “He’s sitting by himself.” 
Kenneth was wearing the same amiable expression, smiling at people who walked hurriedly past him or ignored him altogether in the predominantly white school.  “I never noticed before that there aren’t any other black students here,” said Henry, another in our group.  “At least, there aren’t any that I can see right now.”
“It must be hard for him, being the only one,” I remarked.
Sarah peeled an orange and swallowed a slice.  “Let’s ask him to join us,” she said.   Sarah walked over to Kenneth and I watched while she extended the invitation.  Kenneth stood up out of the chair and walked over to our table with Sarah.  As we all greeted him with smiles and he sat down to eat with us, I realized there was a Catholic, a Jewish girl, a black kid, a Protestant and a rich kid all at the same table.  I felt happy because I had found a home.  And we all liked to watch the tv show, Room 222, because it was hip, like us.

The conclusion of this series will be posted on Monday, July 18, 2011.

The Liddonfielders:  Conclusion 

Video for Liddonfielders Conclusion 

 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thank you for commenting on PublicHousingStories.com!