It was June in Mobile, Al in 1974—I had just turned 12 and had finished sixth grade--when my father yelled upstairs for my three sisters and me to come down for a “family meeting” in the living room. Family meetings were never good: it usually meant that one of us, or all of us, were in trouble. But what my father told us that afternoon was far more startling than I could have imagined:
“We’re moving downtown,” he said, “and changing Catholic parishes. You’ll be leaving St. Ignatius School. We’ve enrolled the four of you at Heart of Mary School.”
You’d have to be from Mobile to understand the full impact of that announcement. I think my reaction was “Yeah, right, Dad. Very funny.” But Dad wasn’t joking. St. Ignatius School, where my sisters and I had attended since kindergarten, was widely regarded then as the best Catholic school in Mobile. It was from a wealthy section of town. I had only even met just one black student in my life. Heart of Mary, in contrast, was from the inner city, and had zero white students—or at least that was true until my sisters and I enrolled that fall.
I won’t go into all the reasons why my family did what it did, but I will tell you from my perspective as a 12-year old boy, I was terrified. All I knew about Heart of Mary being at St. Ignatius was that they destroyed us every year in football and basketball. They would come to the ball fields in an old bus, and you knew exactly when they got there because they would be cheering loudly as they pulled into the parking lot. Even as an Ignatius boy, I knew one of their cheers by heart: “Who are we? LIONS! Who are we? LIONS. What we want? MEAT. What we want? IGNATIUS MEAT.” Long before the game started, we were so scared, we had already lost. And sure enough, we’d get beat 44-0 or 56-0.
Up until that point in my life, I thought I was pretty good in football, despite the blow-outs against Heart of Mary. On my 6th grade team, I was the tailback, linebacker, punter, punt returner, kicker and kick-returner. So when I entered Heart of Mary as a 7th grader, I decided that to be accepted, it would be smart if I joined the football team. I can remember that first practice 38 years ago as if it were yesterday. I was shocked by the intensity. During the warm-up exercises, Coach Seals, a large, dark black Mobile policeman who coached the team and of whom I was terrified, barked out, “200 push-ups.” I thought I had misheard: At St. Ignatius, we typically did 20. “200 sit-ups” was next, and we were just starting. By the end of exercises, I was on the verge of throwing up and was relieved when he said: “Take ten,” thinking he meant a ten minute break. No, he meant ten laps around the field. Nearly faint, I started jogging at my usual speed, but every person on the team sprinted passed me, running hard. As I limped around the track, holding back tears, I realized I had entered a brand new world.
And it was a brand new world. For the first three or four months, they thought I had a hearing problem, because I constantly asked “What did you say?” Truth is, I couldn’t understand them. They, in turn, had never met a white person, and asked me, in all seriousness, if I were a member of the KKK, because that’s all they knew about white people. They often joked on each other using what appeared to be a secret code at first, usually about someone’s “momma,” and classes were often unruly. In fact, we had 7 different teachers in my seventh grade. New teachers would last about two weeks before they’d quit, unable to control the class.
I adapted, over time. On the football field, I had gone from the fastest kid in my school, the kid who always ran the ball, to being the blocking fullback who got to run the ball about 4 times a season. I remember one time at practice, Coach called my number, I broke past the line of scrimmage into the open, but was instantly run down. Coach yelled out in amusement “Weber, you’re too slow to catch a cold, ” and all my teammates laughed. I laughed with them--it seemed to be true.
A strange thing began to happen over the course of that fall, something I didn’t expect. Despite the cultural differences, these guys became my friends. They respected the fact I gutted out football, and the truth is, they were just as terrified of the coach as I was. I learned about all their mommas just like they learned about mine and joined in on the teasing back and forth. The fact that I was white and they were black seemed to matter less and less to them and to me.
The root of all prejudice, when you strip it down, is ignorance. When people don’t know each other, when they don’t have the opportunity to build relationships with actual people, they find it easy to generalize about a group, as if any group of humans can be accurately characterized by one trait, one skin color, one religion, one nationality. But when we get to know people personally, when we come to understand their unique personalities, their sense of humor, their strengths and weaknesses, prejudice evaporates. It just seems silly.
I am proud of JPII for many reasons. But one of the things I think is great about our school is our diversity. Yes, partly our ethnic diversity: 20% of you are students of color, a number that has held steady the last 3-4 years. But it’s more than ethnicity. 45% of you are not Catholic, but contribute greatly to our spiritual life here. Some of you come from wealthy families. Others of you do not. You live in 33 different towns and two different states, and before you went to JPII, you came to us from one of 98 different schools, an amazingly high number. Because we aspire to be more than a little school from Hendersonville, we send buses to pick up students across the middle Tennessee region, including Lebanon, Gallatin, Clarksville, Nashville, Mount Juliet and Bowling Green.
Our tagline is “Faith Leads Us Beyond Ourselves.” The beautiful thing is when we reach beyond neighborhoods, beyond our ethnic group, beyond our religious affiliations, we discover some pretty interesting people. We’re not clones of each other, and that’s a good thing! Over the course of this year, I encourage you to reach beyond your circle of friends and get to make new ones. Stretch yourself, join new clubs, move outside your comfort zone, and learn from each other. The education you receive at JPII is not just what you learn in the classrooms.