African Americans never forget the first time they get called the n-word.
The first time I ever had the slur directed at me, I was walking down a sidewalk and some random guy glanced in my direction and decided to let it rip. I was more startled than anything. Had he really been talking to me?
Some black Cheltenham High School students experienced this kind of in-your-face racism for the first time earlier this month during an away football game at mostly white Quakertown Community High School in Bucks County. No sooner had the team's cheerleaders taken to the field and begun performing their routines Oct. 6 than the insults started coming. They were called the n-word, whores and bitches. Their coach feared even letting them go to the restroom. Students said people jeered at them, saying "black lives don't matter" and "don't shoot me." When it was time to leave, opposing fans pelted Cheltenham's school buses with rocks.
It was a lesson in old-fashioned American bigotry that the Cheltenham students won't soon forget.
On Monday, about 70 parents and students gathered in the school cafeteria for a teary, emotionally charged group therapy session led by noted University of Pennsylvania educator Howard Stevenson, author of Promoting Racial Literacy in Schools: Differences that Make a Difference. The goal was to teach the students how to deal with racial situations such as the one in Quakertown.
"There were multiple incidents that we are aware of," Wagner Marseille, Cheltenham School superintendent, said as the meeting began. "There were hateful, racist comments directed at our cheerleaders multiple times and at multiple individuals. By all reports, the cheerleaders did not respond …
"Additionally, members of our color guard of the band, when they went to the bathroom at some point, they overheard some remarks made in reference to them and they confronted the people who made those comments and then returned back to the rest of the band," he continued. "And then, finally, while the buses were leaving, there were some stones and rocks that were being thrown at the buses as they were pulling out. "
William E. Harner, Quakertown's superintendent, attended Monday's meeting and apologized for what happened, which he'd earlier characterized as isolated. Two middle school students from Quakertown have been identified as culprits — but Cheltenham students insist that others, including adults, also had engaged in racial bullying.
"I profusely apologize and I'm embarrassed," said Harner, a 1974 graduate of Cheltenham High School. "On behalf of our community, I apologize for what happened. My heart was broken and that's what I told everybody [Oct. 6] when I found out about it.
"I couldn't believe that our children would be acting like that and if there were adults doing it [also] then I'm sorry," he added. "We do have a problem. We need to do our very best to recognize it, own it and fix it."
He went on to say that, "Incidents of students using the n-word are not everyday occurrences in Quakertown but they do happen. Even one is too many."
Five Cheltenham cheerleaders, all African American, shared their experiences at the game with a few saying the Quakertown superintendent's apology wasn't enough.
"If it was coming from your heart, you would have come to our school immediately," one of the girls said. "I feel like everything is just forced."
I nodded in agreement. Harner's apologies would have carried much heft had he also brought with him some of the offending students or scheduled a joint assembly with both schools. Even a videotaped apology from the culprits would have gone a long way. This was a missed opportunity for both schools to learn about making amends and reconciling.
In May, Cheltenham was embroiled in another race-related controversy after a fight between female students captured on a YouTube video went viral. It shows two black girls fighting as a white teacher who tries to intervene is knocked unconscious. Many found the videotaped fight deeply embarrassing because of all the negative racial stereotypes it conjures up. Cheltenham High has become a predominantly black school in an area long prized for its rich educational offerings and diverse community. Residents have complained about how much attention the fight got in comparison to the racial harassment Cheltenham students experienced in Quakertown.
"The Quakertown thing didn't go national. The story was isolated. And it was worse by matters of magnitude," Joel Fishbein, a Cheltenham District school board member, told me Monday.
But as I've pointed out more than once, there was no viral video with people from Quakertown heckling the cheerleaders or anyone else.
"I'm extremely shameful for not taking a stronger stance and saying what I really want to say," Marseilles said during the meeting.
"It's about the fact that America is going back," he continued. "And I don't need to get on a political soapbox for you to see that, to see the narrative happening across the country, to see what individuals are saying about different groups of people and the boldness that they have to say it unequivocally and unapologetically."
I'm concerned about the Quakertown students who hurled racial insults because, as Marseilles pointed out, "when you're that young and you can be that divisive, you're being taught that."