The time is 1969. Joshua Sampson, a history teacher in a black ghetto high school in South Central Los Angeles, finds the only way to break through a wall of apathy is to let his students teach. Sampson’s students, with his guidance, start leading discussions on Black Power, the war in Vietnam, capital punishment, premarital sex, the grading system, police harassment, drugs, and whether Sampson is really teaching them or not. Sampson’s students hold trials, have weekly debates, sign petitions, and drop notes and essays into the “Ideas and/or Complaints” box. The students aren’t bored anymore, they’re thinking. The only thing wrong is, the principal vows to end Sampson’s teaching career.
Excerpt Chapter 4 – “First Period Class”
The alarm woke Jody and me at seven. I took a quick shower, shaved and brushed my teeth. I stepped into my black Sta-Prest Levi’s and put on a blue long-sleeve shirt. Jody was eating granola as I rushed into the kitchen. I poured a tall glass of orange juice and gulped it down. I grabbed my briefcase, kissed Jody good-bye and rushed out the door.
The morning air was cool as I drove bumper-to-bumper on the Santa Monica Freeway to the Harbor Freeway, but I could tell it was going to be another one of those warm, smoggy days. It took me forty-five minutes to get from West Hollywood to South Central L.A., arriving at school at 8:10. I went to the main office to sign in and to pick up any bulletins or notes in my box. I went to the cafeteria to get a cup of coffee and then started across campus. First period began at 8:20. As the bell rang, I walked into my room.
Ramona Williams was sitting at my desk ready to teach. She was now one of fourteen students enrolled in my first period.
“I’m gonna ax each one of ya your opinion of three questions I got,” she said in her slow, husky monotone to the dozen of us scattered around the room. “After you all give your opinion, I’m gonna give mine. The first question I got for you is: What do you think of the United States goin’ to the moon? Pamela, I’m callin’ on you first.”
Pamela Holmes, a very shy and fidgety girl, refused to answer. She shook her head and pleaded to Ramona with her eyes that she didn’t want to say anything. Two other students and I were frantically waving our arms.
“Put your hands down,” ordered Ramona. “I ain’t callin’ on no one till Pamela gives me her opinion.” With some inflection in her voice, Ramona said, “Come on, Pamela, no one’s gonna bite you.”
Pamela was stubborn; she just sat there and shook her head.
The room was silent. Finally, Ramona said, “Nancy, what do you think of the United States goin’ to the moon?”
An attractive girl was Nancy Vellon. She was bright, smart and always immaculately dressed. “The United States,” she said, “can do better things than go to the moon.”
“Like what?” asked Ramona.
“Like instead of spendin’ money on spaceships and things, they can spend it on the needs of the people.”
Ramona let everyone express his or her opinion. She was even going to give the sleeping Edward Coleman a chance.
“Edward,” she grunted. “Edward.”
He didn’t move.
He slowly lifted his head and jerked himself upright. His eyes were half open as he swerved in his seat.
“You all right?” Ramona asked.
“Yeaah. Whaa youu waan?”
Ramona was disgusted. “Forget it, Edward. Go back to sleep,” and he put his head back on the desk. “Some people,” Ramona told the class, “they just a nuisance when they take drugs.”
A few students glanced at me, wondering what my reaction would be. I didn’t say a word, because I thought Ramona handled the situation better than I could have.
“The United States is just like Edward,” said Ramona. “He think everything just fine and dandy. But it really ain’t. He just dreamin’. And the United States is dreamin’ if they think goin’ to the moon is gonna help anything. If we don’t take care of business down here on Earth first, what’s the use of goin’ into space? People are starvin’ all over the world, and what we doin’? We sendin’ men to the moon.”
The next question Ramona asked was: What do you think of the United States being in Vietnam? A few students had already given their opinion when a girl walked into the room and handed me a note. Mr. Thomas, the principal, wanted to see Darnell Blue at once, and so I handed Darnell the note. He looked at it and left the room. Ten seconds later he was standing at the doorway, gesturing for me to step outside with him.
Ramona continued teaching as Darnell and I stood in the empty, hollow-sounding hallway. He was nervous. Beads of sweat were running down his shiny black forehead. He started to ask me something, but cut it short. He looked desperate and kept jumbling his words. Finally, he said, “Cain I trust you, Mr. Sampson?”
“Yeah,” I said, wondering what he was getting at.
He dug into his pocket and brought out a packet of Zig-Zag rolling papers and a small plastic bag containing marijuana.
“Cain you hold this for me?” he said, wiping the sweat off his brow.
I took it from him and put it in my pocket.
“It’s between you and me, awright, Mr. Sampson?”
“Yes, between you and me.”
“Thanks, brother. I ain’t never gonna forget this. I’ll be back as soon as I’m finished with Mr. Thomas.”
“Darnell,” I said, looking straight into his light brown eyes, “I don’t want to see this stuff in school again. Do you understand?”
“I hear ya, Mr. Sampson,” and he turned and ran down the hall.
I walked back into the room to find the small, light-skinned Derris Hoy telling the class in his high, squeaky voice, “If I was old enough, I’d be in Vietnam right now. We gotta stop those Communists from taking over the world. We gotta beat—”
Nancy Vellon broke in. “That’s the most stupid thing I ever heard, Derris. Vietnam, it’s wreckin’ this country. It’s the most stupid war this country ever got into. We can’t let this country—”
“That’s enough, Nancy,” said Ramona. You didn’t let Derris finish what he was sayin’.”
“Yeah,” said Derris Hoy. “Like I was sayin’, we gotta kill those Commies before they start goin’ into those other countries around Vietnam. We doin’ the right thing by bein’ there.”
Hoy was the only one in class who backed our country’s involvement in Vietnam.
“The next question,” said Ramona, “is about airplanes. What do you think of flying on airplanes? I’m callin’ on you, Pamela.”
Pamela shook her head and again refused to answer for the third time.
Derris Hoy was frantically waving his hand for Ramona to call on him.
“You couldn’t pay me a million dollars to get me on an airplane,” he said. “That’s all you be hearing about in the newspapers and TV—airplane crashes. No, I’ll never get me on no airplane. Never!”
When I heard most of the students laughing at Hoy’s comment, I immediately raised my hand and waited for Ramona to recognize me.
“It’s no joke if Hoy’s afraid of planes,” I told the class. “He’s not the only one who’s afraid. My girlfriend Jody is terrified of them. Do you want to know how she’s going to get to Europe next week? She’s going to take a train from here to New York, then a boat from New York to England. She hates planes so much that she almost has me convinced of never getting on one myself.”