A couple of weeks ago, I had the great pleasure to participate in an event at WHYY Studios, one that had meaning for me in a way that no one else in the room could even remotely appreciate.
That event was a book-signing and reception for a new publication called “Listen to Our Voices.” The book was co-authored by eight Black, pre-teen boys from North Philadelphia, and a woman named Christine Beck, the former CEO of the Gesu School, at 17th & Thompson streets, where the boys are students.
I had to be there.
Aside from my own reasons, it’s hard to say “no” to Ms. Beck. So, I didn’t even try.
The event was a smashing success. The boys were proud, their parents and family and friends were even prouder, if that was at all possible.
The morning of the book-signing they had done a very professional-caliber TV interview on Fox 29’s Good Morning Philadelphia. I was impressed by their general demeanor; both boys carried it off as though they had done TV interviews a thousand times before.
The boys signed and sold a great number of books, they got their photos taken and they were videotaped all the while. Some of the videos are already on the book’s Facebook page, and other pieces of tape shot that day will certainly find their way, once edited, to YouTube.
Writing about his choices of heroes, young author Isaiah said, “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., because he went to jail fighting for our rights.”
Writing on the same subject, young Kyheim said his hero was his dad because “… he helps me become more of a man every day,” his mom because “she helps me,” his grandmom “Because she works with the homeless,” and his grandfather because “He is the only person I can tell my feelings to.
It was Tyhee who wrote: “I have a short life story … because you know I’m only 12.”
Discussing the “Racial Divide,” 11-year-old Cameron wrote: “You never know Caucasian people can have same qualities as an African-American person until you get to know them.”
Some of the young men already have lots of plans. Amir, for example, wrote that he wanted to grow up to be a professional basketball player, but “My plan B if I get injured is a doctor — either pediatrician or cardiologist.”
Hasan wrote that he'd like to be a lawyer or a baseball player, but he’d be satisfied to be “An honor student, and a better dribbler.” Christian added, “My message to kids is you have to do well in school and get good grades.”
Then there was Vaughn, who summed up his reasons for writing the book thusly: “Sometimes adults are so busy trying to tell us what to do that they don’t think about what we have to say and our ideas.”
I happened to have attended a North Philadelphia Catholic grade school just six blocks away from the Gesu School. Much of what the young men wrote, therefore, caused me to experience grade-school “flashbacks” to situations that shaped my life, or that made me more trusting, or more cynical, even today.
One Sunday when I was in the fifth grade, for example, a classmate named Jerome, while serving Mass, reached into the basket of cash contributions, took a bill out, and quickly stuffed it into his pocket.
The following Thursday, we were all lined up, single-file, on either side of the confession booth, to confess our sins. The priest in the center stall was probably the single, meanest, Caucasian man I had ever met, up to that point in my life. His name was Father Strahan, and he had been a chaplain in the war, and wherever he went, he took his two equally mean pet boxer dogs. But we had been taught to believe that it was perfectly alright to confess our sins, in the confessional booth, to the man because of the “confidentiality of the confessional.”
That meant, as it was carefully explained to us, that Father Strahan could not and would not recognize us during or after our confessions, no matter the severity of our sins.
That being the case, I imagine Jerome thought he was on pretty safe ground when he went into that booth and said, in a voice much louder than the whisper we were taught to use on such occasions, “Bless me Father, for I have sinned. It’s been one week since my last confession. I took a dollar out of the collection plate.”
Two seconds later, Father Strahan had yelled: “You did what?” and had barged into Jerome’s section of the booth, had pulled him out by his neck, and had commenced to pummel him. Two very nervous nuns eventually pulled the enraged Father Strahan away from Jerome, and my fellow altar boy was expelled immediately from the school.
I was next in line and I can still remember looking through the screen in the confession booth and seeing Father Strahan glaring at me, still breathing the heavy breath of a man who had just punched out the lights of an unsuspecting eleven-year-old. When asked if I had committed any sins over the past week, I promptly responded: “No, I haven’t done a thing.”
While I still consider myself a spiritual person and far more Catholic than any other religion, it was the last day that I ever went to confession or to Holy Communion. I was 11 years old, and it made a tremendous life-long impact on me.
There was another life-altering school experience that I recall very frequently — this time from the first grade. This time, rather than going to 9:00 mass, as my mom had instructed, and putting the envelop, with a dime in it, into the collection basket, I decided I would walk only as far as Ben’s, the candy/variety store, at 12th and Fairmount. There I would rip open the envelope, and march into Ben’s to buy cookies, “Ikey Mikes” and Squirrel Nuts, to my heart’s content.
In my first-grade mind, it was the “perfect crime.” When my friends returned from mass, I casually fell in with them until I arrived back at my mom’s house. Asked how mass had been, I bit my lip and lied to her face: “It was good, Mom.”
On Monday morning, my first-grade nun looked concerned: “Where were you, yesterday, Bruce?”
“Uh … I was sick, Sister.” I coldly lied, once again.
"Well, that’s a shame," she said. “A wealthy friend of the school had donated enough toys for every single, first- and second-grader and, after Mass, we took all the kids into the basement and gave each of them a really nice toy. I had picked out a nice big truck, for you, but since you weren’t there, I gave it to somebody else.”
That was the very moment that I realized two things: One, there really must be a God and, two, he clearly must have seen me standing on that corner eating those ill-gotten cookies and candy, and he wanted me to know he didn’t like it one bit.
Needless to say, I never missed a single 9 a.m. Mass, ever again, right up through eighth grade, even at times when I was really sick. I kept holding out the vain hope that some rich guy would return to give gifts to our poor school, once again.
But, you know what? It never happened again.
Those incidents, with those teachers, in that school, taught me all I needed to know about honesty and the consequences, sometimes, of not doing the right thing.
In writing that book, those young authors clearly “did the right thing.” I’m betting they’ll never forget it.
A. Bruce Crawley is president and principal owner of Millennium 3 Management Inc.