TWO DAYS AGO, as I watched the boys' volleyball team from South Philadelphia High School compete in an afternoon playoff game against Central, I was wondering, "What's the deal here?"
After all, the South Philly Rams comprise six Asians, one Pakistani and five African- Americans. If we're to believe that racial tensions at their school are as pervasive as they've been made out to be, the Rams should've been pummeling each other, not Central.
Yet for 90 minutes, there they were, utterly unified. The players flew in sync around the court - serving and spiking, blocking and bumping, wiping and diving.
The bench-sitters? With every point scored, they let loose with another blast of cheers and yells, stomps and claps.
And when the match ended, and South Philly had thumped Central to win the PIAA-District 12, Class AAA Championship, the Rams leaped for joy.
As the boys cooled off - and jokingly threatened to dump a celebratory cooler of Gatorade on the head of coach Patricia Buchanan - I asked them:
Given their obvious ethnic differences, shouldn't they be at each other's throats, instead of high-fiving and back-slapping?
Where's the infamous South Philly High ethnic hostility we've heard so much about?
They practically fell over each other to answer, eager to correct a hateful image they believe the city has about their school.
The voice of Lamont Lomax, 17, rose about the shouts.
"That's not us - we're better than that," he said, repeating the line for emphasis. "We're better than that."
I won't knock the efforts of community leaders and school administrators who've been working hard to keep peace at South Philly High since December, when 30 Asian students were attacked by groups of mostly African-American ones.
The God-awful incident made national headlines and prompted investigations into what Asian leaders have called a pattern of ethnic intimidation at the school.
Since then, things have calmed at the mammoth building at Broad and Snyder.
Sensitivity training is in place. Translators have been hired. There's more obvious security, in the way of cameras and police officers. The divisive principal, LaGreta Brown, has resigned, replaced with a capable interim - veteran peacemaker Ozzie Wright, revered by teachers and administrators alike.
So it's all good.
But may I offer a suggestion?
While everyone is making improvements where they're needed, I hope they also take time to hang out with South Philly's awesome volleyball team.
These teens don't need to be taught how to tolerate cultural and language differences.
They've transcended them.
"They're awesome," says Coach Buchanan (who's such a mama bear, she sometimes washes the team's uniforms after games, to make sure they're properly laundered).
"They work hard, they're kind and honest. They're at all levels of skill, so some kids play more than others. That can be hard, but they still show up to all the practices and games to support each other. They have tremendous character."
The 12 teammates, ages 15 to 19, have become friends off the court, thanks to their passion for the sport and respect for what each brings to the game.
"I love these guys," co-captain Norman Wallace said yesterday, gesturing at teammate Liming Mai and Xien Xing Mai during a break from practice at the school. "They're really good players. They're funny, and a little crazy. We get along great."
The Asian teammates - all immigrants from the same area in China - are lifelong volleyball players who have brought a new level of skill and experience to the Rams. The team finished the season at the top of its city division, with a 9-3 record.
"I love to play volleyball in my country," said Liming Mai, speaking both on his own and with the help of a translator, one of several the school has hired since the December altercation. "I love to play it here."
With help from the immigrant teammates, the American-born athletes are becoming more nuanced players, learning to discern the idiosyncrasies of opposing teams and adjust their moves accordingly.
"Their understanding of the game and of each other continues to deepen," said Buchanan. "That's why it hurt us all so much to see South Philly kids being painted with the same brush" as those involved in December's melee.
"My team [is] more representative of the student body than that minority was. "
Still, the Rams haven't been free of cultural challenges.
There was one tense afternoon when an Asian player, in broken English, tried to ask Buchanan to step up the intensity of the workout, because he had to leave early to go to work.
"I didn't understand what he was asking; he didn't understand why I couldn't accommodate him. He ended up leaving, and the team got angry. They thought he was cutting out on them," she said.
At the next practice, Buchanan brought in the translator, so they could get to the bottom of what happened. Once everyone understood each other, the bad feelings evaporated.
we've had, it's been because of miscommunication," she said. "We understand that now. It just takes a lot of patience and commitment to working things out."
On the court, the kids have their own language. They use hand movements and eye signals with such speedy efficiency, it's impossible to believe they're not as fluent off the court.
Today, they will compete against Palumbo High School, the PIAA District 12 Class AA winners, for the Public League championship. The game will be played at the gym at Community College of Philadelphia.
It's a big place, with enough bleachers to accommodate anyone who wants to see the strength of diversity - in all its colors, sizes and skills - in splendid action.
The whistle for first serve is at 3:15 p.m. All are welcome.
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